Can ‘Desperate Housewives’ Defeat al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia? Wikileaks

US consulate confirms what everybody already knows. Jeddah in Saudi Arabia has bipolar disorder. The Red Sea Port wears a sober puritan mien during the day, but at night turns into Party Central. While the US consulate seems to have taken a certain amount of satisfaction in the knowledge that the Saudi middle and upper classes are not so many Bin Ladens, there is another, darker interpretation of this report, which I suggest below.

Nov. 9, 2009:

‘ ¶1. (C) Summary: Behind the facade of Wahabi conservatism in the streets, the underground nightlife for Jeddah’s elite youth is thriving and throbbing. The full range of worldly temptations and vices are available — alcohol, drugs, sex — but strictly behind closed doors. This freedom to indulge carnal pursuits is possible merely because the religious police keep their distance when parties include the presence or patronage of a Saudi royal and his circle of loyal attendants, such as a Halloween event attended by ConGenOffs on. [DETAIL REMOVED] Over the past few years, the increased conservatism of Saudi Arabia’s external society has pushed the nightlife and party scene in Jeddah even further underground. End summary.

Elite party like the rest of the world, just underground

¶2. (C) Along with over 150 young Saudis (men and women mostly in their 20’s and early 30’s), ConGenOffs accepted invitations to an underground Halloween party at PrinceXXXXXXXXXXXX residence in Jeddah on XXXXXXXXXXXX. Inside the gates, past the XXXXXXXXXXXX security guards and after the abaya coat-check, the scene resembled a nightclub anywhere outside the Kingdom: plentiful alcohol, young couples dancing, a DJ at the turntables, and everyone in costume. Funding for the party came from a corporate sponsor, XXXXXXa U.S.-based energy-drink company as well as from the princely host himself.

Royalty, attended by “khawi,” keep religious police at bay

The parties, obviously, are for the elite. But the consulate argues on May 9, 2009, that changes in media are having a wider effect. Apparently allowing the viewing of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘David Letterman’ is intended by state programmers to combat extremism and foster cosmopolitanism in strongly conservative Saudi Arabia.

This strategy, by the way, does not work. The Egyptian government has been trying it for decades now, since the 1980s. Salacious television as a way of convincing people to turn away from the puritan Muslim Brotherhood has long been a policy of the Egyptian government. But Egypt is nevertheless having a massive religious revival. It turns out you can be a fundamentalist, watch Hollywood, and still go out and demonstrate for a more just social order.

As for the wild parties, they could be seen as more a sign of elite corruption and being out of touch with the workaday concerns of ordinary citizens than of a turn toward ‘moderation.’ The same princes who party hard on Thursday nights will assemble in public to call for the public beheading of adulterers. That kind of hypocrisy rots an elite and opens it to delegitimization.

These dispatches are shot through with a naive ‘modernization theory’ that assumes that middle class people in Africa and Asia over time will become just like Americans in their mores and politics and over-estimates the impact of media on politics.

Politics in most of the world are about interests, not style. Americans are misled by their own weird electorate into thinking others’ politics is just as vapid and self-contradictory as our own.

No absolute monarchy, during the past 2.5 centuries, has managed to avoid either being overthrown or defanged and turned into a constitutional monarchy, when the middle and business classes become powerful. If the Saudi royal family does not pick up the pace of political reform, it could easily face the same fate as the Shah of Iran or the king of Libya. Bread and circuses may not distract the masses forever.

And, the consulate’s happiness about a more open press may also be misplaced. Decrease in censorship and growth of a new middle class has often preceded major upheavals. From 1896, Muzaffar al-Din Shah allowed a more open press in Iran, at the same time as cash-cropping and import-export increased phenomenally, and by 1905 the big merchants were demanding a constitution.

‘ ¶1. (S) Summary: The Saudi regulatory system offers the al-Saud regime a means to manipulate the nation’s print media to promote its own agenda without exercising day-to-day oversight over journalists, and Saudi journalists are free to write what they wish provided they do not criticize the ruling family or expose government corruption. In addition, most media in Saudi Arabia–print and electronic–are owned by royal family members, and accordingly self-censorship is the order of the day. In comparison to a few years ago, however, the media business in Saudi Arabia is dynamic, fueled by increased demand by Saudi and pan-Arab audiences, new licensing agreements with US and other international media, and an unprecedented level of openness to outside ideas.

2.In interviews with Embassy and Consulate Jeddah officers before the early December Eid holiday, XXXXXXXXXXXX editors and XXXXXXXXXXXX TV managers outlined key elements of these trends and adumbrated how the long hand of the al-Saud–motivated by profit and politics–retains a strong hold over media in this sophisticated new environment, through means ranging from refined Interior Ministry procedures for recalcitrant journalists, to directives by King Abdallah himself to adopt progressive perspectives as an antidote to extremist thinking. End summary. . .

¶10. (S/NF) In a meeting at his XXXXXXXXXXXX office XXXXXXXXXXXX with Consulate and Embassy press officers, XXXXXXXXXXXX because of the SAG’s concern that young Saudis were particularly vulnerable to the calls of extremists, and that the station now targets its moderate news broadcasts to the 14-18 year old demographic in short presentations of three minutes or less. He also said that the stations website, Arabiya Net, appeals to a pan-Arab audience and gets about 100,000 visitors per day. Al Arabiya and other MBC channels, he said, present programming that they hope counters the influence of al-Jazeera and fosters “moderate” perspectives among the country’s youth.

//David Letterman, Agent of Influence//
¶11. (S) XXXXXXXXXXXX said the American programming on channels 4 and 5 were proving the most popular among Saudis. A look at the December 17 programming menu for MBC channel 4 reveals a 24-hour solid block of such programs as CBS and ABC Evening News, David Letterman, Desperate Housewives, Friends and similar fare, all uncensored and with Arabic subtitles. Channel 5 features US films of all categories, also with Arabic subtitles. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that this programming is also very popular in remote, conservative corners of the country, where he said “you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in western dress” who are now interested in the outside world.

¶12. (S) Over coffee in a Jeddah Starbucks, XXXXXXXXXXXX, and XXXXXXXXXXXX elaborated on the changes in the Saudi media environment. “The government is pushing this new openness as a means of countering the extremists,” XXXXXXXXXXXX told Riyadh press officer. “It’s still all about the War of Ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that ‘Al Hurra’ and other US propaganda never could. Saudis are now very interested in the outside world, and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.”

¶13. (S) So effective has US programming been, said XXXXXXXXXXXX, that it is widely assumed that the USG must be behind it. Some believe, he said, that Prince Talal’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and its sister company Twentieth Century Fox has a clear ideological motive behind it, noting that the Fox Movie Channel on “Rotana” is available for free to anyone with a satellite dish. Both XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, liberal-minded supporters of US democracy and society with little use for conspiracy theory, clearly believed this was the case.

¶14. (S) While revenue from commercials on Rotana’s Fox Movie Channel probably matter more to Prince Waleed than the dissemination of western ideas (MBC and Rotana are in a bitter battle for market share) it is easy to understand why XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX believe that this programming is having a profound effect on the values and worldviews of Saudi audiences. During the recent Eid holiday, Rotana’s “Fox Movies” channel repeatedly aired two mawkish US dramas (again with Arabic subtitles) featuring respectful, supportive American husbands dealing with spouses suffering from addiction problems–in one case gambling (lost the kids’ college funds and then told her college professor husband it was because he was boring) and the other alcohol (smashing cars and china when she wasn’t assaulting the husband and child.) These films and others broadcast over the Eid offer models of supportive behavior in relationships, as well as exemplary illustrations of heroic honesty in the face of corruption (“Michael Clayton”) and respect for the law over self-interest (“Insomnia.”)

¶15. (C) Saudi-produced religious programming on ART and Rotana also departs from past models. Rotana’s popular religious channel “Al Risala” features a hip, clean-shaven Saudi in western clothes offering practical religious advice in a calm and friendly manner. Jeddah-based Arab Radio and Television company (ART) (owned by Saleh al-Kamel and according to our contacts being edged aside by MBC and Rotana) recently featured an MTV-style music video clip on its “Iqraa” religious channel depicting a group of dissolute young Saudi men who give up their carousing and return to observance. They are then shown succeeding in sales presentations and other interactions at work, gaining the admiration of their colleagues and supervisors. The young men continue to dress in standard attire, remain clean-shaven and are fully integrated into normal, workaday Saudi society. The message of moderation in the religious realm could not be clearer.

The message may be clear. But you just can’t assume that it is being received in the way intended, or having the desired effect. When Saudi Arabia permitted municipal elections in 2005, the Salafi fundamentalists swept them. That is where I would put my money if I were a betting man, not on the supposed moderating influences of watching Letterman and Eva Longoria.

14 Responses

  1. One of the main reasons for the fall of Communist East Germany was citizens being able to receive West German TV. This has always been rubbish compared to British or American TV, but it still managed to sow the seeds of consumerist aspirations.

    • Interesting – but does not explain why the opposition movement was equally strong, if not stronger, in the “Tal der Ahnungslose” (the Elbe valley, where West TV could not be seen). I think that there is a stronger factor at work in how people relate to power

  2. Humans are equal-opportunity fornicators, or maybe any-opportunity. It seems, what a surprise, that there’s even a bit of genetic code that predisposes us to yield to the blandishments of the pleasure centers in our limbic systems and “get a little on the side” whenever and wherever we can, and of course a huge ‘literature’ of ‘moralists’ (sic) pontificating against the tendency. link to

    Wilbur Mills and Fanne Fox humping on the steps of the Capitol? No problem, man. link to “Family Values ‘Conservatives'” doing the nasty with this, that or the other? Bill Clinton’s semen stains, and Larry “Wide Stance” Craig? link to The tight-collared citizens of Utah, and other “social conservatives,” being the most avid consumers of PORN on the INTERNET, in the sight of GOD? link to What an incredible surprise, who would have thought? That poisonous reptile Newt “Family Values Includes Screwing Another Woman Or Several While His Wife Struggles With Cancer” Gingrich, with his comment that ‘people will listen to what I tell them, and pay no attention to what I actually do’ remark.

    What is simply amazing, or ought to be, is the wonderful way hypocrisy thrives in repressive terrain. Seems the urge to procreate or at least get it on is far more compelling and irrepressible and native to the human behavior set than usually acknowledged. (How many predatory pedophilic priests does it take to finally lead to a conclusion that this group has infiltrated and essentially mastered the Holy See and its external manifestations to create a centuries-long ‘safe haven’ for that destructive bunch of pleasure seekers?) Jimmy Swaggart, the Bakkers, all that jazz?

    Why is it that Fundamentalists, who all want to take the “Fun” out of everything for everyone but themselves (cf. Pashtun dancing boys), do so well electorally and when seizing power by other means? Maybe just because organizing pedophilia and adultery and rape behind closed doors requires better organizational skills than those of people of a more “liberal” and “tolerant” disposition? Maybe that’s genetic, too?

    Why do humans consistently decline to acknowledge what they are, and deal with the reality more sensibly? Of course, that’s just a rhetorical question…

  3. “No absolute monarchy, during the past 2.5 centuries, has managed to avoid either being overthrown or defanged and turned into a constitutional monarchy, when the middle and business classes become powerful.”
    True, yet absolute dictatorships even more oppressive than the Sauds or the Shah have survived for extended periods. For example, North Korea is a monarchy in all but name. Maybe Syria as well. Are dictatorships somehow more efficient in suppressing dissent and maintaining power? Or are these countries so backwards that a middle class hasn’t developed? What does that bode for China?

  4. Your focus is wrong.

    Your focus is on sex and parties and the disparity between Saudi conservative values and what some people are doing in having wild parties with sex and drugs.

    It’s utterly irrelevant and typifies the American obsession “naughty behavior”. It doesn’t even need to be mentioned. Let them have their parties, it’s none of your business and isn’t related to anything meaningful. Not really.

    The focus of Americans should be on American behavior. Not anyone elses. Not when Americans are the leaders in sex, drugs, murder and conspiracy. You don’t have to go to Saudi Arabia. You can go to Salt Lake City and find all the disparity you could ever want to find between “values” and behavior.

    People are being killed. People are being raped and killed. That’s a better focus.
    The Americans are focused not on the wars in the Mid East but on bribery and sex in Afghanistan by the “primitives” who live there.

    If you want to talk about sex, talk about the Iraqi who says Americans are always searching his house so they can rape his daughters…it’s on U Tube.

    The reason Assange is being accused of having sex without a condom and equating that to rape is because people are more interested in “naughtiness” than they are in the American government stealing all their money.

    Sex is a very powerful urge. Everybody ought to be able to satisfy that urge. But it isn’t happening. So they are focused on other peoples sex.

  5. Firstly, Jeddah is not a wahhabi city. The big majority in Jeddah are Sunnis, mostly Shafiis/Sufis. The conservatism you see on the streets of Jeddah during day time is overwhelmingly Sunni-Sufi conservatism, not the wahhabi one, which exists in some neighbourhoods.

    Why is the presence of vile things as drugs, alcohol, and sex in saudi arabia bringing up a surprise to today’s media? These viles things are present in EVERY Muslim country and every Gulf country. Qatar, which is more wahhabi conservative than saudi arabia has more of these vile things per capita. But the real question is to what degree are these prevalent in Jeddah?

    The conservatism on the streets of saudi arabia has been going down instead of increasing as this wikileak report claims.

    The Muslim brotherhood is not puritan in the sense of religious matters because it is classed as a ‘modernist’ anti-puritan organization as its primary claim is to reform Islam, not from past innovations [which the wahhabis do], but from supposed stagnation from excelling in what they percieve as islamic modernism. They still do have the religious puritanism of the wahhabis.

    And the Egyptian government is EXACTLY the same as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian government is doing the same activities as the Muslim Brotherhood in Azhar at the moment in religious matters through its puppets.

    The revival of Islam in Egypt is through different channels. Each of these channels is significant in that country. Most of these channels are controlled by the government there.

    Al Risala and iqraa have had musical videos playing on them for decades. Why a suprise? Eygptians singing the love of the Prophet with a western musical scene in the background have been playing on al-risala and iqraa for a long time. You can find these videos on youtube. Its all over the Islamic world. Not all Islamic channels are like this though, for example the string of new Sunni Islamic channels in England.

    The channels playing non-sharia music have been criticized by common Muslims for this since the day they started. But they have not budged.

    Elite party like the rest of the world, just underground

  6. Nice to know that the Muslims practice two sets of morals too. One for the little people and one for the privileged.

    Just like our family values Republican friends, see people are the same world wide. It ain’t the race or religion it’s the money.

  7. My guess is that the Chinese model of censorship will get more popular: unlimited consumerism, zero tolerance for dissenting political views.

  8. The type of people who watch ‘Desperate Housewives’ in Saudi Arabia are likely to be the type of people who watch it elsewhere: young or middle-aged women. Hardly ‘jihadist’ marterial.

    Besides, it’s incredibly obtuse to say that just because you enjoy some aspects of US pop culture, you also have to enjoy their foreign policy. What nonsense! I like Desperate Housewives and many Hollywood films, but that has never stopped me being extremely critical of much US policy. I doubt it’s any different in the Middle East. It’s naive, arrogant and patronising to think otherwise.

    This whole theory of the ‘liberal inevitability’ has been proven wrong time and again – in Russia, China, and also in the Middle East.

  9. There are some things about humans that are absolutely certain and apply to ALL humans:

    – ALL humans are hypocrites – that is, they will conform to social rules in public and violate every rule in private.

    – ALL “pious” people are NOT, (at least in private) no matter how they act in public.

    – When the only way to exercise political power is via a “religious” organization, that is what people will use.

    – When there are multiple ways to exercise political power, the religious groups rapidly become marginalized since most humans do NOT want to live as the religions preach (but do not practice).

    So I partially agree with Dr. Cole. Initially the Saudi Arabia and Egypt despots will be overthrown by religious groups because they are the only groups that can organize political power under the despots. BUT they will NOT be able to hold power for very long because ALL the people are hypocrites and will want to live the “good life” without the extreme religious restrictions. Note that even the “religious” regime in Iran has moderated its most extreme religious practices to remain in power. Power has a way of corrupting all religious leaders who are ALWAYS hypocritical and want the “good life.” All humans, especially religious leaders, lust for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. (Yes, we really are all that human)

    BTW – This is where the US went wrong in both Afghanistan and Iraq. If the US had just used bombing raids to kill OBL and Saddam (and his sons), the locals would have sorted out the power structures over time and would probably not been all that anti-American. Iraq is now where it would have been if we had just eliminated the Sunni leadership instead of invading – it would have saved us seven years and lots of money. Eventually a moderated Taliban will be part of the government in Afghanistan. In other words if we had just killed the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership and armed the non-Taliban and sat back and watched, we would have gotten to where we will be in a year or so, over ten years ago.

    Sorting out post colonial power in countries is mess and the locals kill each other a lot, but eventually it gets sorted out but US meddling only prolongs the mess. It is long past time for the US to step back and let the kids fight it out to see who runs the post-colonial countries. It is NOT the place of the US to determine how groups want to government themselves. the US only gets to watch and make nice to the winners, whoever they are.

  10. What delusions do exist in the US Foreign Service. I am reminded of the hearings that were held and broadcast over C-Span detailing the delusions the intelligence community had re the then-Soviet Union, and why noone foresaw the collapse.
    The elites in dictatorial societies have always considered themselves above the law, sort of like the exceptionalist US, who continuously tells the world to do as I say, not as I do.
    I write from Estonia. Here too, during the Soviet occupation, people had access to Finnish TV and watched it with enthusiasm. Finnish TV was mostly watched for world news, becuse Soviet news was sort of like Fox TV, but with less screaming. Even the US Embassy admits that the Saudis figured out that watching US-sponsored TV stations gives a slanted view of the ME, and that Al Jazeera gives a more realistic picture. And now they think Eve Longoria is going to do the job for Uncle Sam?

  11. Please get rid of this new “keep reading” nonsense – or at least make it a hideaway “expand post” option like on most blogs these days. It’s annoying to have to click through to new pages and then back, etc.

  12. The question posed by the title of this piece seems frivolous to me. The war enjoined by resistance to US empire has surely shown its temper and obduracy, no matter what you think of it. A more important question regarding wikileaks is to discuss the principle of the right to government secrecy, and whether for the greater good that principle should be overthrown–in the event of the emergence of a rogue state, what Eisenhower warned of in speaking of the military-industrial complex.

    Even liberals, perhaps Juan himself, tend to believe the principle of secrecy should be honored in the spirit of national self-defense. and are confused and on the fence about the power of Assange’s work, and how to assess it. But as the Pentagon Papers case showed, the principle of government secrecy needs to be thrust aside and upended when a government is using it as a cloak for criminal and destructive behaviors.

    The important questions now are has the time come again for over-riding the principle of secrecy for the greater good? And what harm, specifically, has so far come from the wikileaks information, as charged by the attorney general’s office? What are the specifics with this accusation? Are we about to see a Saudi Arabian government move to extradite Julian for “espionage” in what’s revealed in secret Saudi Arabian parlors (as indicated by this piece) on corrupting American influences?

    Why is there so much silence on this outrageous political maneuver to use a bogus sex charge against Assange to spirit him away to the US? Why aren’t we discussing these serious questions?

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