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.