Saudi Arabia’s monarchy found itself in a turbulent region in 2003 that was full of risks but also possible change. The government promised "the rifle and the sword" when dealing with Islamic fundamentalists and assured its other citizens that political reforms were on the way. Some topics are no longer taboo in the media but the authorities still strictly monitor and censor it.
Crown Prince Abdullah has been the effective ruler of the country since King Fahd, now 82, had a stroke in 1995. The monarchy has managed to avoid the winds of change for decades but is now grappling with a succession crisis. More importantly, it faces pressure from Saudi liberals and their ally, the United States, and from radical extremists who sympathise with Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda movement.
Bomb attacks in Riyadh on 12 May and 8 November, attributed to Al-Qaeda, greatly speeded up political developments and clashes between security forces and Islamists become almost daily events, killing many on both sides. More than 600 people were arrested in 2003.
Three petitions signed by several hundred Saudi intellectuals were sent to Prince Abdallah urging radical reforms, including free elections, a constitutional monarchy, the rule of law, independent courts and freedom of expression and association. They said reform was needed to fight Islamic extremism.
The government agreed in January to a first-ever visit from an international rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, and a month later, approved the setting up of a journalists’ association. Another big landmark was the announcement in October that partial municipal elections would be held at the end of 2004, the first political elections since the monarchy was founded in 1932. Street demonstrations erupted twice in October in a dozen towns despite a ban by the government and religious leaders. They were followed by a harsh crackdown.
The Saudi media managed to acquire a bit more freedom during the year and were able, for example, to discuss discrimination against the country’s Shiite minority. But the government grip on the media barely weakened. When the invasion of Iraq began, the information minister urged Saudis to ignore the "biased" foreign media and get their news from local media, which he said was "truthful and objective."
He spoke as a new Saudi, Lebanese and Kuwaiti funded satellite TV station, Al-Arabiya, was launched in Dubai to rival the Qatar-based pan-Arab station Al-Jazeera, which the Saudi regime disliked for often giving a voice to the monarchy’s opponents. Saudi newspapers are independently funded but have been set up by royal decree and their editors approved by the government. Foreign journalists wanting to film in the country have to have an official guide and foreign publications are censored before they go on sale.
Harassment and obstruction
The government shut down the Shiite website www.hajr.org in January 2003, according to the independent Saudi Information Agency (SIA News).
The Qatari TV station Al-Jazeera was banned in early February from covering the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Though the station had never had an office or permanent correspondent in Saudi Arabia, it had been allowed to cover the event in the previous three years. Many TV stations, including the US CNN, the Saudi MBC and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi TV, were able to broadcast live the various stages of the pilgrimage, which began on 5 February.
Al-Jazeera journalists were also barred from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s defence and foreign ministers meeting in Jeddah on 15 February. The station’s editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Hilal, said it had applied for visas for nine journalists three months beforehand because it knew there was a strong possibility of being refused. A Saudi official, who declined to be named, confirmed they had been. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar had been poor since an Al-Jazeera programme in June 2002 that the government said insulted the royal family.
The daily paper Al-Watan reported in mid-May that one of its journalists, who wished to remain anonymous, had been arrested by three members of the religious police (the mutawa) as he left a restaurant and taken to a police station notorious for torturing people. The police commander criticised the length of his hair and accused him of working for a newspaper of "infidels." He was insulted and humiliated and his hair was cut. His address book and a computer diskette containing his work was confiscated.
The London-based opposition Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) launched a satellite TV station, Islah TV, in May and accused the Saudi authorities of trying to stop it broadcasting. Station spokesman and MIRA leader Saad al-Fagih was stabbed at his London home on 22 June by intruders who told him the attack was "a message from the government." MIRA set up the first opposition radio station in December 2002, broadcasting round the clock in Arabic from a European country via the Hotbird satellite.
Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Al-Watan, was sacked on 27 May after barely two months in the job for printing direct criticism of the religious authorities, notably the mutawa religious police. The government yielded to religious ultra-conservatives who had accused him of "making fun of virtuous people" and "spreading evil and corruption." They had also called for a boycott of the paper.
Khashoggi, whose appointment had been approved by the information ministry, had opened the paper up to the views of reformist Saudi writers and intellectuals, especially after the 12 May bomb attacks in Riyadh, which killed 34 people and were attributed to Al-Qaeda.
The country’s Grand Mufti banned reformist Abdul Aziz al-Qasim in late July from writing in the daily paper Al-Madina, as part of a broad media clampdown by the authorities after the 12 May attack.
The pro-government press timidly welcomed meagre political reforms that were announced but the regime and the ultra-conservative religious establishment firmly silenced critics who said they were not enough. Ali al-Ahmad, a regime opponent living in Washington, said about 100 reformist journalists, writers and intellectuals were censored or banned from writing in the country’s newspapers between July and November.
Journalist Hussein Shobokshi was banned on 29 July by the information ministry from writing in the daily Okaz after an article saying he dreamed of the day when Saudis had the right to vote and discuss human rights and women were allowed to drive. A few days later, his column in another paper, Arab News, and his political programme on the Saudi-funded TV station Al-Arabiya were dropped.
Also in July, the column of Dawud al-Shirian in the daily Al-Hayat was suspended and commentator Mansur al-Nogaidan, of the daily Al-Riyadh, was sent on indefinite leave. Nogaidan and Shobokshi said they had received death threats.
The information minister banned articles by Wajeha al-Huwaider, of Al-Watan and Arab News, in late August after she had written at the end of May that some Saudis were becoming disillusioned with the country and turning to the United States.
Harassment increased further in late October, when the government jammed the foreign-based lone opposition radio station, Al-Islah, as part of a crackdown after a few hundred people demonstrated in Riyadh on 14 October. The exiled opposition party MIRA called for demonstrations in nine towns and cities on 23 October to demand the release of 83 people arrested during the earlier protest and awaiting trial.
The radio had been broadcasting discussions between MIRA leader Saad al-Fagih, prominent figures and ordinary people, mostly Saudis, since December 2002, along with news and cultural programmes. In late August, Al-Islah’s new satellite TV station, whose entire operation was conducted through several European countries, mysteriously went off the air. Al-Fagih said strong Saudi government pressure on the companies involved was the reason.