Thursday, March 10, 2011

Business as Usual in Saudi Arabia as Foreign Correspondents Chase Nonexistent Story

By Siraj Wahab in the eastern Saudi city of Qatif

Foreign correspondents dispatched to Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province to cover the “Day of Rage” touted on social media websites are reporting there is nothing much to report.

On Thursday, families were making purchases in shops and malls and there was normal traffic flow in Qatif, Dammam and Alkhobar streets as people sat in coffee shops chatting and reading newspapers. Despite all the normality, however, some expatriates, especially the Westerners, did have their apprehensions.

Reporters and correspondents usually assigned to the Eastern Province are primarily concerned with the Saudi Arabia’s energy business; political reporters are based in Riyadh. This week, however, many of the Riyadh-based writers have traveled to the Eastern Province to cover "political unrest" and are finding nothing but business as usual.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal acknowledged on Wednesday (March 9) that there was a protest march last week, but the protesters were invited to share their concerns peacefully and through proper channels.

“When a group of our brothers came out, a police officer asked them whether they see any hindrance before them to present their demands to the Saudi authorities as their offices are open to all,” Prince Saud said. “We have seen Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah receiving groups of citizens from the Eastern Province and other parts of the Kingdom on Tuesday. The officer then told them to give their demands in writing. They then presented their demands and went back to their homes.”

In the nations that have faced protests and unrest, people have complained about unresponsive, corrupt leaders and chronic economic stagnation. In Saudi Arabia, the government has had a national dialogue in progress for several years, continuing multiple investments in employment-boosting industrial projects and economic cities across the Kingdom as well as one of the largest college scholarship programs in the world.

“The irony is that if you ask most people who Saudi Arabia’s lead reformer is they will tell you it is King Abdullah,” said one reporter. “If anything, he is waiting for the country to catch up to him.”

International news agencies went viral with reports about protests in Qatif. To add to the confusion, a Facebook page about planned protests Friday attracted lots of attention and has thousands of members. The Saudi government has made no effort to close it or Facebook. What is unknown is how many page members are actually Saudi.

“Anybody from Tanzania to Timbuktu can join any Facebook page,” said another correspondent. “Since there is a lot of curiosity many people who know nothing about Saudi Arabia seem to have joined this page creating even greater confusion.”

The potential problems arising from such circumstances when international news agencies amplify such social networking pages are obvious.

“I don’t know from where my bosses in the States are getting all kind of weird stories — that tanks are rolling in the Eastern Province, that there is a curfew in many towns,” said one foreign journalist who has been combing the Eastern Province for two days in search of a story. “I am sitting here in one of the best-known hotels in Alkhobar, and everything is so normal. In fact, on the way to this hotel I did not see a single checkpoint. What are these people talking about? Where are they getting their information from? If someone writes something on the blog it becomes viral. If someone posts a video on YouTube it becomes the rage in Western capitals. Nobody has the time to check the veracity and the truthfulness of these videos.”

The "investigative reporting" into civil unrest continues.

“The other day I visited most of the towns and saw nothing,” she said. “That is a story in itself, but my bosses are not interested in a business-as-usual story. They need a sensational story — one that fits whatever negative news they are hearing about Saudi Arabia. They see Saudi Arabia protests as a sexy story — a hot-button story."

On Thursday morning in Alkhobar, shoppers purchased items at malls and grocery stores. Some people went to breakfast and then went onto their next destinations on what appeared to be normally busy streets and highways.

In Qatif, Arab News witnessed more shopping and more coffee drinking. Families were busy enjoying a cool weather. There were no policemen or police cars in sight. However, that is not the impression one gets after watching all those television channels, and in global newsrooms scattered around the world, editors clamor for more details about the nonexistent “tinderbox".

“I don’t know what to do. I simply talk to the local people, compile their quotes and submit it to my bosses,” said another perplexed foreign correspondent. “The next day I find a very wonderfully written and highly sensational story full of spicy details with the quotes interspersed very nicely in between.”

The reporters seem committed to accuracy and factual reporting — at least on their part. As for what their editors do with those reporters’ reports in this case it truly appears to be another story.

“If that is what they want to do, let them do it,” said the correspondent. “This is the hazard of working with international news agencies. You don’t control the story. Your job is merely to provide information. It is the editors in the newsrooms in London, Paris and Washington who decide how to use that information and what angle to take.”

So as an anxious international press corps waits at the ready, it might be a nice day to enjoy the cool weather and a coffee along the beautiful beaches.

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