Unfounded stereotypes present a misguided and simplistic view of our region in the media. This is particularly true for coverage of Saudi Arabia. Some of this distortion is intentional, and some of it is not, but both stem from a drive to criticize, which reporters believe will validate their independence. This is their right, but the criticism should have a basis in reality.
When I first started working as a journalist in Washington, the first thing we learned was the importance of understanding the local culture, history, and political system, to ask the experts. We learned to read up on these matters and keep ourselves informed to understand the area we were covering so that we could clarify things to the reader. Why am I saying this?
After Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s interview with Fox News and the National Day celebrations, and in the extensive Western coverage of international stars being purchased by clubs in the Saudi Pro League, we saw a lot of simplistic and lazy reporting.
For example, one foreign correspondent wrote about what he saw as excesses in the coverage of the Crown Prince’s interview, claiming that he even saw a poem entitled “My Master.” However, the Arabic title of the poem he (mis)translated is “sidi,” which is a very different term. Moreover, in this case, it was the title of a poem extolling the figures, achievements, and prospects for the future discussed in the interview.
In the West, “my master” is associated with slavery. There is no direct equivalent to this from the time era when slavery was allowed in our region. Slaves would call their “(paternal) uncle,” and in the Hijaz, grandfathers are referred to as “sidi.”
The meaning varies according to context and has no direct equivalent in English that captures all of its nuances; indeed, it can be used to refer in debate and as a term of venerable affection. Here, the King, the heir to his throne, and older persons are addressed as “may you have a long life,” which denotes respect for a person you do not know.
Do they not say “Long live the king” in the United Kingdom? Why the surprise then? Is it the result of a failure to understand the context and appreciate this cultural difference? Would the correspondent, for example, not have a duty to understand its history and roots in India before belittling the sari?
As for writing poetry, they recorded the history of the Arabian Peninsula just as art did in Europe. Here, we express our grievances and offer compliments through poetry. We hint at matters we do not speak of explicitly through it as well, one writes poetry even when one is not a poet.
As for the National Day celebrations, some people in the West or the region may not know this, but people are not bussed to such events by the “party,” nor are they compelled to do so because the “almighty leader” made them. Rather, they attended voluntarily and happily, and they are not interrogated about why they decided not to.
The people celebrated National Day because they had triumphed after a long social battle. Once upon a time, standing for the Royal Anthem had been prohibited amid controversy about whether National Day ought to be a holiday or not. Today, the people are sharing their joy at winning a national social battle.
The same applies to the enthusiasm around the arrival of football stars. As the Crown Prince has said, their arrival has augmented the country’s economy by 1 percent, and Saudis are passionate about football.
The celebrations were bolstered by the fact that women are now permitted to attend matches. Thus, the Saudi people’s reactions are not exaggerated; they reflect the sense of triumphalism engendered by the changes the Saudis want to see, and they were achieved under the leadership of the Crown Prince.
To every reporter writing about Saudi Arabia: “Sidi” (Sir), try to understand this society, its nuances, and its ways.