05 Dec, Sunday
22° C

Conservatives hold back Saudi Arabia

WHEN it rains bad news in Saudi Arabia it really pours!

Amnesty International released a 69-page report today blasting the kingdom for arresting thousands of terrorism suspects since 2001, torturing them, and holding many of them incommunicado for years without a trial or access to lawyers.

And last week, the plug was suddenly pulled on the 4th edition of the rapidly-growing Jeddah Film Festival, when orders were issued from high on up in the Saudi government to stop the festival from taking place.

With the sudden cancelation of the Jeddah Film Festival on July 17, just a day before it was to begin, conservative forces in the kingdom have won the latest battle between progressive Saudis and those who want to keep us in the Dark Ages.

Sources told me that the order came from the top of the Interior Ministry, or Prince Naif ibn Abdulaziz, the minister of interior. He is a well-known supporter of tradition and the stern Wahhabi brand of Islam. His recent appointment as second deputy premier by King Abdullah undoubtedly has emboldened him and the religious conservatives that he supports.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, an American convert to Islam and regular critic of Saudi excesses, has an excellent analysis of the current situation in Saudi Arabia where a reformist king finds himself challenged by the conservatives on virtually every cultural issue that comes up. Most worringly, Schwartz claims that his Saudi contacts in Jeddah, long Saudi Arabia’s most liberal and cosmopolitan city, told him that Naif has ordered the religious police to invade shopping malls and beach resorts to root out ‘indecently’ covered women or unmarried couples:


According to Jeddawis, Nayef has ordered the mutawiyin to invade the local shopping malls, from which they had previously stayed away, and to raid the city’s resorts, searching for alleged violators of Wahhabi “morality.” The Jeddah Ghair or “Jeddah is Different” summer festival opened this week, but Saudis are complaining that the event has not been advertised, and that it is being monitored by a considerable force of mutawiyin. As one Saudi reformist commented, “people say ‘Jeddah is Different’ but many think the Difference is disappearing.”


I still remember attending the screening of several Saudi short films at the first edition of the Jeddah Film Festival in 2006. Held in a small hall of the Jeddah Science and Technology Center on the Corniche, the tickets were affordable and the films I saw impressed me with both their content and technical level. For sure these young Saudi filmmakers still had a long way to go in improving their films, but there on the screen I saw the many issues that bother them and lead to social alienation and depression. There was such a yearning to express their long repressed feelings of frustration and hope that I was touched by the films. A few years later, I watched a UAE feature-length film at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival, and couldn’t help but compare it (unfavorably) to the Saudi shorts I had seen in 2006.
There are no film schools in Saudi, but still there are groups of young Saudis who take risks every day to film on the streets, where they can be harassed and/or arrested by both regular and religious police just for filming or having a female actor in their film.
Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal, the billionaire owner of Kingdom Holdings and Rotana, ironically the Middle East’s biggest producer of entertainment, has been producing commercial films aimed at the Saudi market even though there are no cinemas there. The last ones closed their doors in the late 1970s following the advent of the VHS video machine, which made cinemas redundant in the minds of conservatives who argued that Saudis could now watch films at home on video rather than in darkened public theaters.
This see-saw between conservatives and progressive-minded Saudis has been going on for decades. To think that the battle has been won just because King Abdullah is reform-minded, is naive at best and wishful thinking at worst.
Hope springs eternal that the country will change and evolve. This does not mean losing sight of Islam and Saudi traditions completely. It means giving Saudis the freedom to choose whether or not they want to go to a cinema to see a movie and whether or not a Saudi woman wants to drive her car or not. Is this really too much to ask for? Apparently it is for the conservatives who want to keep us in the 13th century.