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ali al-ahmed
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Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar and activist, is executive director of the Saudi Institute, based in McLean, Va. In this interview, he theorizes that the Saudi royal family reacted so harshly to the film because, "the government saw this as an opportunity to distract and to unify the people by creating an outside problem." And, he says, it worked. While Saudi society has relaxed some rules regarding women, "what has changed is cosmetic, mostly," says Al-Ahmed. "Women cannot drive, cannot vote, cannot buy or sell property. ... This is, to me, like a man walking with half his body paralyzed. This is our society, a paralyzed society, because half of it is not moving, and the other half is trying to move." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 17, 2005.

This film captured the subjugation of the women in Saudi Arabia, which remains true today. Not really very much changed . The women who were veiled then are veiled now. The women who are segregated then, segregated now.

Tell me your memories of the first airing of "Death of a Princess."

It was very intriguing. At the time, everybody wanted to see it, and it wasn't available in the country, so a lot of people got smuggled copies. The first time I watched it, it was smuggled. ... Everybody who owned it had a very, very valuable and also dangerous commodity.

People were talking about it across the country. It was intriguing for everyone, for the first time, to really peek into the inside affairs of the royal family, especially when it comes to women. It is such an issue for society, but especially when it is a female member of the ruling Al Sauds.

The media at the time, I recall, very clearly attacked the British and the Westerners. You would see pictures of dogs, pit bulls, just like that, in the middle of the newspaper. It [would have] nothing but just a caption saying: "This is the English. How ugly the English are, like this dog." And dogs in Saudi Arabia and in Islam, generally, are an icon of uncleanliness. Dog means dirty. This is how the West, and the English specifically, were described for making this movie. And as you know, the ambassador was asked to leave. ... There is no other issue, a war on another country or anything, that the British government did that deserved or reached the level of that film.

Was the story of the execution known before the film came out?

Information in Saudi Arabia is very, very restricted, even now. Twenty-five years ago it was even worse, so it was not really known. Most people in Saudi Arabia reach outside the borders of their country for information on their own affairs. And that is real, even today. So it was not known until the film came.

And then when the film was being released, what was the PR effort of the Saudi Arabian government? Speaking to its own people, how did they deal with this film?

The government of Saudi Arabia, the ruling family, portrayed this as an attack on Islam: It's an attack on our values. This is a conspiracy. And this is a typical Arab regime reaction to it -- blame it on the outsiders and [say], "This is the plan to destroy us." And this is how they really portrayed it in the newspapers. Even in the mosques, government mosques, they talked about this as a conspiracy on our morals and our rights and our culture and our religion. ...

Why did it hit such a nerve in Saudi Arabia?

I think the ruling family sees themselves [as having] a special place, to be entitled to certain privileges, that no one would interfere with their own affairs. And because they are in a way holy, they do not want anyone to interfere in the inside affairs of their family, and they protect that very, very strongly. ...

Despite the reaction of the government, what was the common belief of people who got the smuggled version? Did it seem to be an accurate portrayal, or was it seen to be capitalists' and imperialists' propaganda?

I think it really differs depending on the region. I think the region I come from, the eastern part, [saw it] as exposure. This is something that was there, and they exposed it.

It may be in certain areas of Saudi Arabia, like the capital [Riyadh] or outside, which is more loyal to the ruling family, they saw this as "This is our tradition, and the West has no business playing and interfering in this. This is the ways kings are and the way they will be." And it was seen as an affront to that tradition. ...

Were these executions a tribal situation or a religious situation?

I don't think it was a religious situation. In Islam, it's very clear that in any incident like this, at least the man would not get executed; the woman who was married might or might not. But Saudi Arabia doesn't really execute people for having extramarital affairs. They have not done that in many years.

I think this was a special circumstance, a grandfather who was himself not a very good Muslim. He was an alcoholic. He did not do it because he was a good Muslim. He did it because he was angry. She made him angry, and they decided to protect the the tribal tradition to kill his own granddaughter. And the killing was not really done by the government. It was done by his own group of guards. So this was not done according to the law.

And the boyfriend was killed, although even in Islam, he should not have been killed. He should have been just sentenced to a small punishment, which is 80 lashes, and let go. ...

There was no Islamic court; it was the grandfather's decision. How did that enter into how the government reacted, and did it add to the anger about the program?

I think it was a reason, maybe the principal reason, for the anger, because it exposed the reality that this process is not Islamic, because the majority of Saudis knew that this is not done according to a court system. After all, the ruling members of Al Saud, they are not subjected to the court system. They have their own sort of system. They are not subjected to Islamic law.

They are not very good Muslims. The family is known for its extra extravagance, for extra security, for drug abuse, alcoholism. The majority of the members of the ruling family have done all kind of things that are not Islamic, from alcohol abuse to drug abuse to even smuggling to having a multitude of women. So this is not a secret in Saudi Arabia. Maybe it's a secret for the outside world, but a lot of people knew this. Not only the elite but the regular folks of Saudi Arabia knew that the ruling family did not follow Islam. ...

At the time the promiscuity and alcoholism was largely contained in the males of the royal family. Now even the females are doing it. ... It doesn't mean everyone is having all these things, but members of the royal family really, in reality and honestly, have had wives and many, many, many, many girlfriends or even prostitutes. And this is not a secret. Today the females even are doing the same thing, and they are more, I think, easy about it. As long as it's a secret or not exposed, it goes on.

Describe for me the world events at the time and how they molded how the program was viewed. ... What was going on in the world at the point that affected why the Saudi Arabian government was so sensitive to it, and why the American government and the British government were so sensitive to the concerns?

I think the Saudis always have this obsession with security, and security of the royal family and their power grip on the country. At the time there was an Islamic revolution to the east [in Iran]. There was a peace process between Egypt and Israel in the west. And there was the Wahhabi extremists taking over the Grand Mosque, and Shi'ites in the east revolting.

The government saw this as an opportunity to distract and to unify the people by creating an outside problem. That's why I'm thinking that this might not generate the same reaction [today], because I think then they needed to react to something and preoccupy the population with something. And reacting to "Death of a Princess" was something that continued for weeks. It wasn't a day or two; it continued for weeks. And it was something that they needed to preoccupy the population with.

Did it work?

It worked.

What happened?

I remember this. I was eyewitness to some of these events, both the Mecca and the Eastern Province revolution or revolt. These things died immediately. And that happened in November of '79. A few months later the film came [out] in London, started this whole storm. And then there was nothing. For many years nothing happened in the country, because they reacted very swiftly, and also they were able to distract the population.

You have to understand: These countries, especially Saudi Arabia, they are closed countries, and people really are caged, and they are only [given] certain information. I think now it is changing a bit with satellite [television] and so on, but nevertheless, a very similar situation exists where information does not filter into the country -- you know, the Internet is controlled; even satellite [television] in many ways is controlled. So they can sway the population toward one direction or another. And that's what they did in 1980. ...

When the program was going to be aired, there was a reaction by the Saudi government. Prince Fahd made a couple of statements and others did, where they stated that the airing of this program was part of a Zionist campaign that was somehow connected to [then-Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat's signing of the accord in Camp David.

I think the Arab regimes have done that all the time. They still do it. The Arab regimes have been blaming the Jews and the Zionists and the outsiders for a long time to distract their population. They teach their population hatred of the outsider to prevent their population from connecting to the First World and benefiting from the openness and transparency and democracy and so on. ...

So the ruling family, Crown Prince Fahd, king now, said: "This is a conspiracy. It's the Zionists. It's the Westerners who are trying to take over our culture, our religion." In order to delegitimize the film, it has to be portrayed as a conspiracy against the culture and the society at home to stop the influence of that film on society. But many people in the country can distinguish between, at least in this sense, the conspiracy and reality.

And I think from my experience, they were able to see this as "No, this is not a conspiracy; it's just a film about something that happened." And the Saudis didn't really deny it. And I think they helped, maybe wanted intentionally to have people believe that "We did it, and we are proud of protecting our 'tradition.'"

They also had many complaints that it was using sensationalism, shock value, sex to attack the culture and to attack Islam.

See, sex is one of the forbidden subjects in Saudi Arabia, and especially when it has to do with women. Sex and women today is one of the biggest problems the Saudi society is dealing with. That's why it is the only country where women are segregated from men. It's the only country in the world where women must cover their faces when they walk outside [in] the street.

Sex and women in Saudi Arabia is one of the most feared or most prohibited subjects, yet it happens all the time. But publicly you are not supposed to speak about it. This is a society [where] when you ask a person, "What is your mother's name?," they get offended; "What is your wife's name?," they get offended. ... This is the only country in the world where women, Saudi women, are not allowed [to have] their pictures in the newspaper. ... It's so disgusting. Disgusting. If you look at, for example, Iran, last week they were graduating women policemen. And they had them rappelling from the side of a building in Iran. ... But in Saudi Arabia, no driving, no newspaper pictures, nothing. ...

One of the points the Saudi government was extremely angry at was a scene of princesses out in the desert in caravans trying to find men. Did that scene, from the people that you know, from the access you had to the princesses in the royal family, did that seem accurate?

Absolutely. At that time, I remember speaking to my older brother. He is 10 years older than me, and he was a student in the capital at the time, and he was telling me about it. ... At the time in the capital of Riyadh, it was very prevalent, women in Cadillacs and fancy cars would come to the main shopping places and pick up men.

Royal princesses?

But who else had fancy cars with drivers and so on at the time? It was only members of the royal family and elite families, mostly princesses.

Why the anger of the Saudi government specific to that theme?

Because I think you are portraying them, their wife, their highest honor, to be promiscuous and to have been violated and to have gone to such a level of begging for boyfriends and so on. And it's reality. This is one of the issues that I think it should come through this film. The women in Saudi society sort of live in a cage, because there is nothing for them but homes [and to] go to schools. There are no female clubs, health clubs, for women, for example. There are none. There is no form of entertainment for the women. But for the population at large, especially for women, you feel caged.

Why did the Saudis decide to play such hardball on this issue?

They played hardball because it was very politically useful to rally the population behind them, and because they wanted to send a message that "You can talk about anything, but not about our internal affairs as a ruling family."

What were the specific things that they brought to bear on the British government?

The sovereign family removed the British ambassador from Saudi Arabia. They communicated with Warren Christopher, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, to ask him to shut down the program. And it was an issue that it was discussed in the United States Senate. I remember Al Gore was one of those that was refusing this pressure and spoke about it in the United States [Congress]. It was an issue that reached high regarding a film.

The Saudis believed that our country should follow their rules when it comes to the ruling family. In 1989 they did the same thing when the students here protested against the Saudi government. And they asked -- I was there -- they asked the U.S. government to shut down these protesters because "How do you allow these people to protest us?" They didn't know [how] it was [in] America. It was different.

... Why did they feel that they could come to the United States and shut this down?

Because I believe that in their country they are accustomed to this. They believe that they can do this somewhere else if they can do it in Saudi Arabia. And it's very hard for them to switch to American ways of doing things sometimes. ...

Did the program eventually complicate relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States? Did it, in fact, have an effect?

I don't think it really did. A few months later, the AWACS [airborne warning and control system] deal [for the sale of radar planes] was signed, and King Fahd came here to the United States in 1985 a few years [later]. It was one of the most celebrated visits by a Saudi royal to the United States. ...

What relevance does the film have to how women were treated in Saudi Arabia 25 years ago?

I think this film captured the subjugation of the women in Saudi Arabia, which remains true today. Not really very much changed in the status of women in Saudi Arabia. The women who were veiled then are veiled now; the women who were segregated then, segregated now. And Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that women cannot drive and cannot vote and do not have the legal status that's equal to a man. A woman in Saudi Arabia is still considered by Saudi law to be an extension of a man. That man can be her father, her husband, her son and her grandson. So she, a woman, is not a creature or a human with free will. Her will is subjected to the will of a man.

In your articles you have written that one woman's life is equal to one man's leg.

As I said, the status of a woman in Saudi Arabia is not equal to the status of a man. She is part of the man. And I think that is based on the sort of this biblical or religious principle that woman was created from the rib of a man. So she is part [of the] man. A woman is part [of the] man. And the way she is looked at by the Saudi law, she doesn't have free will. She is, if you will, a finger of a man. She is an arm of a man. So she is only part of the man.

The Saudi religious authority describe men as perfect physically and mentally. Woman is not. Woman is not perfect physically and mentally. So she does not have the [same] status. And this is [the] tribal understanding of the religion. And in the tribal sense, women are always equated with sheep, for example. If one man goes to another man and says, "I'd like to marry your daughter," the traditional response to that would be, "If she were a sheep, she would not be good enough for you dinner."

That low status of a woman is part and parcel to Saudi law. And that's why that story that I wrote describing how the Saudi system today, in the year 2005, considers the value of a woman to be one foot or one leg of a man. And that's how women are treated by the Saudi government, by the Saudi ruling family.

But in 25 years, some things have changed. Explain what has changed.

I think the society's progressed. Many things have changed, but also many things have not. And women now are more educated, either inside or outside the country, although they are barred, for example, from studying journalism or engineering and other specialties. But they have progressed, and they have made great strides in business, especially outside the country, today.

The most famous Saudi women are outside Saudi Arabia, in the U.N. or as writers or analysts and so on, or businesswomen. Inside Saudi Arabia, there are great limitations on their progress. Their status didn't change. The fact that they are not allowed to enter court even if they are accused of murder, for example -- a woman will be sentenced to death if she was accused of murder without her being in the court or being able to speak in that court. So that has not changed.

I think the main issues relating to women and their status have not changed. What has changed is cosmetic, mostly. Women cannot drive, cannot vote, cannot buy or sell property. A man has to do it for them. They cannot travel on their own. They cannot decide if they want to get married. The father has to approve, or the brother or the son has to approve. Registering in college, accepting or applying for work is still the same; it is subjected to a man. And they still do not have the right to obtain, for example, ID cards without the approval of a man. So there are a long list of freedoms that women around the world enjoy. In Saudi Arabia they are subjected to approval of a man.

I think women in other Arab countries have many freedoms that Saudi women do not have: the freedom to marry, the freedom to own, the freedom to sell, the freedom to work, to travel, to study. Saudi women do not have freedom to drive. Saudi women do not have those freedoms today. It's one of the last countries where women's rights have not flourished.

You wrote that, in fact, women to some extent are the line in the sand between modernization or remaining a medieval kingdom.

It's true. You cannot really go forward and progress as a society when 50 percent of your population are oppressed. And it is the tipping point. This is the line you have to cross. It's the frontier we have to conquer in order to tell ourselves we are walking straight.

This is, to me, like a man walking with half his body paralyzed. This is our society, a paralyzed society, because half of it is not moving, and the other half is trying to move. But we are dragged back by [the fact that] half the society is paralyzed, and this is not going to change internally. External help must be offered, especially from the United States.

Is the United States playing that role?

The U.S. has one thing in its mind, which is [its] interest. And I think it has been harmful for the U.S. There is no harm that the United States can do to itself by encouraging -- not forcing, encouraging -- one of its closest allies to allow women their freedom. It's not against Saudi culture or society to have women attain these freedoms that I talked about. It is against the government's policy, yes, but it's not against the culture or the religion of that society.

And the U.S. has not been vocal. And this is the last country in the world besides Kuwait where women cannot vote. This is the last country in the world where women cannot drive and cannot attain these freedoms that I spoke about. And it is very easily done if this is a priority. I asked a U.S. official recently about it: "Have you ever had a program to encourage the Saudi government to allow women more freedom or to improve their status?" And the answer was, "No."


"It was not important to us." And I said that "Well, I think I've started to rethink my appreciation of a democratic system." If a democratic government [or] society does not think it's important to have its own values protected and promoted to its own friends, then there is something wrong with these values.

The role of women in Saudi Arabia is in some ways a concession to the religious conservatives who are so important in propping up the royal family, correct?

The religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia consider women one of their most important issues. They are obsessively concerned with women. The royal family uses these extremists to suppress society and to preoccupy them with fictitious issues, from "How long is your beard?" [to] "Can I say 'bye-bye'?" I'm not kidding -- "Can I say 'bye-bye'? Is it OK to say 'bye-bye' instead of 'salaam'? Is my robe longer or shorter?"

So they figure out that if you make women an issue, then you have 50 percent [of] society paralyzed and part of the other half concerned, obsessed about suppressing the 50 percent. ... The conservatives of Saudi Arabia feel the need to control society and guide it, and they use women as a means to control that society. And that pleases the royals, who would like a society that's obsessed with long beards and short robes rather than a society focused on equal rights, democracy, human rights and education and so on.

Has 9/11 changed that?

Absolutely it did. Society has now realized it has been fooled all along, and the religious conservatives are nothing but a tool in the hands of the royal family to suppress society. At the end of the day, the same people who issued fatwas against elections turned 180 degrees and said, "Oh, elections are good." Two years before they said, "Elections are evil; they are imitations of the infidels." The Saudi government decided to have limited elections; then suddenly it became a good thing. They figured out the game, and I think more people are figuring out the game, and the religious conservatives very soon will have very little influence in the country.

So what's the game?

The game is, "We are doing this to protect our religion, to protect you." ... They don't think democracy means you will participate. They equate democracy with sexual promiscuity, with rapes. That's why, as long as society is obsessed with women and the fact that they have to be covered and suppressed, then we won't have a democratic society, a society that's looking for participation in government.

An important idea from the film is this discussion of the "Arab dilemma." They are struggling to find a balance between ancient tradition and modern life, modernity. Does this dilemma still exist?

I think that dilemma is manufactured. I don't think any society will lose its culture by having democracy, by having openness. I really think cultures usually become stronger with exposure to other cultures. Islamic culture has been always exposed to the Indians, the Persians, the Greeks. So it's nothing new, us dealing with others. We have used the Greek books to develop our own sciences in Islam. We have used the ideas of Western or Persian thinkers. Most Islamic thinkers in the past were Persians. Those who recorded the tradition of the promises of Muhammad, most of them were Arabs; most of them came from Central Asia. So it is a manufactured issue. Today in Saudi Arabia, an Islam[ic] country, we use everything Western. English is a second language.

So the issue is not that. The issue is they don't want us to have the same political system like they have in the West. They were trying to stop that part of the West from infiltrating our societies. The same government who is against democracy and speaks about cultural specificity, they are the same government who buy American AWACS, British Tornadoes and train their military elite in [Britain's Royal Military Academy] Sandhurst and in America and send their security forces to be trained by Western trainers either in Saudi Arabia or in the West.

What do you believe is the most important thing to take away from this film to define what is going on in Saudi Arabia?

This film really exposed the status of women in Saudi Arabia, status that is not improved very much. The status of women in Saudi Arabia has not improved very much since the film aired in 1980. And I think that is the most important issue of this film.

Another issue, I believe, is the issue of freedom of information. It was not a local or Arab media outlet that exposed this issue or talked about this issue. It had to be done in England. Imagine a film in Indonesia that will ignite discussion in your own country, in America. That's what happened. In Saudi Arabia we needed a British film to speak about our own ails instead of an Egyptian or a Saudi or a Kuwaiti film. ...

This really exposes the fact that the freedoms in this part of the world do not exist in order to discuss these issues. So I think that is really one of the most important issues that the film exposed; that, in fact, we cannot speak about our own affairs. We need Westerners to speak about them. ...

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posted april 19, 2005

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