Death of a Princess [site homepage]
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edward s. walker, jr.
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Edward S. Walker, Jr. is president of the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In this interview, he discusses the impact of "Death of a Princess" in the Arab world and how the Saudis found the film insulting in ways that a Westerner would not understand. He also talks about how much has changed in Saudi Arabia over the past 25 years and why he thinks the film may have played a role in that. Much of this interview concerns what Walker believes are the important things that the West needs to understand about Saudi Arabia. "They are trying to balance between change that is important for long-term stability and maintaining a popular base on the one hand, and change which can create a counterreaction in the very traditional society that Saudi Arabia still is. So, it's a balancing factor here." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 17, 2005.

 And it is very much in our interest to help these societies take a forward leading position on these things. But [we have to] understand the difficulty of moving so quickly and changing traditions, that have been around for hundreds of years, overnight.

Tell me about the first time you remember hearing about "Death of a Princess."

Well, it must have been at the time it was filmed in 1980, because I was involved in the Middle East at that time, although my primary focus was on the Palestinian issue then. It was all over. People saw it. They were commenting on it, partly because it was so unusual to have any kind of publicity in Saudi Arabia or about Saudi Arabia.

Tell me a little bit what the controversy over it was.

Well, I think the controversy was, first of all, that it didn't demonstrate conclusive evidence one way or another about what happened. Second of all, it brought to the fore a whole society that had been very quietly going along, selling oil, making money, but had never been in the public eye before. And so it was controversial in Saudi Arabia. Third, it dealt with family issues -- not just the royal family issues, but the fact that Saudi society was still very tribal in its nature; was oriented towards different rules, if you will, than our society is oriented towards. And it brought all that out into the open. And I think there was a lot of concern that it was going to cause hostility within the family or friction within the family and that it would just give unwarranted attention to Saudi Arabia, which they didn't want. None of us like to be criticized, and the Saudis are no exception.

Why did it hit such a nerve that they would come out so vocally against it and bring such pressure as they did against the British and the U.S.?

Well, first of all, it dealt with the royal family, and that in and of itself was a very sensitive subject. It still is today in Saudi Arabia. I don't know of any of the so-called experts around, myself included, who really knows what goes on inside the Saudi royal family. It is not a subject that the top level of leadership in the Saudi hierarchy talk about. Some of the younger princes will talk about it, but not even they know. And so it was exposing family dirty linen. And it had never been done before. And I think that's why they reacted so intensely. They didn't want follow-up. They didn't want to have people focusing on their internal problems. They wanted to take care of their problems themselves. ...

What were the tensions in the Middle East at the time? This is spring of 1980. The hostages are still in Iran; the failed rescue mission had taken place. The civil war in Lebanon. Lay out for me what was going on.

Well, you had enormous distractions in the [Carter] administration on four levels. First of all, you had an upcoming presidential election, which always distracts higher levels in our government. Second of all, you still had the negotiations for the Iranians over the hostages, which took a good percentage of the work of State Department, the NSC and so on. You had a whole other operation going on under Sol Linowitz, [President Carter's representative to the Middle East peace talks], on the Palestinian issue, trying to make good on the promises of Camp David to have an [autonomous] regime established. So that took another focus for the administration. And then Lebanon was a continuing problem. '75 was the beginning of the civil war. By '80 it was very much in full blow, and we didn't really have a very good fix on what to do about it. And we were afraid of it escalating and expanding throughout the region. So the region itself was in serious trouble at the time. ...

How did the tensions in the Middle East affect Britain and their view of the program?

... I believe the British ambassador was sent home because of this, because he wouldn't condemn it, and I'm sure they were on the horns of a dilemma. They didn't want to destroy their relationship with Saudi Arabia or with the family. On the other hand, this raised issues that are hard in any democracy to ignore and particularly sensitive, because it was the melodrama of it, love overriding the will to live. It's a very melodramatic story. And part of it took place in London, so the British were engaged in it. ...

[Then-Deputy Secretary of State] Warren Christopher sent a letter, bringing some pressure on why it was being aired [in the U.S.]

Well, let's face it: We had come off of the oil embargo in the fairly recent years. We had that evidence of what can happen in the United States when you have an embargo take place, although it wasn't as effective as people thought it was. There was some sensitivity to the whole question of the oil supply, as there has always been, and Saudi Arabia was a key part in that and had become a partner in trying to control things like price and supply and so on. So there's a lot of self-interest that was involved at that time, and still is, in maintaining a good relationship with the Saudi royal family.

The last player in all of this was the oil industry, and Mobil Oil also brought pressure, [with] ads in six major papers questioning why PBS, using tax dollars, would be airing something like this.

Well, the oil industry had very large interests involved here, and they felt that in order to secure their position in the kingdom, they had to be defensive of the kingdom. It's not unusual and not surprising at all. I'm not sure that would happen today, because the oil industry is so much broader and is very sensitive about engaging in politics directly, unless, of course, you're talking about things like Alaska Pipeline or the Alaska fields and so on.

But that was a different period, and we had much greater, in many respects, much greater direct dependence on Saudi Arabia at that time than we do today. ... We had just come off of an oil embargo. And I remember the gas lines that people were in for extended periods of time. They are not as bad as gas lines in Iraq today, but they were pretty bad for us at the time. And it was a lesson for the administration. They didn't want to go through [an embargo], particularly [in an] election year. They already had all the problems they could face with the Iranian situation. The oil industry was afraid of losing its favored position, because the American oil industry has always been the favored partner in Saudi Arabia.So there were a lot of reasons for people not to push this issue too far and hard.

In Saudi Arabia what was at stake?

It was talked about as a religious problem, but I think it was much more a tribal problem and a family problem and a modernization problem, because what you were doing was you were challenging a tradition that has existed in the Arab world for some time. Honor killings have been going on in virtually every country in the Arab world for a long time, and it is all based around the incredible importance of the family and the honor of the family, which has to come first over the life of an individual. And so you had honor killings in Egypt. There are a lot of movies written about them. You had honor killings in Jordan and probably in most of the countries in the region at that time, I think. I think it has diminished somewhat today, but it's not totally gone.

So this was seen as part of the tradition. It was not really understood to be that the family had ... exacted a price, particularly if it is true that the princess wouldn't recant. So I think the attitude in Saudi Arabia was quite different than the attitude outside, more so then than it would be today.

How relevant is the fact that in the film, an Islamic court never decides on this issue, that it was the grandfather? What role would that have played?

I think it played a huge role, because it then put squarely on the family the responsibility for carrying this through. And people in the family, people in Saudi Arabia, understand very well that we have different systems, that we have systems of laws, and that's why they tried to make it look like it was done under a legal process [according to shari'a, or Islamic law].

This is not part of the honor system that exists [in America]. It is based on family loyalty, family pride, family traditions, and if you lose that pride, your family loses respect in the community. And that can have economic consequences. It can have consequences for the senior members of the family and the positions that they have. Respect is very, very important in the overall scheme of things.

And keep in mind that we are talking about a society in transition [from] ways of behavior that worked when it was a nomadic group going through [a] very difficult climate and so on in the Arabian Peninsula. Systems and processes that worked for that tribal thing were being challenged, and rightly so, because the need to adapt to a more modern world and a different way of dealing with issues like this was certainly beginning to show itself. And it certainly has increased since then. So I think that you had a confluence of issues that made this terribly sensitive for the Saudis at that particular time. I'm not sure it would be handled the same way today at all.

It's said that the Saudis found the film insulting in ways a Westerner would not understand. What was meant by that?

I think it was because a Westerner wouldn't have had the background in the tribal society, wouldn't have understood the traditions, wouldn't have understood the key focus of the family over the individual, the fact that the family's honor and pride is more important than any individual life. Those are all alien concepts, particularly to Americans, and even more so today. So I think they were quite right in fearing that the world wouldn't understand them.

And they were also afraid of trying to move too quickly, because there was a religious factor in this, in that the Saudi regime or the family has always depended as part of its legitimacy the fact that it is the defender of the faith. It is the principal defender of the Islamic faith, and if you start allowing adultery to take place without some kind of a resolution that is within the context of shari'a, then you are beginning to undercut the very faith itself. ...

In the film, there were scenes of princesses going out to pick up men. How sensitive was that?

Well, it was pretty sensitive, because the Saudis didn't like to admit that sex played a role in relationships between people. I can remember when I was first in Saudi Arabia, the young women would come into the grocery store and the young men would come into the grocery store down another aisle, and they would find a way to make an assignation or to talk to one another and so on. But it was still very rigid and very difficult for young people to get together.

And that's of course based on the whole premise that you didn't marry for love; you married for the benefit of the family. And so the women in the family would search out a suitable candidate and vet the candidate. And then it was an arranged marriage, not unlike what used to happen in the royal families in Europe. It supplied alliances; it helped economically; it provided a line of succession. And they were still in that context in their development.

And so that was a very sensitive issue, because you start to break down these traditions, and then nobody knows where it is going to go. And then suddenly is it OK for a daughter to defy her father's orders, or a son? The whole family structure begins to break down. And then suddenly, before you know it, you've got America. ...

[The Saudis sent] a letter to Warren Christopher. What did they expect to accomplish?

I think what the Saudis were saying is: "There are limits. Don't challenge us on our own internal family-type affairs. Let's have a clear division here. Foreign policy is one thing, but family policy is another thing, and this is going to cross that line." And [the letter] was putting the U.S. government on notice that there could be consequences for the relationship if we didn't honor that kind of a division in our approach to Saudi Arabia.

And let's be honest: We have been very sensitive to this problem throughout our history or our relationships. And generally speaking, it's been to our advantage to be sensitive about it. After all, the Saudis have done a great deal for us in terms of turning the spigot on and turning it off at appropriate times, in terms of the 1990-91 period in the war in Iraq [and the] support that they've given us. So it hasn't been really worth challenging the Saudis on this very sensitive area. And it's still sensitive.

But it was the first time a Cabinet member had ever written like that to PBS. Why raise the stakes that high? Why go to that step?

I don't know what went on in the private discussions that went on between the Saudi ambassador and Warren Christopher, in the country with our ambassador and so on. But clearly we had an impression that this thing really did have a very negative impact and that this wasn't going to just disappear; that we had to do something in order to put it behind us and move on. ...

In some ways the letter was enough.

It didn't have to accomplish anything. It didn't have to stop PBS from airing [the film] or anything else. It did what we needed to do in terms of the Saudis, to say, "Look, we are sympathetic; we understand your problem."

Did the program, in the long run, complicate relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States in any way?

No, not at all. It opened a door a crack that was probably healthy both for the Saudis and for our policy. I'm not sure that if we hadn't had that opening that we would be seeing as much progress today as we are in terms of the Saudis recognizing the need to move towards more representative government [and] engaging women into their political discussions -- a number of things that are going on that are revolutionary in the Saudi context.

And it had to start somewhere, because these things don't spring up all on their own unless there is some pressure somewhere. So I think that this may have been a part of the overall long-term development of Saudi [Arabia] and its movement from a traditional Bedouin tribal society to a modern society.

So the debate itself, the fact that it became so controversial, in fact, was helpful.

Absolutely. I think it was. And I think it was pretty well handled by the governments involved.

Twenty-five years later, has life changed for Saudi women? If so, how so? And if it hasn't, what hasn't changed?

Well, I think, first of all, you probably need to distinguish between life in the royal family and life for women in general, because they aren't quite the same thing. But life in general for women is quite different today than it was then. Women are in business; women are lawyers; women are working. There is still separation in an office, but it's a very artificial separation. The women have been engaged in the National Dialogue, and there was a lot of controversy about that.

The Saudi family has said that in the next elections in four years the women will vote. We'll have to wait and see whether that happens. They aren't able to drive yet; there is still the abaya, the black robe that they wear. But there is a lot more freedom for women today -- they're able to travel more freely -- than there was at that time.

In the royal family there are still constraints, because the royal family is under the eye or the magnifying glass and so on. But within that context, I think there are women who are quite influential in the family itself and do express their political opinions and do have an impact on the decision makers. ...

The senior woman in a traditional Saudi family runs the family. She picks who the marriages are going to be between. She makes the linkages to other families. She's a critical part of the component of the whole. Maybe [that is] less important today because we are moving into a different kind of society. But Saudis have come a long way since 1980.

But the fact that in the last elections the women weren't able to vote, what is the importance of that?

You can always look at these things in two different ways, and many people felt that the fact that women didn't vote [in the most recent elections] was a serious deficiency in the elections. And I tend to agree. When I talked to the crown prince [Abdullah] before the elections, I was with my colleagues, and we emphasized the importance of women voting. He thought it was too soon. He thought that you had to take this thing one step at a time. As he said at the time, "I'm going to take one step forward, and I'm never going to take a step backwards." And each time there will be another step forward.

And now, at the same time, as I said, the women are participating and were participating in the National Dialogue. Their views are becoming known. They have been more actively participating in the economy of Saudi Arabia, in the business community in particular.

But they gained out of the election the pledge that they would vote the next time. Now, nothing is done until it is done, but that's a pretty important pledge that was made, and it will be very hard for the leaders of Saudi Arabia to go back on it. So you're talking about a time-frame change in reform that has stretched out over what we would think would be necessary.

But they are trying to balance between change that is important for long-term stability and is important for maintaining a popular base on the one hand, and change which can create a counterreaction in the very traditional society, the society that Saudi Arabia still is, and a very religious society. So it's a balancing factor here.

And the last thing that the Saudi leadership wants to see is that they create conditions which encourage Islamic radicalism, encourage the Al Qaedas of this world and so on, because they have come to conclude that this is their primary enemy now. So it's going to be a careful process and a careful road, but I think it is [going] in the right direction.

Give us, if you can, your perspective on the wider view of the status of women in the Arab world.

Well, in many countries, women have a significant role in the society. ... You take a country like Egypt, for example, where women play an increasingly important part in the business community, business leaders, where they are government officials. There are more -- at least there were the last time I checked -- more Egyptian women ambassadors for Egypt than we have American women ambassadors. So it is not as if there is a closed door.

There is still a tradition. There are still difficulties. You could call it a glass ceiling, to a certain extent. But hell, we've only broken through our glass ceiling, if we have even, in the last few years. And so we all have to do more to have the most efficient economy which makes full use of all of our talent.

And the reason why the Saudis lagged in some of these things in the Arab world?

I think that for one thing, the Saudis have been protected by their oil revenues. They haven't been forced to change as quickly as maybe some of the other societies because they always had this cushion. And people could be very comfortable without going out and working, and they could afford to have the drivers 100 percent dedicated to women so they can move around the country. There's been this safety net, if you will, an economic safety net, and that hasn't been true of other countries. And I think that that has made it harder for the Saudis to actually change or to have this transition from the tribal society to a modern society.

But now they're facing unemployment levels that are much higher. In spite of the high level of the oil prices, they have had a lower GNP per capita over the last years, considerably lower than they used to have. They're not able to subsidize at that level they were. They're coming to grips with this problem that a modern society, to be competitive in the world, has to make use of all of its human resources. And that's why things are going to change in Saudi Arabia and why women will have a much greater role as we move along. ...

In the film there's a lot of talk about the "Arab dilemma" of dealing with modernity and traditions and the difficulty in balancing between the two. Explain on what level that dilemma still exists today.

It still exists -- there is no doubt -- because these are societies that have [had] very little time to transition. [America] took a couple of hundred years to transition. And it took us an awful long time to have women voting in this country; we didn't have blacks voting for a long time. The original founding fathers were not exactly what we would call true democrats, with a little "d."

And yet the Saudis and other countries in that particular part of the world had been forced into an adaptation from a very tribal society, a society where many of the founders were still alive. ...

And post-9/11, [what is] the importance for the West to understand this?

I think it is very important that we understand the time frame that needs to take place and the fact that things like democracy are not built in a day; that they take an awful lot of development of a civil society, of ideas. It takes people time to get their heads around new ideas. But I think that post-9/11, and the way the administration has been approaching this, has been a very positive force in getting people in the region to recognize that you just can't stay still.

For a number of years, the Egyptian economy was stagnant after the mid-90s. It is only in the last couple of years, with the new government coming into play, that they've begun to go forward again. But stagnation leads to unemployment, leads to radicalization, leads to Al Qaeda. All of this thing is part of the same picture.

And it is very much in our interest to help these societies take a forward, leading position on these things. But [we have to] understand the difficulty of moving so quickly and changing traditions that have been around for hundreds of years overnight.

When you watched the film, was there anything that really rang true to you as something the West still needs to understand?

What really rang true to me was the overwhelming importance of family and tradition, and the fact that we sometimes miss that because we have a much more mobile society. People in southern Egypt, they move two miles and they feel like they are in a foreign country. You put a person from southern Egypt up in northern Egypt, and they might as well be on Mars, because they don't have the sense of mobility; they don't move jobs frequently the way we do. And part of that is because of the importance of family and staying around the home and being with the family and supporting the family and so on. ... They don't want to see the family disrupted, broken down as a base. They feel it's very important.

They also don't like to see immorality. They don't appreciate a lot of the Western culture, and I think there are a lot of people in this country who have the same idea.

So the irony here is that to support the family meant for a grandfather to kill a grandchild.

That's right, because again, I come back to this sense of tradition, where the individual is not as important as the family.

But I would emphasize that that attitude had changed. I don't think you would have the same situation today. The Saudis would handle it quite differently if they knew about it. There is a question [about] how much the authorities in Riyadh knew what was going on. ... I really do believe that this wouldn't happen today. That generation has largely died off. And there is a much different attitude today towards family members and towards love and towards education and so on than there has been in the past. So I think they would be sensitive still. They would think that you were trying to define them in terms that no longer exist, and they would think that was unfair. ...

To some extent, there was a feeling among the Saudi royal family that their second citizenship was almost the United States. Ties were so strong that they felt that [airing this film] is not what friends do to friends.

... I think that the Saudis have felt that they have a special relationship with the United States. ... And in this case, friends don't talk about each other's families. And I think that you would be very hard pressed to find a Saudi that would try and delve into the private life of the president or would ever think of talking about it in public, or his family. There are just different rules.

Our politics are a lot more rough-and-tumble than theirs and likely to be that way for an extended period of time. It is not likely that the Saudis are going to start adopting American political processes. I can't imagine the Swift Boat ads coming out in Saudi Arabia against a member of the royal family. It wouldn't happen. And it's not because of fear of the implications; it's because it's not done. It's a part of the way you are brought up. And so I do think that they've felt, and will feel again, that there is a certain stabbing in the back that's taking place. They already feel that with all of the criticism that's taken place and the neocon conservative charges against Saudi Arabia, many of which they feel are totally unfair, some of which are fair. But that's not the way that friends deal with other friends.

What they don't really understand is that we have an independent media. We have a political process that involves huge debates and that foreign countries get involved in that. But it doesn't mean we can't be friends or that the structure of the friendship is tattered. It takes a while to get used to that in dealing with the U.S.

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posted april 19, 2005

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