Death of a Princess [site homepage]
homediscussionantony thomas25 years laterinterviews

examining the outcry and protests in 1980
Why did the film stir such feelings and controversy in Saudi Arabia, Britain and the U.S.? Commenting here are: Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations; Mona Eltahawy, columnist for Asharq Al Awsat; Saudi scholar and activist Ali Al-Ahmed; and former U.S. Ambassador to the Middle East Edward S. Walker Jr.

photo of coleman

Isobel Coleman
Director of a Council on Foreign Relations initiative on women and U.S. foreign policy.

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Why do you believe that the Saudi government reacted so intensely to the release of the film?

Well, having just watched the film, it does show some aspects of Saudi life, aspects of the royal family in a not a very positive way, and the Saudis care a lot about their image. It's a very extreme version of some aspects of Saudi society. And I think the Saudis are very closed and people don't have an opportunity to get inside the kingdom. And this movie shows the inside of the kingdom in a way that they wouldn't want a lot of people to see. …

What was at stake here for the Saudis? …

Well, there was a lot at stake for the Saudis on many different levels. The film touches upon what is widely perceived as the kind of decadence and corruption of certain members in the royal family. So there is the reputation of the royal family itself at stake. There's also the Saudi reputation internationally. Saudi Arabia, in a very short amount of time, had really entered large on the world stage. Its oil minister [Sheikh Yamani] was a very high-profile individual and became a household name during the '70s because of the OPEC crisis. And Saudi money was very influential, particularly in Great Britain at the time. The Saudis were buying up a lot of property in London. You saw Saudi men and women shopping at Harrods [department store] and all over London. Saudi money was very influential at the time.

And I think there was a sense that they were trying to cultivate a more modern image and a more responsible image. And then this film comes out that doesn't portray the Saudis in the best light. …

And as far as the British and the Americans, how was this playing out for them and why, because they were concerned as well about the film.

At the time, and particularly with Saudi-British relations and Saudi-U.S. relations, you had the oil issue. It was a very important issue. The Saudis were seen as perhaps a moderating influence within OPEC, a way to help. The Saudis have, and still [have] today, the ability to turn on or turn off the oil spigot.

And U.S. and the Brits were very concerned about oil prices at the time and also how the petro dollars from Saudi Arabia were being recycled both into U.S. treasury and into sterling. So where the flow of the petrodollars was, how it was coming back into those countries was also quite a sensitive issue.

You have the whole Israel-Palestine question that was very sensitive and tender during the '70s. You have the Iran hostage crisis, and the whole region seemed to be in some ways bursting into flames and the Saudis were the stable ally. And the U.S. and the British had an interest in maintaining strong relations with the Saudis. ...

[Can you describe the] special relationship between the Saudis and the United States?

...They've come to the United States to educate themselves, to educate their children. They own property here. They have financial assets in the U.S. They come to the U.S. for their medical treatment. I heard one story just recently in Saudi Arabia about how people, to get their visas, would send their maid. This is the type of relationship we had. They sent their maid down to the consulate to pick up the visa. It's so different today.

And I'm sure when the film came out that there was a sense, given our special relationship, "How is it that you can't somehow sweep this whole thing under the carpet? This is embarrassing for the royal family. The grandfather of the young princess is the brother of the king, so this really means something to us. It's embarrassing for us. We don't want this aired. Can't you do something about it? And why can't you do something about it?"

And I think that today you think of that special relationship. People have made hay about the fact that post-9/11 one of the first planes to take off was a private jet taking the Bin Laden family back to Saudi Arabia. Well, that speaks to that special relationship that still exists today.

And so I'm sure that it was very troubling at the time of the film that this dirty laundry was being aired and on PBS, with government support, that the U.S. government didn't stop it or the British government didn't stop it.

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Mona Eltahawy
a columnist for Asharq Al Awsat, the London-based Arabic newspaper.

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…You were in London at the time that the program first aired. Tell me your memory of the program and the controversy around it.

Well, I was quite young. I was about 13 years old. I lived in London with my parents and my brother. I remember when we saw the film it was quite shocking because we hadn't heard of this incident. We were shocked that the princess and [her] lover were executed publicly. This wasn't something that we were used to because in Egypt where we're from; we don't have public executions, and we're Muslim.

So this was another side of Islamic practice that we weren't used to. And I remember vaguely at the time that there were political problems that evolved after the program, between Britain and Saudi Arabia. And as I grew older I understood them more, because we moved to Saudi Arabia about two years after we saw the program. …

Basically what the Saudi government did afterwards is say that the film is humiliating our religion, the Islam tradition. What do you think the purpose of that was, and what do you think the truth behind it was?

I think the purpose is what the Saudis usually do, which is basically equate Islam with them and them with Islam, because Islam is born in the country that is now Saudi Arabia. There was no Saudi Arabia at the time, but Mecca and Medina are now, for all intents and purposes, within the borders of Saudi Arabia.

In the same way [that] Saudi Arabia gains its cachet on the international stage through oil, it gains its tremendous amount of clout on the Muslim stage through the fact that it has Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites for Muslims, within its borders. So in order to kind of gather the Muslim world around it and kind of call them up to its defense, it will naturally say, "You have insulted Islam."

But the film goes to great lengths to show that the Islam that the Saudis practice is not the Islam that the world's 1 billion Muslims practice. So there is a difference. So it is to their advantage to say, "You've embarrassed Islam," because of this very, very tight identification between [the] two, Saudi Arabia and Islam. ...

How much of the anger that the Saudis felt towards the film do you think was the exposure of the secrets of the royal family?

I would imagine that that was a large part of the anger, because they do lead quite secretive lives. We don't even have an accurate number of exactly how many members of the royal family there are. You hear 7,000, you hear 12,000. We don't even know how many there are. So I think they like to keep their secrets very well hidden and under wraps, and this was one of the few instances where somebody actually dared to take a camera into the palace.

One of the scenes that I would imagine caused them huge embarrassment also was of the princess who agreed at the end to recount her side of the story. So the producers of the film were getting the story from an insider, not just someone who [was] guessing about what happened, but someone who said, "I know what happened. I'm a member of the Saudi royal family. I'm a princess, so I can tell you exactly what goes on that the male members of the family won't tell you." ...

One of the other groups involved after the film aired that came out and complained about the film was Mobil Oil, which had some pressure to bring on PBS because they are a big donor. How surprising was it that Mobil Oil or the oil industry would have become players in the controversy that surround this film when it first aired?

It's not surprising at all that Mobil Oil would have complained, because they understood what they stood to lose if the Saudis had suddenly turned against the West and said something close to, say, what happened in 1973 with the oil embargo. The world at large, particularly the oil companies, understand very well what the Saudis represent and how important Saudis are.

The fact that Saudi Arabia sits on the world's largest oil reserves is basically the green light for them and gives them a pass, almost without question, to do anything they want. And if you've got oil companies defending them, then it's no surprise that you have governments also understanding the political importance as well as the financial importance of Saudi Arabia who will also defend them, or at least turn a blind eye to the kind of human rights violations that both Saudis and non-Saudis for decades have been asking the world to pay attention to.

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Ali Al-Ahmed
A Saudi scholar and activist.

read the full interview

Why did it hit such a nerve in Saudi Arabia?

I think the ruling family sees themselves to have 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. They are willing, for example, to pay a lot of money to kidnap a Saudi dissident from Beirut in 1979 or 1980 because he wrote a book on the history of Al Saud. And the man vanished since. He is the first one to have written a book to speak about the internal affairs of the ruling family. So really they defend this very, very vigorously. …

What was going on in the world at that point that affected why the Saudi Arabian government was so sensitive to [this program], 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 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 pre-occupy the population with.

Did it work?

It worked. …

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.

And they still do it. Last year, for example, the Crown Prince Abdullah said the same thing, said, "The Zionists are behind the bombings in our country." And he said, "I'm not 100 percent sure. I'm 99 percent sure it's the Zionists who were behind these attacks." The story remains the same: Blame the outsider. And the best outsiders, unfortunately, have been the Jews or the Zionists. And that's because of the deep hatred in these societies fostered by the government against Jews and against Christians and other societies.

… 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 [such] 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 Senate. 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 protestors because, "how do you allow these people to protest us?" They didn't know [how] it was [in] America. It was different.

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. You know, 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. …

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Edward S. Walker, Jr.
President of the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to the Middle East.

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…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 hostage, 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. I mean '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 to PBS, 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. …

[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. …

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. …

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posted april 19, 2005

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