Was ‘Saudi Arabia Uncovered’?

Posted by Michael Getler on

On March 29, PBS’s flagship investigative and documentary series Frontline presented an hour-long look inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, titled “Saudi Arabia Uncovered.” It was produced and directed by James Jones and it relies for its theme and most dramatic and revealing segments on secret, undercover filming done by activists for change inside the country.

Jones had done this before for a 2014 Frontline documentary on the “Secret State of North Korea,” and he has explained in an interview that he thought “why not use that same model to tell the story of what’s happening on the ground in Saudi Arabia today” to provide what is described as “a rare window into the Saudi kingdom, with stunning undercover footage as its backbone.”

I should say first that, while the Saudis have some big problems and the kingdom remains a repressive society in several ways – a monarchy under Sharia law with little tolerance for dissent – it is not, by a long shot, North Korea. There is, indeed, a social, political and religious struggle underway in the kingdom. Yet it is, in many outward ways, a seemingly rich, modern country, well wired to the outside world, the internet and Twitter, and an ally, although a controversial one, of the United States. But there is also a darker side.

The broadcast produced very little mail to the ombudsman, perhaps because the country is such a cipher to many people, and judging such a film is difficult. It did, however, produce two detailed letters. One by a viewer in Pasadena, Calif., Rob Wagner, is printed just below. The second letter came from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, was extremely long, made some of the same criticisms but had so many restrictions on its use publicly that I have focused on the Wagner letter to get at the guts of the challenges.

So here is the Wagner letter followed by Frontline’s response, and then some of my thoughts and a closing comment from Frontline.

Here Is Mr. Wagner’s Letter:

I viewed with disappointment the Frontline documentary "Saudi Arabia Uncovered" and want to express my severe reservations about the journalistic integrity of the program. I have been a resident of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the better part of 12 years and have a great deal of experience in Saudi culture, religion and Sharia [law]. It seems to me that either the program's director or Yasser the videographer/reporter misled your producers. My problem is not the video footage aired, but the narration that goes with it.

The program implies that one-quarter of the Saudi population live in poverty, yet the video shows illegal residents begging. That's a Yemeni woman begging in the streets, not Saudi. Illegal Yemenis begging on street corners is a constant problem in the urban centers. The slums depicted in Makkah are populated with illegal residents, almost all South Asians, who don't have the legal right to work in Saudi Arabia. Like any country that is home to undocumented foreigners, there are no jobs unless they are legally in the country. All Saudi citizens receive free medical care, welfare and free education, including a free university education if they want it.

Yasser videotaped "Saudi palaces" when in fact most of the homes depicted were upper middle-class homes of Saudis.

A grave offense in my view is Yasser videotaping Hatoon Al-Fassi, who is a women's rights activist visiting Saudi women to urge them to vote and run for election in the municipal councils. Her actions are very public and approved by the Saudi government. But your producers blurred out Al-Fassi's face implying her conduct was secret and subversive.

Yasser also videotaped a deportation center, not a prison, which in its very nature is subject to overcrowding mostly because the detainees' home country often refuses to accept them. If you look carefully, you will see no Saudis in those images. The director drew a connection between Raif Badawi [a now imprisoned liberal blogger] and implied he stayed at this prison although it's clearly not one. As far as I know executions are no longer conducted in public. This is especially the case of the beheading of a Burmese woman. It was conducted at a police station parking lot out of view from the public. The execution was recorded by a police officer, not a member of the public.

The violence in the Eastern Province is horrific on any level, but absent from the narration was that several security officers were killed during the unrest there. While the program mentions briefly violence on both sides, it does not adequately address that in addition to these unfortunate young men that were killed, police officers died as well. As we all know violence against women is a global epidemic and Saudi Arabia is no different, but the video of a man beating a woman in public was not Saudi. Missing from this video was footage of a crowd of onlookers who detained the man and aided in his arrest.

These are just a few examples of what appears to be an hour-long documentary with a narration that is pretty much a fabrication. It furthers stereotyping and aids the Islamophobes who have made anti-Muslim sentiment a thriving cottage industry. The director essentially took Yasser at his word. I suspect that Yasser banked on the fact that the producers could not tell the difference between a Yemeni accent and a Saudi one or that a slum is populated by illegal residents instead of people living in the KSA legally. I understand that so-called Saudi apologists often complain about "context" in reporting about Saudi Arabia, but this isn't even an issue of context but inaccurate reporting. Clearly the producers relied on someone who doesn't possess the bonafides of investigative reporting.

Frontline Responds:

We appreciate that Mr. Wagner has a good deal of experience in Saudi Arabia. His note challenged the accuracy of our reporting, (as did a second letter you forwarded, which made many of the same criticisms.) We consulted with our producing team about all of the issues that were raised, and in each case, we can find no factual errors, or anything that contradicts our reporting.   

Mr. Wagner says that our narration was fabricated, that a Saudi activist featured in the film misled us, and that we took him “at his word.” Not so. The producing team did extensive reporting for this film – on the ground, and with Saudis and other international experts abroad. These accusations do not stand up.

He points out that a woman seen begging in the film has a Yemeni accent, and that Saudi slums are populated with “illegal immigrants” – apparently to challenge the notion that Saudis are dealing with poverty. Our team, which also included native Arabic speakers, was aware that this woman was originally from Yemen and that Saudi Arabia has a sizable immigrant population – none of which contradicts the existence of poverty and homelessness, among immigrants and native born citizens alike. Furthermore, we do mention in the film that the government has spent billions on social welfare.

One more word on the subject of poverty in Saudi Arabia: a viewer claimed the World Bank says the Kingdom’s poverty rate is less than 13 percent. The World Bank told us, however, it had no idea where that number came from.

Mr. Wagner apparently takes issue with our use of the word “palaces.” Rather than debate what constitutes a palace in a country known for its wealth, based on our reporting, this is a well-known, wealthy street in Riyadh. 

As for blurring the women at the activists’ meeting, the only intention here was to obscure the faces of people we did not get permission to film. Regarding the prison, this footage was closely scrutinized and verified and no one has come forward to dispute it other than Mr. Wagner. If he has specific information and documentation to the contrary, he should provide it.

He says executions no longer happen in public. But our reporting indicates that they do, though in the age of cellphone footage, some are being conducted behind closed doors, such as the January 2016 mass executions. Mr. Wagner, and the other viewer, accuse us of omitting information that was, in fact, in the film. For example, he is wrong about us not mentioning police being killed during the protests in the east. We specifically say that in the script.  

Mr. Wagner is also wrong about the video of the man pushing a woman in a supermarket. The film clearly shows onlookers detaining the man. 

Saudi Arabia is a big, complex and important country and there is room for many more stories on aspects that this one film could not address. But we believe our documentary served viewers well by showing a side of the Kingdom that is rarely seen – and that many there would prefer not to be seen.

My Thoughts

I’m of two minds, at least, about this kind of undercover documentary. On the one hand, I’m always grateful to see things that governments or other institutions don’t want us to see, and I applaud those journalists, citizens and producers who take risks to bring them to us. On the other hand, I tend to view them cautiously because they are usually about places that we know very little about, and therefore have trouble assigning some level of confidence to them. And we also sometimes don’t know much about the activists themselves or where, when and under what conditions the undercover films were made, as is also the case with certain film clips.

As a viewer, Frontline’s stamp of approval and the integrity of that venerable series mean a lot – a benefit of the doubt, if you will. And I thought some of the most informative and helpful assessments in the film came not from hidden cameras but from candid, on-the-record interviews with former British Ambassador William Patey and former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh. And the real power of the film – sort of the voice from what has always been a truly repressed half of the population – came, I also thought, from several of the women activists that appeared in the film.

As a journalist, I’ve spent a little time in the Middle East over the years but not in the Persian Gulf states and not in Saudi Arabia. So, while grateful as a viewer to see this film, that lack of experience adds to my reluctance to take much of a substantive stance on this program and judge the criticism. I did, however, ask three former colleagues who do have experience in Saudi what they thought of the film. I asked them all individually, and independent of each other, and said it was just for my background, so I’m not quoting anyone.

Their Thoughts

Here’s a summation of the points they raised. First, they all felt that there was a lot of good and dramatic material in the film. But they all also suggested, in various ways, that there were other things going on that are important but didn’t really come through. Also, they all raised some of the same points that Rob Wagner did in his letter.

For example, two of those I consulted said that the urban slums that were filmed were typically populated not by poor Saudis but by Yeminis, South Asians and Africans, mostly people who entered on pilgrimage visas and never went home or other immigrants or tribal people with no papers. They also took issue with “the avenue of palaces” as it was described, and said these were homes where wealthy people lived but not royal palaces. There was some question of whether the film inside a prison, though very powerful, might have been a detention center for foreigners, perhaps for deportation, but not for Saudis.

In a broader sense, as I heard their comments, there were some larger themes that they felt were missing, a real struggle between the old society and a new one where youth and, above all, women are pushing the limits. I, personally, felt that the former UK ambassador and CIA analysts were good and helpful on those broad themes, even though the guts of this film were meant to show scenes and people we are not used to seeing.

Those I asked agreed that the role of the women in the film was important and well done. As one pointed out, there are now more women graduating from the universities than men, and that women now can vote and stand for office in municipal elections – which was shown in the film – and that 20 of them got elected.

They made some other points individually, although they come together for a bigger picture. I can’t judge them, but they are interesting. The Saudis are not in an insurrectionary mood, one said. For one thing, added another, they fear what might come next after the House of Saud – tribalism, religious and ethnic divisions, civil war. The all-consuming struggle, as a third one put it, was between the Wahhabi religious establishment and the youth bulge pushing for social and artistic freedom and fed up with being pushed around by clerics. But the greatest threat to the Kingdom, it was suggested, is not from the liberals and the Shia minority but from the Islamists, both peaceful and violent.

Frontline Gets a Final Word

Because I took the unusual step of asking others with more experience with Saudi Arabia than I’ve had to view the film, I also asked Frontline Managing Editor Andrew Metz to have the last word. Here is what he said:

“When we take on an untraditional project like this we do it very cautiously, after lots of trust building and always with adherence to high standards. We don’t do it all that often and we only undertake this kind of reporting when necessary and when it’s the only way to get at something.” With respect to the urban slum and prison scenes, for example, Metz says, “There was a rigorous process to verify footage. Our producers say they spoke to Saudis in those areas. The footage was double and triple checked.” As for the prison footage, Metz points to the “contrast between our efforts to ensure its accuracy and the comments to you that come as unsubstantiated allegations with no specific information or burden of proof. As for the broad assessments, to be clear, I agree with some of the comments your colleagues made regarding the issues and challenges facing Saudi Arabia today. Saudi is a big subject…a huge topic.”

Posted on April 18, 2016 at 10:57 a.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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