NEWS & OPINION: Saudi Arabia silences its critics

Al Jazeera no longer nips at Saudis

“The gulf nations now feel they are all in the same boat, because of the threat of Iran, and the chaos of Iraq and America’s weakness,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “So the Qataris agreed to give the Saudis assurances about Al Jazeera’s coverage.”

Those assurances, Mr. Alani added, were given at a September meeting in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and top officials in the Qatari government. For the meeting, aimed at resolving a long-simmering feud between the nations, the Qataris brought along an unusual guest: the chairman of Al Jazeera’s board, Sheik Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani.

Al Jazeera’s general manager, Waddah Khanfar, did not reply to phone and e-mail requests for comment. But several employees confirmed that the chairman of the board had attended the meeting. They declined to give their names, citing the delicacy of the issue. The governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia have remained silent on the matter.

Repercussions were soon felt at Al Jazeera.

“Orders were given not to tackle any Saudi issue without referring to the higher management,” one Jazeera newsroom employee wrote in an e-mail message. “All dissident voices disappeared from our screens.”

The employee noted that coverage of Saudi Arabia was always politically motivated at Al Jazeera — in the past, top management used to sometimes force-feed the reluctant news staff negative material about Saudi Arabia, apparently to placate the Qatari leadership. But he added that the recent changes were seen in the newsroom as an even more naked assertion of political will.

“To improve their relations with Qatar, the Saudis wanted to silence Al Jazeera,” he wrote. “They got what they wanted.” [complete article]

Saudi Arabia’s promised reforms

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did the right thing when he pardoned the “Qatif girl.” The perfect injustice of the case, in which a young woman was gang raped and then sentenced to 200 lashes for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was not married, left him no choice. Now another ugly face of Saudi justice has been revealed, one that cannot be explained by religion, ancient tradition or culture. The detention last month of an outspoken blogger, Fouad al-Farhan — only confirmed by the Interior Ministry this week — is an act of thoroughly modern despotism and one the king should immediately overrule. [complete article]

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