This is a newspaper?” I asked the cabdriver in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as he pulled up in front of the lavish new headquarters of Okaz, the most popular paper in the kingdom. I had expected the usual dingy firetrap that characterizes newspaper offices all over the world, but this building loomed over the humble neighborhood like a royal palace. Workmen were still laying marble tiles on the steps as I entered a towering atrium. Envious reporters for other newspapers call Okaz’s new headquarters the Taj Mahal. Saudi men solemnly passed by, wearing crisp white robes and red checked headscarves. I felt out of place and underdressed.
Newspapers are a surprisingly good business in a country where the truth is so carefully guarded. Members of the royal family, al-Saud, are obsessively concerned about their image; they own or control most of the Saudi press, which dominates the Arab world. Within the kingdom, there are more than a dozen papers on the newsstands every morning. The most authoritative of them, and the most progressive, Al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat, are owned by Saudi princes but published in London. They are constrained by the same taboos that cripple all Saudi publications, however: nothing provocative can be said about Islam, the government, or the royal family. Another paper, Al-Watan, partly owned by Prince Bandar bin Khalid, models itself on USA Today. But Okaz remains the national favorite. On the coffee table in the lobby was a copy of that morning’s edition, January 28, 2003. It was like an Arabic version of the New York Post, filled with Hollywood gossip, and stories of djinns who haunt the sand dunes. Although ostensibly independent, Okaz is closely identified with Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the minister of interior, who also controls the secret police and the media.
Up a flight of stairs, in a modest wing by itself, is the Saudi Gazette, an English-language daily published by Okaz, which had hired me for three months to help train young Saudi reporters. The job offered me a way of getting into the kingdom after more than a year of fruitless attempts to get a visa as a journalist. Working at the Gazette would also give me a vantage on the Saudi press, which had struggled for a decade to liberate itself from the bonds of government control. In 1990, just before the Gulf War, the media was forced to wait a week before reporting on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; meantime, satellite news coverage leaped borders, as did the Internet. The press gained a measure of freedom. Suddenly, there were stories about crime, drug use, divorce, even the presence of AIDS in the kingdom. For the first time, Saudis were taking a critical look at their country and its problems. But after September 11 the media retreated; as a result, it largely missed the biggest story in the kingdom’s modern history, blinding itself to the danger within its own society.