People’s Public Diplomacy in Saudi Arabia

From 2011, Saudi Arabia has seen many protest videos spreading online, portraying both the good and the bad side of the country.

Before you start reading, please keep in mind that this state does not allow information to be spread easily; its internal affairs are a mystery to journalists, and Saudi Arabia does not entertain a high level of communication with other states on its actions.

Let us begin with these two YouTube videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c0vmIAPFis

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZMbTFNp4wI

The first one dates back to June 2015: a little campaign on YouTube, launched by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue, promoting and supporting coexistence (The Hidden Killer. A Saudi PSA in support of coexistence 2015). ‘The Hidden Killer’ was viewed 150,000 in 48 hours and entailed discussions.

<<What is the greatest destroyers of nations and people? […] there is a hidden killer […] that many of us don’t know … the hidden killer could be you. […] This killer sleeping inside you wakes up the moment you give up on the value of coexistence >>

Its aim was ‘to offer a platform to ‘’debate reform and suggest remedies’’ for the terror indoctrination which had precipitated the attacks (referring to 9/11), and mitigate sexism and sectarian incitement through dialogue‘ (Braude 2015). Although this particular video was directed towards young Saudis from joining jihadist groups, the ‘general’, ‘comprehensive’ message of coexistence is an important message of openness.

The second clip is a bit older, from 2013, and it represents a movement that has been spreading and growing: #Women2Drive.

The sarcastic video sounds familiar: ‘No woman no cry’ by Bob Marley?                                   No, ‘No woman, No Drive’ by Hisham Fageeh, a comedian from Saudi Arabia who has studied in the US and works in a Saudi comedy channel (Suebsaeng 2013).

<<No woman, no drive … say I remember when you used to sit in the family car, but backseat. Ova-ovaries all safe and well so you can make lots and lots of babies. […] In this bright future you can’t forget the past, so put your car key away>>.

This catchy song mocks Saudi Arabia’s policy against women driving cars; yet, it goes further, in describing the ‘traditional’, patriarchal relationship between the men and the woman in the country.

In 2011, Al Jazeera English broadcasted women’s pledge for the right to drive (Saudi woman campaigns for right to drive 2011). The speaker makes logical statements on why women should drive: what if her husband gets a heart attack and she cannot drive him to the hospital? Manal Al-Sharif – leader of the twitter campaign #Women2Drive – was briefly detained after uploading a video of herself driving and encouraging women to do that as well. Women cannot take public transports – she continues explaining – , which implies having someone to drive for them, either a male guardian or a private expensive driver.

In January 2017, women’s action for equal rights – and in particular against the guardian system – has gone further with this other music video (News.com.au 2017):

Hwages, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rUn2j1hLOo

It features women dancing, playing basketball and skating while dressed in the niqab and it has scored more than 10 million views. Three women get in the back of a car, while waiting for a boy to get behind the wheel. A clip of two disapproving men interchanges with the women having fun skating and riding on scooters, singing, with long colourful dresses and niqabs.

The reaction of the internet was loud: on the one side, agreement and support for these women, both internationally and nationally – for example from the ex-wife of prominent Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, and from one of the oldest newspapers in the country, Al-Bilad (Taylor 2017) –, on the other, criticism about them wearing the veil and not being ‘daring enough’, or calling the song ‘cheap and extremely inappropriate’.

It has to be noted that all these campaigns do not attempt in changing the state, they are not calling for a revolution; on the contrary, being respectful and supportive of the kingdom and Islam, they advocate for a positive development, because to its citizens, Saudi Arabia is a developed, modern country.

What is portrayed is a complicated and delicate picture. Saudi Arabia is very much judged by the international press; it tries in its public profile to seem more appealing to the international scenes, campaigning for coexistence, yet, the internal debate on women and cars, – which puts the state under a negative spotlight – has gotten viral on the Internet and has gained greater international fame, arising critiques to the ban.

It is interesting to see how public diplomacy has being taking a peculiar face in this particular environment: it is not the traditional diplomatic asset that is ‘doing the work’, but the general public, the people. These women do not wish to dismantle their home, they are respectful and proud of their culture and system – portraying that online -, but they are also mediating to make a difference, reporting on what is not right to them, as Saudi Arabians, to tell their government what can be improved…sounds diplomacy to me!

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Suebsaeng, A. (2013). ‘Saudi Comic’s ‘’No Woman, No Drive’’ Video Goes Viral, But He’s ‘’Not a Social Activist’, Model Jones, available at http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2013/10/no-woman-no-drive-viral-video-saudi-arabia-hisham-fageeh-interview

Braude, J. (2015). ‘A Campaign in Saudi Arabia Challenges Young People To Rethink Their Biases’, The World Post, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-braude/a-campaign-in-saudi-arabi_b_7578070.html

News.com.au editors (2017). ‘Hwages: Music clip sparks debate, celebration in Saudi Arabia’, news.com.au, available at http://www.news.com.au/technology/online/social/hwages-music-clip-sparks-debate-celebration-in-saudi-arabia/news-story/939ac149f6307fb76f0999b1cfb0f3f7

Saudi woman campaigns for right to drive (2011) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gke1CYaKVOY

Taylor, A. (2017). ‘Saudi Arabian women release video mocking kingdom’s driving laws’, Independent, available at

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/saudi-arabia-ban-on-women-driving-video-mocking-law-hwages-a7510371.html

The Hidden Killer. A Saudi PSA in support of coexistence (2015) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c0vmIAPFis

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