The biggest talking point in the past few days among the citizens of the Gulf countries wasn’t the inauguration of President Barack Obama. In fact, it was something that at face value seems insignificant, yet carries deep meaning.
Mobile audio messages, e-mails and internet postings carried recordings across the region of a now notorious five-minute phone call made to the official Saudi state sports TV channel. The phone call came from Muscat, in the sultanate of Oman, host city of the 19th Gulf Football Cup. Briefly, the humiliating tirade went like this:
The caller talks about one of the football commentators in the studio. “Jassim,” he says, “is speaking from ignorance, he has no idea what he’s talking about. You are all discussing something that you don’t know. Respect yourself. You and those like you want to evaluate players? You have to stay quiet or speak the truth. How can you talk like you are the saviour? You took more than what is allowed. You have to be polite. If you haven’t been brought up properly we will know how to bring you up.” The caller hangs up abruptly. The presenter thanks him.
The caller was in fact Prince Sultan bin Fahd, son of the late King Fahd, and the current president of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation. A video recording of his tirade has been posted numerous times on YouTube, and as I write this it has been viewed more than 600,000 times.
There are two aspects to this story. First, even considering the caller’s history of emotional outbursts, such harsh criticism by a senior member of the royal family on live TV was a surprise to many in the Gulf, who have been accustomed to at least a facade of mutual respect between the rulers and their subjects, as dictated by the Bedouin and Arab customs of the region.
Second, the repercussions of such public scolding could compel commentators to hold back on criticism – not only regarding sports analysis, but on issues extending beyond trivialities. These live talk programmes that emulate western debate shows after major football games draw many journalists and commentators, and such criticism will surely lead to self-censorship. Subsequently, The Observers forum on the website of the international news and current affairs TV channel France 24 carried a translation of a cartoon in which a Saudi man drags a compatriot to the entrance of a TV studio. “Come on, don’t be scared,” the first man is saying. “No, no, I don’t want to, I don’t want to,” replies the other.
The Arabic news networks Elaph and Al Arabiya, both of which are closely affiliated with the family of the caller, went as far as allowing their readers to post scores of critical comments about the caller’s remarks. “Abu Tamim” wrote: “There is no doubt that the pundits made some mistakes, but the powerful man’s mistakes were bigger and he should apologise.” “Hugo” wrote: “These men are from respected families and such language should not be used even against criminals.” “Saudi1123” wrote: “What happened live on air went beyond the acceptable.” Clearly, such comments concerning a public figure are something that we are not used to reading in the Gulf very often – until now, that is, largely thanks to the internet.
The truth is that had the tirade come from an anonymous caller the TV station would have cut the call without hesitation. However, many believe that it is precisely because the caller is a known figure and represents the ruling family that he should have not let his emotions get the better of him, and should have kept in mind that respect isn’t a one-way relationship.
By coincidence, on the very same day that those football commentators were verbally abused by a member of the Saudi royal family, the Federal National Council in the UAE sanctioned proposed new legislation to regulate the media, which would increase significantly the fines imposed on journalists who criticise the ruling families and “harm the economy”. The two events are connected because they go to the heart of the relationship between the general public and those who govern them. In a well ordered society it is the duty of a responsible press and media to represent the public interest. They cannot do that if they have to operate under a perpetual cloud of threatened legal action from a vague and unclear law. The parliamentarians could have taken a page out of Saudi Arabia’s book regarding the polite and respectful criticism of a senior ruler published on government-sanctioned websites.
It is imperative that the UAE remain a country of equality, rather than one that tolerates elitism under any guise. The decision by the Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, to prohibit the jailing of journalists was a welcome step. However, enacting a law that effectively instils a separation in the minds of people between themselves and the Government will surely lead to resentment.
Also, the proposed new law assumes that it is only one category of society that deserves protection. It is unacceptable in the Arab Gulf states that some members of society are given ample time live on TV to freely criticise, while others would be fined for doing the same.
After all, respect is not a one-way boulevard but a two-way street.
Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai
This article first appeared in The National newspaper on Tuesday, January 27th 2009