Missing the story in Saudi Arabia

For the last month or so, as regular readers will know, I have been following the story of Saudi Arabia's crackdown on migrants. I have spent hours gathering information from open sources in an effort to get a clear picture of what is happening – and this is my fourteenth blog post on the subject in the space of four weeks.

To some this might seem excessive or even obsessive but it's an important story that international media – and especially western media – have largely failed to notice.

It's a story that deeply affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the world's poorer countries, who have been living and working in the kingdom – as well as countless relatives back home who have been depending on their remittances.

It's a story that heralds fundamental social and economic changes in Saudi Arabia itself, possibly leading to political changes too.

It's a story that also affects other Arab Gulf states, since they have all become heavily dependent on foreign labour – basically relying on those they regard as inferior beings to do dirty, menial or dangerous tasks from constructing their buildings, driving their cars, cooking their meals, cleaning up their mess and preparing their dead for burial. Many of these people work in conditions that amount to modern-day slavery.

Saudi expulsions crisis: full coverage

It's a story too about racism in a kingdom that presents itself to the world as a model of Islamic rectitude, and it's a story that feeds into debates about immigration in other parts of the world. If you want to know what racists really mean when they say "Send them home!", look no further than Saudi Arabia.

While writing about this on my blog, I have been puzzling over the apparent lack of interest elsewhere. Media in the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Yemen – some of the countries most affected – have certainly been covering it but apart from a few news agency reports coverage in the west has been scant.

Finally, on Friday, we had the first substantial report from a western journalist on the ground in Riyadh – from Ian Black, my former colleague at the Guardian.

Meanwhile the BBC, judging by its website, has touched on the story three times (in English) since the crackdown began – once on the first day with a short news agency report, again on November 10 after violence broke out in Riyadh, and again on Friday with a more substantial report by Ahmed Maher of the BBC Arabic service.

The American media has been even more negligent in its coverage. The Washington Post and New York Times have had just one story each, in both cases focusing on the violence in Riyadh during the weekend of November 9-10: "Two killed as Saudi police clash with foreigners in Riyadh" (Washington Post, via Bloomberg) and "After Clashes With Saudis, Laborers Opt to Go Home" (New York Times).

Something very similar happened at the beginning of the Arab Spring. The uprising against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was already in its final stages by the time most of the western media 
realised its importance.

With regard to Tunisia, the US government was in much the same position as the media. It wasn't until the fourth week of the Arab Spring that the State Department uttered its first words on the subject ("watching ... with a great deal of interest") – and that was only in response to a question from a BBC journalist at a press conference to publicise Hilary Clinton's impending "friendship" tour of Gulf autocrats.

The initially sparse media coverage of the Tunisian uprising generated several popular conspiracy theories at the time. Some suggested that editors around the world were protecting Ben Ali from adverse publicity for political reasons. Others contrasted the thin coverage of the uprising in Tunisia with the blanket coverage of protests in Iran following the disputed presidential election of 2009. The Iranian regime was a foe, while the Tunisian regime was a friend. QED.

The real reasons (there's almost always more than one) were actually more complicated and mundane, as former CNN reporter Octavia Nasr demonstrated in connection with Tunisia and Iran. It's also hard to see political considerations as the determining factor in coverage of the migrant expulsions in Saudi Arabia now. Given the recent deterioration in US-Saudi relations, if it were simply about politics American media would surely be raring to have a go.

Levels of access for journalists and availability of video footage (in the case of TV) are often more important factors in determining the amount of coverage a story gets. In Saudi Arabia's case, foreign journalists can't simply hop on the next plane and start reporting there. They need visas – and that can take time, even if the Saudi authorities decide to grant them (which is by no means a foregone conclusion).

Apart from that, though, I think there are a few other factors at work too. One is that editors often have rather fixed views of what constitutes news from the Middle East and tend not to recognise stories that don't fit their expectations. In this area, violence and fears about security are familiar themes – so it's probably no coincidence that the Saudi migrants stories in the Washington Post and New York Times were both framed in the context of violence.

Within the totality of Middle East coverage there are also familiar and predictable sub-themes relating to specific countries. Hizbullah in Lebanon, Syrian refugees in Jordan and women drivers in Saudi Arabia are some of the current examples. When something new comes along that doesn't fit the usual mould editors can have trouble adjusting their mindset.

Another problem with Saudi Arabia's "illegal migrants" story is that it isn't a simple black-and-white tale. "Illegal" in this context covers a multitude of things. Some of the migrants might be considered deliberately illegal because they arrived in the kingdom for a religious pilgrimage but decided to stay on and find work there without attempting to regularise their position. Others, probably the vast majority, are accidentally illegal because of the unfair labour laws.

Complexities of this kind are not always welcomed by reporters or their editors and are often difficult to explain to readers in a few short sentences.

There is also, I think, a more fundamental problem with international news coverage in the media. Because of the internet, major news organisations increasingly view themselves as global rather than country-specific media, but this change isn't yet reflected in the way they work.

In the American media, international coverage is still very insular and US-focused, framed in terms of American domestic politics. When something happens in the Middle East, the first question is invariably how it will affect the US and, if so, what the president should or should not do about it.

One example from the last month has been endless debate about Saudi Arabia's decision not to take up its seat at the UN Security Council, and what that means for US foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of migrants causes only the tiniest of blips on the radar. The migrants, after all, are not Americans.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday 1 December 2013