Saudi Arabia, Declassified

Of all the places affected by the WikiLeaks cables, few drew as much attention as Saudi Arabia, thanks to its strategic location, controversial image and global economic position. And this is a country that, according to many outsiders, is about to boil over with fundamentalist, anti-Western rage, and here were documents that showed Riyadh in collusion with Washington.

But that’s not what Saudi society is like at all, and the public and government reaction to the cables proves it.

The documents were certainly revealing. One reported on a Saudi proposal to invade Lebanon and root out Hezbollah; another told of a party where liquor was abundant and some guests were prostitutes.

But generally speaking, all Saudi politics is local — just as it is in the United States. Public debates focus on domestic concerns, not international issues; most Saudis have more to worry about than diplomatic scandals. As Mahmood Sabbagh, a popular newspaper columnist, told me, “People were more joking than concerned about them.”

What’s more, Saudis and their government are generally in agreement on foreign policy: it was heartening for many Saudis to read cables exposing Riyadh’s commitment to preventing Iranian nuclear proliferation.

True, the government was not happy, but it was more concerned about the leaks’ impact on global diplomacy. Prince Turki al-Faisal, who had served as the director general of the Saudi intelligence agency and as the ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United States, called for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to be punished for harming countries’ diplomatic integrity.

But that was about it. And instead of using its heavy hand to block access to sites carrying the cables, the government officially remained silent. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented only briefly, using the extremely tranquil language with which Saudi officials often react to negative international news: “WikiLeaks does not concern the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and, therefore, the government is not interested in commenting on it.” This was not the sound of a government worried about an upset public.

It was right. The government judged correctly that most Saudis would decide that the documents were old news: an echo of familiar rhetoric (the foxiness of American foreign policy) or established fact (the government’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions).

Moreover, according to Fouad al-Farhan, a social activist, Riyadh deftly recognized that many of the leaked documents weren’t all that harmful to Saudi Arabia’s image, and the rest did little actual harm.

Saudi society is not without its concerns and tensions. But in this case, the place that many assume to be a boiling pot, with its young population and conservative rules, received the WikiLeaks documents as a cooling liquid rather than fuel for the fire.

Mohammed Hasan Alwan, a novelist.

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