New Saudi news site trying to ‘normalize’ the perception of the country, expert says

The recent launch of ArabiaNow.org, a news website by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington D.C. is a long time in the making, especially as the country battles image issues in the wake of a leaked report on the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“I’m kind of surprised it took them this long--there’s a lot of upside for them,” Sarah Yerkes, International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Gulf News Journal. “To actually be talking directly to a U.S. audience, in English, is a smart (public relations) move.”

Yerkes notes that since the new site is owned by the Saudi Embassy, the news will likely be taken with a grain of salt, but that doesn’t mean that the information won’t be of value to some readers. She noted that even articles that are self-serving to Saudi interests, such as articles profiling Saudi women to counter a view of its culture as repressive, might be welcome especially to an audience that receives little information on the Middle Eastern power.

“I would guess (ArabiaNow) would want stuff kind of normalizing Saudi Arabia, sort of to show that it’s a tourism destination or a business destination,” Yerkes said. “Things like that, that would introduce Americans who … think of Saudi Arabia as terrorism … to kind of show the human side of Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia has long been ranked among the bottom countries for press freedom, a fact Yerkes said the country has done little to change in recent years. No freedom of press is guaranteed in the country, and articles unfavorable to Islam can be punished by death, according to Freedom House, an American-based watchdog group that ranks press freedom across the world. Online  newspapers and bloggers in the country require a special license.

“You are seeing more brave attempts by … independent bloggers and journalists, but at the same time the government in Saudi and elsewhere are getting smarter about cracking down on that,” Yerkes said.

Recent articles from ArabiaNow.org include a profile of the Saudi woman named to be Vogue Arabia’s inaugural editor-in-chief, highlights of a meeting between the Saudi and U.S. defense ministers, and a profile on a startup that has developed technology to keep solar panels clean.

Focus has also been placed on highlighting Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism efforts. Many of those articles come hot on the heels of a classified report to Congress leaked in mid-July, highlighting direct support between “individuals who may be connected to the Saudi government” and the terrorist who committed the 9/11 attacks.

Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Abdullah Al-Saud put out a statement shortly after the release, arguing that the investigation "confirmed that neither the Saudi government, nor senior Saudi officials, nor any person acting on behalf of the Saudi government provided any support or encouragement for these attacks."

The report has strained Saudi-U.S. diplomatic relations, a partnership that goes back more than 70 years to Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz and a preference for American right to oil exploration in the country. The country has often provided key diplomatic support for U.S. actions in Kuwait during the first Gulf War and more recently in Iraq.

Yerkes said it’s not unlikely that ArabiaNow’s release has at least some diplomatic goals with the West.

“It is related to the fact that the relationship is deteriorating, or challenged, right now,” she said. “And the goal, I would guess, is to get Americans to have this positive view of Saudi Arabia.”


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