Sows ears and silk purses

8 Dec, '05

What is it about us that we continue to feel the victim and then in order to do something about the situation we simply blame anyone but ourselves?

For two days at the Arab Thought Foundation’s Arab and World Media Conference in Dubai I’ve heard one speaker after another emphasize the fact that we are vilified by the western media, globally branded as terrorists, and have an image problem because we are misunderstood in the West, as if the major problem we have is image! It’s a good story though, one that helps us continue our denial of the rotten structural core on which we have built our societies: undemocratic and corrupt hereditary rule, archaic educational systems, intolerance, and the refusal to move to a secular society where religion is exclusively used to shape the moral fiber of society rather than use it to interfere in the running of modern countries or be used as a platform of self advancement to the detriment of whole societies.

When you listen to the various luminaries who took to the podiums I was left with my jaw hanging and kept asking myself if these people actually believe what they are talking about or are they simply consummate actors who recite their own marketing bumph by rote and making correct the old adage that if you tell a lie often enough you start to believe it yourself?

Luminaries like Amr Mousa, the secretary general of the Arab League seems to be convinced that what is happening now is a major Western conspiracy and just as happened to the Jews, the world will pay dearly for this current wrong.

Or the illustrious host of this event and the head of the Arab Thought Foundation, HRH Prince Khalid Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud when he portrays ills faced as the effects of powerful adverse media portrayal of us as ogres, likening the situation as the “cat’s claws which rips at our hearts,” but conveniently forgetting his own various media investments within and without the Arab world.

Is there something missing here or is it more probable that my brain just cannot interpret the messages delivered? Conspiracies, hidden agendas and the West has it in for us. So what are the solutions proposed by these luminaries? Amr Mousa is demanding that our press must be “truthful and respectful,” failing to recognize that truth sometimes is anything but respectful. I would rather expose the truth even if it were ugly than be respectful and hide corruption for fear of losing face.

Mr. Mousa says that the “media is spreading lies about our culture and religion, about it habitually portraying the vast swathe of Muslims as terrorists thus wronging us just as they have the Jews in the past, and that they will pay the price, now or in the future for this wrong” but I fail to find these lies he’s talking about. Would it not have been better for the honoured gentleman to use his position as the secretary general of the Arab League to demand and push the spread of democracy in our countries?

So the lie continued, with striking comments from people I would have thought because of the material wealth they amassed would have much better intellect. HRH Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, one of the richest men in the world again emphasised that our problems are complex conspiracies levied against us by the West yet has no qualms of investing fully more than half of his portfolio in Western interests from TimeWarner to News Corp and everything in between. I guess to his mind his investment came to the rescue of us poor Muslims when he saw while on a visit to Paris that FOX television (one of his investments through News Corp) titled the video clips about the French riots as “Muslim Riots” which incensed him “as there were Christians rioting as well,” so he called his friend Rupert Murdoch (his words) “who was traveling between Asia and Australia at the time” as he informed us, and told him of the situation and explained that not all the rioters were Muslims hence the title is wrong and it is insulting. “Within half an hour the title changed to ‘French Riots’!” Needless to say he received warm applause. I’m afraid I didn’t contribute to the decibel levels with that one.

Is this all we have to contribute? Force change by ownership rather than go for the root causes? But wait, there are more gems, Al-Waleed is not done yet, when the conversation turned to the Iraq situation, he was aghast that they now have some 12 TV channels and over 200 publications, “why is that?” he asked, “I was talking to Shaikh Ghazi (Al-Yawer, vice-president of Iraq who was sitting next to him in the front row with other dignitaries) and told him that they do not need all of these channels, what they need now is just one TV channel and one newspaper so that they can consolidate their message to the people.” Sorry prince, I don’t agree with you on this one either. To me, the more information available to the public, the better decisions are arrived at in times of peace and war. I am sure he values good information from various sources for his own investments?

Unfortunately these views are prevalent across the board, in the Citizen Journalism session, Nik Gowing, the BBC reporter, was completely incensed that even the word journalism can be so much as associated with blogs and internet media! He discredits the whole blogging phenomenon as “real news” comes from news organisations and blogs completely lack credibility. While his view does have some validity, I was dismayed to hear such a known personality irresponsibly generalise.

In the same session he should have commented on Al-Arabiyya’s own head of their internet portal who related a story that the channel was sued by a company they featured in one of their online articles because of a detrimental comment posted on the article, he was arguing that web sites should not be held liable for comments entered, a point of view I completely agree with. However, he conveniently disregarded the fact that the poster of the comment was anonymous, and more importantly that they have a policy of physically screening every single comment before it being released as a post by a webmaster’s direct action. He only admitted these facts when questioned by myself. Now wouldn’t you think that in this situation they are fully liable? They should certainly be. Had the anonymous comment been published instantaneously without their intervention then I would have accepted that it isn’t their problem, but physically reading a comment and then actively posting it made it their own point of view, hence liability is valid. So who is more of a credible Mr. Gowing? The “real news organisation” or a blogger? The consensus of opinion after that session was that he must be feeling the end is near for “traditional news companies” and that his job is at risk, the unfortunate thing is that his views were agreed with by the other members of the press in the session, but fortunately not all.

Overall the Citizen Journalism session was actually quite good, it was moderated by Samar Fatany, a radio talk show host in Jeddah and wife of Khaled Al-Maeena, the editor-in-chief of Arab News. I particularly enjoyed the tirades against traditional media unleashed by Danny Schechter of

One of the most interactive sessions I thoroughly enjoyed attending because it was packed with information and personal experiences in a field I know little about was “What’s next for radio,” on that panel was Daoud Kuttab of who has risen in my eyes as a hero due to his various fights for media freedoms in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, for the free training of radio and internet audio journalists and his various contributions to the technology of internet radio in our area, he was joined by Loren Jenkins of NPR, Hasan Muawad the director of Panorama & MBC FM and Ahmed Al-Rikabi the dynamic owner/operator of Radio Dijla, a new talk radio which is now ranked number 2 in Iraq who shared his personal experiences and funny stories of doing live talk radio in the war-torn country, and how people took to his style of radio and how he struggles to this day in getting his hosts to not take sides or voice their own personal opinions on subjects being talked about. Radio Dijla went on satellite last week!

Because of the amount of shop talks and seminars, the organisers decided to cancel the Blogging Clinic, only to re-instated in another slot during the second day, but unfortunately by that time either people made other plans or they simply were no longer interested! We only had a few people come up to talk about blogging technicalities (how to etc) including Dr. Mohammed Al-Rumaihi a lecturer and journalist, John Gage VP and Chief Researcher at Sun Microsystems, and Dr. J. K. Jain of Jain TV Group in India. This workshop was hosted by both Eric Case and myself and it was fun. I hope that next year they will have this particular session expanded and maybe amalgamated with the Citizen Journalism session which fortunately Eric Case was on its panel as well.

I was pretty disappointed that none of the Emirates based bloggers dropped by for a chat.

Back to the main conference, I don’t think I was more disappointed than suffering through Saad Al-Hariri’s session. The guy is a moron. I’m sorry if I sound harsh, but there is not other way of describing him. Okay, a naïve moron then. I have no idea how he acquired the title “shaikh.” To me he was simply a deer in headlights, he didn’t answer a single question coherently and he is most certainly not as charismatic as his father was whom I hold in very high respect for what he did to his country and his active role in supporting hundreds of Lebanese students through generous scholarships. This guy is a rich kid reveling in his daddy’s shadow in the full knowledge that he will never be able to fill his father’s shoes.

This also demonstrates another problem we have in our world: the cult of personality. We continuously run after egos that we create ourselves for people who do not deserve them. I don’t know if it was because people expected a lot more of Al-Hariri, or because of the tens of thousands of Lebanese in the UAE, or his wrongful elevation to a “leader” position, but the hall was packed with adoring and fawning fans. I should have known better and attended a fruitful workshop rather than sit and suffer his dirge.

Two main sessions however shone much more than any other and were worth attending the conference just for those alone, the first was the results of a conference by the Aspen Institute which hosted quite a number of the leading journalists in the region and they talked about steps to get both sides, the West and the East, to better understand each others’ points of view and work toward nonprejudicial reporting of news and being careful with generic labels applied. They also arrived at a conclusion that Arabs and Muslims must start facing facts rather than continue to wallow in fiction and modernise their institutions and even ideology to be more cognizant of the current day and age. The speaker I enjoyed most listening to here is Hussain Shobokshi (who got himself fired from his job for possibly this article (and maybe these comments as well) who asserted that Arabs and Muslims must remove their “silk gloves” and deal with issues objectively, rather than continue to blame “the other.”

The other session was the only one that was broadcast live on Al-Arabiyya TV where Dr. Saad Al-Ajmi, former minister of information in Kuwait. Dr. Al-Ajmi started by saying that although the theme of the conference is “Getting it Right,” “We got it Wrong!” He said that our governments put far too much weight on the issue of “our image in the West” and does not go after the root causes of our problems, chief amongst which is the over-zealous pandering to the Islamists by appearing more pious and more Islamist than Islamist extremists themselves, rather than drawing a line between religion and the state and putting these Islamists in their place. He contends that governments should certainly be Muslim but Islam should not influence the political aspects of running a modern country. I did contribute to the decibel level of the clapping for this one!

The thing I really missed is not seeing any Bahraini journalist there covering this important conference. I was assured that many have been invited but no one bothered to attend. This is such a shame as their attendance could have enriched their experience and through whom the results of this conference could have been adequately conveyed to their readership.

This is the first ever conference of this sort that I attended and is a far cry from the various technology conferences I participate in. It was thrilling to rub shoulders and talk with intellectuals like Edward Walker the president and CEO of the Middle East Institute, Frank Gardener, Geoffrey Cowan, Dean of USC Annenberg School, USC, John Clippinger who is the Senior Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society Harvard Law School, John Gage, the very enthusiastic and inspirational chief researcher and VP of Sun Microsystems, Loren Jenkins, Senior foreign editor at National Public Radio, Khaled Al-Maeena the editor-in-chief of Arab News, Pat Mitchel the president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, Ahmed Al-Rikabi of Radio Dijla, Daoud Kubbab of, Dr. Mohammed Al-Rumaihi, Eric Case of Blogger, and Jacquelyn Johnstone from the Office of Middle East Partnership Initiative at the State Dept in the USA, Danial Gabra the VP of media relations at UPI and of course the dynamo himself, Hamad Al-Ammari, the conference coordinator who did a fantastic job bringing all of these people together.

This is an excellent organisation through which we can start to correct our position in the world by fostering forces of honest self-examination. It is high time that we pulled our heads from the sand and through more courageous efforts of organisations like the ATF identify and correct our shortcomings without having to continuously blame “the other” for our ills.

We alone are masters of our destiny.

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Comments (19)

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  1. anonymous says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    Thanx for ur coverage Mohammed. Much better than the usual “good job” media coverage.

    I think many of the Arab intellecutals attended the conference are actually part of the problem .. and either they realize it or not .. then they won’t have a real solution to our problems!
    What would u expect from Prince Khalid Al-Faisal .. since he is part of the Saudi royal family .. and u know very well the way it is managing Saudi Arabia.. how in the world a foundation he leads and “supports” will find solutions to our real issues!
    Would any of the attendees even think of talking about the situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia or discuss how blind is the government here in KSA is regarding education and openning windows for its citizens to express themselfs!

    I personally think that those people are not seriuos about facing our problems… no hope in them !

    The real solutions .. or maybe some more problems .. will be in the hands of the new generations .. regardless how much “scared” I am from them .. but insha Allah they will be more brave and able to implement their vision than the older generations .. specially here in the Gulf area!.


  2. anonymous says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    This is one of your best posts ever. Its true journalism….giving us a window on something we could know nothing about. Also, I salute your solid self esteem which allows for your honesty.


  3. kabourmi says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    I was avidly waiting for a post on your experience at the conference and I wasn’t disappointed! It’s amazing how we constantly use the crutch of the: “There out to get us!” conspiracy theory to explain the beleaguered state we find ourselves in. As long as we rely on that myth to we’ll stay crippled. Its time to take off the kiddie gloves.

    A Saudi

  4. cerebralwaste says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    Did no one Mahmood challenge any of these fine right honorable speakers blaming the “Usual Suspect” ala The Jews and The West? Or did people generally just sit and applaud and nod their collective heads in agreement? It is not just time for the kiddie gloves to come off. It is time for the lead lined gloves to be put on and be put to use.

  5. chalk66x says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    Great post Mahmood. Any time you want to give up being a Libetarian and become a Liberal we will welcome you with open arms.

    Its not just the Arab culture that refuses to admit mistakes and blames others for their problems. It seems to be a universal problem since the media became so pronounced world wide. Whats really sad is that the spin doctors are winning the minds of people worldwide.


  6. anonymous says:

    Sows ears and silk purses


    Very interesting read.


  7. secretdubai says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    [i]I was pretty disappointed that none of the Emirates based bloggers dropped by for a chat.[/i]

    None of us was invited. Go figure 😉

    However if we ever do organise a local or regional bloggers meet-up, you’ll be on the VIP list.

  8. anonymous says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    Its a typical condenced dose of typical arabic conspiracy theory, playing the victim (media victim this time), and trying to get away with as much slack and as less responsibility as possible. I mean you should have known from the begining if Amru Mousa and civil rights activists Prince khalid and Prince waleed are heading the event, what the outcome is likely to be. I think that is about to change, since a blog like yours nowadays is more credible than their million dollar convention.

    The JoKer

  9. mahmood says:

    Re: Sows ears and silk purses

    You could have arrived and registered! Or you could have emailed me and we could have met outside of the official venue. We should organise a bloggers’ gathering Gulf-wide every quarter or every 6-months. Informal and chinwag!

  10. anonymous says:

    Re(1): Sows ears and silk purses

    I am up for that … i can even help with the logistics


  11. anonymous says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    mahmood, i was there but didn’t find your trabousha clan. next time we’ll leave out the formalities. great analysis on the conference, enjoyed it tremendously.

  12. mahmood says:

    Re: Sows ears and silk purses

    thanks.. next time hopefully.

  13. anonymous says:

    Sows ears and silk purses


    Well, well, well…

    Thanks for an extremely interesting article.

    For some time now I have been trying to fathom what the agenda of Turner Broadcasting is. The information I have just found at your site sheds some light on this perplexing subject.

    HRH Prince etc. one of the wealthiest people in the world has much invested in Turner Broadcasting. Hmmm…

    From a Canadian’s point of view, I have always wondered why Turner Broadcasting was so rabidly anti-American, I thought it was because Ted Turner was married to Jane Fonda. BUT
    you have pointed out that in addition to that, Turner Broadcasting is also owned by wealthy patrons of questionable agenda. AND they seem to be somewhat hypocritical.

    Thank you, in this war that is being fought in the media you have shed some light.

    As my advisors council me always to look for the BIAS, and you may discover the motive.

    Man, the Saudis are between 2 rocks and a couple of hard places. I hope they see their way to straightening out this mess.


    Chesshire by Severn

  14. anonymous says:

    Re: Sows ears and silk purses

    I’m a North American media scholar working in Ajman this year, and couldn’t make the conference because of the traffic. I heard about it, tho, and Mahmood, ur blog really summed it up. Thanks!

  15. anonymous says:

    Sows ears and silk purses

    Awesome essay, Mahmood. I have cited and linked it in my latest post: “Why Arabs lose wars

    All best to you and your family.

    Sissy Willis

  16. aanoymous says:

    Bloody all the Saudis are just HYPOCRITES. Cite a single good Saudi. Khalid almaeena is a puppet of the saudi government and better known for his gimmicks and LIES. Ask any Saudi journalist about him and you will get the feedback.

  17. puzzled says:

    Please give me more info re your comments on Khalid Al Maeena and his gimmicks and lies. I am very interested!

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