U.S. Diplomat: Saudis Use Spicy TV As “Antidote” To Extremist Ideology

The Saudi Arabian government allowed TV stations to broadcast liberal American shows, uncensored and with Arabic subtitles, as part of its strategy to reinforce “modern ideas” as an “antidote to extremist ideology”, according to a secret U.S. diplomatic cable released Wednesday by Wikileaks.

The American shows, most of which appear on channels owned by the Middle East Broadcasting Group (MBC) and its rival Rotana, include The Late Show With David Letterman, Friends, and Desperate Housewives, as well as news from ABC, CBS, and FOX, the cable said. Saudis are “fascinated by U.S. culture in a way they never were before,” it said.

“It’s still all about the War of Ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana is winning over ordinary Saudis,” a Saudi media executive told a U.S. official in a meeting at a Starbucks cafe in Jeddah. The Saudi government was “concern[ed] that young Saudis were particularly vulnerable to the calls of extremists, and that [MBC] now targets its moderate news broadcasts to the 14- to 18-year-old demographic in short presentations of three minutes or less,” the executive said, according to the cable.

Saudi journalists are free to write what they wish provided they do not criticize the royal family or expose government corruption, the cable said. Most media in Saudi Arabia, print and electronic, are owned by royal family members, and accordingly self-censorship is the order of the day, it said.

The 2,300-word cable, written by David Rundell at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, was sent in late 2009 to the Washington D.C. offices of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Council, and Central Intelligence Agency. The cable was designated SECRET/NOFORN, shorthand for secret communications not for release to foreign nationals.

The names of the Saudi officials and informants discussed in the diplomatic cable were redacted by the editors at Wikileaks.