Screening: An Arab Spring in Saudi?

March 6, 2012

 By Charlene Rodrigues

This time last year, when we witnessed uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Shaimaa Khalil’s curiosity took her to the streets of Saudi Arabia to investigate what was happening in one of the world’s richest oil-producing countries.

The resulting documentary, An Arab spring in Saudi?, is a study of the authoritarianism of the Saudi government and was screened last night at the Frontline Club in front of a captivated audience.

While the ‘Day of Rage’, advertised on popular social networks saw many Arab countries in the grip of mass protest, the demonstrations in Saudi Arabia were much more muted in comparison: security, helicopters and media outnumbered the fearful protesters.

But why the difference? As one interviewee in the film put it:

“If people have everything, why would they want to revolt? They have stability and unity."

However not all Saudis are of the same opinion. A victim of injustice, featured in the film, is Khalid whose son is autistic and yet has no support from the government.

As the film ended asking the question: ‘Where is Khalid?, the same thing resonated on everyone’s mind.

"He is in prison, half an hour after his drive home from his interview with BBC Arabic, he was arrested. I tried to keep in touch with his family. They have tried to block his Facebook page to prevent us from knowing about his whereabouts. His health is not in very good condition and he is deteriorating," Khalil said.

Another audience member asked: "Why did he choose to do what he did?" 

"The situation is fluid and tense at the same time. He was a 40-year-old teacher and it was more of a personal motive than a political one. There was no institution for his son’s education and he was frustrated, " Khalil said.

One asked her reasons for making the film:

"I was curious to find out what the people wanted for their country…when I would sit at the majlis in Jeddah and meet fellow young bloggers in a coffee shop, I saw a stark difference between what the young Saudis want and how complacent the elders and tribal leaders were."

Khalil recalls the filming experience being daunting at times:

"Women on the street talking to people is seen as antagonistic."

On several occasions her own personal safety was at stake because of her Egyptian passport:

"If you are carrying a Western passport, its relatively easier," she said.

On being asked about Khalid’s families’ thoughts, she said:

"They just want to see him again. When he went to prison, his wife was expecting another child so he has not yet seen his newborn; it’s eleven months now."

Several questions were raised on the possibility of an uprising, and foreign intervention:

“From what we have seen to date, there isn’t a consensus with the general public, and if the Saudis want reform, it has to come from internally. People who are demanding change are not necessarily the ones who are suffering financially. It’s not only about the money, because how much can you do with it? They genuinely feel in this day and age they are left far behind than most other countries."