Turki Abdulla Al-Sideri and the Concept of Culture

By Dr. Fouzi El-Asmar WASHINGTON, D.C.: 21 April 2013, (Arabisto.com)

Mr. Turki Abdulla Al-Sideri is the Chief Editor of the Saudi daily Alriyadh and a prominent figure in the Kingdom by virtue of his professional position and extensive personal relationships. He writes a regular column in Alriyadh entitled “Liqaa’” (Encounter) through which he engages the readers in various discussions covering cultural, social, political, economic and even sports-related issues.

One of the most frequent topics that he covers in his columns is the issue of cultural progress achieved by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in recent years, particularly, from Al-Sideri’s perspective, the architectural and infrastructural development in the country. Indeed, he frequently resorts to a favorite sentence in his articles to express this idea of cultural development by highlighting what he calls the transition from tents to mud huts to today’s villas, skyscrapers, superhighways, shopping malls and public parks.


On March 12, 2013, for example, he wrote in his column that: “The city of Riyadh is a witness to the abundant areas of progress achieved by our society and considered imaginary if compared with conditions in other Arab cities that preceded it in their developmental projects. Whereas today, Riyadh is deemed much more equipped culturally through its transition from a village of mud-huts … to the flourishing city it has become… It is a testimony when comparing us with any other capital city… It is indeed beautiful to reach such a cultural achievement.”


Mr. Al-Sideri writes about a reality felt by any visitor to the city of Riyadh. I personally experienced that twice as a guest of the annual Janadriyyah cultural festival usually attended by large Saudi crowds in addition to hundreds of invited Arab intellectuals and opinion makers. My personal interest in Saudi growth and development prompted me to accept the invitation to attend the national conference to increase my own knowledge of Saudi society and its achievements beyond reading about them from afar.


During both visits to Riyadh, I indeed found a growing city with striking signs of development and progress including high-rise buildings, modern shopping malls, beautiful parks, and well-maintained superhighways travelled by late model cars. I was equally impressed by well-furnished libraries equipped with the most advanced educational tools and means of comfort for both researchers and students. I was also pleasantly surprised by the spirited interactions between the participants that took place in open and closed sessions held on the periphery of the Janadriyyah conference where participants discussed various issues of relevance to Saudi Arabia and the Arab World, including some issues I previously deemed as taboos.


Undoubtedly these are all tangible expressions of cultural, economic and social development, however, they do not fully meet the comprehensive and universal definition of culture.  Unlike Mr. Al-Sideri’s usage of the term that seems to be limited to materialistic and economic aspects of culture, such as high-rise structures and superhighways, my definition extends to the human component of the term. Culture, as universally defined, also includes a set of shared attitudes and values that govern human interaction in society according to universally accepted norms. Physical and even artistic achievements alone leave society lacking in human touch, specifically in displaying respect for fundamental human rights and the dignity of citizens and non-citizens alike. The Saudi record on civil liberties, human rights and the treatment of expatriates and foreign labor remains lacking by all measures. In the final analysis, this is one of the ultimate prerequisites for the cultural foundations of civil society.


The international media is littered with legal cases and complaints against systemic violations of basic rights and labor laws in Saudi Arabia. However, for the sake of brevity, I would like to use my personal experience with Alriyadh newspaper as an example. I sincerely hope that doing so would not offend my close Saudi friends, whose close and warm friendship over the past four decades remains of great personal importance. I always valued their friendship and remain today on good terms with all of them. However, my ordeal with Alriyadh, and the insistence of its Chief Editor to ignore my complaint left me no choice but to go public with my story.


My career with Alriyadh began in 1982 when my good friend, the late Tal’at Wafa, encouraged me to write for the Saudi daily where he worked for many years as editor of its English language version. I subsequently received a letter of employment from Mr. Al-Sideri in November 1982. I worked from my home in the Washington, DC area and covered the White House, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of Defense through weekly news stories and analytical pieces. In addition, I was asked to write a regular column on life in Israel based on my access to the Israeli media and fluency in Hebrew. The column lasted for five years and was well received among Saudi readers, particularly government officials. In 2000, I was asked to serve as director of Alriyadh’s office in Washington, DC, in addition to maintaining my journalistic assignments. The office was subsequently closed in 2008 and I resumed my work from my home office.


In October 2010, I abruptly stopped receiving my regular monthly paycheck from Alriyadh. I called Mr. Muhammad Al-Hathian, Mr. Al-Sideri’s secretary in Riyadh, to inquire about the delay and was surprised to learn that the newspaper had terminated me as of October 1, 2010. I never received any official termination notice for cause from the Chief Editor or anyone else in his office in Riyadh. No mention was made of any severance pay, compensation, or even a thank you note for twenty-nine years of service to the institution.


I attempted on several occasions to establish contact in writing and by phone with Mr. Al-Sideri, but to no avail. I even secured the services of a legal firm in Washington, DC to pursue the matter with Alriyadh but their letters remained unanswered. I became convinced that Mr. Al-Sideri insisted on dealing with me as a slave and not as a colleague or employee.


Consequently, I wrote Mr. Adel Al-Jubeir the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington to explain my employment situation with Alriyadh. I did surprisingly receive a phone call from the Information Office at the Embassy inviting me to meet with Mr. Nail Al-Jubeir and Mr. Saleh Al-Obeid on behalf of the Ambassador. I met with both Saudi officials on November 22, 2011 and submitted to them all the written documents in my possession. They promised to do their best to resolve the issue without having to pursue the matter legally. Unfortunately, nothing came out of this meeting. I honestly feel like the words of the Arab proverb apply to my case: “they ate his flesh and spat out the bones.”


With all due respect to Mr. Al-Sideri, acquiring culture is not limited to transitioning from mud huts to fancy villas or to driving luxurious cars and shopping at fancy malls. Culture and civilization begin and end with the way you treat people and respect their fundamental rights. I guess had Mr. Al-Sideri remained in a mud hut today he might have understood my painful case. He has continuously failed to reveal any shortcomings or neglect on my part to justify my arbitrary and wrongful termination. Instead, he opted to remain silent. Silence in this case has two meanings: A weak case against the truth, or worse yet, an outright disdain for the humanity of his opponent. Neither of which represents adherence to universal cultural norms.

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About Dr. Terri Ginsberg

Terri Ginsberg is a film scholar and Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. She is co-author of Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema (2010), author of Holocaust Film: The Political Aesthetics of Ideology (2007), and co-editor of A Companion to German Cinema (2012). She is active in New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership, coordinates the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, and is a Board member of the International Council for Middle East Studies.

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