British film on Saudi royalty kicks up political sandstorm

The latest sandstorm to whirl out of the Middle East toward Britain has nothing to do with oil, hostages, or revolutions. The weather behind it is stirred by something even more fundamental: the opposed Eastern and Western views on censorship.

Saudi Arabia, long an important trading partner for Britain, is peeved by a film shown on television here April 9. Following a Cabinet meeting April 23, the Saudis sent home Britain's ambassador, noted Arabist James Craig.

The film, entitled "Death of a Princess," is a quasi-documentary based closely on the story of Princess Misha of the Royal House of Saud. She was publicly executed in 1977 under Koranic law for taking a lover. The film, partly funded by television station WGBH in Boston, also depicts Saudi women as living in considerable confinement.

When it was shown here, Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington cabled his regrets to the Saudis. But he could not apologize: The film was produced and shown by independent television, over whose programming the government has no control.

The reasons behind such powerlessness are not easily grasped by the Saudis, who exercise film control over their independently owned television service. They felt the film was highly offensive to Islamic traditions, whose moral standards were being harshly portrayed through the lens of Western decadence. Other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman, reportedly share the view.

Official spokesmen here are keeping their heads down. The Saudi Arabian Embassy here has no comment. The British Foreigh Office describes it as "a blow" but has no reason to believe the expulsion will be permanent.

Expulsion is a comparatively mild gesture, say diplomats here, falling far short of breaking diplomatic relations, trimming embassy staff, or declaring an ambassador persona non grata. The embassy in Jiddah appears to be running normally -- as does the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London, which is between ambassadors and will remain so for a while longer.

One Arab analyst charges the incident off to Arab volatility. "They kiss one moment and plot one another's assassination the next," he says. But with 10 percent of Britain's oil coming from Saudi Arabia, and with the developing country spending nearly $:900 million ($2 billion) on British imports last year, the British are treading softly and presumably taking private steps to soothe the turbulence. Monitor correspondent Daniel Southerland reports from WAshington:

Saudi Arabia has made known to the United States its concern over the Planned showing of a film on American PBS stations that the Saudis consider to be disparaging of the Arabs and of Islam.

"They have discussed their concerns with us," said a State Department spokesman. "We're considering the matter."

Saudi diplomats have been advised by some Americans who work for them that the more they protest over the film -- a two-hour British documentary entitled "Death of a Princess" -- the more attention the film will get.

The Saudis have thus far made no public comment on the plan to show the film here.

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