Saudi Arabia under spotlight in Frontline, HBO documentaries

Saudi Arabia under spotlight in Frontline, HBO documentaries
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Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, appeared on "60 Minutes" offering a series of denials about human-rights abuses and any personal role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, appeared on “60 Minutes” Sunday, offering a series of denials about human-rights abuses and any personal role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

That rare interview represents just the first salvo in a wave of programming related to the Kingdom, shedding an unflattering light on a government that doesn’t look ready for its closeup, and that a single profile for American television is unlikely to defuse.

PBS’ Frontline provides a deep dive into Saudi politics — as well as Khashoggi’s death almost exactly a year after he was brutally killed and dismembered within the Saudi consulate in Turkey — with “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” a two-hour documentary premiering this week and already available online.

Later in October, HBO will premiere “Saudi Women’s Driving School,” a one-hour documentary on relaxation of the law that prohibited women from driving, which offers symbolic hope of reform but also highlights the country’s problematic treatment of women, both in the past and today.

The two films work best in tandem, coupled with the interview by CBS’ Norah O’Donnell, which looks more unconvincing juxtaposed with the reporting of Frontline correspondent Martin Smith, who pursued his own sit-down interview with the crown price, to no avail. (Smith shares text messages that went back and forth between them, and video of an encounter during his extensive reporting in the region, which largely echoes the denials that MBS, as he’s known, gave “60 Minutes.”)

Foremost, Frontline provides necessary context about hopes that Bin Salman would be a reformer in terms of Saudi Arabia’s more oppressive laws, particularly in regard to women; and how Khashoggi had been a pro-government voice and insider before voicing misgivings about the country’s leadership and the Trump administration.

“I don’t want to be a dissident,” Khashoggi, then writing for the Washington Post, tells Smith in an interview conducted more than a year before his death, adding that he couldn’t remain silent in good conscience.

The PBS documentary underscores the importance of the Saudi-US relationship, with former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel describing “the grooming and wooing of Donald Trump” as a high among Bin Salman’s list of accomplishments.

Beyond the grisly nature of Khashoggi’s killing, some of the most chilling material focuses on Saudi efforts to control social media, influence opinion and intimidate critics.

That portion actually feeds directly into “Saudi Women’s Driving School.” Director Erica Gornall was able to film within the kingdom, capturing the excitement over allowing women to drive — “one of the first steps toward a great change in Saudi Arabia,” one young woman says — which became legal in June 2018.

The enthusiasm and signs of progress toward greater equality, however, are juxtaposed with the fact many female advocates have been imprisoned, with some purporting to have endured torture.

The main lesson that emerges after watching all three programs is that a deeper understanding of Saudi Arabia won’t be possible — given the roadblocks the country has erected — without a sustained effort by journalists to cut through the fog. Like lifting the driving ban, it is, in other words, merely a first step.

Frontline’s “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia” premieres Oct. 1 on PBS. “Saudi Women’s Driving School” premieres Oct. 24 on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.