LONDON MAGAZINE Vol. 38, no. 1 & 2 April/May 1998

My career in censorship (Aramco)

My career in censorship didn't last very long. From the point of view of my superiors, I was a complete flop as a censor. For one year and seventeen impatiently counted-off days, from August 1988 to August 1989, I worked in the public relations department of what is now called Saudi Aramco, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Aramco, short for Arabian American Oil Company, the company's name before it was completely nationalised in 1989, is the organisation that gets the oil out of the ground in Saudi Arabia.

I think I was hired because my expressions of starry-eyed fascination with Aramco had been reported to the relevant authorities, who took the appropriate action. I was interested in Aramco because it is the Great Petroleum Faucet of the world, gushing petroleum to feed the global economy, as if the world had an internal combustion engine at its core that made it spin, enriching the Kingdom beyond the limits of the wildest manic fantasy. The vetting and hiring were meticulous and took three months. It was a process of acculturation. To be an “Aramcon,” to take King Fahd’s shilling, was a lifetime’s career. Once hired, you were not expected to leave until you retired (and were thrown back into a world from which you had been amniotically insulated for thirty-plus years, armed only with a final-exit visa and an American Express Gold Card), but by then you were rich, and used to being rich. On those terms, as a foreign subject of the Saudi king, Saudi Arabia expected you to do whatever it asked you to do, however it went against your grain, however it professionally compromised you.

My duties at Aramco, besides writing articles about oil for the weekly employee newspaper, included producing a daily censored news sheet. The objective, roughly speaking, was to maintain a small part of the informational Bermuda Triangle that conceals Saudi Arabia and everything about it, including Aramco, from the gaze of the curious.

The news sheet was an anachronism, left over from the early days of Aramco in the 'forties and 'fifties when the company was building up its operations in the Eastern Province. In those days, the Eastern Province was empty space, so Aramco had to meet every conceivable human need, either by building it or importing it. Aramco had to import its skilled workforce, house them, feed them, and educate their children. It built a railway line to Riyadh (not really necessary for oil operations, but the king wanted it), an electricity grid, hospitals, schools (in general, most Saudi men over fifty in the Eastern Province learned to read in Aramco schools), and a telephone network. From 1941 to 1947 it conducted an anti-malaria programme which permanently eliminated malaria from the province. It gave loans to local people to start businesses and build houses. Aramco started the first television station in the Middle East, and it has its own airline to transport its employees around the country (with unmarked planes, so as not to arouse the jealousy of the national airline). It also had a farm to produce fresh vegetables.

The Arabists of Aramco's Research Division did for eastern Arabia what Napoleon's Arabists did for Egypt: they wrote it into existence, occidentally speaking, producing, for example, thorough ethnographies of the region's Bedouin tribes, enumerating how many camels they had, how many people, how many tents, recording their war cries, and the local names of every feature of the land. (Its archives, which include the personal papers of H. St. J. B. Philby, are among the world’s best on Arabia, though access to it now is virtually impossible.) The level of the company's involvement in the creation of the modern Saudi state is matched in history only by the role of the East India Company in India.

One of the details of life to which Aramco applied itself was supplying its American workforce with something approximating a daily newspaper, as there were none available in Saudi Arabia in those pioneering days. Although by the time I came to Dhahran there were two (admittedly pretty worthless) English-language newspapers in Saudi Arabia, and most people had short-wave radios, which you no longer, as in the past, needed a license to import, the news sheet lived on, circulated daily to about 2,000 senior employees. It was closely printed on both sides of a single legal-sized sheet, with three columns on each page, devoted to Middle Eastern, international and American news on one side, news briefs, stock and commodity prices, sports results and weather on the other.

It was awful work, not least because you had to get to work an hour early for it, at six a.m. instead of the usual seven. My two colleagues and I rotated the chore by week, so my turn to do the news came up every third week. Technically, it was simple. If the telecommunications had gone without a hitch during the night, the Associated Press news for that day would have been loaded into our computers by the time I got to work. The stories were selected, edited, printed out in columns, pasted down, and sent to the print shop by eight, but usually on the dot of eight, or if things were a bit disorganised, a little bit after eight, or if things were really disorganised, a nail-bitingly long time after eight.

This depended on how much trouble there had been over the censorship. Censorship is a messy business in practice. Overseeing it was the responsibility of an oldish Palestinian named Suheib who had been doing the job a long time and was sick of it. At ground level, censorship meant the daily battle I had to wage with Suheib. He was a sweet, nice man, and I gave him nothing but grief. Suheib was officially described as a typist, because originally the work was done on a typewriter, but now that the work was all done on computer, his job consisted entirely of making sure that the news sheet contained nothing 'sensitive'. Although no Saudi could give you a comprehensive definition of this term (which would amount to a synoptic explanation of Saudi society and its cringes and enmities), as far as I could tell it meant anything suggesting Saudi Arabia had domestic politics, or anything suggesting anything about the politics of any other Arab state, except where this involved opposing Israel. Israelis excepted, about the only Middle Eastern ruler whose feelings you didn't have to worry about was Tutankhamun. The line was that the news sheet, a private newspaper not recognised by the government, was one of Aramco's handful of un-Saudi perks (like a store selling pork products, which closed while I was there, the right of women to drive on the Aramco base, and a movie theatre). If we did not practice strict self-censorship, the news sheet would attract unwanted attention (presumably the attention of mutawwas -- roughly translated as religious police -- in the Aramco workforce), and this privilege would be revoked on the order of the Ministry of Information.

The top story was always the Palestinians. Not a word about events in Saudi Arabia, but every rock thrown on the Gaza Strip made it into the news sheet, usually as the lead item. If Suheib had his way, most of the first column of Middle East news, would have been taken up by Palestinian affairs. This suited the Saudis fine.

I learned pretty quickly that it was never a good idea to discuss any issue of censorship. The rule was: 'When in doubt, leave it out', so it was better not to draw attention to problematic stories. One day, in September 1988, there was a story about riots in Algeria, led by Islamic militants. The militants were demanding lower food prices and the immediate resignation of the government. If there's one thing the Saudis fear, it's unbridled Islamic radicalism -- that is, the kind they haven't paid for themselves. Suheib wanted to censor the story so that it read, Islamic radicals were demanding lower food prices full stop -- which was plainly misleading. A big scene followed, despite the clock ticking towards eight o'clock. I didn't want to emasculate the story; Suheib was keen to. We had to seek the arbitration of our department manager, an American-educated Saudi, quite young. He agreed with Suheib, of course, that we couldn't say what they were demanding. After half an hour of big talk, Suheib and I agreed on a muddled compromise: the extremists declared 'certain demands'. Ridiculous.

I didn't mind changing 'terrorists' to 'commandos' when talking about Palestinian fighters. Nor did I mind calling Afghan rebels 'mujahideen', or Hizballah 'mujahideen' 'rebels'. That indicated a definite point of view. What I couldn't stand was the auto-lobotomi- sation, the cutting out of anything Saudi Arabia apparently couldn't understand, the enforced mental laziness. And they had hired me because of my experience as a journalist!

After these gruelling sessions, I'd think: 'It's not the heat that gets you, it's the humility.

It was part of expatriate folklore that the Ministry of Information (dedicated to the abolition of information) employed expatriate workers who sat in a classroom at desks, with a Saudi official at the front of the room, leading the staff through copies of, say, the latest Vogue or Economist about to broach the kingdom's intellectual membrane, and announcing what was to be expunged: 'Page thirty-two: exposed breast!' The workforce would all scribble away at it with their black felt tips. Or else, 'Page thirteen: criticism!' The whole page would be torn out. If the government couldn't buy up The Economist, they could at least corner the world market in black felt tips.

If I was slick about it, I could slip something small onto the bottom of the sheet, in the last available seconds before the pasted-up pages had to go down to the print shop, creating a distraction over some other issue so that Suheib wouldn't notice it. Another trick was to put stories about Saudi Arabia under the heading 'international news', which wasn't subjected to such close scrutiny.

I finally cracked the problem when I began to devise euphemisms, particularly where Saudi Arabia was involved. The following story would never have appeared in the Saudi press or our news sheet in its original form:

LONDON -- An official inquiry is examining allegations that commission payments inflated the export price of Britain's $25 billion sale of Tornado fighter-bombers to a large Arab country, news reports said Sunday.

Thenceforth, 'a large Arab country' was to be my code-word for Saudi Arabia. Regular readers would eventually figure it out, I thought. This was the high point of my career as a censor. Shortly after that, of course, came my undoing, which like all last straws prompted action designed to settle accounts for all my previous provocation.

The occasion of my undoing was the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. This was such a big story that it had to be referred upstairs, which had never happened before. The manager of the Public Relations department didn't want to publish the story at all, but he agreed to arbitration from on high.

To my surprise, the general manager's only adjustment to the story was to delete a paragraph consisting of a quote from an Iranian divine asserting that the late imam's soul was on its way to heaven. The Saudis took a different line on the fate of Khomeini's immortal soul. Fair enough.

Still, I saw to it that the full three columns were taken up with the story and its ramifications. This, for the Saudis' great rival in the Islamic cold war, was a big story.

As a result of this act of initiative, I was taken off news duties permanently. I left Saudi Arabia and Aramco a month later with a Final Exit visa in my passport. I doubt that I will ever again be able to stand on the Aramco golf course and watch the fighter jets with their cones of blue fire streaking over the luminous desert on sultry evenings. I have been a freelance writer ever since. My income has declined.

I will probably never go back to Saudi Arabia, that industrial Sparta. The door has closed forever behind me. The Kingdom does not issue tourist visas, and the only way you can get in without a job or a family waiting for you inside is if you are donating a kidney to someone, in which case you get a fifty per cent discount on the national airline, Saudia (slogan: Welcome to our world).

A code of silence imposes itself on anyone who gets deeply involved with Saudi Arabia, who has swallowed King Fahd's shilling. Those who know do not say, the code insists; those who say do not know. I only caught a glimpse.