I am told it is the Saudi way, but it is not the way I am used to. First, the Minister of Information, Abdul Aziz Mohiddin Khojah answers his own phone. He also makes his own appointments, inviting me to meet him at his office in Riyadh today.
I arrive on time but before I can start the interview, Dr. Khojah wants to help me. He puts down his iPhone, picks up his desk phone and begins speed dialing officials, arranging other interviews for me with officials from other ministries. I understand that he knows the importance of getting the government’s message out, but it’s still unusual to have a minister personally make the calls.
After demurring a few times, he finally agrees to answer a few questions on tape. After assuring me Saudi Arabia is stable despite the problems in the region and the calls to protest within his country, the minister insists I can see for myself and talk to anyone I want.
That ignores the fact that the government blocks access to certain internet sites run by those calling for reform.
It is true, however, that I have not so far been prevented from speaking to anyone, except in one respect.
I do not speak Arabic. I wish I did, because there is no one who can act as a local producer, or “fixer” as journalists call them. I have spoken to other journalists who are far more experienced in reporting from Saudi Arabia and I am told there is not anyone who can fulfill the function of being both interpreter and journalist.
That means, for example, that when I went to the Ministry of Labor offices earlier this week, I had to hope that the unemployed men who were looking for work there spoke English. None of them did and I came away with nothing. It is not easy to get the views of ordinary Saudis, those who aren’t educated and comfortable. I will not stop trying as I attempt to report from a country that plays such a critical role in the region.