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Saudis and the 'Princess'

Having now seen "Death of a Princess," we can appreciate the acute sensitivity of Saudi Arabia to showing of the television film in the United States. But the Saudis should be assured. No reasonable viewer will misinterpret the film as a representation of Saudi Arabia or an indictment of it. It is not a film about Saudi society as a whole, or even about Saudi women. It deals narrowly with one incident and a reporter's effort to understand it. The very embarrassment of the Saudi government about the film can be said to reflect favorably on the Saudis, who apparently realize that the execution of a royal family member and her lover is no credit to them and who are aware of moral failings in their midst.

Despite the diplomatic furor, we are glad the film is being aired. Not only because First Amendment freedom of the press is upheld. But because the film has focused public attention on an important question: the lack of knowledge which Westerners have about Saudi and other Islamic societies and the unknown influence of such ignorance on the West's policies toward the world of Islam. We have already seen what problems this gap has created in Iran -- and in US efforts now to deal with them. Surely it must not be allowed to lead to similar Western-Islamic conflict in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or other countries.

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Governments in the West invest much time and effort in intelligence. They study the economics and politics of a country. They measure its military strength. But do they understand the underlying social and religious forces propelling or resisting change? Do they know the attitudes and sensitivities of the people? What ism the impact of modernization on local cultures? That the vast flow of 20th century technology into Saudi Arabia -- some of it improper and useless -- will cause dislocations in a still-feudal society is self-evident. Yet we know so little about what is going on, in part because of an unwillingness to learn about the local customs and culture. Today there are some 35,000 Americans, including businessmen, in Saudi Arabia, and it is safe to say very few of them even have a knowledge of the Arabic language.

This is an appalling neglect. Though, in fairness, it should also be pointed out that close examination of Saudi society, with its paradoxes and dilemmas, is made difficult by the sub rosa nature of what goes on and the secretiveness of Saudi officialdom. One impression left by "Death of a Princess" in fact is that , after all that reportorial probing, we still don't know the story of the princess. Saudis may bristle at the stereotyped conceptions Westerners have of Arabs and Islam in general; but a more sympathetic understanding will require two-way communication.

It will also, of course, require understanding Islamic societies on their own terms and not just those of the Judeo-Christian West. This was a point made during the excellent TV panel discussion which followed showing of the film in our area. Judith Kipper of the American Enterprise Institute and others observed the unfairness of judging the Saudis by Western standards, especially when the West is not without its own moral blemishes and hypocrisies.

We agree with Roger Fisher of Harvard that if this had been only one of 50 films on Saudi Arabia there would have been no fuss. Being the first such Western television portrayal -- and a mix of fact and fiction that leaves viewers uncertain about what to believe -- it provoked a stir. But the Saudis can take comfort that, whatever the film's weaknesses or superficialities, it may prod Westerners to a greater realization of their long and dangerous indifference to a religion, peoples, and culture now playing such a vital role in mankind's development.

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