The world's media assemble in Riyadh, but Trump is kept at bay

Comment: Almost 500 journalists were invited to KSA for a chaotic schedule of belated ‘live’ streams, closed-off meetings and a muted US President
The world's media assemble in Riyadh, but Trump is kept at bay
US President Donald Trump (C) attends a meeting with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
By Sarah Townsend
Tue 23 May 2017 04:38 PM

An invite from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information to cover Donald Trump’s first overseas visit is not to be taken lightly, and Arabian Business dropped everything to attend the high profile event.

However, rather than being a rare and exciting coverage opportunity, the summit was a disappointing affair. Most of the journalists transported to Riyadh were kept far from the president at all times and made to watch speeches televised by select White House media and streamed to us at a hotel several miles across town.

My trip began well, with a visa processed the same day courtesy of the Saudi embassy and confirmation of an all-expenses paid stay at the Riyadh Marriott hotel with 500 global journalists.  

On arrival at King Khaled International Airport on Friday night, however, things took a turn for the worse. After waiting for an hour in the immigration queue, there was nobody to meet me at the airport and I waited for some time before being contacted by a press officer.

On arrival at the hotel, I discovered that my name was not, in fact, on the list of journalists staying at the Marriott, and I waited another 45 minutes while heated conversations ensued and a car was booked to take me to the Holiday Inn several miles away.

Thankfully, as I started to collect my bags, a government official handed me my passport together with a room key for the Marriott, and I was able to head upstairs and put my head down in preparation for a 5.30am start.

The contracted media relations agency turned out to be just as in the dark as the journalists about the two-day schedule – not their fault as the itinerary had been confirmed by the government just 24 hours previously and had already changed several times since.

We did know that a conference was being staged at the Four Seasons from 7am, at which CEOs of large American corporates were in attendance. We were told interviews were possible but were only belatedly handed a list of attendees, so had to rely on ‘doorstepping’ CEOs while the poor souls munched their croissants and sipped coffee.

A few stories emerged of high-profile deals to be signed between US companies and the Saudi government that day, while the kingdom’s ministers of finance, commerce and energy gave keynote speeches about Vision 2030 and discussed its implementation and opportunities. But most of the seminars featuring officials and CEOs were closed to media.

By mid-morning, word had spread that ‘The Donald’ had landed at Riyadh Airport. We learned this only from a select group of US media – the travelling ‘White House Press Corps’ comprising CNN, Fox News, the Washington Post, New York Times, and others, who were the only media outlets allowed within vague proximity of the President.

Back at the Marriott in the afternoon, we were informed that a face-to-face media briefing from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir on his earlier meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had been cancelled.

This was arguably the biggest news opportunity of the two days, bar Trump’s planned speech on Sunday, yet we settled for watching a televised Q&A with the Press Corps, belatedly ‘live-streamed’ to our media centre some time after the event. A big story was announced –  Trump’s historic $109 billion arms deal with the kingdom – and the world’s media grappled to publish it as soon after their US rivals as possible.

The following day, more ministerial briefings were cancelled and some reporters managed to upgrade their accreditation to enable them to travel to a venue closer to the palace where Trump was delivering his speech, and hear it live-streamed with a more audible buzz.

The rest of us were offered the opportunity to watch a ‘Tweep’ session where young Saudi students were given the opportunity to fire questions at Trump via social media. Alas, the same Twitter floor was not open for journalists and we were blocked from asking a single question. On learning this, I headed to the airport and felt oddly relieved that my flight had been booked a few hours earlier than it should have been and I was to depart the kingdom.

I understand the security and logistical difficulties of permitting 500 journalists eyewitness-level access to the President. But the lack of decent coverage opportunities was still frustrating and the mood in the press centre was flat at best.

Trump, of course, was on his best behaviour and – apart from his speech urging the Middle East to unite against terrorism – seemed to have been advised to say as little as possible. The strategy of keeping him at a safe distance from the world’s hacks seemed less about security, and more about preventing him from answering controversial questions from reporters. 

With such meagle canon fodder, some outlets stooped to reporting the non-story that Melania Trump had dared enter the kingdom with her head uncovered. This was a petty observation given that it is entirely permissable for non-Muslim female visitors to keep their heads bare, provided they respect cultural customs and cover their body with a loose-fitting abaya.

Newly re-elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s dismissed the summit as “just a show with no practical or political value of any kind”.

I expect a good deal of the public watched Trump coverage before many of us journalists in Saudi Arabia did.

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