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[] Saudi Officials Give Rolexes to Journalists,


Editor & Publisher Online
JANUARY 22, 2003 


Saudi Officials Give Rolexes to Journalists

No Strings Attached? 

By Allan Wolper 

NEW YORK -- Two prominent Arab journalists based in London have
confirmed a New York Daily News column alleging that Saudi Arabian
officials have given expensive watches, including Rolexes, to Western

The Arab newsmen did not identify any of the reporters who might have
accepted the gifts, and neither did Zev Chafets, the columnist who made
the allegations on Dec. 4. And American journalists who were in the
Middle East recently said that no Saudi official offered them anything.

But Chafets insisted in his column and in an interview afterward that
the watch-giving is a time-honored device to win favorable press
coverage for the Saudi government. "Are [journalists] influenced by
Saudi hospitality?" he asked in his column. "Look at the coverage of the
kingdom the last 10 years and see which reporters failed to notice they
were in a fascist theocracy and decide for yourself."

However, the Saudi journalists interviewed by E&P don't believe the
gifts have any strings attached to them. "It is a common thing," said
Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor in chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, an
Arabic-language daily newspaper, in a telephone interview from London.
"It is not considered a bribe in the Middle East," he explained. "In the
Arab world, it is a way of being generous."

Atwan noted that expensive gifts can cause headaches for Western
journalists because Rolex watches, costing as much as $20,000, would
have to be declared at customs-service checkpoints. "It certainly is a
problem for a reporter," he joked. "You can't sell them, and you can't
wear them." Of course, he added, "Some journalists decline the watches,
and some accept them."

Jihad al-Khazen, editor in chief of a joint news project of Al-Hayat, an
Arabic-language daily, and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., declared,
"All journalists who go there, they all receive Swiss watches, Rolex
watches." In fact, he added in a telephone interview from Beirut, "If
they like you, sometimes they give you his-and-her watches. It's been
going on since I was a child. ... If you don't take the watches, they
feel insulted. There is a saying in Arabic that the presents of kings
cannot be refused."

But it appears that the Saudis are being discreet about who gets their
gifts. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, who just returned from Saudi Arabia,
told E&P that no one had offered him anything. And Thomas L. Friedman,
The New York Timesman who is the most visible of the Middle East
correspondents, said through his Washington assistant that he knew
nothing about the watch-giving.

Edward Cody, a journalist at The Washington Post who has covered the
Middle East for 30 years, said he believed that the serious gift-giving
ended in the early 1970s. "When we first started covering Saudi Arabia,
it was a practice to accept a gift and give equal value in return," Cody

Chafets, however, told E&P that he wrote his column because he knew the
Saudis were still handing out watches. Cody said that even if some
journalists do take the gifts, it shouldn't reflect on the great
majority of journalists who reject the Saudi offerin gs. "I am sure some
are given," he said, "and some are accepted." 

Allan Wolper (allanwolper -!
- msn -
 com) is a contributing editor for E&P.

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