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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1991, Page 23


Dr. Shihab Jamjoom: The Man Behind Saudi Arabia's Media Image

By Richard H. Curtiss

Ten million people around the world have attended some version of the multi-media exhibit presented in the United States as "Saudi Arabia: Yesterday and Today. " Opened in Washington, DC in 1989 by Vice President and Mrs. Dan Quayle, it was visited both there and in Houston by President and Mrs. George Bush, who admired its rotating teams of whirling, drumming, brightly-garbed folk dancers representing different parts of the vast Arabian peninsula.

Children sat transfixed by its lightning paced laser show. Visitors of all ages enjoyed stepping into its life-sized replicas of a Saudi market place and coffee house. The full-scale gate to the holy mosque in Mecca and the embroidered covering for the Holy Kaaba, Islam's most sacred shrine, were not replicas but the real thing, since both are regularly replaced in Mecca.

Fabled Hospitality

Also very much the real thing were the friendly Saudi students, recruited as part time guides from nearby universities, who wrote visitors' names in Arabic calligraphy, and generally introduced any American who had the time to talk to the fabled "hospitality of the east."

In the words of its creator, Dr. Shihab Jamjoom, the vast exhibition, smaller versions of which still are traveling throughout the world, "was designed to provide the personal experience of a one-hour visit to Saudi Arabia. " It was a project he had been working on since 1976, when he presented the concept as part of his graduate studies at the University of Southern California.

Nor was the ambitious exhibition the first venture in educational image-making by this American-educated Saudi Ministry of Information official. In 1984, with the strong support of Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Dr. Jamjoom set up headquarters in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic games, in which a Saudi soccer team was competing.

He seized upon public interest in the Olympics to inform Americans of Saudi Arabia's vast economic development program, through a series of paid television spots and advertisements in US newspapers and magazines. The advertisements pictured the Saudi team on its own grassy playing field in a stadium in Saudi Arabia. The text pointed out that only 10 years earlier, Saudi teams would have had difficulty finding a grass-covered field on which to play.

Unprecedented Development Pace

Such is the unprecedented pace of development in Saudi Arabia, a country determined to modernize services it provides its own citizens and between one and two million Islamic pilgrims who visit every year, while preserving its heritage as the birthplace of Islam, and the site of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina associated with the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

During the Gulf war of 1990-1991, Saudi Arabia's Information Ministry met the greatest challenge in its history. A country which seldom had issued visas to more than a dozen foreign journalists at a time was suddenly dealing with an unprecedented journalistic invasion. At the height of the Vietnam War, there were seldom, if ever, more than 500 foreign journalists in South Vietnam. In Saudi Arabia, there seldom were fewer than 400, and at times the number surged to 1,300. Altogether, between 6,000 and 7,000 foreign journalists visited Saudi Arabia between the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Feb. 27 cease-fire.

Together with military public affairs officers of some 20 coalition countries, the Saudi government set up media centers in Riyadh, the capital; Dhahran in the Eastern Province, where most of the foreign forces were concentrated; and, initially, in Jiddah ' It was from these centers, over which a serene Shihab Jamjoom personally presided, that the US, British, and Saudi commanders and their spokespersons conducted daily televised briefings.

Dr. Shihab Jamjoom, the man who throughout Desert Shield and Desert Storm was once again at the center of the image his country projects to the world, was born in 1941, one of three sons and four daughters of a Jiddah businessman whose family had been, for centuries, merchants and entrepreneurs in this port of entry for pilgrims from throughout the Islamic world.

His primary education was in Egypt and his secondary education was in Saudi Arabia. In 1970, he took a BA at the University of California at Los Angeles in theatrical arts and minored in educational media.

He joined the family business, as expected, upon returning to Saudi Arabia. After a year, however, he was invited by what came later to be King Saud University to establish a program in educational television. In 1976, he returned to Los Angeles for four years of graduate studies at the University of Southern California. This time, when he returned with a degree in media management, he was invited to bring to life his concept of a multi-media presentation of "the Saudi experience. " He never again left the Ministry of Information in Riyadh, although his wife, eight daughters and one son all still live in Jiddah, to which he commutes on weekends.

“I personally gained exactly what Saudi Arabia gained, a large number of friends”

"It was a great experience, " Dr. JamJoom says of the press influx that accompanied Desert Shield. As with the earlier projects, in which he enjoyed the backing of Information Minister Ali Al-Sha'er in the Saudi capital as well as that of Prince Bandar in Washington, there was debate within the government about allowing such a horde of journalists into conservative Saudi Arabia.

"I wish there had been more time to take more of the journalists around to meet more Saudis, " Dr. JamJoom muses. "We did that whenever journalists expressed interest, and I personally gained exactly what Saudi Arabia gained, a large number of friends."

Characteristically, he's now thinking about a project interrupted by the war. In 1989 he brought to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC for an invitational showing an excerpt from a film encompassing many aspects of Saudi Arabia prepared by the multi-camera process called I-Max. The completed film will be similar to the famous Air and Space Museum film, "To Fly," which nearly surrounds the visitor, creating the impression that the viewer is a part of the activity depicted. Now he wants to get on with finishing and showing this new film.

When he finishes presiding over the "total immersion " in Saudi Arabia experienced by an unprecedently large press corps covering the Gulf war, Shihab Jamjoom expects to pick up exactly where he left off. making friends for his country by exporting "the Saudi experience" on film to interested audiences all over the globe.

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.