A British television crew recently filmed an undercover documentary in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to penetrate the world’s most secretive and murderous regime. Working with a team of undercover Saudi cameramen, the one hour eye-opener, Exposure: Saudi Arabia Uncovered, was broadcast by ITV on March 22. It reveals the hidden side of the regime, which buys billions of pounds worth of British arms, accepts training from British security forces, sells oil back to the U.K., and enjoys nothing less than red carpet treatment from the British royal family.
After setting up a fake company, the crew flew into Riyadh posing as businessmen, wielding carefully concealed hidden cameras. For cover, they said they were in the country to attend a business conference on cyber-security. What they discovered was a state that beheads — and even crucifies — its citizens; where women lack basic human rights and its children are indoctrinated. Patrolled by religious police, citizens are tortured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death for writing blogs and questioning authority. It sounds like the Islamic State, but it’s not — it’s the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And it is fully propped up by Europe and the United States.
The mind-boggling documentary reveals how Saudi Arabia’s money and Wahhabi ideology has helped drive terrorism around the world. Shining a light on Britain’s shoulder-rubbing with the ruling royals, the production has pushed the U.K. government to admit they have provided more than 300 Saudi police officers with training since 2012.
“A necessary evil”
In January 2015, the Union Jack flew at half-mast at Westminster as a mark of respect for the death of Saudi ruler, King Abdullah. During the same month, young Saudi blogger Raif Badawi received 50 lashes in public. Convicted of insulting Islam after blogging about his government and religion, quoting Albert Camus, he wrote:
"The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Comments like this earned the father of three 1,000 total lashes and ten years in prison.
“We don’t approve of what Saudi Arabia does, we don’t like what they do, but they are a necessary evil in combating other regimes,” former Head of International Terrorism, Colonel Richard Kemp, told ITV.
“And of course, ultimately they have a lot of oil,” he added.
Undercover cameraman Yasser is from an underground network of Saudi activists. He risked life and limb to provide a window into the brutal and secretive country where the King is all powerful, journalists cannot operate without a minder, and dissent is a cardinal sin. In the country, which is home of some of Islam’s holiest sites, the Saudi state oil company is worth £7 trillion. The royal family is worth billions. In contrast, an estimated quarter of the population lives in poverty, and numerous women were filmed begging and being beaten in the streets.
It is estimated that only one in five Saudi women of working age are employed. They are banned from driving and struggle to perform simple tasks, such as going to the doctor without a male guardian. But some are fighting back, and prominent human rights activist Loujain Hathloul has become the face of the Saudi women’s rights movement.
Moments after uploading videos of herself driving — as part of a campaign to change the ban against it — the activist was arrested for trying to enter Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates while behind the wheel. Imprisoned for 73 days without trial, she remains banned from traveling. Terrorism charges also were filed against her. Facing persistent death threats towards her and her family, for some she is a hero. For others, she is a hate figure.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice
The religious police, officially known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, patrol streets and shopping malls enforcing strict Islamic laws. Yasser films himself and his friend as they are violently stopped from playing a lute outside. Playing music in public is forbidden, and their instrument and hidden camera are smashed. In other instances, religious police force women to cover themselves and drive people out of cafes to pray.
This strict form of Sunni Islam is known as Wahhabism, and it is the religion on which Saudi Arabia was founded. It is thought that the majority of Saudis support the state ideology, and the activists film a preacher spreading hatred of other religions and the Shia minority. Children are shown being indoctrinated by school textbooks, made in Saudi Arabia and exported to the world.
“No country is the perfect ally, perfect partner, without any reservations whatsoever. Welcome to the real world, welcome to the premier league,” said former CIA Director, General David Petraeus.
Director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, Ali al-Ahmed, said the Saudi education system was created as a security measure to protect the ruling family and mislead millions of students into hatred of other religions and cultures. Some say the state has made progress in removing some of the worst examples of hatred from its textbooks, but the books can still be found in mosques and schools around the world.
Al-Ahmed added, “It’s no wonder that thousands of Saudis joined ISIS and other terror groups because they were trained in Saudi schools.”
“Chop Chop Square”
In 2015, Saudi Arabia executed 157 people. Traditional punishments are employed, and executions are often carried out in public by one sword blow to the neck. Headless bodies are sometimes displayed publicly, and the documentary shows harrowing footage of a Burmese woman screaming for mercy as she is beheaded in the street.
Yasser says many Saudis are angry but cannot speak out due to fear of imprisonment, adding that the regime relies on secrecy; criticism of the government is considered an act of terror. The film crew visits one of Saudi Arabia’s most notorious landmarks, known as Chop Chop Square. It is the scene of many of the regime’s public executions and has drains in the ground for blood.
Since 9/11, Saudi Arabia has attempted to show the world they are tackling terrorism. The regime has clamped down on private donations to extremists from inside the Kingdom and carried out airstrikes against ISIS. They deny they are supporting the terror group, but many feel it is the underlying Wahhabi Salafi ideology that is the wider problem.
Former Director of Political Islam of the CIA, Emile Nakleh told ITV:
“The ideology of ISIS is not much different from the ideology that Wahabi Salafi Islam in Saudi adheres to. Unless the Saudis deal with this issue, we are going to constantly fight yesterday’s wars. Even if we defeat ISIS there will be another terrorist organisation, perhaps with a different name, as long as they have this ideology.”
Unwilling to tolerate dissent and fiercely opposed to sharing power, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people in January of this year — its largest mass execution since 1980. Some were convicted terrorists, but others were political activists. Footage smuggled out by activists has revealed that the executions sparked the largest public protests since the Arab Spring.
Since the mass executions, Yasser has stopped filming undercover. He claims it is just too risky continue, which, of course, is exactly what these public displays of punishment are all about. Although activists are being forced underground, the spread of mobile phones and cameras means it is becoming impossible for the regime to control what the world sees.
While in the country pretending to be traders, the filmmakers’ website was hacked, leading them to believe their cover was blown. As a result, they promptly left the country.
The documentary ends with a statement from the Saudi authorities condemning the covert filming by ITV:
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia utterly rejects the partisan nature and sensationalist tone of this documentary which sets out to portray the country in a negative and unbalanced light. The Kingdom’s legal system is based on the due process of Islamic Sharia Law. The Kingdom is at the forefront of international efforts to combat terrorism and will pursue anyone who supports and funds terrorist activities. To suggest otherwise is a slur. In keeping with its biased agenda, ITV chose to undertake covert filming when they could have applied for and received a journalistic visa, like many of their counterparts.”
The full documentary, Exposure: Saudi Arabia Uncovered, can be viewed here.