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Closed Society, Heat Make Reporting Difficult in Saudi Arabia

August 19, 1990

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Western reporters are finding that the challenge of reporting in a society that has been virtually closed to foreigners until now is as stiff as working in heat that often soars above 100 degrees.

Although the Saudi government allowed the Defense Department to chaperone a small pool of reporters in the country more than a week ago, it was not until the last few days that the kingdom agreed to grant visas for open coverage to more than a dozen journalists.

When the thumbs-up came on visas, the networks were ready.

″We are hitting the ground running,″ NBC-TV’s ″Today″ show co-host Bryant Gumbel said as he plotted the day’s work Sunday with two producers in the coffee shop of the Dhahran International Hotel.

Gumbel and at least a score of other foreign television and news reporters have arrived in Saudi Arabia, more than two weeks after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait.

The thousands of American troops President Bush dispatched to defend this desert kingdom have turned Saudi Arabia into the hottest news story around - literally.

Habib Shaheen, a spokesman for the Saudi government, said the number of reporters in the country was unprecedented. The last time he dealt with all four television networks here was three years ago when Iranians attacked Mecca, he said.

On Saturday, the Saudi government flew reporters - including some of the biggest names in television - to Jiddah, 1,000 miles away, for interviews with top officials.

Ever sensitive to the draw of television, the government arranged for NBC’s Tom Brokaw, ABC’s Sam Donaldson and CBS’ Bob Simon to have individual interviews with the Saudi oil minister and the foreign minister.

″Very smooth,″ Donaldson pronounced after his 10 minutes with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister. Al-Faisal, clad in his traditional flowing robe and red headdress, spoke in flawless English as he recounted Saudi Arabia’s insistence that Iraqi troops leave Kuwait.

The Saudis’ decision to open their borders awed some reporters who until now have spent years trying to penetrate the kingdom.

″We would wait forever just to get one interview and now we have three top officials in one day,″ said Barnie Mason of BBC radio.

Although the Saudis appear to be amenable to open coverage, Gumbel said he thought it might be difficult to really find out what is happening in the country, where some citizens are not keen on opening their society.

″We have a different culture; please be kind to us,″ said Ahmad Al-Otiri, an F-15 pilot.

He said he hated television reports that seemed to be critical of Saudi Arabia, such as one that focused on Saudi displeasure at American soldiers wearing tee-shirts.

And a high-ranking Saudi official said the reluctance for publicity ″has not been forgotten.″

Whatever the news, the logistics for covering it are formidable.

CNN’s Carl Rochelle was the pool reporter who flew to Saudi Arabia with the Defense Department. Once in the country, he and his technicians had to set up a portable satellite Earth station at the Dhahran Air Base.

The heat was so intense that one technician was overcome and military officials were forced to install an air conditioner in a tent.

″We’ve learned to drink a lot of water,″ said Tom Mote, a CNN cameraman.

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