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The Taboo About Photography in Saudi Arabia

I was in Saudi Arabia during the last three years and according to my personal experience, it is very difficult to practise photography in Saudi Arabia.

Before August 2006 photography was not allowed in Saudi Arabia. There are signboards that read 'No Photography' at several places including historical and famous mosques like The Prophet`s Mosque and Qiblatain Mosque. You are not allowed to photograph any governmental institutions, that is, government schools, mosques (since all mosques are owned and strictly supervised by the government), airports, military bases, public facilities, palaces and any other governmental buildings.

I was once arrested by security police for having taken a photograph of a building in an educational institution. They took away my camera without giving any explanation. Later, I was asked to sign a form that says I will never take pictures again in that location. It was only after giving a lengthy elucidation upon my intention, that they returned me my camera, however they kept the film.

On another occasion, I and some of my friends decided to spend the night camping in an open-air recreational park in the desert in Madina named as Muntazah Baidah. The locals used to come here among families especially during weekends. That night, I decided to have some shots of the desert plants in the vicinity. I was trying out some techniques with a flash unit. Unintentionally it happened that I pointed my camera in the direction where a family was camping some 60 meters away. After a while I saw a man in white garb approaching with an angry face. He rebuked me for taking pictures of his family and asked us to camp further away.

In the village of Buraidah, I was once arrested by two policemen for photographing a mosque. I was released only upon the intervention of my Saudi friend.

Even at Madain Salih, one of the most famous archaeological site in Saudi Arabia, you should be careful when using your camera. At the entrance of the site, there are instruction signboards that I would like to photograph. Soon I was summoned by the police and he checked each and every image on my digital camera.

Journalists have to endure difficulties on a daily basis to take photos in public. I am sure that many visitors who have once been to Saudi Arabia with a camera will have similar experiences to tell.

But why you are not allowed to photograph even at these locations? Is it because of Islamic teachings or the local customs or because of the government`s restriction upon your liberty and freedom? So why all these taboos about photography?

According to me, I think that this attitude towards photography is created by the Saudi government first, not as many people would have you believe that it is due to Islamic beliefs. What does the government have to hide to the world? Since Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship regime, they would not like and would not allow anybody to document the Saudi government`s actions. Nobody has the right to criticise, comment or even make a suggestion on a particular decision or action taken by the government and a picture is said to be worthy a thousand words. The royal family has police forces under the guise of so called `religious police` to ensure that you abide to their rules that suit their personal interests.

Secondly, because of local customs. The camera is seen as an intrusion upon privacy. Just having a camera hanging around your neck will surely attract attentions and even comments, whether you are in your car, on the streets or at public places. I had the locals staring and shouting at me as a means of deterrence not to use my camera. They may even report you to the authorities.

But, why nowadays do they allow photography? It is not because they would like to, but because they are forced to accept it due to international pressures and due to the precarious situation of the Saudi economy. As unemployment rate has soared within recent years, the royal family is seeking ways to generate revenue other than oil. They need to promote tourism at an international level to diversify their economy. Photography is now seen as a medium to advertise the country to the world to encourage tourism.

Even after lifting the ban on photography, I think that it will take many more years to get the locals accustomed to it.

Related article -§ion=0&article=72180&d=24&m=10&y=2005; an article depicting to what extent photography is a taboo in Saudi Arabia.

Zubeyr Kureemun is a travel photographer. You may see some of his photos and articles on his website here