Saudi Arabia Uncovered: ITV series exposes brutal regime

Amid beheadings and widespread poverty, documentary asks why we are friends with the Saudis

David Cameron with Prince Khalid bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz
David Cameron chats to Prince Khalid bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia in 2012
(Image credit: Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images)

A new documentary for ITV's Exposure current affairs series seeks to reveal the hidden reality of life in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia Uncovered, which is aired tonight, uses access to an underground network of young activists to reveal aspects of daily life including executions in Chop Chop Square in Riyadh, sexual repression and poverty.

The footage "sheds light on largely unseen corners of life in the Kingdom", says the Radio Times. It focuses on "prisons in chaos, poverty on the streets and the religious police enforcing fundamentalism".

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It adds that the documentary combines "shocking undercover footage and heart-breaking personal stories" and asks "whether it is time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia".

Indeed, "for all that we are supposed to regard Saudi Arabia as an ally, we know little of life inside the kingdom", says Andrew Mueller in The Guardian. The country does little to encourage independent reporting or tourism, "almost as if it has something to hide".

The documentary speaks to experts "to reinforce the case that Saudi Arabia funds the fundamentalism abroad it imposes at home", adds Mueller, who says the footage, shot by undercover camera operators, creates a portrait that is "far from flattering".

It's a sickening documentary, says Rob Virtue in Daily Express, who points to "horror footage" of five headless bodies - said to belong to robbers - hanging on a pole as a reminder to the public not to step out of line. In another brutal example of Saudi oppression, he says, a woman is held down on a roadside while a policeman decapitates her with a sword.

Saudi Arabia Uncovered also includes interviews with those living under the brutal dictatorship, where women are considered second-class citizens, adds Virtue. They "bravely speak out against the regime, risking the wrath of the state where blasphemy is punishable by stoning", he says.

But does the documentary show us anything we didn't already know, John Humphrys asked its producer, James Jones, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. We know about the floggings and beheadings, said Humphrys, so "what's new?"

In reply, Jones said the footage of poverty was "a closely held secret". Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter in the world and the side we normally see is luxury shopping malls and the royal family's wealth. But, the producer added, filmmakers found hundreds of women begging on the streets and that "the oil crash has hit the economy hard". Almost a quarter of Saudis are living in poverty, said Jones.

But the key thing, he argued, is that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Britain and our foreign minister has recently defended the behaviour of the regime, which it wouldn't do for Syria, for example.

"It's this fundamental hypocrisy and double standard that is worth exploring," said Jones.

Saudi Arabia Uncovered airs on ITV tonight at 10.40pm

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