Aramco can afford it. You think Exxon, the world’s most profitable company, is big? (Exxon’s 2006 profits: $39.5 billion on sales of $347 billion). Multiply Exxon’s production capacity by about 20, and you get Aramco, which controls virtually all of Saudi Arabia’s oil production and exports. Two years ago Aramco announced plans to invest $50 billion in the nation’s oil infrastructure to pump up production to 12.5 million barrels per day by 2009 (production is not quite 11 million barrels per day for now, where it’s been stuck for many years). In other words, Aramco dwarfs Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips (all five of which are among the world’s 10 biggest companies) combined.
No wonder it’s giving away its magazine. What Goliath wouldn’t want to soften up its image as much as possible? The Saudis have a doubly difficult task: They’re Big Oil to the power of 20, and they’re progenitors of Wahhabism, the Middle East’s most puritanical form of Islam next to, maybe, the Taliban’s armed-and-dangerous variety. A little gloss, published in Houston, comes in handy.
Take that lead story cleverly titled “Go West, Young Imam” (Saudi Arabia makes no secret of its other big export: Islam by all subsidies necessary). It’s a profile of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s wonderful show, “Little Mosque on the Prairie” (this clip from last year’s season opener will give you a taste, with plenty more on YouTube).
The show is a creation of Zarqa Nawaz, a Muslim born in Liverpool, England, and raised in Toronto until she moved to the prairie town of Regina, Saskatchewan’s provincial capital. Neighbors called the cops when she and her husband started unpacking; They were worried about Muslims in their midst. It was inspiration to Nawaz, who developed the television sit-com based on a Muslim community living in the Canadian prairie.
Bridging East and West
What better way to foster Aramco’s stated aim of increasing “cross-cultural understanding”? Nawaz tells the magazine, “They always say that Muslims are this foreign ‘other’ that ‘we Canadians’ can’t relate to—yet when people watch this show, they say, ‘This could be me, this could be my wife, these could be my kids—even though I’m not Muslim.”
The irony, of course, is that even though “Little Mosque on the Prairie” is prominently featured in a Saudi Arabian magazine intended for western audiences, the show wouldn’t make it past the censors in Saudi Arabia proper. It’s too incendiary: women have a strong, independent voice (a non-Muslim woman is mayor of the town where the show is set), humor and Islam are not mutually exclusive, and—gasp!—the local Anglican minister rents out his hall to the Muslims so it can double-up as a mosque. (Christians and other non-Muslims are forbidden from setting foot in Saudi Arabia’s holy sites, Mecca’s Qaaba tops among them. So when France sent a contingent of special forces to help end the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque by Muslim militants, the soldiers had to convert to Islam before setting foot inside the mosque.) Maybe (certainly) the show is more Canada than anything else. But then, what’s to keep Saudi Arabia from learning a thing or two from it? Maybe it should distribute its magazine in its own streets, schools and mosques. Have I mentioned that it can afford it?