Kingdom of Contrasts


The Western impression of Saudi Arabia has inevitably changed since September 11, 2001.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers came from the Kingdom and a number of Saudis have been discovered fighting against the US in Iraq. Public beheadings  are routine and the relationship between the Bush Administration and the Saudi Royal Family is highly secretive. Oil does the talking.

Very few Western journalists ever visit Saudi Arabia, but the reality of the country has not matched my own pre-conceptions. It is certainly confronting to see most women wearing the abaya, their faces and body completely covered in black. Women can’t work in shops, nor can they drive. Cinemas are non-existent. The searing heat during my recent visit it was not unusual to experience 47 degree days and 40 degree nights makes so-called ‘normal’ activities a draining experience.

But although it’s little recognised in the West, Saudi Arabia is changing.

For example, even though King Abdullah is always referred to in newspapers and on TV as the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,’ I noted virtually no respect for him. One blogger told me that the King’s public speeches were embarrassingly rambling. Another mark of change is that blogging has exploded here, with estimates of around 4000-5000 regularly updated blogs based in the country. Unlike Iran or Egypt, where bloggers are routinely harassed, jailed and tortured, Saudi Arabia does not imprison bloggers, though many that I met knew that there were general boundaries of debate that should not be overstepped one can never openly criticise King Abdullah nor discuss corruption in the Royal Family, for instance. In recent years, however, some bloggers have continued to push the limits of Governmental acceptance.

Take Saudi Jeans, the most famous Saudi blog, founded by Ahmed al-Omran three years ago.

Al-Omran is a Shi’a Muslim in a predominantly Sunni country. He told me that blogging was never going to bring significant change to his country due to the fact that political debate had no precedent in the Kingdom, but it was giving men and women the chance to gradually push for change (though he also noted that some bloggers were religious conservatives, opposed to any societal libewralisation).

A recent post  highlights this growing struggle between reformers and Islamic hard-liners:

Few weeks ago I was talking with a friend of mine who works in the HQ of the Saudi Hollandi Bank when he told me that squads of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice have raided his workplace lately. He said the Commission were not happy about the mixed work environment there and demanded that the Bank segregate men from women. At that time I thought the Bank would ignore the Commission’s calls because a) it is none of their business, and b) bank’ HQs have been mixed work places for years.

Another blogger in Riyadh, American Bedu, is an American woman married to a Saudi man. A former US diplomat who had worked in Iraq for a defence contractor soon after the 2003 invasion she joined the war because she was a ‘patriot’ but ‘the war will probably go down as one of the worst failures in US history.’ She felt, like another American woman  in a similar position here, that many Westerners felt sorry for her situation when she in fact loved living in Saudi Arabia.

Her focus was on women’s rights and the hope that Saudi women would become more proactive in seeking appropriate medical care. She said that many of her friends were even reluctant to get a mammogram. Her step-daughter wanted to study journalism, but no universities in the Kingdom offered this course for women. She would have to study English or move abroad.

There are numerous signs of change both in Jeddah and in the capital, Riyadh. A recent best-selling book, written by a Saudi woman and initially banned, talks about a Saudi lesbian in diary form. A locally-made TV drama discusses the trend of wealthy Saudi women having affairs with their male drivers. A friend here told me that he had attended a lesbian party in Jeddah with hundreds of women, cocaine, hashish, strippers and techno music.

Such events are the exception rather than the rule, but show, as I discovered in Iran, the clear delineation between public and private spaces. In more liberal cities like Jeddah, women can be seen wearing a hijab instead of the abaya. It’s said that women are probably driving in the heavily tinted Mercedes-Benz cars seen speeding around the cities. There is now public discussion that women should be allowed to work in shops that sell ‘female’ items, like make-up and lingerie.

Bloggers across the Arab world are challenging the political status quo like never before, despite the risks involved in doing so. In Saudi Arabia, many young people that I met were highly Westernised more so than anywhere else in the region and the intense desire to change negative Western perceptions of their country. Their view of Washington was uniformly harsh, however, mainly due to Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and the seemingly unending support for the Saudi regime.

Watching State-run television one night in Riyadh, I was struck by a one-hour talk show called On the Chess Board. The topic was the recent announcement of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s appointment as Middle East envoy for the quartet of US, UN, EU and Russia Independent (UK) correspondent Robert Fisk has already expressed appropriate cynicism towards the news. Although the program was fairly amateurish in terms of aesthetics and delivery and criticism of the Saudi regime was non-existent the debate went far deeper than most equivalent programs in the West.

Video reports from London, Baghdad and Ramallah gauged public opinion on the Blair job, followed by interviews with analysts in London, Baghdad and East Jerusalem. There was rational discussion about Israel, its occupation of Palestinian land, Palestinian failings, the 2006 Lebanon War and the Iraq debacle. Although the mustachioed host concluded by saying that Blair ‘should be given the benefit of the doubt’ in his new role, there was no overt demonisation of Israel. Zionism was certainly slammed, as were Blair’s lies over Iraq’s non-existent WMDs, but a variety of views were canvassed. Arab satellite channels like Al-Jazeera have undoubtedly changed the equation; viewers now simply expect more from their news programs.

Any change within Saudi society will have to come from within. Outside pressure would be vigorously rejected. The Las Vegas-style shopping malls and Hummers and Ferraris roaring around the streets suggest an embrace of a kind of globalisation. Walking past the shops of Prada, Armani, Guess, Chanel and a host of other elite brands, I could have been in Singapore, Dubai, LA or Sydney. For many Saudis, I was told, this thought comforted them.

One media analyst told me: ‘Fifty years ago, Saudi Bedouins were riding around on camels, and now they’re using mobile phones and laptops. It will take time for society
to catch up with the technology.’

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.