Shifting sands

My following article appeared in… yesterday’s Guardian Comment is Free section:

Western impressions of Saudi Arabia have inevitably changed since September 11. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers came from the kingdom and a number of Saudis have been discovered fighting against the Americans in Iraq. Beheadings with a sword in public 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 visit the kingdom, but the reality has been far removed from my own preconceptions. It is certainly confronting to see most women wearing the abaya, their face and body completely covered in black. Women can’t work in shops and nor can they drive. Cinemas are non-existent. The searing heat – during my visit it was not unusual to experience 47-degree days and 40 degrees at night – makes so-called normal activities a draining experience. But the kingdom is changing, little recognised in the west.

Blogging has exploded, with estimates of around 4,000-5,000 blogs that are regularly updated. Unlike Iran or Egypt, where bloggers are routinely harassed, jailed and tortured, Saudi Arabia does not imprison bloggers, though many bloggers that I met knew the general boundaries of debate. One can never criticise King Abdullah nor discuss corruption in the royal family. In the last 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. He is a Shia 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 blogging was starting to give men and women the chance to gradually push for change (though he noted that some bloggers were religious conservatives, opposed to any societal openings). His latest 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) banks HQ’s have been a mixed work places for years.

There are numerous signs of change in both Jeddah and the capital, Riyadh. 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 clearly the exception rather than the rule, but they show, as I discovered in Iran, that the public and private spaces are clearly defined. 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 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 in doing so. In Saudi Arabia, I was struck by the highly westernised young people – more so than anywhere else in the region – and the intense desire to change the negative western perceptions of their country. Their view of Washington’s goals was uniformly harsh, however, mainly due to Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and the seemingly unending support for the Saudi regime.

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

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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