Two years after the Arab Spring awoke demons and democracy in the Middle East, I went to see whether changes had roiled the lands of royals.
From public execution sites to glittering shopping malls, from desert wadis to soaring five-star hotels, the modern Middle East is a study in contrasts. This winter, I shed my hat as a political advisor and went as a tourist — to get a bit of sun before heading back to Yale University to teach a course on Middle East politics, but also to see how the Arab Spring has touched the monarchies of the region. I had toured some of the republics — Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia — in 2011, and I found them in various stages of revolt against their rulers. This time, I headed to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Jordan to hear what their people thought of their leaders and to try to get a sense of whether the kings and sultans of the Arab world still feel safe on their thrones. This is my journey.
“Here is Chop Chop Square,” my Bangladeshi escort informed me, pointing to a square that was so named because it was the site of previous executions. We were exiting the museum at Masmak fort, which Ibn Saud had captured in 1902, thereby reasserting his family’s control over their ancestral home of Riyadh. He went on in 1922 to conquer the Nejd, the center of the Arabian Peninsula, and in 1925 to take the Hejaz, the western coast that includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina — establishing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 out of these dominions.
Ibn Saud fathered 45 sons (as well as numerous daughters), and following his death in 1953 up until today, the kings of Saudi Arabia have all been sons of Ibn Saud.
I had never previously visited the kingdom — nor had I desired to, frankly. My earliest image of the country had been formed by watching Death of a Princess, a 1980 docudrama about a Saudi princess who was executed in the square for adultery. But friends of mine had recently moved to Saudi Arabia. And how can one try to understand the Middle East’s past — or its potential futures — without visiting the country where Islam began?
I checked the buttons on my abaya to ensure I was fully covered before striding onward into the square. I had purchased the simple black robe a month earlier in Brooklyn. The shop owner had proudly shown me the latest fashions, embroidered with glitz and bling. I insisted that I was only looking for a functional garment.
“I am going to Saudi,” I told him. “I just need a black cloak to throw over my clothes.” Disappointed, he took me to the backroom to view the cheap abayas. I tried one on. “It looks beautiful on you,” the shop owner insisted. “We can take it in at the sides to show your figure more.”
I told him it would not be necessary. “It’s a burqa, for goodness sake. I am not going to Saudi in search of a husband!” An old Arab woman, seated in the corner of the store and dressed in full Muslim garb, laughed out loud.
As a woman, I was not permitted to venture out on my own in Saudi Arabia. I was supposed to always be accompanied by a husband or male relative. However, for reasons that I did not want to fathom, Asian men are allowed to escort foreign women. The country is awash with Asian workers, brought in to do the jobs that Saudis regard as beneath them. The government, faced with a demographic youth bulge and growing unemployment, had recently embarked on a policy of Saudization, using tax incentives to encourage firms to employ Saudis and cut down on the numbers of foreign workers.
My Bangladeshi escort showed me around Riyadh. I was expecting it to be like cutting-edge Dubai, and I was surprised that the city was not more modern. The public spaces were not well cared for, and the roads were poorly maintained. Yet there was considerable wealth in private spaces: Over tall walls, I could peep at opulent mansions — substantial buildings, two or three stories high. Saudi Arabia’s GDP per capita stands at $24,000, but that figure gives no sense of the gulf between rich and poor.
We visited Dariya, an old neighborhood of Riyadh, in which the houses were made out of mud. The area was being restored, but the Saudi foreman allowed me to wander through the dusty streets. I took photos with my brand-new iPad mini, which I showed to the foreman expecting to impress him with the latest technology. The foreman took out his iPhone 5, grinning at me. All the latest Apple products were already available in Saudi Arabia.
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By chance, I was invited to ladies tea one afternoon and had a glimpse of life behind the walls. I discarded my abaya immediately on entering the house, and soon my eyes were bulging at the apparel of my fellow guests — cleavage-revealing tops, Prada handbags, 3-inch heels. In an effort to have us all mingle, the host proposed “speed-dating.” So I found myself moving from sofa to sofa, while grabbing mouthfuls of food and gulping tea.
One woman told me how her divorced husband had prevented her children from traveling outside the country. He had received a text from the airport authorities when she and her children had tried to fly out of Riyadh.
I asked her why women in Saudi Arabia put up with all these restrictions on their lives. “King Abdullah is a modernizer, but he is pushing against traditional forces which are very resistant to change,” she explained. “Women were not so much scared of the mutawwa [religious police] but feared being ostracized by their families. The alternative to the monarchy is religious conservatives — and that would make the position of women even worse.”
She told me that Saudi society had not been so strict when she was growing up. Things changed, however, after Islamist dissidents seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 during the annual hajj (pilgrimage). The two-week battle left over 200 dead. In its aftermath, the monarchy chose to co-opt its Islamist opponents by enforcing stricter Islamic codes.
Despite the kingdom’s great wealth, its education system was a disaster, and as a result, King Abdullah established a scholarship program, run by the Ministry of Higher Education, to send tens of thousands of Saudis overseas for undergraduate and postgraduate study. Now they were returning to Saudi. “This is bound to have an impact on the society one way or another,” my tea companion said.
A beautiful young woman told me she was convinced that change was coming to Saudi Arabia. “The country cannot withstand the influence of the Arab Spring,” she said. “However, we do not look at Egypt as the model.” Saudis, skeptical of the chaos in Cairo and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, largely do not see any good coming from the overthrow of the kingdom’s old ally, Hosni Mubarak.
This allergy to revolution is part and parcel of Saudi society. Sitting in a cafe in an international compound — where it was forbidden to wear an abaya — a Western diplomat explained to me how the national religion of Saudi Arabia, Salafism, is “quietist,” encouraging Saudis to support the maintenance of the status quo. The monarchy is hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, viewing it as a shadowy underground movement that aims to upend the status quo across the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia. Saudi leaders view the Arab Spring as a conspiracy — backed by the West — to bring the Brotherhood to power.
At dinner one evening, an Arab diplomat told me that Saudi Arabia sees the world differently from its Arab brothers because it was never colonized by European powers. “The king,” he said, “was fearful of Iran and its ambitions. He believes Iran was trying to destabilize the Saudi regime through its Shiite population.”
The Arab diplomat told me that this obsession with Iran defines how Saudi Arabia sees the Middle East. The king is hostile toward Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki not because he is Shiite but because he has not fulfilled a promise to move forward with reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis — and because the king regards Maliki as a puppet of Iran. Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad maintained cordial relations with the king, and before he died in 2000 had even asked the Saudi monarch to look after his son, Bashar. The king, however, has turned against Bashar for not reining in Hezbollah, for Syria’s alleged involvement in the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and for maintaining close ties with Iran.
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A trip to Riyadh would not be complete without a trip to the mall. It was a bizarre experience: All the stores were Western — McDonald’s, Marks & Spencer, Zara, Karen Millen. But the mannequins had all been decapitated, in deference to Wahhabi sensibilities. And there were no changing rooms in the shops for women. I had only been in Saudi Arabia a few days, but the place was already having an effect on me. I bought a tight-fitting, low-cut dress, covered in a bright print of women’s heads.
I spoke about the contradictions I had seen one evening to a Western diplomat. “Modernity for Saudis,” he suggested, “is a commodity that you can buy. It is Baskin-Robbins; it is the iPhone.”
“Modernity for us,” he reflected, “is Hobbes, Descartes, Hume … the French Revolution. We are cognitively modern, but we ache for the past. They are cognitively pre-modern, but they ache for the future.”
I went to bed wondering whether he was right. Cultural explanations about the Middle East had for years been discounted as “Orientalist,” with economic and political explanations gaining greater credence. But Saudi Arabia was weird — seriously weird. As far as I could make out, the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy came from the family’s history of conquest, its deal with the Wahhabis — and the fear of the alternative. The regime had been able to sustain itself through oil-based patronage, all the while leaning on a strong internal intelligence system to monitor opposition. The biggest threat to the Saudi regime appeared not to come from the public, but from within the monarchy itself, because disputes over succession could come to a head once Ibn Saud’s sons were all dead.
Nothing in Saudi was as it appeared. I was glad I had visited the kingdom. But I was also happy to get on the plane to Oman.
Sitting next to me on the flight to Muscat was a Palestinian man in his late 20s who worked for an American high-tech company and lived between Bahrain and Jordan. “What is the Arab Spring bringing?” he asked me rhetorically. “Nothing except for insecurity. I am so worried for the future of my children. I thought it was safe for them in Bahrain, but when the demonstrations broke out there, I sent them back to Jordan. And now there are growing problems in Jordan. I know this is going to sound crazy, but the safest place for them at the moment is in Ramallah in the West Bank.”
I had lunch on my first day in Muscat with a young Omani journalist. He told me that he had been involved in the protests in 2011, which had been small-scale but still surprised the regime. “We called for better governance and an end to corruption — not the overthrow of the regime,” he said.
I asked him whether the demonstrations had any lasting impact. “There were some protesters killed,” he told me. “But Sultan Qaboos made some changes: Ministers were replaced, and some new jobs were created. This calmed things down.” He told me that Oman had a parliament of sorts, the Majlis al-Shura, with 83 elected members. But it was the sultan who wielded real authority.
After the restrictions of Saudi Arabia, it was a relief to discard my abaya in Oman. Feeling free, I jumped in a taxi and headed down to Muttrah, the old part of town. I walked through the markets, eying the silver daggers, inhaling the frankincense. I wandered through the back streets, looking past the whitewashed houses to the fortresses perched on top of the mountains. I strolled along the corniche, sprayed by the waves crashing against the harbor wall.
I stopped in the vegetable market to admire the local produce. “Where are you from?” the old vegetable seller asked me. I told him I hailed from Britain.
“It is good there,” the old man nodded. “There is no chaos. Do you have rain?”
“Yes,” I said, “plenty of rain — too much, in fact.” I told him it was my first visit to Oman and that his country was beautiful. “We have security here,” he told me. “It is safe. The sultan is a good man.”
To explore Oman further, I hired a guide, Abdullah, who owned his own four-wheel drive car. He was in his late 40s and, like most Omanis, wore a white dishdasha (a long white robe) with a kumar (cap) on his head. On our first day out, we headed westward toward Jebel Akhdar, the “Green Mountain,” apparently so named due to the flora and fauna that sprouts up after it rains. Abdullah showed me the irrigation system, which was established 500 years ago and must have been among the most sophisticated in the world at the time. We left the car to head off on foot into the remote villages, built out of mud on rocky hillsides.
Every village, no matter how remote, had electricity around the clock. Abdullah pointed to places where the sultan camped out in order to hear the needs of the people. As I was to discover during my stay in Oman, Sultan Qaboos is extremely popular.
“We are mostly Ibadis — not Sunni or Shiite,” Abdullah told me. I asked him how Ibadis differed from other Muslims. He was not really able to answer the question, just saying, “We are very moderate and tolerant. We have good relations with everyone. We are the only Arab country to have good relations with Iran.”
Indeed, Oman has often acted as an intermediary between Iran and its Arab and Western antagonists. It played a crucial role in the release of three American hikers detained in Iran in 2011 — and in the papers that December morning, I read how the country had helped secure the release of an Iranian who had been detained a few years earlier in Britain as part of an American sting operation.
The roads were very good. Abdullah had downloaded an app on his smartphone that tracked our route. “She’s a good girl,” he said, decreasing speed when the female voice warned him of speed cameras. “She has saved me a lot of money.” We had the radio on in the car. Abdullah sang along to the songs; I kept the rhythm by clapping my hands and drumming on the dashboard.
A day or so later, I flew down to Salalah, close to the border with Yemen. The climate was tropical — not like anything I had ever experienced in the Middle East. I walked through a banana and coconut plantation and waved at the workers who invited me over to share a meal with them. I emerged from the plantation at a market, which was closed for Friday prayers. I wandered down to the sea, drawn by the sound of the ocean. Stretched out in front of me were miles of fine, pale yellow sand. I sat on the beach, alone with the birds. I was in paradise.
The next day, at the Samhuram museum, I watched a video that showed the great strides Oman has made since Sultan Qaboos took power in 1970, sending his father into exile in London. At the time, Oman was poor and faced an insurgency in this southern part of the country, known as the Dhofar. Sultan Qaboos had made a historic speech when he began his reign, saying that Oman had once been at the forefront of the Arab world and that it could become great again. He had toured the country, spending weeks sleeping in a large tent so that people could come to him to express their concerns and needs. He had offered an amnesty to the Dhofar rebels, cutting their supplies, eroding their support, and allowing those who surrendered to form irregular units. While Oman did not have the extravagant wealth of other Gulf countries, its oil revenues have enabled the country to emerge from poverty. Oman today has infrastructure that would make any Western country proud.
At the museum, I struck up a conversation with an American couple from Seattle in their late 60s or early 70s. As travelers are wont to do, we exchanged tales of previous journeys. I told them of how Salalah brought back memories of a trip I had made a quarter-century ago, when I had hitchhiked alone from Morocco across the Algerian Sahara in an effort to reach Timbuktu. I hadn’t been able to get there due to fighting, so instead had continued south through Benin, until I reached the coast. I had spent the night on the beach. I squirmed when the American man asked me where I was staying in Salalah. “The Hilton, but I got a good rate,” I admitted, trying to somehow negate my sense of guilt at my metamorphosis from backpacker to tourist.
“You know,” the American man told me, “I made it to Timbuktu in the 70s. Do you want to shake my hand?” I grabbed it. They had seen so much of the world and had once followed the hippie trail. “George W. Bush,” the woman announced, “destroyed the hope of the new century. Now Americans are so frightened of the world and don’t travel so much.”
My guide in Salalah was Asi, an Indian from Kerala. I had been expecting an Omani guide. “Omanis,” Asi informed me, “are never on time. And that is why I am your guide.”
Asi told me that Kerala was just like Salalah, with the same climate — coconut plantations everywhere. As we drove, I listened to tales of life in India, of black magic, of mischievous spirits, and of an elephant who had once chased Asi up a tree. Suddenly, as we were going downhill, Asi stopped the car, put it in neutral without the hand brake, and turned off the engine. The car began reversing up the hill on its own accord.
“You know why this is?” Asi asked. I shook my head. I was expecting him to tell me that the car was possessed by jinn. “It is because of the magnetic field,” he proudly announced.
With no other explanation, he turned on the engine, and we continued our drive up to Jebel Samhan, the tallest mountain in Salalah, avoiding the camels and cattle that continually crossed the road. Asi told me he had previously worked in Qatar. The money there was better, but Asians were treated like slaves. He liked Oman. People here were poorer, but treated Asians with greater respect.
The next morning we drove westward along the beautiful, jagged coastline before ascending up Jebel Qamar, the Mountain of the Moon. Frankincense trees grew among the ragged rocks. Beyond lay the Empty Quarter — an expanse of endless desert leading into Saudi Arabia and Yemen that had once attracted intrepid travelers such as the British explorer and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. Asi snapped photos on his smartphone, which he immediately sent to his wife in Kerala. He told me that they were newlyweds. It had been an arranged marriage. His family had sent photos of her, he had liked them, and he had paid a visit home to marry her a few months earlier. He was going to bring her to live in Salalah, where he was allowed to rent — but not buy — a place.
“What happens if you find out that you don’t like each other?” I asked.
Asi turned to me, saying sharply: “That is not our culture. We are not like in the West. We have different expectations. The marriage will of course work.”
He quickly moved the discussion to new technological developments such as driverless cars and trips to the moon. He told me how his father had lived a life similar to that of his grandfather — but how now, thanks to modern technology, his own life was very different than his father’s. Before I left, Asi made me promise to return to Salalah during the khareef season from July to October, when warm rains turned the landscape green.
I flew back to Muscat, where I explored more of the city and spoke with Omanis. Khaled, in his mid-30s, had once worked for the sultan, and he spoke of the sultan with great respect. He told me that the sultan was very popular among Omanis due to his care for his subjects. In 2007, he told me, a storm had flattened much of Muscat. The sultan visited the damaged sites and assured people that they would receive help.
Khaled told me it is unclear who will succeed the sultan, as he does not have any children. Khaled said the sultan had put the name of his proposed successor in a white book, which will be opened by the family after his death. If the family agrees with this name, then this person will be the new sultan. If there is no consensus, then they are supposed to find a different candidate they can agree on.
“Omanis want jobs and money to buy material goods,” Khaled told me. “They are not so interested in political freedoms and democracy.” Although Oman is a much wealthier country than it was in the past, Khaled said that his grandparents had told him that life had been better before — families spent more time together. Now, they said, people only connected on the phone.
On Christmas day, I drove with Abdullah to Wadi Shaab, about two hours south of Muscat. A small boat ferried us across the water. From there we hiked for 45 minutes through the spectacular valley until we arrived at the pools. I left my daypack with Abdullah, climbed down into the pools in my shorts, and swam through the turquoise water.
An Omani man appeared out of nowhere. “Hello, my name is Juma,” he told me. “Follow me, it is this way.”
I swam behind him. “Watch the rock here, be careful there,” he instructed. He spoke with such certainty that I followed his orders. We swam through a narrow keyhole into a covered cave, surrounded by glistening rocks. At one end, water cascaded down a waterfall. “You want to climb up?” Juma asked, “I will help you.”
Against my better judgment, I found myself following Juma, using a rope to help climb up the side of the waterfall. It was incredibly slippery, but Juma appeared to be half man and half fish, and advised me where to put my feet. Somehow, I emerged at the top of the waterfall, looking up at the steep sides of the wadi. I caught my breath and savored the view for about 10 minutes before climbing back down the waterfall and jumping into the water below.
I spent my last day in Oman at a market in the dusty town of Ibri, where Bedouin came to trade camels and goats and to buy food and guns. The women there had their faces covered with a strange contraption that looked like a leather thong, which was apparently supposed to block the sun. In the evening, I went to the opera house in Muscat to see The Nutcracker performed by a Russian production company.
I was sad to leave Oman after two weeks traveling around the country. It was the most beautiful country that I had ever visited in the Middle East — with the nicest people. It was clean. There was no hassle. It was safe. Its diverse peoples — the legacy of an empire that had once included Zanzibar and Somalia — identified as Omanis. And Sultan Qaboos appeared to be the best sort of leader that an oil rich country could hope for. But what will happen once he is gone?
“We are a monarchy, madam, not a republic,” the taxi driver responded when I asked him about the impact of the Arab Spring, as if that inoculated Jordan against the upheaval seizing the Middle East.
“We do not have ‘shaab yurid,'” he said, referring to the opening line of the slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people want…”
“Everyone loves the monarch. When King Hussein died, all the leaders of the world came to his funeral,” he said, before quickly reverting back to a topic of conversation with which he was happier — soccer.
“I love Manchester United!” he said. “England is number one in the world for football hooligans!” Some images remain hard to change.
I drank tea in a café in a trendy part of Amman with a brilliant analyst, a young American in search of his Jordanian roots. Iraq’s President Nouri al-Maliki had visited Jordan the previous week, ostensibly to agree to extend an oil pipeline through Jordan, thereby making Iraq less dependent on Turkey and Saudi Arabia for exports. Maliki had also offered Jordan 100,000 barrels of oil for free, as a goodwill gesture.
While this only amounted to one day’s consumption for Jordan, it was significant all the same. The Arab Gulf countries had promised Jordan $1 billion a year over five years to help the country with its economic crisis. However, only the Kuwaitis had paid up. The Saudis and Qataris had been withholding their aid, pressuring Jordan to play a stronger role in helping overthrow the Syrian regime.
The Maliki visit prompted a response. The fear that Iraq — and by extension, Iran — was buying Jordanian neutrality on Syria apparently propelled Saudi Arabia to cough up the $250 million it had promised Jordan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also visited on the same day as Maliki to discuss Syria’s chemical and biological weapons. While the “secret” visit had been all over the Israeli media, the average Jordanian remained unaware of it.
The young analyst noted that a rise in fuel prices had led to protests recently in Jordan. While a few had publicly called for the overthrow of the king, most in the kingdom remained supportive of the monarchy. They did not want Jordan to end up like Syria — bring down King Abdullah, and who knows what would come next.
Abdullah gained his legitimacy from the legacy of his father, but he lacks Hussein’s personal connection with the people as well as his diplomatic skills, which allowed Hussein to manage the elites. The analyst felt that the young king had missed the opportunity to implement reforms that would empower moderate, secular forces. Instead, he had unintentionally strengthened the Muslim Brotherhood. Across Amman, the streets were plastered with campaign posters for the Jan. 23 parliamentary elections. The contest marked the first time in Jordan’s history that the parliament — rather than the monarch — would choose the prime minister.
Over dinner, a well-connected Jordanian reinforced the point that citizens were not looking to foment a revolution. “No one wants the overthrow of the monarchy,” he said. “The opposition only go as far as saying they would like him to reign rather than rule.”
Conspiratorially, he leaned toward me. “There is a new Sykes-Picot agreement being planned,” he said, referring to the post-World War I deal that divided up the Middle East. “They are seeking to create a large Sunni region in Jordan, the West Bank, western Iraq, and Syria. That is why Maliki came to Jordan — he wanted to stop it.”
He did not elaborate on who “they” were.
I met up with an Iraqi general, and traveled with him and his family down to the Dead Sea. The general had rented a minivan and was excited to be driving us. I, however, was less excited given that senior military officers are used to having drivers, and hence their skills behind the wheel usually wane.
True to form, the general viewed speed bumps as beach heads to be assaulted — and sped up every time he approached one, laughing out loud as his passengers were thrown around the vehicle. We went to the Jordan River and the site of Jesus’s baptism. On the other side of the river — two strides away — were crowds of Christian tourists singing songs and shaking tambourines beneath Israeli flags. The general noted that the Israeli side had restaurants, bathrooms, palm trees, and no visible security. The Jordanian side had rudimentary shacks.
A bunch of Jordanian soldiers sat on wooden benches sheltered under a rickety cover from the winter sun. “Ah, the Arabs,” the general muttered. “Why haven’t we built anything?”
I spent New Year’s Eve with the general and his family. His 10-year old relative showed me the different functions on my iPad mini. He downloaded the Viber app. “This will enable you to phone anywhere in the world using a local number,” he said. “You will soon be able to use it with Wi-Fi from your iPad.”
I looked at him with loathing. Shouldn’t he be playing with Legos? I drowned my sense of pending old age by drinking wine and singing with my Muslim friends by their Christmas tree.
Back in my hotel, the Christmas tree had pride of place and Christmas carols blared out. Nearly all the guests were Arabs. Jordanians, like so many across the Arab world, seemed to love the bright lights, the gaudy decorations, and the joy associated with Christmas.
On my way to the airport, I chatted with my taxi driver who told me he was Jordanian but of Palestinian origin. He admitted there had been some demonstrations in Jordan. “Those calling for regime change are Jordanian Jordanians — mostly Brotherhood,” he said. “There are no Palestinian Jordanians calling for regime change. As Palestinians, where on Earth would we go if Jordan collapsed?!”
* * *
As I departed the Middle East after a month of travels, I reflected on how — for many of those living under the monarchies — the Arab Spring was not viewed as a movement toward greater freedom and democracy, but rather as the breakdown of society into violence and chaos. People in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Jordan were very concerned about corruption and wanted more transparent government. They wanted jobs and greater incomes to look after their families and buy consumer goods. But on my travels, I heard few speak about political freedoms.
In fact, most would have heartily agreed with the famous Islamic scholar and philosopher al-Ghazali, who said, “The tyranny of a sultan for 100 years causes less damage than one year’s tyranny exercised by the subjects against one another.” And they would have related to the medieval Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, who was born in the 13th century in Syria during the Mongol invasions, when he said, “Better 60 years of tyranny than one night of anarchy.”