The religious police has been stripped of power, pop concerts are now allowed and women are even permitted to drive cars. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is liberalizing Saudi Arabian society but the system remains authoritarian. Can it work?
It’s not true that women can’t go anywhere in Saudi Arabia. You can walk wherever you want, you’ll just never get anywhere.
It’s my first day in Riyadh, five months before the sensational images of Saudi women driving cars would travel around the world in mid-June. I wander through the streets of Salamiyah, a middle-class neighborhood in the capital, but I’m not allowed to go in anywhere. In front of the Bazi Baba restaurant, with its delicious dishes and fresh juices, there are tables and chairs and they are all occupied — by men. Women who want to buy something must stand in front of a small window where they can place their order. They must then wait outside for their food to be brought to them.
On Tahlia Street, the liveliest boulevard in the capital, coffee shops recently began springing up. The tables outside are also full — of men. The fact that they are even allowed to sit outside represents huge progress. The streets of Riyadh used to be empty. Women, though, are not allowed to sit with the men, and are required instead to sit in the “family section,” behind screens, curtains or sometimes even frosted glass.
Back in my hotel, the receptionist proudly shows me the swimming pool and fitness studio. Opening times? Unfortunately, they are only for men. Massages are also on offer, but only for men. Ultimately, I retreat to my darkened room as the sun beats down outside. I will never get used to the fact that curtains are always drawn here, completely opaque so you can’t see out – and so no one can look in.
At first glance, little has changed here in the Saudi Arabian capital when I arrive at the beginning of the year. It is my fifth visit to the country, the first time coming in 2011. This time, I have planned a stay of 12 weeks, hoping to experience the change that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, has decreed for the benefit of his people. For decades, Saudi Arabia was the country in which women were not allowed to drive. Now they can. It isn’t the only thing that seemed unthinkable just a short time ago.
Falling Afoul of the Royal Family
The country has long been far more conservative than any other on the Saudi peninsula. But MBS, the favorite son of King Salman, has radically transformed the kingdom in the few months since his father named him as his heir. He has broken open the state, demolished old power structures and reshaped the country in his own image. He is a radical reformer, but not a democrat. He has changed the country’s user interface but strengthened the monarchy’s authoritarian structures. MBS is a paradox: a leader who has introduced more leeway in the public sphere while introducing new punishments for those who fall afoul of the royal family.
Even before he became crown prince, MBS was open about his worldview and plans during a meeting with business leaders in the United States. “In 20 years, oil goes to zero,” he said. “I have 20 years to reorient my country and to launch it into the future.” It sounds good, refreshing, as though the younger generation has arrived in the palace. Three-quarters of all Saudis are under 30 years old.
The face of MBS stares at you almost no matter where you go in Riyadh, gazing down from gigantic posters at the airport and from the sides of buildings lining the city’s boulevards. The prince’s image can be found on bumper stickers, on mobile phone cases and on flags used to decorate shop windows. The king remains the all-powerful ruler, but the pictures make it clear: MBS is Saudi Arabia’s future.
For my stay, I have rented a small apartment in the Al-Olayya district in the city center. Every morning, I wake up, look at my mobile phone and read the next bit of groundbreaking news: Woman won’t just be allowed to drive soon, but they will be able to open up a business without the permission of a man. Women will no longer be required to wear veils should they not wish to. And just three streets away, on Tahlia Street, I see increasing numbers of women who are neither wearing the niqab nor a headscarf.
Men and women sometimes even walk hand-in-hand, something that until recently was inappropriate if the couple was married and strictly prohibited if unmarried. There is a terrace café in an expensive shopping mall where women smoke in public. There are fancy restaurants where lounge music is played. In some of them, men and women are sitting next to each other without a member of the religious police requiring that they prove they are married. Such couples used to stand a good chance of getting arrested.
The transformation is taking place at high speed, almost as though a car’s body was being replaced while the engine was idling.
A Monster Truck Show and Public Wrestling
At the end of March, I meet up at a jazz concert with a Saudi Arabian band that has been allowed to play in public for the very first time. A Saudi Arabian jazz band! Until recently, such a thing would have been just as absurd as the queen visiting a gay pride parade. The five young musicians used to have to practice discretely in a friend’s basement outside of Riyadh.
The country now has a monster truck show, public wrestling and women’s marathons. The construction of 300 cinemas is planned, with the first ones already having opened their doors following 35 years in which movies were forbidden. There is a car show exclusively for women, something that many young people think is really great. It is strange, however, that nobody seems to be infuriated by this revolution from above. After all, if the 180-degree reversal is the right move, doesn’t that mean that the past 40, or even 80 years were all wrong — the covering of the face and hands in scorching heat of over 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade?
But there is a downside to the societal openness. Those who once dared to criticize the rulers are no longer in the country. I used to meet frequently with Jamal Khashoggi, the former editor-in-chief of the respected newspaper al-Watan, who now lives in the U.S. He argues in favor of giving people a share of power by introducing a constitutional monarchy, but says it has gotten “too hot.” Khashoggi’s friends say he would likely be sitting in prison today had he stayed — just like the liberal activists and bloggers who were incarcerated this spring.
The same holds true for conservatives. There are those who stand opposed to the rapid reforms and the new freedoms for women. They all know where public criticism can end: in jail.
I only have to speak with my landlord to see that the customs of a country don’t change overnight. Colonel Ali is an ex-military pilot and lives at the end of my street in a large compound with three wives and a passel of children. He is worldly, a successful businessman and deeply religious.
In the evenings, I sit with Ali on his terrace, which functions as something like an open-air reception area behind the entrance gate. The Ethiopian cook brings dates and coffee, soup, rice with lamb and spinach.
Colonel Ali talks about his life, gives a tour of his house, introduces his third wife and his 19-year-old daughter, who translates into French and English. And we talk about whether women should really get behind the wheel. “Why should women drive, Susanne, do they have to?” he asks. “We aren’t ready for that,” says his brother. “If they leave the house, the family would disintegrate,” Ali says.
With the help of drawings, Colonel Ali and my neighbor Hassan tell me about the origins of the world, about how God created Adam and then, from one of his ribs, Eve. Now, they say, the world is rapidly approaching its end. When buildings are built toward the heavens and metal can speak, the end of the world is nigh: That, they say, is what it says in the writings of Islam.
These prophecies, says Ali, have already come true. The skyscrapers are visible from his balcony and the talking metal refers to our mobile phones, he says pointing to our devices all sitting on the table. He points to the conclusion of his drawing where people are depicted burning in the pits of hell, a fate reserved for the apostates.
“Think about it Susanne! It’s only logical,” insists Ali, clearly trying to get me to convert to Islam. He is pushy and patient at the same time, filling my tea cup and offering snacks. Still today, Colonel Ali sends me videos over WhatsApp encouraging me to save my soul from Satan.
Far from all Saudi Arabians are as religious as Colonel Ali, with many young men and women having no use for the religion’s rules. One of those is Abdulaziz, the son of the owner of a successful hair salon. Abdulaziz is 34, went to university in Miami and has been tasked by his mother with escorting me back to my apartment after an invitation to their place.
By way of farewell, Abdulaziz kisses his mother’s hand before then cranking up Lady Gaga in the car. The coffee cup in the center console is full of whiskey; on the black market, a bottle of whiskey currently goes for 1,200 riyals, the equivalent of around 300 euros. On his phone, Abdulaziz shows pictures of dance parties in Riyadh and of his weapons collection, mostly handguns. He likes shooting around in the desert, he says. His mother knows nothing about them.
In contrast to what many might believe, most Saudis are not rich sheikhs. Per capita income in the country isn’t even 17,000 euros per year, less than half of what it is in Germany. Citizens may not have to pay income tax, but the cost of living in the country is relatively high. Fresh fruit and vegetables, imported from the U.S. or Egypt, are more expensive than in Europe. Six organic eggs cost fully eight euros.
Diabetes and Crackdowns
There are more poor people in the country than rich, there are beggars and junk collectors. Aid organizations distribute food and other necessities.
When young Saudis want to earn a bit of money over and above their salaries, they often drive for Uber. Yassir, for example, is actually a manager in the cafeteria of a military hospital, a job which pays him 15,000 riyals per month, the equivalent of around 3,500 euros. A third of that total goes to his apartment. By driving for Uber, he earns an additional 500 to 700 euros in a month, putting him squarely in the middle class. His wife doesn’t have a driver, so Yassir drives his children to school each day and picks them up again in the afternoon. Yassir says with a grin that a second wife is out of the question for financial reasons, not to mention the fact, he says, that his wife would turn him into shawarma if he brought an additional spouse home. Yassir makes a gesture as though he was cutting meat into small pieces.
A tacit agreement between the people of Saudi Arabia and the ruling House of Saud has long been in effect: The monarch provides his people with prosperity like a loving father and his subjects stay out of politics. When the people were unsatisfied, the king would distribute generous gifts of money.
But in recent years, this deal hasn’t been as effective as it once was. The low price of oil in the last several years has led to budget shortfalls. Many small companies have shut their doors and large construction projects have been put on hold. The budget deficit this year is likely to end up being at least $50 billion while the country’s foreign currency reserves are melting away. Of the $700 billion the country used to have stockpiled, less than $500 billion remains.
Nobody in the country was prepared for this turn of events and there was no Plan B. Riyadh badly needs new revenue sources and for the first time since the country’s founding in 1932, the government is discussing the possible introduction of taxes on goods or services.
“The reforms are coming 20 years too late,” says one official. He is sitting in a glassed-in cubicle in the Oil Ministry and asks that his name not be used in print. He is an engineer who studied in the U.S. almost 30 years ago. When asked why the country’s economy wasn’t modernized earlier, he says: “Nobody dared to pry open the system. Keeping the country closed off was a political concept, that of using fundamentalism as a bulwark against the revolutionary ideas in Egypt or Iran. It served the preservation of power.”
But as useful as the Islamist ideology may have seemed for government stability in the past, it is now suddenly the greatest obstacle to the progress that is so badly needed. If Saudi Arabia wants to survive both politically and economically, it must change.
Finally, I am able to find a mutawwi, a religious policeman, who is willing to at least briefly talk about what it is like to go from being an important defender of the country’s morals to being a powerless bystander.
The people of Saudi Arabia used to fear these bearded sentinels in their high-water pants that ended above their ankles, just like the robes of the Prophet Muhammad allegedly did. But now, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice no longer has any executive powers.
Suleiman surprises me. He’s a bearded 48-year-old with twinkling eyes and he invites me into his office for tea. There’s an army of mutawwis still on the street, but their influence has vanished. Not long ago, I was in the ground floor of the Kingdom Centre, inside of which is a gigantic shopping mall. A mutawwi was loudly inveighing against two women who were calmly charging their mobile phones in front of a shop, their heads uncovered. They completely ignored him, and at some point, he just gave up and wandered off to the exit.
Suleiman, by contrast, seems rather pragmatic. He says that God is guiding the king and that he follows the king. He says that he, as a private citizen, has his own, personal relationship with God and he is raising his children in accordance with that bond. One of his three daughters, he offers, is currently studying abroad in France, but her brother is there to keep an eye on her.
I can’t stand spending too much time in these darkened rooms and air-conditioned taxis, so I am quite pleased when I hear from a German acquaintance about a men’s jogging group that goes for six-kilometer runs several times a week. Perfect.
No Life on the Streets
We drive to the meeting place in the north of the city. Saudi Arabian gentlemen are sitting around in a salon as they do every evening. The salon is always open and belongs to a larger estate where several brothers live with their families.
The head of the household, Abdulaziz, runs a collection of all kinds of construction companies and he is a confident yet reserved individual. He isn’t bothered in the least that I’m woman — as long as I am not a Saudi Arabian woman, who are not, of course, allowed to take part in men’s evenings. That is also often true in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq: as a Western woman, you enjoy the privilege of access to both worlds, the female and the male.
Finally, we head out for our jog, a man from Britain, one from Saudi Arabia, my German acquaintance and myself. The men’s jogging group. One of the very few outdoor jogging paths runs along the walls of the newly built Education Ministry. Saudi Arabians don’t move around much under their own power, preferring to take the car instead. Only the poor and the peculiar ride bicycles — and women most certainly do not. That would be indecent.
There is no life on the streets, just long lines of cars. Nobody goes out for walks, everything takes place indoors. At the same time, though, young women head like crazy to the fitness studios, driven in their SUVs by their chauffeurs.
Almost every fifth adult Saudi Arabian has diabetes, with 70 percent of the population overweight and a third obese. Bariatric (stomach reduction) surgery has become incredibly popular.
The fact that I am jogging together with three men who I hardly know, wearing just an abaya over my jogging pants and no face veil, can be fairly seen as a minor miracle.
The men want to enjoy the rest of the evening in the desert, a common way for men to spend their evenings here. They head into the desert, sit around a fire cooking, smoking a shisha and telling stories. They look up at the stars or sit in a canvas tent heated by a small stove. It can get extremely cold in the desert at night.
And there are no women around anywhere.
Saudi Arabian men and women live largely separate lives, each inhabiting their own realm — literally. Houses have two entrances, one for men and one for women, and a woman would never enter the man’s realm if male visitors were present.
The Dawn of a New Era
Every day in Saudi Arabia, there are minor revolutions, but I experienced a larger one on the shores of the Red Sea in April at an exclusive holiday resort, situated between posh apartments, beach restaurants and parks not far from the coastal city of Jeddah. This is where Saudi Arabia’s new entertainment industry is taking shape.
Just the term itself is enough to raise eyebrows given that music was essentially banned in the kingdom for decades. If a member of the religion police found someone playing the oud, the traditional instrument would be destroyed. Now, though, the Egyptian popstar Tamer Hosny — as popular in the Arab world as the ballad-king Billy Joel is in the U.S. — is holding concerts here. His big hits like “180 Degrees” are about loyalty and treachery, about abandonment. Tamer Hosny’s first show near Jeddah is more than just a pop concert. It is the dawn of a new era.
The city of Jeddah on Saudi Arabia’s west coast is considered to be the epicenter of the renewal. It was always a bit freer, more open and cosmopolitan than Riyadh. King Abdullah Economic City, the actual site of the concert, is an hour away by car. The planned city, originally intended to become a metropolis of over a million people, was only built recently and it is well secured. Long caravans of cars wait at the entrance gates to be allowed to pass through. The 6,000 tickets for Hosny’s concert were sold out in just two hours.
Young women wear their long, dark hair uncovered and many of them are carefully made-up. There is nonalcoholic beer for sale along with fresh-squeezed pineapple juice and hamburgers, both with meat and vegetarian. Men and women stand next to each other laughing and drinking.
A sense of disbelief is written on the faces of the concertgoers, disbelief that such an event is actually taking place here, in this country. A country that has supported the spread of Salafism around the world.
Before the concert begins and the singer takes to the stage, green light bathes the scene and the king appears on a giant screen together with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed. Heroic music plays as the video shows the rulers, followed by an army of soldiers who defend the country. Pop and propaganda, war and commerce, meld into one.
When Tamer Hosny finally appears shortly after 10 p.m., a cheer ripples through the crowd. The audience knows every line of Hosny’s songs and sings along, especially the women. “Dancing forbidden,” it says on the tickets, and when some young women jump to their feet anyway, concert officials warn them to control themselves. Things are changing in the country, but many taboos remain. Dancing is one of them.
My friend Tarek* has worries other than politics. He’s an electrician at a Riyadh hospital, a helpful man of 38. But he has never kissed a woman. On four separate occasions, he has held the hand of a potential candidate, but he failed each time.
Tarek is a large man with round sunglasses, a high forehead and a slight paunch. He has friends around the world and, uncommonly for Saudi Arabia, he isn’t shy about saying what he thinks.
“You want to send a photo?” Tarek asks in horror when I tell him about my friend Jamila. Even just sending a picture of her, Tarek says indignantly, would violate Jamila’s honor.
My friend Jamila, it seems to me, would be perfect for Tarek. A banker who studied English literature, she is also in her 30s and is looking for a man who she can converse with. Tarek enjoys talking. Jamila lives in Qassim, a region in the center of the kingdom that is considered a conservative stronghold. As chief of operations at the bank, Jamila almost always wears a face veil.
Jamila says that if God wants her to cover her face, she is more than happy to obey his laws. She is deeply religious and is now in the process of finding out that the rules she has followed since childhood were actually made by people. And now that the rules no longer fit with the goals they are trying to achieve, people are lifting the rules. “An abaya doesn’t necessarily have to be black. Clothing should simply be appropriate and respectful,” Crown Prince Mohammed said recently. It was a sentence that marked a clean break from everything that Muslim clerics had been preaching in Saudi Arabia for decades.
Jamila says that she was just one woman among many for all those years because she was never supposed to show her face. From the outside, she was never recognizably different from others, something that she finds painful today. I ask Jamila if she would like to meet Tarek for a coffee the next time she has a business meeting in Riyadh. “Of course not,” Jamila forcefully responds. “What would he think of me?”
Recently, the dating app Tinder has made inroads in Saudi Arabia and some young men and women set up meetings in apartments rented solely for that purpose. But for Tarek and Jamila, the societal revolution has come too late, even if it is taking place at high speed. Both are the product of the religious fundamentalism that held sway in the country — and which, one might say, stole their lives.
One morning in May, I learn that the political activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been arrested along with three other women and two men. Her face is printed on the front page of a local newspaper. She stands accused of high treason and collaborating with “foreign entities,” including the German Embassy, among others. It is an obvious pretext. She’s one of the best-known activists in the country and spent years fighting for women’s right to drive. It is a cause that has now become reality, but she is sitting behind bars.
I’ve met with al-Hathloul a couple of times in Riyadh, a young, slender 28-year-old with dark, shoulder-length hair wearing jeans and extravagantly colored abayas with Japanese or Moroccan prints. She spent 73 days in prison once before in 2014-2015 after having illegally driven a car and then posting the video on the internet. The clip was rapidly shared around the world.
Back then, she was pardoned by King Salman, partially due to pressure exerted by foreign politicians, including then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The most recent arrests are part of a major crackdown on those in the country who dare to think differently. Ever since Salman and his son Mohammed took over power, activists have been systematically persecuted and bloggers have been arrested along with supporters of democracy and Muslim intellectuals.
Those who support the path being taken by MBS are welcome, the others must bear the consequences. Suspects brought in for interrogation by the secret service are confronted with years of tweets and Facebook posts that have been carefully documented. Emails are read, telephone calls are listened to. “All that we dare to do in Saudi Arabia, whether as a group or alone, is always connected with extreme personal risk,” al-Hathloul said late last year.
Ultimately, the result of the reforms being imposed by MBS could be a mix of the Chinese model and that of the similarly authoritarian United Arab Emirates. A free economy in which loyalists have a license to flourish and even become rich as they like, but under a political system that maintains complete control.
Al-Hathloul has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media outlets and her arrest unleashed a storm of anger on Twitter, Instagram and Telegram. It is that kind of support that makes human rights activists like her dangerous, even for absolutist rulers. But the most recent wave of arrests has meant that all of the most influential activists with reputations outside of Saudi Arabia are now locked away. That, too, is part of the plan.
When I leave Saudi Arabia after just over 12 weeks in the country, I am consumed by a fascination with the country and this fundamental transformation. And I’m also thinking about activists like al-Hathloul. As desirable as it is that the economic reforms launched by MBS are successful, I also sincerely hope that the new era will also bring a better future for these women who are fighting for their rights.
*Name has been changed.