‘I Can’t Be­lieve I’m in Saudi Ara­bia’

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Lind­sey Hilsum

Sal­man’s Legacy:

The Dilem­mas of a

New Era in Saudi Ara­bia edited by Madawi Al-Rasheed. Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press,

367 pp., $49.95

Dar­ing to Drive:

A Saudi Woman’s Awak­en­ing by Manal al-Sharif.

Si­mon and Schus­ter,

295 pp., $16.00 (pa­per)

In June the cir­cus came to town. Noth­ing re­mark­able, you might think, ex­cept that the town was Riyadh, the cap­i­tal of Saudi Ara­bia, where un­til two years ago all forms of en­ter­tain­ment were banned. The pre­vi­ous week, the head of the Gen­eral En­ter­tain­ment Author­ity—some­times called the Min­istry of Fun—had been fired be­cause a fe­male per­former in an­other cir­cus had worn a tight-fit­ting, flesh-col­ored out­fit that had sparked protests on Twit­ter (75 per­cent of Saudis use so­cial me­dia, about the same as Amer­i­cans). The mu­taween—the re­li­gious po­lice—had care­fully vet­ted the cir­cus I at­tended, and the an­kle-length black leg­gings and sparkly long sleeves of the lady with the danc­ing Dal­ma­tians had passed muster, as had the body-hug­ging dark cos­tumes worn by a group of an­drog­y­nous fla­menco-style dancers.

It was a par­tic­u­lar joy to be in the au­di­ence, watch­ing the de­light of both chil­dren and adults, oohing and aahing at the tightrope walk­ers and con­vuls­ing with laugh­ter at an act in­volv­ing a large poo­dle leap­ing in and out of a garbage can. In the in­ter­mis­sion I can­vassed opin­ion. It was a few days af­ter women had been per­mit­ted to drive legally for the first time, and spec­ta­tors un­der­stood that this was about more than the right to go to the Big Top. “I hope that ev­ery­body ben­e­fits from change while re­spect­ing our re­li­gion first of all,” said a woman whose face was cov­ered by a niqab, sit­ting with her hus­band and three kids who were munch­ing pop­corn. “It’s a big change here, with women driv­ing and ev­ery­thing,” said a know­ing ten-year-old girl. “I can’t be­lieve I’m in Saudi Ara­bia!”

For mid­dle-class ur­ban Saudis the so­cial changes brought in by King Sal­man and his pow­er­ful son, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, gen­er­ally known as MBS, are sig­nif­i­cant. A movie the­ater has been built where men and women may sit to­gether—the first film shown was Black Pan­ther, which proved very pop­u­lar. Women have been per­mit­ted to at­tend sport­ing events, al­beit in sin­gle-sex ar­eas, but the most im­por­tant de­cree, in­tro­duced in 2016, may have been the one cur­tail­ing the pow­ers of the mu­taween. No longer can the men tasked with “pro­mot­ing virtue and pre­vent­ing vice” ar­rest women on the streets and whip them for fail­ing to cover them­selves ad­e­quately. Their job must be car­ried out “in a gen­tle and hu­mane way.” Robbed of the pow­ers they used to ex­ert with such ar­bi­trary cru­elty, they have melted away.

Ja­mal Beshri, a mu­si­cian, told me how in the old days he feared walk­ing on the street car­ry­ing his gui­tar, in case the mu­taween or ran­dom zealots at­tacked him and broke it. “We would gather and play a jam session but not in pub­lic,” he said. “When I put my gui­tar in the car, I would try to make sure no one could see me.” Beshri has started a mu­sic com­pany and is build­ing a sta­teof-the-art record­ing stu­dio to re­place the makeshift one where we met. His friends strummed in the back­ground as we talked. His dream of pro­mot­ing Saudi mu­si­cians with their own takes on jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, and Saudi tra­di­tional songs may yet be re­al­ized. He knows he has the sup­port of the au­thor­i­ties. “Give us three years,” he said, his voice ris­ing with en­thu­si­asm. “We have so much tal­ent here!”

It would, how­ever, be a mis­take to as­sume that so­cial change presages a po­lit­i­cal open­ing. In fact, those who ques­tion the au­thor­i­ties run an even greater risk of ar­bi­trary ar­rest than be­fore. In Au­gust, the Cana­dian for­eign min­is­ter tweeted out a call for the re­lease of civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists who had just been de­tained. She men­tioned in par­tic­u­lar Sa­mar Badawi, the sis­ter of the jailed blog­ger Raif Badawi. His wife, En­saf Haidar, is a Cana­dian cit­i­zen. The Saudi re­sponse was ex­treme: the Cana­dian am­bas­sador was ex­pelled, bi­lat­eral trade frozen, and all Saudi stu­dents in­structed to leave Canada with­out de­lay. As if try­ing to prove that they would ig­nore such crit­i­cism, two weeks later, pros­e­cu­tors called for the death penalty for five im­pris­oned hu­man rights cam­paign­ers, in­clud­ing, un­usu­ally, a woman: Is­raa al-Ghomgham, a Shi’a ac­tivist from the east of the coun­try. Such re­pres­sion causes a prob­lem for West­ern gov­ern­ments like Bri­tain, which would like to take ad­van­tage of new eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties in Saudi Ara­bia with­out hav­ing to an­swer dif­fi­cult ques­tions from hu­man rights cam­paign­ers. A decade ago, James Mann’s The China Fan­tasy: How Our Lead­ers Ex­plain Away Chi­nese Re­pres­sion (2007) ex­am­ined how West­ern politi­cians and busi­ness­peo­ple “fos­ter an elab­o­rate set of il­lu­sions about China, cen­tered on the be­lief that com­merce will lead in­evitably to po­lit­i­cal change and democ­racy.” China’s con­tin­u­ing eco­nomic ex­pan­sion cou­pled with its re­pres­sion of those who chal­lenge Com­mu­nist Party rule has pro­vided an ob­ject les­son to other gov­ern­ments: it is per­fectly pos­si­ble to al­low cer­tain changes that im­prove your ci­ti­zens’ lives with­out let­ting loose pesky “West­ern” ideas like civil rights and free elec­tions. In Saudi Ara­bia, change is de­signed pre­cisely to cur­tail po­lit­i­cal up­heaval or a de­mand for democ­racy. Af­ter the Arab Spring, which saw youth up­ris­ings across the Mid­dle East, King Sal­man un­der­stood that he had to do some­thing for the two thirds of the pop­u­la­tion who are un­der thirty. Vi­sion 2030, the am­bi­tious eco­nomic and so­cial plan de­signed by his thirty-three-year-old son, is de­signed to do just that.

In Sal­man’s Legacy, a series of aca­demics ex­am­ine the mean­ing and im­pact of the new poli­cies, look­ing at the func­tion of the state, re­gional and for­eign pol­icy, eco­nom­ics, and re­li­gion. As with all es­say col­lec­tions, the qual­ity varies, but the range high­lights just how many as­pects of Saudi so­ci­ety are in tran­si­tion—although it’s hard to pre­dict to what, ex­actly. Change is hap­pen­ing at an ex­tra­or­di­nary rate. The chap­ter about the mys­tique of the monar­chy by the vol­ume’s editor, Madawi Al-Rasheed, comes to an abrupt end be­cause the pub­lisher’s dead­line was upon her be­fore she knew what hap­pened to the eleven se­nior princes and dozens of min­is­ters and busi­ness­men who were de­tained in the gilded prison of Riyadh’s Ritz-Carl­ton ho­tel in No­vem­ber 2017, al­legedly for cor­rup­tion and seem­ingly on the or­ders of

MBS. (Most were even­tu­ally re­leased af­ter pay­ing undis­closed mil­lions of their for­tunes to the Saudi state cof­fers. Some may face trial.)

I use words like “al­legedly,” “seem­ingly,” and “may” be­cause I don’t re­ally know any­thing be­yond the ba­sic facts, nor, frankly, does any­one else. “The mys­ti­cal monarch pushes ci­ti­zens to turn to ru­mours to an­tic­i­pate the fu­ture and de­code the quasi-mag­i­cal awe of roy­alty,” writes Al-Rasheed. “All this adds to the mys­tique and power of the Saudi monarch and en­hances con­spic­u­ous sub­mis­sion.”

Her chap­ter is pri­mar­ily about the suc­ces­sion—the king pro­moted MBS from deputy crown prince to crown prince in a palace coup, putting many royal noses out of joint—but she points out that ru­mors, often spread by so­cial me­dia, are a prime source of in­for­ma­tion in a king­dom where jour­nal­ists are more like praise-singers than in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Ac­cord­ing to Al-Rasheed, po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions al­ways start with a yaqu­lun, an anony­mous say­ing, which gets parsed and spread. Dis­si­dents use satir­i­cal po­etry and mock­ing video clips, and there are ru­mors about ru­mors—Could this pos­si­bly have orig­i­nated with Prince X who is ru­mored to be un­happy about be­ing side­lined to make way for Prince Y? As a re­sult it is very hard to know how firm MBS’s grip on power is; contacts I met sug­gested that he has about six months to con­sol­i­date his so­cial changes be­fore con­ser­va­tives or ri­val roy­als push back, but their anal­y­sis was, of course, based on ru­mor. One con­crete change that the whole world has no­ticed is the de­cree al­low­ing Saudi women to drive. No other coun­try on earth still barred women from driv­ing, and no other is­sue, in­clud­ing mass ex­e­cu­tions, has at­tracted more neg­a­tive at­ten­tion to the king­dom. When it was an­nounced that the ban would be lifted on June 24, West­ern PR con­sul­tants— which the govern­ment re­tains in large num­bers at great ex­pense—en­cour­aged the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion to in­vite for­eign jour­nal­ists for what they like to call “a good news story.”

Imag­ine, then, their dis­tress when, less than six weeks be­fore the lift­ing of the ban, a group of women’s rights ac­tivists was ar­rested. One of them, Aisha al-Manae, who had taken part in the first women’s driv­ing protest back in 1990, was seventy years old. More ar­rests fol­lowed, while a few women were re­leased. On the day it­self, pic­tures of happy women driv­ing off, bran­dish­ing their li­censes to the cam­era, were broad­cast around the world, while re­porters strug­gled to ex­plain why the women who had cam­paigned for twenty-eight years for this very mo­ment were be­hind bars.

By the logic of a Saudi Ara­bia rather than a China fan­tasy, how­ever, there is no con­tra­dic­tion. MBS knows that if the king­dom is to di­ver­sify its econ­omy and re­duce its de­pen­dence on oil, women must be­come more pro­duc­tive, so they need to drive and not waste their earn­ings on a driver. He wanted ev­ery­one to un­der­stand that women were be­ing al­lowed to drive not be­cause they had cam­paigned for it, but be­cause their rulers had is­sued a de­cree. The point was clear: civil dis­obe­di­ence will not bring re­sults; changes will come only from sub­mis­sion to a be­nign monarch who will de­cide what is best. While the ar­rest of civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists has gar­nered a lot of West­ern at­ten­tion, less no­tice has been paid to the cler­ics who have been si­lenced or im­pris­oned, mainly be­cause they tend to be ones who have pre­vi­ously ad­vo­cated curb­ing hu­man rights and fre­quently pro­moted ji­hadism. Al-Qaeda and the Is­lamic State al­ways op­posed the House of Saud, but the roots of their ide­ol­ogy are found in the schools and mosques of Saudi Ara­bia. One rea­son that West­ern gov­ern­ments hold back on crit­i­ciz­ing MBS is that he has or­dered a re­form of the ed­u­ca­tional cur­ricu­lum and curbed the power of rad­i­cal cler­ics. Adil al-Kal­bani, a for­mer imam at the Mecca Grand Mosque and one of a few con­ser­va­tive cler­ics who still speaks pub­licly, chooses his words with care. “Def­i­nitely there is a lit­tle ten­sion and the state faces some risk,” he told me, sit­ting in his cav­ernous li­brary. “It’s like a war be­tween old ways and new ideas. If they’re go­ing to fin­ish what they started, it would prob­a­bly be bet­ter if cer­tain peo­ple re­mained silent for a while.” He did not de­fine who “cer­tain peo­ple” were, but the im­pli­ca­tion was that his fel­low cler­ics needed to un­der­stand that they could not fight the tide of re­form, so it was bet­ter to swim with it, at least for the mo­ment.

I would have liked to talk to Dr. Ali Badah­dah, a teacher of Is­lamic stud­ies at King Ab­dul Aziz Uni­ver­sity in Jed­dah, who told me in an in­ter­view in 2006 that it would be a bad idea for women to drive be­cause “it will lead to adul­tery and kid­nap.” It was, how­ever, not pos­si­ble, as he was among a group of con­ser­va­tive cler­ics, some of whom had be­come very pop­u­lar on so­cial me­dia, who were ar­rested last Septem­ber af­ter fail­ing to en­dorse the crown prince’s so­cial re­form agenda. No rea­son for the ar­rests has been given, but MBS sees threats from both those agi­tat­ing for more free­dom and those who re­sent any change from the re­stric­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam that has char­ac­ter­ized Saudi Ara­bia in the past.

Manal al-Sharif avoided the lat­est round of ar­rests by mov­ing to Aus­tralia: as she ex­plains in her mem­oir Dar­ing to Drive, she spent nine days in prison in 2011 for do­ing just that. Her ac­count of her­self as a rad­i­cal Is­lamist teenager is in some ways more in­ter­est­ing than the now fa­mil­iar tale of de­fi­antly tak­ing the wheel. Brought up in a poor fam­ily in Mecca and at­tend­ing a school where 60 per­cent of the lessons were de­voted to re­li­gion, she be­came ob­sessed with the idea that she not only had to be the purest of the pure but con­vince oth­ers as well.

“This story is in no way unique to me,” she writes. “It’s the story of an en­tire gen­er­a­tion brain­washed with ex­trem­ist dis­course and hate speech, an en­tire gen­er­a­tion who grew up be­ing im­pris­oned, first by the con­straints of our so­ci­ety and its re­li­gious lead­ers, and then by our own ac­tions—by our own thoughts and minds.” Af­ter she be­trayed her sis­ter, Muna, by in­form­ing her fa­ther about a se­cret re­la­tion­ship Muna was con­duct­ing with a boy, he not only beat Muna but cut the tele­phone line, banned vis­i­tors, and al­lowed the girls and their brother to leave the house only to go to school (even then they had to be ac­com­pa­nied by him or their mother).

Even­tu­ally, al-Sharif per­suaded her mother that she needed the In­ter­net to do her home­work, so con­tact with the out­side world was re­stored. “I be­gan read­ing ar­ti­cles and postings that crit­i­cised ex­trem­ist Salafi ide­ol­ogy,” she writes. “Grad­u­ally I re­al­ized that the ideas I had em­braced and de­fended blindly all my life rep­re­sented a sin­gu­lar, and highly rad­i­cal, point of view. I be­gan to ques­tion ev­ery­thing.” By the time she grad­u­ated from uni­ver­sity and went to work for Saudi Aramco, alSharif was a fem­i­nist, and in 2011, in­spired by the Arab Spring, she de­cided to chal­lenge the driv­ing ban by driv­ing in the city of Dam­mam.

In her chap­ter in Sal­man’s Legacy, Nora Doaiji dates “the start of the Saudi fem­i­nist move­ment be­yond the state” to al-Sharif’s re­lease from prison. Ac­cord­ing to her anal­y­sis, Saudi women re­al­ized that they would never achieve the right to drive, let alone any re­lax­ation in the guardian­ship sys­tem that de­fines women as mi­nors, through “pa­tri­ar­chal bar­gain­ing with the state.” The Women2Drive and Right2Dig­nity ac­tivists in­sisted that the state was ac­count­able and that the driv­ing ban could no longer be jus­ti­fied by vague state­ments say­ing the time was not right be­cause there was no “so­ci­etal con­sen­sus.” Their sin­gle-is­sue cam­paign merged into a wider move­ment de­mand­ing the right to protest and free­dom for im­pris­oned hu­man rights cam­paign­ers.

How­ever, by the end of 2014, some women had changed their po­si­tion. Doaiji quotes a fe­male jour­nal­ist, Haifa al-Zahrani, who had pre­vi­ously been in­volved in the women’s driv­ing move­ment: “The best fem­i­nist ef­forts are in ac­cor­dance with govern­ment laws and the worst is think­ing they can force the govern­ment by out­side or­ga­ni­za­tions to grant their wishes,” she says. This ap­proach was fu­eled by na­tion­al­ism, ex­pressed by sup­port for the war in Ye­men. Saudi forces in­ter­vened in Ye­men in 2015, when MBS was de­fense min­is­ter. Shortly af­ter­ward, break­ing new ground for fe­male Saudi jour­nal­ists, al-Zahrani cov­ered the war from the front line. She posed in mil­i­tary fa­tigues in a tank and ar­gued that “she did not want to be ‘treated as a girl.’” Fem­i­nism was no longer a way of coun­ter­ing state author­ity, but of “ful­fill­ing a duty to the na­tion.”

The war in Ye­men has pro­vided many such op­por­tu­ni­ties for the state to coopt and neu­tral­ize both mod­ern­iz­ers and tra­di­tion­al­ists. It is not the first time Saudi Ara­bia has in­ter­vened in its im­pov­er­ished neigh­bor, but now there is an added sec­tar­ian di­men­sion: the Houthis, who seized con­trol of the cap­i­tal, Sanaa, in early 2015 were to some ex­tent spon­sored by Shia Iran, the re­gional ri­val to Sunni Saudi Ara­bia. “This new mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion­ism im­me­di­ately be­came pop­u­lar among many Saudi con­stituences, from Is­lamists to lib­er­als,” writes AlRasheed. “By am­pli­fy­ing the un­doubt­edly gen­uine Ira­nian threat, the Saudi regime in­voked both na­tion­al­ism and sec­tar­i­an­ism.”

Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, fem­i­nist or hu­man rights cam­paign­ers might be ac­cused of be­tray­ing their re­li­gion, now they’re ac­cused of be­tray­ing their coun­try. In­stead of la­bel­ing the de­tained cam­paign­ers “apos­tates” or “heretics,” news web­sites have pub­lished their pic­tures with the word “traitor” across their faces. They have

A woman prac­tic­ing driv­ing in prepa­ra­tion for the end of the ban on fe­male driv­ers, Jed­dah, Saudi Ara­bia, June 2018; pho­to­graph by Iman al-Dab­bagh

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