Loosey Goosey Saudi
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia
The Middle Eastern foreign minister was talking about enlightened “liberal” trends in his country, contrasting that with the benighted “extreme” conservative religious movement in a neighboring state.
But the wild thing was that the minister was Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia — an absolute Muslim monarchy ruling over one of the most religiously and socially intolerant places on earth — and the country he deemed too “religiously determined” and regressive was the democracy of Israel.
“We are breaking away from the shackles of the past,” the prince said, sitting in his sprawling, glinting ranch house with its stable of Arabian horses and one oversized white bunny. “We are moving in the direction of a liberal society. What is happening in Israel is the opposite; you are moving into a more religiously oriented culture and into a more religiously determined politics and to a very extreme sense of nationhood,” which was coming “to a boiling point.”
“The religious institutions in Israel are stymieing every effort at peace,” said the prince, wearing a black-and-gold robe and tinted glasses.
Israel is a secular society that some say is growing less secular with religious militants and the chief rabbinate that would like to impose a harsh and exclusive interpretation of Judaism upon the entire society. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis are fighting off the Jewish women who want to conduct their own prayer services at the Western Wall. (In Orthodox synagogues, some men still say a morning prayer thanking God for not making them women.)
The word progressive, of course, is highly relative when it comes to Saudi Arabia. (Wahhabism, anyone?) But after spending 10 days here, I can confirm that, at their own galactically glacial pace, they are chipping away at gender apartheid and cultural repression.
There’s still plenty of draconian pandemonium. Days before I arrived, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice cracked down with a Valentine’s Day massacre, banning red roses and teddy bears and raiding shops at any flash of crimson. Islamic scholars declared the holiday a sin because it promoted “immoral relations” between unmarried men and women.
Yet by the Saudis’ premodern standards, the 85-year-old King Abdullah, with a harem of wives, is a social revolutionary. The kingdom just announced a new law that will allow female lawyers to appear in court for the first time, if only for female clients on family cases. Last month, the king appointed the first woman to the council of ministers. Last year, he opened the first co-ed university. He has encouraged housing developments with architecture that allows families, and boys and girls within families, to communicate more freely.
Young Saudi women whom I interviewed said that the popular king has relaxed the grip of the bullying mutawa, the bearded religious police officers who patrol the streets ready to throw you in the clink at the first sign of fun or skin. Their low point came in 2002 when they notoriously stopped teenage girls without head scarves from fleeing a fire at a school in Mecca; 15 girls died. Two years ago, they arrested an American woman living here while she was sitting in a Starbucks with her male business partner, even though she was in a curtained booth in the “family” section designated for men and women.
“It is not allowed for any woman to travel alone and sit with a strange man and talk and laugh and drink coffee together like they are married,” the religious police said.
The attempts at more tolerance are belated baby steps to the outside world but in this veiled, curtained and obscured fortress, they are ’60s-style cataclysmic social changes. Last week, Sheik Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, a pugnacious cleric, shocked Saudis by issuing a fatwa against those who facilitate the mixing of men and women. Given that such a fatwa clearly would include the king, Prince Saud dismissed it.
“I think the trend for reform is set, and there is no looking back,” he told me. “Clerics who every now and then come with statements in the opposite direction are releasing frustration rather than believing that they can stop the trend and turn back the clock.”
I said that women I talked to were sanguine that they’d be allowed to drive in the next few years. “I hope so,” he murmured, suggesting I bring an international driver’s license on my next visit.
I asked if technology — Saudis love their cells, Berries and computers, and Bluetooth flirting is rampant in malls — would pry open the obsessively private kingdom.
“Privacy in the modern world is a relative term,” he replied. “How can you have privacy when you have the computer, Twitter and all the others? It is just part of the complications and difficulties of modern life.” (He and the king have never Twittered.) People now, he mused, sounding like a Saudi Garbo, just “have to worry about how to be alone.”