There's More to Saudi Arabia Than Oil and Sharia

'The Kingdom' may be known as an incredibly conservative Islamic culture, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find more than just black gold.

A couple of years ago I saw the popular Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila perform in Amman. The opening act was the Saudi-Iranian singer Alaa Wardi and his band, Hayajan. His voice was new and different, as befits an oasis in “the Kingdom” – after all, what did I know about Saudi Arabia?

A state where women aren’t allowed outside without their husband’s permission; a state that persecutes gays; a state that punishes thieves by cutting off their hands, and decapitates murderers and racists; a state that’s ruled by Wahhabist laws and calls for a return to true Islam; a state that produced Osama bin Laden and many other Al-Qaida fanatics; a state in which all men wear white djellabas and red kaffiyehs, and the women are completely covered in black; a state with almost no movie theaters or film industry; a state where the government television channel is incredibly boring. Oh yeah, and oil. Lots of oil.

Now, though, I’m impressed by the amount of information I’ve gathered about a country I’ve never been to, only seen from afar from the beach in Sinai. And from afar, its hills are much more beautiful than the previous description.

Like with most cases, the picture is not only black. It’s colorful, and more complex than the simple, comfortable definitions. Because it “protects Islam’s holy sites” – Mecca and Medina – Saudi Arabia must follow Islamic law. Furthermore, the close family bonds between the House of Saud (the royal family) and the Abd al-Wahhabs (descendents of the Wahhabist founders) force the Saudi kingdom to conservatively interpret the Koran and Islamic law.

The Wahhabist movement claims that modernity has distorted Islam, and calls for a return to the lifestyle of the prophet and his followers. The movement tends to shun innovation and inventions, unless they can be used to spread the ideology – thus explaining the gap between Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

Take, for example, Cairo, where cinema has become the second-largest Egyptian industry – after cotton – even though the city is home to Al-Azhar University, the most important institution of learning in the Sunni world.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, boasts only one movie theater, in Khobar – the only such theater on the Saudi shores of the Persian Gulf.

Saudi Arabia also produces far less music than Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Extremist clerics claimed hundreds of years ago that Islam forbids the bewitching of listeners with music. Some claimed that playing any instrument other than the oud or kanun is forbidden.

But things weren’t always like this. The Saud family opened the kingdom up to modernization and Western influence, and allowed things that had seemingly been forbidden by Islamic law. Despite the prohibitions and limitations, composers like Tarek Abd al-Hakim and Saraj Omar, as well as singers such as Mohammed Abdu and Talal Maddah, have flourished in Saudi Arabia.

Maddah was born in Mecca in 1940, and was considered one of the most important Saudi musicians and singers of the 20th century. He performed in many Arab countries, and Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab penned one of his famous songs. Despite the Egyptian monopoly on Arab culture, Maddah was able to fill concert halls in Cairo as well. Maddah collapsed suddenly while performing on stage and died in 2000.

Abdu was born in Abha, Saudi Arabia, in 1949, and began singing in the early 1960s. The singer is still performing today, and many of his songs have been rerecorded. One of his best-known is a duet with Moroccan singer Fadwa al-Maliki.

Many Saudi women also managed to achieve breakthroughs and pave the way for their peers. In the media, Huda al-Rasheed became the first female news anchor to go onscreen, in Riyadh during the 1970s. She worked as an editor at a newspaper before making the move to London and working for BBC Arabic.

During the 1970s, Maddah discovered Etab, who became Saudi Arabia’s first female singer. Born in Riyadh in 1947, she started as a wedding singer. In 1980, she relocated to Cairo, where she released her most famous song, “Jani al-Asmar.”

A few extremists who opposed popular culture and entertainment claimed that any Saudi woman appearing in the media as broadcasters, or working as actors or singers, is not true a Saudi. Although many of them were influenced by other cultures, for Saudi women they serve as an example of modernism and emancipation more than most Saudi men care to admit.

In recent years – with encouragement from Princess Adilah, daughter of King Abdullah, who advocates advancement for women – many educational institutions catering to women have been opened, including a fashion design school in Riyadh. Equal opportunity employment has begun to emerge as well. In 2011, the king allowed women to vote and be elected to local government, for the first time.

In 2013, the first film to be shot completely in Saudi Arabia and directed by a woman, Haifaa al-Mansour, was released. The film, “Wadjda” – which was also screened in Israel – was the first Saudi film to be considered in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. It was shot on the streets of Riyadh, and, true, the filmmaker was forced to give her directions from inside a production vehicle, so she wouldn’t be seen on the streets among men. On the other hand, the story was about a girl, Wadjda, who wants to ride a bicycle, but isn’t allowed because sharia law forbids it.

The singer Alaa Wardi also contributed to the women’s struggle for rights in Saudi Arabia. Along with Saudi comedians Hisham Fageeh and Fahad Albutairi, Wardi recorded a song and music video called “No Woman, No Drive,” parodying the Bob Marley reggae classic. Wardi says he’s trying to make people happy, that all countries are home for him, and he’s trying to champion the values of love and equality.

After years of prohibitions forbidding Jews from entering Saudi territory, the Saudi foreign minister proposed recognizing Israel and ending its conflict with the other Arab states. I’ve yet to hear too much excitement on the Israeli side. Perhaps it still sees Saudi Arabia as “Hatred’s Kingdom” – styled as such in a book by Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the UN. The Saudis have been making proposals to Israel since the 1980s, and have been given the cold shoulder every time. I would like to be one of the first Israelis to visit the Saudi kingdom, if only our foreign minister would allow it.

Bloomberg