Analysis

Sing All You Want, but Don't Dare Drive: How an Arab Singer Evoked the Wrath of Her Saudi Female Fans

Saudi women are furious with Ahlam Alshamsi, whose decision to nix concerts in the kingdom tells a bigger story about feminism and double standards in the Middle East

An Instagram post by Ahlam Alshamsi

The singer Ahlam Alshamsi has everything, or almost everything. Tickets to her concerts are sold out months in advance, millions watch the TV shows where she appears, she has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and she’s a regular in the entertainment and gossip columns.

Ahlam, who is a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, is a very wealthy woman. In an appearance a few years ago on the reality talent show Arab Idol (the Beirut-produced equivalent of American Idol), she wore a dress which reportedly cost 1.3 million rials (about 1.3 million shekels). Ahlam did not deny this report.

Her husband, the Qatari oil baron Mubarak al-Hajri, explained that “Ahlam buys her clothes and jewelry out of her own income.” Hajri, who is a race-car rally champion, does buy her dresses, but not at those prices. “I pay 25,000 or 30,000 rials for a dress I buy her, but she’s happier in those dresses than in ones that costs a million and a quarter rials."

At the same time, he counsels her not to waste so much money on dresses and jewelry because she has to save money for when she retires. “But what’s to be done, she lives for the present in her golden age, this is Ahlam’s time and she’s in charge at the moment.”

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In an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba, al-Hajri revealed that his wife spends about a quarter of her income on her look. But one should not jump to wrong conclusions from this about her status as a woman. Hajri described her as the interior minister of their household, but nonetheless said that “you can appoint Ahlam to any ministerial post, at the end she lives in my house. I am the prime minister and the last word is mine.” Order has to be preservered.

Ahlam isn't just an example for how the rich and beautiful live their lives in the Gulf states. This month, she made headlines in those countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia, and not because of how she squanders her money or over the wonderful relationship she has with her her husband. Ahlam had been scheduled to make four performances in Saudi Arabia, each at a different end of the kingdom. Everything was ready, the audience was impatiently waiting, but at the last moment the organizers called off the shows.

Ahlam offered no explanation, nor was one needed. At least half a million Twitter followers in Saudi Arabia followed accounts bearing the name 'Boycott Ahlam's shows.' The furious Saudi women did not forget that two years ago she said: “Women should not be allowed to drive in the land of the holy places.”

AP

Saudi women did win the right to drive, a move initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of his show of strength against the religious establishment and his desire to appear liberal, but Ahlam’s statement has been neither forgiven nor forgotten.

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“The artist Ahlam danced on the wounds of the Saudi woman and preferred religious norms over women’s rights. Her appearance, which was to have taken place today, was canceled after Saudi women protested against her. My respects to our women who have rejected this foreigner,” wrote Slatana Milhem, one of the leaders of the protest on social media.

“A woman must not drive in the land of purity, but she can sing there? How can you raise your voice in song in this pure land? You should be ashamed to sing in a land where women are allowed to drive,” a woman named Ayman tweeted mockingly. “This chameleon can’t decide where she stands. First she’s against [women] driving, then she sings to Tamim [the Qatari ruler] and belittles Saudi Arabia, and then she she’s asked to sing for Qatar and she responds that she has a problem. If she sings for Qatar, she’ll be photographed. I’ve seen no greater hypocrisy than this,” a woman named Queen Nura tweeted.

The truth is the Ahlam was worried that if she sang for Qatar, she would be boycotted in Saudi Arabia. But now she is banned there because of the women’s protest. Some people tried to attribute the ban to the fact that she’s married to a Qatari citizen (who was forced to leave the place where he conducted his business in the UAE because of the ban on Qatar), but this claim is completely unsubstantiated. Ahlam was invited to Saudi Arabia and the authorities are not the ones who canceled her concerts.

Ahlam is now launching a PR campaign in which she boasts of her love for Saudi Arabia, which she says she views as a second home. She even went to the trouble of spreading a story about how she gave up her airplane seat in business class for an old woman, and constantly informs the public of her work for the poor and downtrodden.

It remains to be seen whether Saudi women, whose online activity is one of the most advanced in Arab countries, would be willing to reconcile with the crooner. This is not the first time women of the kingdom made a breakthrough by means of the internet.

Perhaps one of the most famous of these instances is the case of author Rajaa al-Sanea, who rocked the Arab world in general and Saudi Arabia in particular with her 2005 novel “Girls of Riyadh,” which consists of emails she received. This was the first time a Saudi woman revealed relationships between men and women in the kingdom and even dealt, very skillfully, with gay relations in Saudi Arabia. Since that time, the internet has become the Tahrir Square of Saudi women.