In Saudi Arabia, Liberalism and Openness Is Now an Order

Mohammad Bin Salman understands very well the social and religious implications of his vision of liberalization. His new Public Taste law is doing little to curb critics' fears

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Saudi women attend a football match in Riyadh, November 9, 2019.
Saudi women attend a football match in Riyadh, November 9, 2019.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The website of the restaurant Shah Rukh Khan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is a joy to behold. Just a look at the photos of the Indian food is mouthwatering. Reviews are effusive. One praised portions “even bigger than they look in the photos.” Another was thrilled to find “an Indian restaurant that serves Arab coffee and a selection of Arab sweets.” Another said the décor was “extraordinary.” And the restaurant even has a bar, which serves “Halal wine” – without alcohol.

It was that bar that sparked a row in September when the Saudi singer Rimas Mansour posted clip of herself drinking the Halal wine and focusing on the bartender's amazing pouring ability, with a selection of wine and other “hard liquor,” also alcohol free, as a backdrop.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 49

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Social media went wild. How can such a bar, even if it doesn’t serve alcohol, be operating in the heart of that conservative kingdom? Today young people will drink non-alcoholic beverages, but tomorrow they’ll serve beer and whiskey, complained the nay-sayers. Where are the modesty police?

Mansour’s clip was still making the rounds on thousands of Facebook and Twitter accounts when another clip came out, showing a Saudi man walking along the Jeddah Corniche clad only in a towel covering the lower part of his body.

A Twitter account called “Public Taste” shows photos of young Saudis wearing white T-shirts and semi-transparent pants that reveal their underwear, and social media is showing Western people dancing to Western music, with young Saudi women moving to the beat, and of course, using their cellphone cameras.

The agency in charge of this festival and other shows is the Entertainment Authority, established by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in 2016 as part of this “Vision 2030,” a project that includes the prince’s aspiration to turn Saudi Arabia into the fourth richest country in Asia and tenth in the world in terms of entertainment and leisure options. The main reason for the project is economic – to increase revenue from tourism and variegate the kingdom’s sources of income. But on the way there, the prince wants to give his kingdom the image of a liberal, country, in short – a Western country.

The crown prince understands very well the social and religious implications that could stem from this vision and so to get out ahead of the criticism, he passed a law in September called the Public Taste Law, which rather vaguely defines what is allowed and what isn’t. For example, you’re not allowed to appear in public in pajamas or underwear. You’re not allowed to light fires in public parks or throw out garbage there, and you can’t use laser lights without a permit. You also can’t take seats designated for the elderly and the handicapped, behave in a sexually suggestive manner, play loud music in a residential area or while the muezzin is chanting the call to prayer and during prayer.

But this important law requires enforcement, and the photos and clips that appear on social media show the gap between intent and action, which include pictures of public parks overflowing with the remains of food and garbage, wild driving, “Western underwear” hanging out to dry on a balcony clothesline, and of course, festivals of noisy music produced by the Entertainment Authority.

And like many other fine innovations instituted by the prince, including permission for women to drive, more possibilities for women to work and go abroad without permission from a male guardian, the activities of the Entertainment Authority will brook no criticism. Last week, the head of the authority, Turki al-Sheikh, issued a serious warning to any Saudi citizen who dares criticize the Entertainment Authority on social media. “I’m sick of the slander on Twitter that insults the work of the authority…from now on we will take legal steps against anyone who criticizes or complains about the authority’s work.”

Turki al-Sheikh attends a football match in Riyadh on November 15, 2019. Credit: AFP

That is, liberalism and openness – and that’s an order. Al-Sheikh's words are somewhat heartening. It should be noted that hundreds of critics have been arrested including a tribal leader and important preacher who was arrested on a whim. At least from now on there will be legal steps to the process.

Bin Salman’s critics fear that he is opening the stable doors too widely and it will be impossible to round up the horses that escape. As proof, they present the testimony of women who tweet that they have stopped wearing the long abaya that hides their curves. “Yesterday was a lucky day for me. I went to sleep happy and I woke up even happier. I walked the streets of Riyadh, every neighborhood, every alleyway and according to the behavior of the police and the way they treated me I discovered that the regime has indeed changed and the crown prince spoke the truth when he said that a woman has the right to dress like a man,” the feminist social activist Manahel Otaibi tweeted. Just two years before, a young Saudi woman was arrested for posting a video in which she is seen wearing a short skirt.

Still, it’s best to curb one’s enthusiasm. On the website of an agency called the Authority for the War Against Extremism, part of the Public Security Ministry, one can find directives and advice on how to avoid religious extremism and steer clear of temptations of extremist movements. But recently, a post appeared on the site saying the feminism is also “extremist” as is the call to grant equal rights to gay people, and that these are no different from religious extremism. The post was subsequently removed, but it seems that the sentiment remains valid.

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