Tinder, Parties and No Morality Police: An Israeli Reporter's Journey Through Saudi Arabia

Dating, freedom to divorce, women in the labor market and behind the wheel, foreign tourists, coed leisure – Saudi Arabia is becoming a society that wants to resemble the West. How do people live with all this sudden freedom, yet no hope of democracy?

A Riyadh street scene.
A Riyadh street scene. Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP
Tamara Baraaz
Tamara Baraaz

Sitting on a street in Riyadh is an elderly, bearded man whose voice betrays a longing for the past. Ibrahim was a member of Saudi Arabia’s modesty patrols, which for years terrorized anyone who deviated from religious laws. Asked about his past, Ibrahim (his name, as well as those of the other interviewees, has been changed to ensure his safety) squirms uncomfortably. The fact that he’s talking to a woman probably doesn’t help. He prefers not to look at women; during our conversation his gaze is directed elsewhere. Nor does he open up when asked what he thinks about the fact that the patrols are losing their power. “It is by the order of the king and they obey it,” he replies laconically. “The modesty patrols are an enforcement body, not a body with an agenda. We were like soldiers; we did what we were told. I have no personal opinion on the subject.”

At Ibrahim’s side is Tareq, a friend. He doesn’t get involved in our conversation but occasionally flashes a sarcastic smile. After Ibrahim leaves, he says what he thinks: “They harassed people, forced their views on everyone. They took a beautiful thing, religion, and created a distorted version of it.”

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Perhaps Tareq was thinking about the incident when a fire broke out in a girls school in Mecca in 2002 and the modesty patrols prevented students from leaving the building because they weren’t wearing abayas – traditional dresses that cover the hair – and the firefighters outside were men. Fifteen girls died and many others were injured. Or maybe he was referring to a case in which patrol personnel burst into the home of a person who was suspected of consuming alcohol and beat him to death. These stories, dating back more than a decade, now seem like ancient history.

The modesty patrols indeed belong to the past. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, stripped them of their powers in 2016. He prohibited them from patrolling the streets, detaining passersby, demanding to see their IDs and harassing them. All that remained was for the force’s members to report to the police about suspicious activities. In practice, they disappeared, and today the organization exists only on paper.

The patrols’ disappearance from the public domain was not accidental. It is part of a broad project being spearheaded by Bin Salman, titled “Saudi Vision 2030,” which seeks to forge a liberal, open image for the country. The dress code on the streets has become more permissive, women are getting more rights, gender separation in the public space has been eliminated, and the country’s gates have been opened to foreign tourists. As of last month, Israel too is permitting its citizens to visit Saudi Arabia, and not only for pilgrimage to Mecca. Not for everyone and not for every purpose, but the direction is clear (although Saudi authorities have not yet eased restrictions on Israelis’ entry).

The crown prince’s motivation for introducing these sharp policy shifts is not necessarily a desire to move the country toward democracy, or to stir such hopes among the Saudi population. Many commentators think the primary reason for the accelerated changes is the Saudi ruler’s desire to rehabilitate both his country’s and his image. That image had been badly tarnished in recent years by the royal family’s involvement in the war in Yemen and, most acutely, by the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a fierce critic of his country’s leadership, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 – an action the West imputes to His Highness.

Some of the deep changes being fomented by Crown Prince Mohammed were strikingly evident during my visit of a month and a half in Saudi Arabia, though it was also clear that not everyone had been bitten by the freedom bug. Some still fear punishment; others mention the oppression that continues, unseen, outside the big cities and far from Saudi Vision 2030.

The principal difference between Saudi Arabia of the past – that is, four years ago – and today is that the black-and-white categories of “forbidden” and “permitted” have been replaced by lots of gray. Thus, although many liberal customs have not become officially permitted, in practice, much of the supervision has been lifted and the resulting uncertainty invites a breaching of boundaries. That was the feeling I got when visiting the promenade in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, which has been known for its relative liberalism for some time. The Tel Aviv of Saudi Arabia, some might call it.

Mohammed bin Salman.
Mohammed bin Salman. Credit: Alastair Grant/AP

On weekends this promenade is crowded with families, individuals jogging in sportswear and young people out to enjoy themselves. What grabs one’s eye above all are the women, and the way they are dressed. Some are wearing traditional abayas and veils, others make do with the hijab, but there is also a new trend: colorful abayas that open in the front to reveal pants and a blouse. These women have also let their hair down, leaving the head covering at home.

Permitted? No. Forbidden? Also no. “The rules of dress at my job have changed in the same way,” says Suheila, from Jeddah. “No one declared that you could come to work in an open abaya and with your hair uncovered. But there was a rumor that the guards in the office had been instructed not to comment on how we dressed. The brave ones came in the new style, the guards didn’t say anything, and since then everyone dresses the way they feel like dressing.”

Jeddah is not so exceptional. Similar sights can also be found on Riyadh’s colorful boulevards and in its fashionable cafés and modern restaurants. We’re not talking Barcelona or Miami: Women do not walk around with shoulders or knees bared. But the winds of change can be felt.

Prayers and pizza

Along with the transformations in fashion, changes in prayer customs are also apparent. Until not long ago, there was strict discipline in this sphere, too. In Islam, it is customary to recite prayers five times a day; in Saudi Arabia one could say it was more of an obligation as virtually everyone would leave their workplace to pray at the local mosque.

Many think the primary reason for the accelerated changes is the Saudi ruler’s desire to rehabilitate both his country’s and his image.

“The patrols would call everyone to prayer,” says Walid. “If they found someone outside during prayers, they would collect him, take him to the nearest mosque and make him sign a handwritten, improvised form, something in the vein of: ‘I, so and so, undertake that henceforth I will pray in the hours of worship, and I am aware that if I commit this transgression again, I am liable to be arrested.’ Those were not empty threats. They really did send people to jail.”

The directive also applied to business owners, who quickly shuttered their shops when they heard the muezzin’s call. In winter, when prayers are sometimes separated by only an hour, there was often a feeling that half one’s time was spent waiting for businesses to open. In quite a few cases, this is still true, and at prayer times the bustling, logjammed streets are deserted. But that is no longer as common as it was.

Last year, when the Saudis reached the conclusion that the forced closure of businesses at least three times a day led to an annual loss of dozens of billions of riyal (a currency worth about the same as the shekel), the crown prince announced that shops could remain open 24 hours a day. So visitors to the Mall of Arabia in Jeddah – one of many shopping centers that have opened in recent years – know that upon hearing the muezzin’s call they can go to pray or, alternately, they can go to the top floor where, next to the movie theater, a pizzeria continues to turn out pies.


Women sit among men in a newly opened cafe in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, August 2, 2019.
Women sit among men in a newly opened cafe in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, August 2, 2019. Credit: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

In a certain sense, the flourishing of Saudi malls is compatible with the other processes the kingdom is undergoing. By contrast, during a period when Westerners are increasingly abandoning malls in favor of online buying, here they’re all the rage. They now boast movie theaters (hitherto forbidden) and other venues for entertainment and leisure activities – from bowling lanes to ice-skating rinks – whose glory days elsewhere in the world ended sometime in the 1990s. In a country where only now are women and men allowed to be seen together in public, the mall is apparently the perfect backdrop.

“In the past, men could not go into a mall on the weekend,” notes Jamal, a young bachelor. “The whole mall was reserved exclusively for women and families, and modesty patrols stood at the entrances and checked everyone who was going in.”

It’s not only in malls that people no longer care who’s with whom: A new culture of traveling in coed groups is developing in the country. Saudi Arabia is known for its landscapes – red dunes, infinite desert expanses, spectacular coastlines, red and purple cliffs between green valleys, and oases with doum palms. But until now, women could only dream of going to those places, at least if they wanted to make the trip without a male chaperon. And any fantasy of meeting a partner there would remain just that. That also probably explains the current craze, which was very tangible on the nighttime trip I went on. I was one of about 200 people – families and singles of both sexes – who took part in the hike. After crossing a wadi, we reached a site that was effectively the highlight of the event. To the tune of an oud and darbukas (which are technically still not allowed to be played in public, and people would probably refrain from doing so on city streets), everyone joined in the sing-along. Some of the hikers also launched into belly dances.

“Two years ago, that wouldn’t have happened,” says Jawad, who is sitting with his friends, flanked by narghiles and guitars. “In the past, we had to find secret places in the desert, with invitations organized by word of mouth to trustworthy friends. It was a real underground thing. The modesty patrols always found the energy to chase us across the dunes in the middle of the night. The police could still do that today if they wanted to, but they don’t, because they have better things to do, and people prefer to turn a blind eye.”

‘What the neighbors will say’

Close to the border with Yemen is the frontier city of Najran, a bastion of Saudi conservatism. “Here you need to cover your hair,” a female traveler advises me as we arrive in the city. “Things work differently here.”

Indeed, most of the women here still wear the niqab, their faces covered. “Even though the modesty patrols have lost their authority, there are still volunteers here who make comments and bother you occasionally,” says Jaffer, a local resident. But even without them, he adds, Najran is in no hurry to change.

“Taking a woman who is not a relative as a passenger in your car can still cause problems,” he says. “We have preserved the old customs mainly for cultural reasons, because of ‘what the neighbors will say,’ because it’s not nice, or out of respect for the place. Not because of prohibitions in the law.”

Mountains near Taif, Saudi Arabia.
Mountains near Taif, Saudi Arabia.Credit: Tamara Baraaz

Some of the city’s restaurants still have designated places for men, while the women order take-out and hurry to leave. The central bus station also hasn’t adjusted to the new situation, in which the law no longer mandates gender separation. “You can go to the women’s waiting room,” a clerk told me with polite embarrassment. The room was packed with women. The clerk then returned and said, by way of clarification: “You can sit in the women’s waiting room, but only if you want to.”

In some instances, the rapid changes in Saudi Arabia have brought privileges for women. In some places, where the old ways remain in force, there are still separate lines for women, which are usually shorter than the men’s; sometimes men will allow women to go to the front of the line instead of waiting. Evidence of the newer phenomenon is visible, however, at the offices of cell-phone companies and in some supermarket chains.

“The new situation has all kinds of advantages,” says Noor, who is in her 30s. “With all the new laws, men are afraid to bother women or scold them, even to honk at a woman driver who breaks the law. I think that within a few years, when everyone gets used to equality, we will lose those privileges. People will cut us off on the road, too.”

A very short time ago, it was routine for men to harass women on the street. “It was simply a nightmare,” says Latifa, who mentions a case where a comedian dressed up as a woman, put on an abaya and a veil, and filmed what happened to him on the street. “The number of times he was harassed was wild.”

'I’m concerned that the changes are coming too fast. People don’t have the tools to cope with them.'

The modesty patrols were supposed to prevent that from happening, but many people say they only aggravated the situation. “People say we only persecuted women and focused on their clothing, but that is just not true,” Ibrahim, the former member of the modesty patrols, says in praise of the institution. “We helped a great many women who were photographed secretly by men who then tried to blackmail the women by threatening to circulate the pictures. It’s said we hit women with a stick. I never hit anyone, and my colleagues didn’t, either. We didn’t lift a finger to them, that was forbidden.”

Still, Ibrahim admits that not everyone behaved as he did: “There were wild weeds,” he says of those who exceeded the bounds of their authority. “But every organization has wild weeds. We supervised the clothing in order to protect the women on the street, which was far from a pleasant place.”

No one disputes that the street was an unpleasant place for Saudi women. Today, though, it seems as though a female tourist can walk around in completely Western attire without anyone making a comment to her. The background to this change is a new law that stipulates a 300,000-riyal fine (about $80,000) for sexual harassment. And the law is being enforced, as those who dare to test its limits find out.

A public reminder in this regard was seen last December during the MDL Beast music festival held in Riyadh, one of a series of events whose aim – which was successful –was to attract foreign tourists (even though no alcohol was available; it is still banned in the kingdom). However, probably what most people will remember from the event is not the performances of deejays David Guetta and Tiesto, but the arrest of 200 attendees. Many were detained on charges of sexual harassment, others on a charge that seemed to have been taken from the country’s pre-reform era: “inappropriate attire.” Naturally, some argued that the present law about what’s permitted in terms of dress is not very clear, but others explained that, with all due respect, “the detainees should have remembered that they are still in Saudi Arabia.” And all the more so if they are locals, as a photo that went viral showed: a young Saudi woman with face uncovered and wearing a transparent blouse, being taken away by police officers.

The MDL Beast Festival, held in Riyadh in December 2019.
The MDL Beast Festival, held in Riyadh in December 2019.Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP

For Saudis, the music festival encapsulated many of the incongruities stemming from the rapid changes in the country. “We were at that party, people there freaked out,” says Salah, from Jeddah. “A lot of things are forbidden, and suddenly, one fine day, everything is permitted, including a big party in the dark. I’m concerned that the changes are coming too fast. People don’t have the tools to cope with them.” The festival brought to Salah’s mind stories about breaking loose in Dubai. “I see how friends of mine go there, discover the freedom, drink like camels, fight over girls in a club, get into fights. My fear is that this madness will come here, too. I’m afraid for my daughters, when they reach adolescence.”

Spate of dating apps

The young generation in the big cities appears to be adjusting quickly to the new era. “I have seen huge changes within a few years,” says Fatima, a teacher. “When I started to teach, the girls wouldn’t visit girlfriends in their homes because of the men in the family [i.e., of the girl who was hosting]. Today they go on dates through apps, and their parents know.”

Tinder has arrived in Saudi Arabia and is opening a new world for singles, even if the old world at times lurks in the background. “A Saudi court can still force a man to marry a woman who lost her virginity to him,” notes Asma, who is from Jeddah. “But that doesn’t stop my friends from going into Tinder.”

It’s not just that people are innovating in they way they date, but in the very fact that they are dating at all. “You have to understand how things worked here until not long ago,” says Rashid. “To put it simply: There were no dates. I’m from a small town where the parents do the matchmaking. Afterward the man comes to the bride’s home, is shown her 5-year-old sister, and told, ‘The bride looks like her, only older.’”

In more liberal families, Rashid says, the future bride might have been given more of an opportunity to meet with the future groom – more or less. Carrying a tray with coffee, she would enter the living room, “where the future groom and his parents were sitting. She showed herself, served the coffee and returned to the kitchen. Maybe she could also speak to the intended in the next room, alone. There were families in which they would be allowed to exchange messages and speak on the phone. The few who insisted on going on a real date, at their personal initiative, took a risk.”

Rashid was one of the risk-takers. “I gave my sister’s passport to my date, who of course was wearing an abaya and was veiled,” he recalls. “The modesty patrols would stop cars at checkpoints to check whether the driver and a female passenger were relatives. At this stage, the woman needed to look nonchalant and self-confident, because the modesty patrols had the authority to ask her to lift the veil, to make sure that the passport photo matched her face.”

These developments and the new possibilities they spurred also shook things up in the realm of marriage. The kingdom is currently experiencing an unprecedented wave of divorces, a subject the local media deal with extensively. No precise data are available, but the estimate is that the divorce rate has surged by dozens of percent. A study published in April 2019 by the Society for Family Development in Saudi Arabia found that there was a 45 percent rate of requests for divorce even before consummation of the marriage. According to a family affairs consultant who was interviewed in a local newspaper, “The divorce rate has risen because today’s women are careless with their language, enter and leave the house as they wish, spend too much time on the cell phone and neglect the home, the husband and their obligations to the family, in addition to the intervention of relatives in the couple’s personal life.”

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.Credit: Tamara Baraaz

The adoption of Western norms, it appears, has not occurred without opposition.

Some people maintain that the increase in divorce rates is not necessarily a reflection of women’s increased empowerment, as a large percentage of the separations are initiated by husbands. Assim, who is divorced, notes that, “even if the man is the head of the family, he has to consult with his wife and show consideration for her opinion. But there were a lot of ‘dense’ men who didn’t understand this. They behaved like dictators, and the law let them do so. And then suddenly society undergoes an extreme change – suddenly women can work, drive, get a passport, the divorce laws are eased – and the husband doesn’t take in the new situation. Is it surprising that so many are getting divorced?”

An example of the dictatorial spirit mentioned by Assim is the fact that formerly, a husband could obtain a divorce without even informing his wife. As of last month, however, the court is obligated to send her a text message about his intention. But that is hardly the only change in this regard. Even if most of the divorce applications are from the husband, the wife can take her partner to court and receive public financial aid to cover the court costs. Also helpful is that the court no longer allows the husband to be absent from the proceedings, a method widely used in the past to delay a divorce. The effect of these changes seems to be slowly trickling down.

'A Saudi court can still force a man to marry a woman who lost her virginity to him. But that doesn’t stop my friends from going into Tinder.'

“There was a time when a woman simply did not dare to embark on the divorce route,” says Aalia. “A family was ashamed of a woman who got a divorce. Today the situation is completely different. There are even families that encourage a woman to get a divorce if she is not pleased with the marital relationship. Afterward, the woman returns to her parents’ home and gets help with raising the children.”

But before the marriage is annulled, of course, there will have been the wedding itself. At the end of 2019, under-18 marriage became illegal. Prior to that, the minimum age was 15, for both men and women; until two years ago there was no minimum at all. This change is compatible with the shifting mood in Saudi society.

“The girls in the classes above me married immediately after high school, while getting their diploma or college degree, and became housewives,” says Nasiba, a Riyadh resident in her 20s. “I think that in my graduating class, only about 20 percent followed that pattern. All the others are in school or working, and plan to marry later.”

Indeed, in the past few years the proportion of women who are employed has soared. According to the latest figures, 23 percent of Saudi women participate in the labor force. “In the past, many women who went to university were married and became housewives after getting their degree,” notes Rima. Now, though, Saudi women are increasingly going to work, including in fields that in the past were considered “beyond the pale” for them. “There was a time when you never saw a Saudi woman waiting on tables,” Rima adds. “A job like that, in a public place, with male customers, was problematic.”

These days, it’s a common sight, at least in the big cities. “I think it’s good for a woman to work, to be independent, to understand what money means and how to manage it,” Rima continues. “Until now, a woman was either a maid or a princess [whose lifestyle was] funded by her husband. There wasn’t much in between.”

A student at Effat University sits in the driver's seat  for the first time, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 6, 2018.
A student at Effat University sits in the driver's seat for the first time, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 6, 2018.Credit: Amr Nabil / אי־פי

The new trends are also affecting those who were married during the period of the old Saudi Arabia. “There are many wives who spent long years in the house, provided for by the husband or the parents, and suddenly all the women around them are getting jobs, and they want that, too,” says Wiam, who is in her 30s. “A gig economy developed. One woman will bake cakes and sell them, others organize parties in their home for a fee, still others create clay sculptures and sell them on Instagram. I don’t think it pays the rent, but at least they can tell their girlfriends that they’re working.”

Driving force

The relative independence that Saudi women enjoy today has generated headlines lately, both domestically and abroad. A case in point was the decision to annul the country’s male guardianship laws. For the first time in history, a woman was able to obtain a passport and leave the country without first getting permission from her husband or father (though the latter can still petition a court to block a trip abroad). That restriction was later eased, so that women were allowed to take their children with them on these trips. And there’s also the revocation of the driving ban on women.

“That’s the whole deal in a dictatorship, for good and for ill,” Latifa, from Riyadh, says. “The king can wake up in the morning and decide that women are allowed to drive. Without a meeting, without a vote, without opposition. Just like that.”

That decision sparked a huge spike in demand for driving lessons; in some cases, a woman might have to wait now for months before she can finally start lessons. But even if things are proceeding more slowly than anticipated, quite a few women can already be seen behind the wheel.

“The truth is that it saves a lot of time and headaches,” says Ahmed, from Riyadh. “Before the change I wasted a great deal of time on taking my sisters, parents and my wife to work and on errands, usually during rush hour.”

The saving is in money as well as in time. In a country where there is practically no public transportation, a working woman could easily spend 1,500 riyal ($400) a month on taxis. In fact, taxis are problematic in their own right. Until 2016, women were not allowed to be alone in a cab with a Saudi male who was not a relative. As a result, most taxi drivers were brought to Saudi Arabia from other countries, such as Bangladesh or Pakistan, perhaps because they were not seen for some reason as being problematic. But then the ban was lifted, and Uber and its local equivalent, Careem, started to employ local drivers. Today they are the majority.

Like everything else that has been happening in Saudi Arabia in recent years, the taxi reform is only a small part of a much larger trend – namely, the “Saudization” principle, the plan to get more Saudis into the labor force and also to free the country from its petroleum dependence. In this process, many jobs have been taken away from foreigners and given to Saudi citizens. As a consequence, in many hotels, a guest will encounter a Saudi reception clerk who doesn’t speak English. The clerk calls over an Indian member of the staff, a former clerk who has been demoted and taken a salary cut. In practice, in fact, he continues to manage the hotel’s affairs.

The MDL Beast Festival, held in Riyadh in December. Some 200 attendees were detained, some on charges of sexual harassment, others for “inappropriate attire.”
The MDL Beast Festival, held in Riyadh in December. Some 200 attendees were detained, some on charges of sexual harassment, others for “inappropriate attire.”Credit: Fayez Nureldine/AFP

There are other, less grotesque examples of this same trend. “A situation has developed in which a company must employ Saudis in order to stay in business,” says Ismail, a foreign national who works in the kingdom. “Suddenly the demand for Saudi employees is exceeding the supply, and then you get people who know they’re needed but who don’t understand a thing; they haven’t had even rudimentary training. Sometimes the worker doesn’t show up, but you can’t fire him, because his replacement won’t be any better. For every such employee, there is an equivalent employee from another country, who gets a tiny salary and does all the work.”

And not only does the foreign worker earn less, he also pays more: A new law imposes a tax of 300 riyals a month on every foreigner living in the country. In other words, a family of two parents and three children will have to part with 1,500 riyals. And if the person doesn’t have an employer to act as his sponsor, the tax is far greater: 100,000 riyals (about $27,000) a year.

'In Jeddah or in Riyadh you won’t see beheadings and hangings in the city square. The crown prince wants tourists now, and it’s not pleasant to show them that side.'

“My family can’t afford the payments,” says Sahar, whose parents were born abroad. “As with most foreign workers, my parents’ salaries were too low for them to be able to afford to stay here, and they left. In the meantime, I’m living here alone, going to work, paying the monthly tax and trying to get residency in a different country.”

Occasionally she encounters xenophobia: “Clients tell me, ‘You should be thankful you’re getting work at all.’ The problem is that I was born here, I am a Saudi, I have no idea how to live or make a living in my parents’ country of origin.”

Saudi law contains a very broad definition of an alien, extending to fourth-generation migrants. Only if a person or his or her family received citizenship when the state was founded, in the 1930s, will that person be recognized as a full-fledged Saudi. Families who arrived in the country after that date, up until the 1970s, were eligible to apply for citizenship if they wished (in some cases, after paying large sums of money), but the laws have since been toughened. At present, even a person born in the country, whose mother is Saudi but whose father is not a citizen, cannot obtain citizenship. In the same position are some 70,000 offspring of Bedouin families that did not bother to get proper documents. Of 33 million Saudi residents, nearly a third are without citizenship.

“My grandmother and grandfather arrived from Yemen in the 1940s,” says Noor, who lives in Riyadh, “so I didn’t get citizenship. My work told me that they won’t be able to employ me next year. My position is going to a Saudi citizen. So, if I don’t find a new job, I will have to move to Yemen, which is a country that’s at war, and where I have no connections.”

‘Behind the sun’

The treatment of foreigners and the difficulties they face are not exactly in the headlines emanating from Saudi Arabia these days. And these are not the only subjects that are relatively below the radar, and not being discussed in the context of the “Saudi Spring.” The authorities’ attitude toward individual rights, freedom of expression and journalists is also nothing to write home about, according to human rights organizations. The latter are referring to the authorities’ monitoring of messages posted by Saudis on social media by spying on them – or, in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, assassination. Other local journalists, whose names are less well known, often end up behind bars. As of October 2018, there were at least 30 of them, most of them not charged formally. That number has since increased. And journalists are only the tip of the iceberg. Saudi jails hold thousands of political prisoners: Many are clerics blamed for “threatening the harmony in the country,” others are simply people who were thrown into prison on trumped-up charges and some are feminists who have fought for women’s rights.

In this Dec. 13, 2019 photo, a man walks by women visiting the Diriyah Oasis amusement park in Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
In this Dec. 13, 2019 photo, a man walks by women visiting the Diriyah Oasis amusement park in Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Amr Nabil/AP

One of the latter is Loujain al-Hathloul. In 2018, shortly before the lifting of the prohibition on women driving, she was one of a group of women who demonstrated against the then-existing situation, was caught driving as part of a protest action, put on trial and jailed for ostensibly violating a royal decree relating to dissidents. Even though the law was subsequently amended, she and others are still incarcerated. “It is not a coincidence that the female activists were detained shortly before the driving ban was lifted,” the Guardian wrote in an editorial last August. “Their seizure – and the torture some are believed to have experienced in custody – sent a clear message to Saudi women and men too: liberties are not to be demanded as a right, but are to be received gratefully when those in charge decide to hand them out.”

The message was received loud and clear. Nonprofits and other organizations and their spokespersons are afraid to be interviewed, certainly by foreign journalists. “Our branch cannot speak to the foreign media,” I was told by one nonprofit. In another case the response was, “I will be happy to be interviewed if you have authorization from our Ministry of Communications.”

Few people seem to be surprised at the activists’ caution. “People like that are jailed in this prison,” my taxi driver says, pointing to a large structure that’s visible from the expressway leading out of Jeddah. “Half the floors are underground, and the prisoners never see the sunlight. There is even an expression that people use when others speak too freely: ‘Do you want to be behind the sun?’ ‘Behind the sun’ means the prison you’re now looking at.”

However, there are punishments worse than being imprisoned in darkness. Even at a time when Saudi Arabia has cast off the past in many senses, criminal law continues to be dispensed according to sharia precepts. Thus, capital punishment is still meted out by means of stoning, hanging and decapitation. And there’s no shortage of such punishments. According to the government news agency, in 2017 alone, 141 people were executed, 59 of them for drug offenses. Amnesty International reports that many of those condemned to death did not get a fair trial by international standards, and in some cases the conviction was obtained by means of confessions extracted in torture.

The crown prince has promised to reduce the number of executions, but last year’s statistics tell a different story. In 2019, 134 people were condemned to death; 37 were convicted of involvement in terrorism and at least some were tried after undergoing torture; ultimately, the year ended, according to a report in the British tabloid, The Sun, with the execution of all 134.

“Just about every week, after prayers in the mosque, everyone is invited to view decapitations in the city square,” says Yusuf, about an area where there is lively activity by drug dealers, who are punished severely if caught. “People come out of curiosity. There were about 200 people at the last event.” The reference here is apparently to a town that not many people outside Saudi Arabia know, still less what goes on there.

“In Jeddah or in Riyadh you won’t see beheadings and hangings in the city square,” Karim says. “The crown prince wants tourists now, and it’s not pleasant to show them that side.”

The same story is told about the square adjacent to the Masmask Fortress in Riyadh. Until not long ago it was a center for executions and was known as the “square of justice” – or, by some accounts, as “chop-chop square.” Today it’s the central venue for the Saudi capital’s festival season, under the heading of “Riyadh’s Pulse.” In the most recent, month-long event, late last year, men and women strolled between the many stalls, while Western bands performed on a stage.

Riyadh’s pulse is fast, and so are the changes the country is undergoing. Will the Saudi Spring, which is originating from above, succeed where the Arab Spring failed?

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