Ask any Westerner their opinion on Saudi Arabia, and they may respond negatively. Perhaps they may be aware, for example, of the country’s highly criticized stances on human rights and criminal justice. Nevertheless, the West still does a lot of business with Saudi Arabia. And in recent years, the Middle Eastern nation has been working with U.K. public relations companies to try and transform its international image.
These efforts, moreover, may be due to the influence of Mohammed bin Salman – also known as “MBS.” In 2017 MBS became crown prince of Saudi Arabia and officially took his place as next in line to become king. Since then, it’s been said that he is challenging the nation’s ultraconservative establishment, acting as a reformer of sorts.
However, on October 2, 2018, writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul – perhaps due to his forthright criticisms of his native country. According to the Turkish authorities, Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered within the building. The Saudis, however, maintained that the journalist had died during a “fist fight.” But Khashoggi isn’t the only individual to have allegedly been targeted for retribution. International human rights organizations have pointed out, for instance, that several journalists, clerics and activists were arrested in Saudi Arabia in September 2017.
Given the controversies that have plagued Saudi Arabia, then, one question remains: what is life in the nation really like? Well, for one thing, it is often intensely religious. Saudi Arabia is said to be the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, in fact, while the city of Mecca, where the Quran is believed to have been revealed to Muhammad, is home to Islam’s most sacred place: a building called the Kaaba. All Muslims are obliged to perform the Hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca – at least once during their lifetimes if possible.
As such, then, Saudi Arabia is a place of deep cultural significance. But as the location of more than a fifth of the world’s oil reserves, it is also a place of formidable global power. Petroleum sales account for 42 percent of the country’s GDP – a figure that emphasizes oil’s importance to the Saudi economy. It’s just as well, too, as only under 2 percent of the country’s total area is suitable for agricultural cultivation.
And according to Karen Elliott House, author of On Saudi Arabia, oil wealth has helped to cement a hybrid system of governance built on both “modern political patronage” and “feudal fealty.” She has explained in the book, “Government bureaucracy [in Saudi Arabia] is a maze of overlapping or conflicting power centers under the patronage of various royal princes with their own priorities and agendas to pursue and dependents to satisfy.”
The enormous and concentrated wealth of the Saudi ruling classes also represents a lucrative opportunity for global corporations. In that respect, Saudi society certainly has things in common with the capitalist nations of Europe and America. For example, despite the prevalence of citizens wearing traditional garments such as the thobe and the abaya, malls in the country host U.S. fashion chains such as Gap and Banana Republic.
Indeed, among those who can afford them, there appears to be a sustained appetite for certain Western products. Harley Davidson motorcycles – arguably quintessential symbols of rugged American individualism – have been popular among moneyed Saudis for years, for instance. In fact, around 700 Saudi bikers have joined Harley Davidson clubs across the country.
But the lifestyles of the Saudi elite are hardly representative of those of the general populace; it has been estimated that as many as four million Saudis live on or below the poverty line. And while the government does administer aid programs to alleviate these individuals’ hardship, critics have claimed that these measures don’t go far enough. “The elite don’t see the suffering of the poor,” historian Rosie Bsheer said to The Washington Post in 2012. “People are hungry.”
Furthermore, immigrant workers comprise nearly 60 percent of the total workforce in Saudi Arabia. So-called “guest workers” from Africa and Southeast Asia tend to be employed in menial jobs in domestic services and agriculture, which Saudi men do not want to do. Meanwhile, Indians and Western immigrants are more likely to fill higher-status positions such as technical jobs within the oil industry, for which Saudi men are not generally trained.
Yet while the country’s treatment of foreign workers is generally humane, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has claimed that some domestic servants are employed under conditions of “near-slavery.” Instances of rape, abuse and underpayment have also been reported. According to HRW, “deeply rooted gender, religious and racial discrimination” is among the causes of such horrific maltreatment.
Of course, gender discrimination is an enduring feature of Saudi society. The so-called “guardianship system” requires that before engaging in certain activities – such as marrying or even just taking trips – women receive written consent from a man. However, there are tentative signs of change. In October 2017, for instance, women were permitted to attend a short film festival in Riyadh. Seen as sinful by conservatives, movie theaters had long been illegal in Saudi Arabia prior to 2018.
Likewise, strict conventions regarding women’s dress codes appear to be relaxing, thanks mainly to the women who insist on challenging social attitudes. Where members of the establishment once decried the sporty re-imagining of the abaya, the garment has now become commonplace. The women pictured above are openly running while wearing such items of clothing in Jeddah’s historic streets.
In a similar vein, Riyadh hosted its inaugural Fashion Week in April 2018. Set up by the non-profit Arab Fashion Council, the event was considered a symbolic victory for women’s rights. However, in other respects, change in Saudi Arabia is still slow. For example, at another fashion event at Jeddah’s Hilton hotel that year, the organizers declined to use women to model the clothes. Instead, they utilized flying drones to carry garments up and down the catwalk on coat hangers.
Then, in June 2018 a decree issued by MBS finally allowed women to drive in Saudi Arabia. This move came after activists had campaigned for decades to have the driving prohibition removed – sometimes at great personal cost. In 2011, for example, several women were arrested for sharing videos of themselves at the wheels of vehicles. As punishment for the transgression, one of the individuals responsible later received ten lashes.
Meanwhile, events such as Al-Jenadriyah represent a benign attempt to bridge Saudi Arabia’s past and present. Established in 1985, the two-week-long festival now attracts in excess of a million annual visitors. Al-Jenadriyah includes activities such as dancing and horse and camel racing as well as exhibitions of Saudi crafts.
Meanwhile, at the month-long annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, thousands of dromedaries participate in an extraordinary beauty contest, with nose and mouth shape, ear size and fur color all among the judging criteria. The festival organizers have even had to take a hard line against would-be cheats who used cosmetic fixes to enhance their camels’ looks.
And given promised prizes of in excess of $17 million, the King Abdulaziz Horse Championship looks set to compliment the Camel Festival. The event, which was announced in February 2018, is currently in development. When the championship launches, though, it is likely to draw big crowds and bring in strong international competition.
There’s also been an event with a rather more futuristic bent. On August 1, 2018, the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones began a three-day “Hajj Hackathon” in Jeddah. The idea behind the occasion was to find hi-tech solutions to problems associated with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, such as overcrowding. Thousands of people from around the world attended, too, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who served as a judge.
But, of course, the hackathon took place before the Khashoggi scandal emerged. “Deep inside him, [the crown prince] is an old-fashioned tribal leader,” Khashoggi had explained to Newsweek in early 2018. “He wants to enjoy the fruits of First World modernity and Silicon Valley and cinemas and everything, but at the same time he wants to rule like how his grandfather ruled Saudi Arabia.” Indeed, life in the Middle Eastern country does not appear to be changing as much as some may like to believe…