Twelve Weeks in Riyadh Exploring the New Saudi Arabia from the Inside

The religious police has been stripped of power, pop concerts are now allowed and women are even permitted to drive cars. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is liberalizing Saudi Arabian society but the system remains authoritarian. Can it work?

AFP

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It's not true that women can't go anywhere in Saudi Arabia. You can walk wherever you want, you'll just never get anywhere.

It's my first day in Riyadh, five months before the sensational images of Saudi women driving cars would travel around the world in mid-June. I wander through the streets of Salamiyah, a middle-class neighborhood in the capital, but I'm not allowed to go in anywhere. In front of the Bazi Baba restaurant, with its delicious dishes and fresh juices, there are tables and chairs and they are all occupied -- by men. Women who want to buy something must stand in front of a small window where they can place their order. They must then wait outside for their food to be brought to them.

On Tahlia Street, the liveliest boulevard in the capital, coffee shops recently began springing up. The tables outside are also full -- of men. The fact that they are even allowed to sit outside represents huge progress. The streets of Riyadh used to be empty. Women, though, are not allowed to sit with the men, and are required instead to sit in the "family section," behind screens, curtains or sometimes even frosted glass.

Back in my hotel, the receptionist proudly shows me the swimming pool and fitness studio. Opening times? Unfortunately, they are only for men. Massages are also on offer, but only for men. Ultimately, I retreat to my darkened room as the sun beats down outside. I will never get used to the fact that curtains are always drawn here, completely opaque so you can't see out - and so no one can look in.

At first glance, little has changed here in the Saudi Arabian capital when I arrive at the beginning of the year. It is my fifth visit to the country, the first time coming in 2011. This time, I have planned a stay of 12 weeks, hoping to experience the change that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, has decreed for the benefit of his people. For decades, Saudi Arabia was the country in which women were not allowed to drive. Now they can. It isn't the only thing that seemed unthinkable just a short time ago.

'I Have 20 Years to Reorient My Country'

The country has long been far more conservative than any other on the Saudi peninsula. But MBS, the favorite son of King Salman, has radically transformed the kingdom in the few months since his father named him as his heir. He has broken open the state, demolished old power structures and reshaped the country in his own image. He is a radical reformer, but not a democrat. He has changed the country's user interface but strengthened the monarchy's authoritarian structures. MBS is a paradox: a leader who has introduced more leeway in the public sphere while introducing new punishments for those who fall afoul of the royal family.

Even before he became crown prince, MBS was open about his worldview and plans during a meeting with business leaders in the United States. "In 20 years, oil goes to zero," he said. "I have 20 years to reorient my country and to launch it into the future." It sounds good, refreshing, as though the younger generation has arrived in the palace. Three-quarters of all Saudis are under 30 years old.

The face of MBS stares at you almost no matter where you go in Riyadh, gazing down from gigantic posters at the airport and from the sides of buildings lining the city's boulevards. The prince's image can be found on bumper stickers, on mobile phone cases and on flags used to decorate shop windows. The king remains the all-powerful ruler, but the pictures make it clear: MBS is Saudi Arabia's future.

For my stay, I have rented a small apartment in the Al-Olayya district in the city center. Every morning, I wake up, look at my mobile phone and read the next bit of groundbreaking news: Woman won't just be allowed to drive soon, but they will be able to open up a business without the permission of a man. Women will no longer be required to wear veils should they not wish to. And just three streets away, on Tahlia Street, I see increasing numbers of women who are neither wearing the niqab nor a headscarf.

Men and women sometimes even walk hand-in-hand, something that until recently was inappropriate if the couple was married and strictly prohibited if unmarried. There is a terrace café in an expensive shopping mall where women smoke in public. There are fancy restaurants where lounge music is played. In some of them, men and women are sitting next to each other without a member of the religious police requiring that they prove they are married. Such couples used to stand a good chance of getting arrested.

A High-Speed Transformation

The transformation is taking place at high speed, almost as though a car's body was being replaced while the engine was idling.

At the end of March, I meet up at a jazz concert with a Saudi Arabian band that has been allowed to play in public for the very first time. A Saudi Arabian jazz band! Until recently, such a thing would have been just as absurd as the queen visiting a gay pride parade. The five young musicians used to have to practice discretely in a friend's basement outside of Riyadh.

The country now has a monster truck show, public wrestling and women's marathons. The construction of 300 cinemas is planned, with the first ones already having opened their doors following 35 years in which movies were forbidden. There is a car show exclusively for women, something that many young people think is really great. It is strange, however, that nobody seems to be infuriated by this revolution from above. After all, if the 180-degree reversal is the right move, doesn't that mean that the past 40, or even 80 years were all wrong -- the covering of the face and hands in scorching heat of over 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade?

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But there is a downside to the societal openness. Those who once dared to criticize the rulers are no longer in the country. I used to meet frequently with Jamal Khashoggi, the former editor-in-chief of the respected newspaper al-Watan, who now lives in the U.S. He argues in favor of giving people a share of power by introducing a constitutional monarchy, but says it has gotten "too hot." Khashoggi's friends say he would likely be sitting in prison today had he stayed -- just like the liberal activists and bloggers who were incarcerated this spring.

The same holds true for conservatives. There are those who stand opposed to the rapid reforms and the new freedoms for women. They all know where public criticism can end: in jail.

I only have to speak with my landlord to see that the customs of a country don't change overnight. Colonel Ali is an ex-military pilot and lives at the end of my street in a large compound with three wives and a passel of children. He is worldly, a successful businessman and deeply religious.

In the evenings, I sit with Ali on his terrace, which functions as something like an open-air reception area behind the entrance gate. The Ethiopian cook brings dates and coffee, soup, rice with lamb and spinach.

Speaking Metal

Colonel Ali talks about his life, gives a tour of his house, introduces his third wife and his 19-year-old daughter, who translates into French and English. And we talk about whether women should really get behind the wheel. "Why should women drive, Susanne, do they have to?" he asks. "We aren't ready for that," says his brother. "If they leave the house, the family would disintegrate," Ali says.

With the help of drawings, Colonel Ali and my neighbor Hassan tell me about the origins of the world, about how God created Adam and then, from one of his ribs, Eve. Now, they say, the world is rapidly approaching its end. When buildings are built toward the heavens and metal can speak, the end of the world is nigh: That, they say, is what it says in the writings of Islam.

These prophecies, says Ali, have already come true. The skyscrapers are visible from his balcony and the talking metal refers to our mobile phones, he says pointing to our devices all sitting on the table. He points to the conclusion of his drawing where people are depicted burning in the pits of hell, a fate reserved for the apostates.

"Think about it Susanne! It's only logical," insists Ali, clearly trying to get me to convert to Islam. He is pushy and patient at the same time, filling my tea cup and offering snacks. Still today, Colonel Ali sends me videos over WhatsApp encouraging me to save my soul from Satan.

Far from all Saudi Arabians are as religious as Colonel Ali, with many young men and women having no use for the religion's rules. One of those is Abdulaziz, the son of the owner of a successful hair salon. Abdulaziz is 34, went to university in Miami and has been tasked by his mother with escorting me back to my apartment after an invitation to their place.

By way of farewell, Abdulaziz kisses his mother's hand before then cranking up Lady Gaga in the car. The coffee cup in the center console is full of whiskey; on the black market, a bottle of whiskey currently goes for 1,200 riyals, the equivalent of around 300 euros. On his phone, Abdulaziz shows pictures of dance parties in Riyadh and of his weapons collection, mostly handguns. He likes shooting around in the desert, he says. His mother knows nothing about them.

In contrast to what many might believe, most Saudis are not rich sheikhs. Per capita income in the country isn't even 17,000 euros per year, less than half of what it is in Germany. Citizens may not have to pay income tax, but the cost of living in the country is relatively high. Fresh fruit and vegetables, imported from the U.S. or Egypt, are more expensive than in Europe. Six organic eggs cost fully eight euros.

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