Reform and repression go hand in hand in Saudi Arabia

Football fans at a game between Brazil and Argentina in Riyadh, Saudi ArabiaPicture copyright
EPA

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Brazil and Argentina performed earlier than a blended crowd of Saudi soccer followers


The hooligans had been up excessive within the stands above the soccer stadium in Riyadh – they’d stripped off a part of their clothes and had been waving it wildly within the air above their heads.

The bunch of Saudi ladies had been having the time of their lives – their headscarves reworked into billowing black flags.


The showpiece recreation between Brazil and Argentina was the primary soccer match I had been to in Saudi Arabia for greater than 20 years – again when the stadium was a symphony of Saudi males’s crimson and white keffiyehs and startlingly white thobes, unbroken by the black of a single girl’s abaya.

The Riyadh of these days was an inward-looking, unwelcoming place, barely brightened by the blazing lights of buying malls.

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You held your breath as you entered the town as if diving right into a stagnant pool – expatriates stayed underwater for years, sometimes breaking to the floor with alcohol, holidays and affairs.

Each outing to the retailers was interrupted by a hurried rush because the prayers started and the shutters got here down – the store employees scared of the non secular police who patrolled relentlessly, rounding up anybody who broke the principles.

For younger Saudis, their worlds had been circumscribed by the excessive partitions constructed round their homes, which expanded yr after yr on land reclaimed from the huge vacancy surrounding the town. They moved from one non-public house to a different, visiting the equally enclosed houses of household and buddies.

That Riyadh is gone.

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Lower-outs of well-known Arab singers line the route in direction of the primary avenue at Riyadh Boulevard

The opening up of public house has reworked the town – as has the banishing of the non secular police from on a regular basis life.

A younger half-Saudi girl – who has made her identify as an influencer and a designer – advised me how forbidding Riyadh had as soon as appeared to her.

Now, the tempo of change meant she generally felt extra conservative when she returned than her buddies dwelling within the nation on a regular basis.

She mentioned that ladies getting the precise to drive final yr was the important thing second – despite the fact that she herself was but to get a licence. Her Saudi ladies buddies, she added, now owned their very own house, placing them on an equal footing to males.

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Riyadh Boulevard attracts 1000’s of individuals each evening

I didn’t deliver up the 4 jailed Saudi ladies activists and 7 others out on bail who battled for this proper for years and are on trial for harming Saudi Arabia’s safety – all denounced as traitors within the native media.

Their remedy is a scar that runs proper via the material of the brand new look Saudi Arabia – nevertheless it doesn’t imply that there has not been actual change.

That is the paradox – some of what’s taking place might be dismissed as bread and circuses.

Two months of leisure are at present being supplied throughout Riyadh – with open-air cinemas, theatres and pop concert events.

Whereas I used to be there, an American rapper waved a bra a member of the viewers threw at him and the video of the incident went viral.

There’s a Winter Wonderland, with all the things however Father Christmas.

An space referred to as Riyadh Boulevard, on the outskirts of the town, attracts 1000’s of individuals each evening.

Enormous cut-outs of well-known Arab singers line the route in direction of the primary avenue, the place younger veiled Saudi ladies cease passers-by to strive fragrances, a girl in a niqab performs piano, and a guitarist strums beside a huddle of meals vehicles.

There are dozens of eating places the place women and men mingle with no restrictions – and from the place they’ll watch a lightweight present on a synthetic lake each hour.

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Saudi ladies are nonetheless required to decorate “modestly”

Not more than 4 or 5 years in the past, each aspect of this scene would have been denounced by Saudi clerics, whose energy was nonetheless formidable if beginning to weaken.

Now, a lot of these clerics are in jail, after failing to get behind the sweeping adjustments wrought by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Lots of of Saudi males packed one of many largest mosques in Riyadh whereas I used to be there to mourn a type of preachers – whose demise a Saudi human rights group has blamed on his mistreatment in jail, though this has not been confirmed.

A number of days earlier, the pageant ambiance in Riyadh was shaken by a stabbing at a present by which a number of international performers had been injured.

Picture copyright
AFP

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King Salman made his son, Mohammed, crown prince in 2017

Aides and advisers to Prince Mohammed say this is the reason the world should get behind him – because the forces of response may nonetheless stage a comeback.

A yr in the past, I used to be in Riyadh to cowl the homicide of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi brokers on the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul – a Saudi editor agreed that it was the rarest of tales by which each savage, unbelievable element turned out to be true.

Now, the killing casts a much less overwhelming shadow as international dignitaries are much less shy about being seen in Saudi Arabia once more.

However its horror nonetheless defines this new Saudi Arabia to a lot of the world, at the same time as a bunch of younger Saudis professed to me – with utter conviction – their pleasure in a newfound sense of nationwide id.