The application for a visa to Saudi Arabia asked for my religion. In inviting me to give some lectures and interviews, the American embassy in Riyadh had already suggested I answer “non-Muslim”–its standard advice to American visitors, I was told. But I did not feel comfortable with this evasion, so I put “Jewish.” My visa came through nonetheless.
He found that Saudi Arabia wasn’t a bad as he thought, not good, but not that bad.
After a few days, and despite the warnings, I came to feel at ease. I had had the experience on other trips of arriving in Egypt, Israel, or the Palestinian territories right on the heels of terrorist events. To a visitor such acts are not only appalling but also always frightening, even if there is a greater likelihood that one will become a random victim of reckless drivers than of terrorists. Saudi Arabia has more than its share of the latter, but it has even more of the former–the result, I conjectured, of too many young men with too much access to money and too little access to other worldly thrills. The newspapers during my stay carried stories of suicidal motorcycle daredevils and homicidal drag races and other automotive antics; on a couple of occasions I caught glimpses of such near-mayhem on the road. A Saudi woman who advocates women’s rights quipped to me: “I would like to be able to drive here once Saudi men learn how to drive better.”
If I did not find the country exceptionally scary, I did find it rather bleak. To begin with, alcohol was entirely absent. I had read that Christopher Hitchens secreted a bottle of booze into the kingdom in his luggage. I might have tried the same, but having put a higher priority on my prayer book, I figured that two items of contraband would have pressed my luck.
He found the people surprisingly friendly, even to an infidel.
A young man named Khaled told me that he had studied at a small school in St. Louis, where after an initial bout of homesickness he gradually fell in love with the American way of life. After his studies were finished and his student visa had expired, he stayed on, having decided to become an American by hook or by crook. Then came 9/11, and he was picked up in a sweep. A neighbor whom he had befriended, an elderly secular Jew, knocked on official doors on his behalf, and after three weeks, satisfied that Khaled constituted no threat, the authorities released him, giving him time to put his affairs in order and buy himself a ticket home. “My greatest fear,” he told me, “was that I would not readjust to Saudi life.”
After our interview, Khaled invited me to visit his home. “My father would love to meet you. He is a neocon,” he said. I asked what it meant to be a Saudi neocon, and Khaled replied: “He supports you guys.” A few days later, taking him up on the invitation, I headed off to an older, poorer section of Riyadh for the Saudi equivalent of cocktail hour. My cab driver was guided via cell phone to a landmark, where Khaled met us in his pick-up and led us the rest of the way. Once there, he took me into the majlis, a square room in the outdoor courtyard, lacking furniture except cushions along the walls to make sitting on the floor comfortable.
The standard fare at these pre-dinner sittings is dates, tea, and Saudi coffee–tannish green and heavily laced with cardamom; but Khaled had graciously thought to stop for doughnuts and American-style coffee as well. His father, a retired customs clerk who spoke no English, presented me with a gift of a string of white prayer beads. Other male relatives arrived, one of whom regaled me with memories of “the happiest three-and-a-half years of my life” when he studied engineering at a New England college. In deference to his elders, Khaled shrank into a corner and kept mostly silent. Not once did I spot a female family member. As I left, Khaled translated his father’s farewell wish that I learn Arabic so that next time we could talk with each other.
I was warmly received everywhere in Saudi Arabia, though I always identified myself as a Jew and as a neoconservative. The latter term, much as at home, has become a buzzword throughout the Arab world for everything disliked about U.S. policy. (An interviewer for an Islamist news organization in Egypt once put it to me: “‘neoconservative’ sounds to our ears like ‘terrorist’ sounds to yours.”) But Arabs value politeness, and to avoid confrontation they often say, “We like the American people, just not your government.” I always tried to block this retreat from controversy by asserting that I was one of those Americans who supported the very policies of my government that Arabs were angry about. Nonetheless, interviews with me in the Saudi media were respectful, fair, and accurately reported.
Saudi Arabia, for all its traditional ways is modernizing, faster than some would wish.
Such meetings brought home the way in which Saudi Arabia is like a vast battleground between antiquity and modernity–a battle conducted more on the personal than on the political level. The enforcers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, called the mutawa or mutawa’een, roam the streets and the malls, spying out derogations from the country’s strict code of morals and decorum. Young people, and others, push against the restraints. A woman journalist told me she was working on a story about fashions in abayas, which were starting to appear with embroidery and shapes suggestive of the female figure. Diplomats told me that if invited to a Saudi home for dinner, they felt obliged to bring wine, available in the diplomatic quarter and much appreciated outside it. Although many families still select spouses for their children, young Saudis maneuver to meet members of the opposite sex. Every restaurant and café has separate seating areas for men and women, but youngsters get around this through text-messaging. Boasting of his adeptness at recognizing various makes and models of cell phones, a young man explained to me how, after launching a conversation by text-message, he would scan the women’s section and quickly figure out which girl he was flirting with by identifying her phone.
Even today, Saudi traditions remain extremely insular. The exclusion of Israelis (and once, apparently, Jews) was just part of a bigger picture. Until a year ago, Saudi Arabia did not issue standard tourist visas. Historically, the only foreign visitors to reach the kingdom in large numbers were pilgrims. Much insularity remains within as well. The Shiites who constitute an estimated 10 percent of the Saudi population are largely segregated geographically (in the eastern regions) and to some extent socially and professionally. A leading liberal declared to me un-self-consciously that he believed in the equal dignity of all: “Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Shiites.”
These are the veils of isolation that were pierced by the discovery of oil in 1938 and that in the last four decades have been shredded by the avalanche of wealth that has generated an intense demand for foreign labor. A Saudi economist who briefed me estimated the country’s population at 17 million Saudis and 6 million foreign workers. The foreigners include Westerners who fill skilled positions in management and technology and Asians or other third-world immigrants, sometimes illegal, who perform less skilled jobs. As a result, English is the lingua franca, spoken widely in the cities, and the country boasts two good English newspapers, the Arab News and the Saudi Gazette, each replete with help-wanted notices.
The pace of Westernization is of course uneven. Once, when I asked for directions, I was told that my destination was on a certain street near another street: “We haven’t yet gotten to putting numbers on our buildings.” Still more uneven is the pace of cultural change. Corporal punishment is still practiced in the kingdom in the name of Islamic law. Although I did not choose to visit “chop-chop square” in Riyadh, where public hangings and mutilations take place, the papers reported enough floggings to satiate the Marquis de Sade. For the most part, I learned from a local journalist, Saudi criminal law specifies no punishments, leaving the matter entirely to the wisdom of judges. Some are draconian, while others are experimenting with the idea of community service for minor crimes. (Since almost no private voluntary organizations are allowed in Saudi Arabia, this takes the form of mosque-cleaning.) A highly publicized charity run by a member of the royal family works to free murderers on death row by securing forgiveness from the families of the victims, often in exchange for the traditional monetary restitution.
Saudi Arabia is one of the least free countries in the world, but they are making some progress
On the political level, Saudi Arabia remains one of the least free countries in the world. But here too the situation is not static. In annual Freedom House surveys, Saudi Arabia has always ranked among the ten or so countries scoring a rock-bottom 7.0. In last year’s report, for the first time, Saudi Arabia climbed out of this “worst of the worst” category to score a 6.5. According to Freedom House, the change was based on an improving atmosphere of academic freedom.
Reforms in governance are modest in the extreme. A new rule has been promulgated specifying the procedure for selecting the crown prince. Succession has always entailed internecine politics within the sprawling royal family, but now the process will be formalized. The Shura council, entirely appointed by the king and not empowered to make law, has begun to conduct hearings at which government ministers are subjected to questioning. Municipal elections were held in 2005, albeit for only a restricted share of seats in bodies with limited authority.
Yet the progress in freedom of expression was greater than I expected. True enough, I read no criticism whatsoever of the royal family or the basic system of government. And the English papers I read were probably freer than the Arabic press. But they did keep up a drumbeat of criticism on the subject of women’s rights. They also carried investigative reports and stories of societal self-criticism. Their opinion pages offered a range of views, mostly from American and British sources. And even their news coverage of Israel, to my surprise, could be reasonably fair. (For reasons one can guess, the Arab News often ran headlines biased against Israel atop stories that were objective and balanced.)
Then there is the Internet. Websites can be censored. (A spokesman for the commission insisted that 95 percent of the blocked sites are pornographic and only 5 percent are political.) I made my way to one censored site and found a one-line message announcing the blockage and also two links. You could click one link to send a message arguing that the site should not be blocked, and you could click the other to volunteer the URL’s of additional sites that you felt needed to be blocked. Of course, by clicking either one you would be informing the mutawa’een that you had attempted to visit a forbidden site.
The Internet has also given rise to bloggers, perhaps a bit tamer than elsewhere but still with a great deal of independence. The one blogger who has most aroused the wrath of the authorities goes by the handle “Saudi Eve,” and what has gotten her in trouble is frank discussion of her love life. Yet in contrast to Egypt, where several bloggers have been incarcerated and one has been sentenced to a four-year term, the Saudi government has struck at offenders only by temporarily blocking their sites. As Saudis are increasingly switching to satellite Internet providers, the government will find it technically difficult to exert this kind of censorship.
Saudi Arabia is not a paradise by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, nor even really a very nice country but Joshua Muravchik said he would be eager for another visit.
Once back home, I received an e-mail from Prince Turki bidding me to “come back again, with your family and friends.” For my part, based on twelve days of observing this once-forbidden and still most distant of lands, I would be eager for another visit. My wife and daughters will not want to accompany me until they can go around without having to don abayas.
I don’t know what to make of all of this. I hope that Saudi Arabia does manage to reform itself and fully enter into the modern world. With their wealth and the prestige they command as the birthplace of Islam, if they can somehow manage the trick of balancing between modernity and Islamic traditions, they could go a long way in showing the rest of the Islamic world that such a balance is possible. Frankly, I am not optimistic. Even if the Saudi leadership is sincere about reforms ( a big if) they have a long way to go in this most traditional kingdom.