The monitored freedom of Saudi women

Thanks to the reforms introduced by the controversial prince Mohammed bin Salman, women in Saudi Arabia enjoy freedoms that were unimaginable just a few years ago: they can go out without wearing the veil, drive cars, and choose their own jobs, in a society that, however, remains obsessed with control and intolerant of dissent. Nonetheless, now in Riyadh, a foreign woman alone can try to be a tourist. And surprises certainly abound.

Two years ago, on LinkedIn, I saw a picture of bright drones creating patterns in the night sky over a Middle Eastern desert. It was a post by a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Over the phone, she told me about her new life in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. She was excited about the country, where she had been living for over four years, before women were allowed to choose their own jobs, drive, or take a plane without the permission of a male family member, father, husband, or son (with all the restrictions that apply, even for a Western woman). But above all, she discovered – says Stefania Garibaldi, 44 – “that young people are the real driving force of this incredible nation, with an average age of 32”. Highly educated and full of resources, they are in a hurry to ride the future. “More than 90% of those who have studied abroad, thanks to the scholarships established by the Saudi government since the 1990s, return home because change comes from here,” she says. “Saudi is so unique that no one outside believes it. To understand, you have to see with your own eyes.” So, I took a flight to Riyadh, a desert city (“once in the summer, while driving, I burned my eyelashes. It was over 50 degrees, and the car had become an oven!”) with over 7 million inhabitants that was lacking public buses until March 19, 2021, when nine metro lines opened all at once. Things are done on a grand scale here. Before leaving, however, I have doubts: as a tourist and a woman, can I walk alone on the street? Do I have to wear a veil? How will I get around? Above all, I can’t understand the cost of living (my budget is limited) until an expat tells me: “You don’t understand because it’s a land of extremes. On the one hand, there is the survival of Southeast Asian immigrants who work as slaves, and on the other hand, the wealth of Saudi billionaires. There is no middle ground.” I’m also confused by the fact that in Saudi Arabia, many valid information from a few years ago is no longer valid (watch out on Google!). The Copernican revolution of the Kingdom, as the largest nation in the Persian Gulf is called, began in 2016 when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, presented the economic plan Vision 2030, in which he promised a “vibrant” society, as written in the accompanying document, increasingly open to the rest of the world and increasingly less dependent on the country’s (so far) greatest wealth, oil. He is the media face of the country that is leading Saudis into an era of economic boom and international authority (although Western commentators blame him for the responsibility for the killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi) thanks to the power of universal messages such as sport, art, and cultural diplomacy. Although any religious and political criticism is prohibited, as written in the email with which I received the visa at a cost of 180 euros in just a few hours, most subjects are proud of the ongoing change and the Crown Prince who is leading it. To have some of them tell me firsthand before leaving, I try to contact three Saudi acquaintances via email, but I get no response.

Here everything is based on interpersonal relationships and trust. It’s a cultural issue”, my friend explains to me. When I rented a house, the neighbors came to introduce themselves. They had never seen a Westerner in their neighborhood before (usually, expats live in compounds, ed.), and while waiting for my new kitchen to arrive, they brought me lunch and dinner for days. My job has also changed since I moved permanently to this city, which has become the hub of change from a conservative governmental center. Stefania is the CEO and Business Director of Balich Wonder Studio KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), responsible for institutional relations with various state entities, including the Ministry of Entertainment, Culture, and Tourism, to which we present large-scale event projects. These range from the Dolce&Gabbana fashion show in the AlUla desert, a UNESCO archaeological site on the ancient incense route, to Noor Riyadh, one of the world’s largest events dedicated to artistic light installations. She manages a team of Saudi and Middle Eastern youths (34 employees who will soon become 70, plus up to 1000 occasional collaborators). “Young people here have values such as family, community, and hospitality. They want to change society and see their beloved and recognized country, while Western newspapers often describe Saudis as Taliban. And if you ask girls what they want to be when they grow up, they say parliamentarians, judges, or top managers of the Saudi investment fund, the world’s richest. They are tough women,” she says. Just as tough as she is, I think. Surely, girls are the ones whose lives have changed the most.

I look at them on the streets and in bars, where it is not uncommon to see them sitting alone. In public, some are entirely covered by the niqab except for their eyes, while others wear long, colorful abayas that are open in front and reach down to their feet. Almost none of them want to be photographed, even in the background. “Please do not take pictures of customers to protect their privacy,” I read on a sign near the checkout at a Tahlia Street venue, one of the few with sidewalks (unlike the main arteries, where it is almost impossible to walk). Female privacy in the age of social media is a bit like gender segregation that was in effect until 2016. And today, it is as if the girls want to make up for lost time. “The government encourages us to make choices in every aspect of life, from what we wear to the type of work we do. While in the past, the choice was between being a teacher or a doctor, we now also have policewomen, ministers, and ambassadors, as in the United States, Finland, Norway, Great Britain, and the European Union,” says Lana, a 29-year-old copywriter at an advertising agency. According to an expert, Saudi ambassadors currently have more symbolic inclusion power than operational power. “We can go to the cinema (and kissing scenes are not cut off at the most crucial moment) and spend the weekend with friends in the desert just outside the city,” says Sara, a 34-year-old photographer and graphic designer who returned to Riyadh four years ago after studying in California, just in time to experience “a real cultural shock.” “Foreigners who come to work here finally feel safe (at night, some people don’t even close their doors, and everyone guarantees zero crime), and tourists are also coming because it is a country of pristine natural beauty.” Saudi Arabia has, in fact, opened its borders since last September, even though on paper, it is since 2019, with the pandemic in between. Digression: “With mass vaccination and a lockdown that lasted more than a year, there were 9000 deaths from Covid in three years, a contained number out of 33 million inhabitants,” Stefania adds. In a few weeks, the government moved everything online, from work to school. Even gasoline (50 cents per liter) was delivered to homes. This is the homeland of cashless and delivery. The economy has not suffered from it.

“The biggest change of course has been being able to drive”, adds Ghazal, 30, a translator, who like most young singles lives with her family. To understand this revolution, you have to imagine a city where if you don’t have a car, you can’t go anywhere. There is no center to walk around, life is almost always indoors (also due to high temperatures) between home-car-office and various shiny malls. But even this aspect is changing: the world’s largest green park is about to be completed near the airport. “Although before June 2018 driving was not illegal,” continues Ghazal, “we had no way of obtaining a driver’s license. We had to rely on a driver or a male relative.” Her words explain well how the categories of forbidden and permitted are quite interpretable in an absolute monarchy that, before returning to moderate Islam by MBS’s will, applied the strictest doctrine of Islam. Nothing black or white today, but shades. “Speaking of gray, in 2016 the prince also reduced the role of the religious police. It has not been dissolved, but it is less interventionist than before in terms of clothing and the possibility of men and women being together at the stadium or concerts,” explains Eleonora Ardemagni, associate researcher at Ispi, expert in the Gulf countries, which have become in recent years a center of “global gravity”. “The prince’s is a social change that creates expectations within Saudi Arabia itself. It is a gradual process, in which new rights are coming from above, as a concession and not as the result of a bottom-up conquest. Also to prevent future discontent.” One immediately thinks of the protests that broke out over the use of the veil in Iran, the historical enemy of Arabia, “in front of which the Saudis have not yet taken official positions,” specifies Ardemagni, “waiting to understand what the riots will result in.”

Free to wear or not wear the veil, waiting to see how modernization will develop, women in Saudi Arabia are gaining ground. Last year, the percentage of employed women rose to 37 percent, according to the minister of human resources. As Uzairah confirms, who arrived here ten years ago from Bangalore (India) with her husband, who was hired by a hi-tech company. Studying at night, she found work in a large company where she works in cybersecurity, a sector in which Saudi women make up 45 percent of the workforce, a record compared to the percentage of girls studying scientific subjects in Europe. “The reason is that they were locked up at home until a few years ago, with a computer as their only window to the world, in a country where you can do everything with a digital identity. My colleagues,” adds Uzairah, “are young graduates and successful also because the government encourages them to work and protects them from harassment (a law provides for a fine of 300,000 riyals, about 75,000 euros, ed) but also from online blackmail. It is not uncommon for malicious people to use personal information posted on social media, even just the city or school you attend, to blackmail women.” For this reason, 90 percent of Saudi women do not use their real name or photo on their account. Between prohibitions still in force (alcohol, prostitution, and homosexuality) and new freedoms (including perhaps cohabitation, thanks to Ronaldo and Giorgina), “I’m worried that changes are coming too fast. People don’t have the tools to deal with them,” says Uziarah while the traffic of the weekend eve (Friday and Saturday) reflects on the skyscrapers of the Financial District. Among the expats I have just met, there are those who drive to the more permissive Bahrain and those who fly to Jizan for a rubber boat cruise on the Red Sea. “The big question,” concludes Ardemagni, “is whether the political and cultural center of the new Arabia can be kept together with the more conservative and religious peripheries. This also explains why repression has not stopped far from the big cities.” Shadows also persist on freedom of expression and political dissidents, as reported a few days ago by the account on The Guardian of the 65-year-old Awad Al-Qarni’s son who fled to London, a professor of Law and preacher (for Saudis a dangerous extremist) imprisoned in 2017 in a crackdown on dissent on media and social networks. Specifically on Twitter, of which the second largest investor after Elon Musk is a Saudi prince. One more reason to know and tell a society of smart, technological young people capable of changing the world. Including ours.

article published in Elle Italy n.14 (20/04/2023)

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