Is Saudi Arabia the new Spain?

The short answer is no. After my recent travels to the kingdom, however, I would venture to guess that in 10 years time the current kingdom as we know it will be unrecognizable, perhaps in the same way Spain was unrecognizable after the fall of Franco’s fascist regime in 1975.

Over the past few months I have traveled three times to Riyadh for work-related purposes. Prior to the first visit I have to say that I really didn’t know what to expect. When I would hear about Saudi Arabia, images that would come to mind would be oil, the desert and women wearing burkas. To be honest I really didn’t know much about the culture and life there, nor if I would feel safe. Approximately two years before my trip women started joining the work force, and approximately one year before my trip women were given the right to have driver’s licenses.

While there is a long path ahead to modernity, I will admit that I had some incorrect pre-conceived notions.

I had no sensation of lack of safety during my visits. A sensation of subservience, yes, but lack of safety, no. At least in Riyadh and in the office setting where I was it was not necessary for me to wear a hijab. I did this during my first visit out of respect, but during the past two trips I’ve let my hair down. (Note: this doesn’t mean that the Saudi women are doing this. I didn’t see any women in fact that did not at least have their head covered, and full burkas are extremely common, probably in half of the cases). As for clothing I don’t think it would be appropriate to wear my fitted outfits that I wear back home, but with a long, loose shirt (better if it’s dark) and/or a long jersey or jacket over my clothing it’s been fine (see my past post: Saudi Arabia just changed its formal dress code for international female visitors). What you don’t want to do is wear something really tight, fitted, or showing skin; I think it will take a while to get to that point.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is moving forward a lot of change in the kingdom, especially with the ambitious Strategy 2030, a plan to diversify the income of the kingdom with moves into areas like technology and tourism. Since he came into power in 2017 he has made a number of changes like with the religious police (a colleague of mine pointed them out sitting in a police car while he was showing us around Riyadh’s center one evening; they have a real lack of power now).

 

He’s also opening the kingdom up to tourism which wouldn’t have been thought of five years ago. Now beautiful, historic (and interestingly/importantly, religious) sites like Al Ula will be opening up to tourism (Al Ula in October 2020). There are now tourist visas upon arrival into the country and just recently a new norm allowing unmarried opposite sex couples to share a hotel room, something that would have been unheard of before (see Another Saudi Arabian law change).

And women are now allowed into football games (or at least one recently), public concerts are happening, movie theaters are opening up. Even the NY Times published an article about coffee shops becoming a new space for young unmarried people to meet up (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/15/world/middleeast/saudi-women-coffee-shops.html).

NY Times article Saudi Arabia coffee shops

It’s almost hard to keep up with all of the changes!

While I was given a tour around a historical museum/fortress in the city center I was overwhelmed by the  hospitality of the people welcoming us into the center. At the Masmak fort museum we were greeted openly with tea, dates, incense (and repeatedly) without anything expected in return. I had the feeling that the idea of tourism and foreigners visiting the country is so new that people don’t know what to expect. In a sense this reminded me of my honeymoon trip to Myanmar 8 years ago. Five year old boys were riding around on top of buffalo and Coca Cola didn’t exist (now it does). When we were there the country was on the brink of tourism. I think Saudi Arabia will be there soon.

IMG_1408

My favorite Arabic coffee and date man (I don’t know his name as there was no common spoken language…)

All of the changes also make me think of Spain, which explains the title of this post. When the fascist regime of Franco ended in 1975 Spain changed – dramatically. Granted I wasn’t around at that time, but from what I’ve heard and read this is when the free, fun, vibrant, live and party culture that currently defines a large part of the Spanish being and culture came into being. Once you take away religious restrictions, involve alcohol, freedom, music…. well, I guess the rest is history.

Of course all of these changes will require a BIG shift in mindset for the people within the country and a softening of religious norms and views of outsiders. What is clear though is that there’s no turning back. As the country opens itself up to the influx of foreigners and the nationals go more outside the kingdom and experience more of the world it will be very difficult to maintain an enclosed, tightly enforced society as before.

Time will tell… there are already a lot of similarities to the Spanish culture in the kingdom, like the importance of family, gatherings around food, lunch/dinner schedules (I had no idea they ate so late), etc.

What are your thoughts? Have you been to the kingdom? What are your impressions from your visits or reading of the news?

 

 

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