Fifty men and women were arrested on New Year’s Eve in a coffee shop in the Saudi city of Jeddah, according to local news site Sabq. Their crime: They were together.
The arrest, unfortunately, is business as usual in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is an absolute monarchy that practices a strict interpretation of Islam where the mixing of unrelated men and women is forbidden. Members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, sometimes known as the religious police, patrol the streets of the country to ensure that gender segregation is observed. Women must wear a black cloak, called an abaya, when they are in public, and they are not allowed to drive. Selling and consumption of alcohol is illegal.
But there are places in Saudi Arabia where the conservative country’s rules don’t seem to apply. It’s one of Saudi Arabia’s many paradoxes: The government builds gated, liberal communities, and promotes them as an attempt to change the culture of a conservative society. But at the same time, it punishes those who attempt to replicate these communities’ values outside of their walls. It’s a prime example of the kingdom’s scattershot, and usually ineffective, approach to reform.
Take, for example, the Aramco camp in the Eastern Province, where the state-owned oil giant provides housing for some of its 52,000 employees, who hail from 65 different countries. With its wide streets, lush green fields, and neatly trimmed trees, the Aramco camp looks more like American suburbia than a Saudi town. Men and women work side by side at the company’s offices during the day, then later pass the evening by going to one of the parks, watching a baseball game, or playing golf. They can even watch the latest Hollywood films at the movie theater — a pleasure denied to most Saudis, as theaters are banned in Saudi Arabia.
In early December, a foreign geophysicist who lives there invited dozens of friends to a party at his house. Men and women in their twenties started to arrive around 10 p.m. Dance music was blasting from the speakers and alcohol, some locally made and some smuggled from abroad, was available on the kitchen counter for those who wanted a drink.
The party crowd was mixed: Americans, Irish, Arabs, and Saudis. Most of them work for Aramco, but there were some outsiders too. They talked, drank, smoked shisha, and danced the night away. It was the weekend so no one was in a particular hurry to leave — except those who wanted to catch other parties going on in the camp. The party continued throughout the night: The last guest left around 6 a.m.
Parties like this are not limited to the Aramco camp in Dhahran. If you know the right people, you can find such gatherings in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter and the campus of King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), as well as in dozens of private residential compounds around the country.
These areas, or « liberal enclaves » as former Reuters correspondent in Saudi Arabia Andrew Hammond calls them in his new book, remain outside the control of the conservatives who dominate most aspects of social life in the country. Such areas exist in a legal gray zone — there are no official edicts that exclude them from the kingdom’s laws, but the religious police are reportedly ordered to avoid them.
These enclaves have been the target of ire for those who see them as a threat to traditional Saudi values. Conservatives were outraged when news spread about an « Arabian Night » themed party that took place in one of Aramco compounds last April, featuring music and a belly dancer. Hessa al-Malki, writing on the conservative site Lojainiat, wrote that it is unacceptable for Aramco to spend money on organizing musical events and hosting liberal figures. « We say it loud and clear: enough. Enough, Aramco! » she wrote.
Aramco has proved vulnerable to conservative pressure. It canceled a scheduled concert for renowned Iraqi musician Naseer Shamma later in 2012. The company said it could not get Shamma an entry visa to the country, but local news sites said the cancellation came after conservatives lobbied the local governor to ban the concert.
Not every company, however, can build and run its own camp like Aramco. That’s why some investors built residential compounds in the major cities to house expats who have no desire to deal with the social restrictions that make up daily Saudi life. Kingdom City, owned by tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, is one of the most luxurious compounds in the capital Riyadh. Its residences, its website boasts, combine « the beauty of Najdi architecture … with all the comforts of a western lifestyle. » With their open-air restaurants, shops, cafes, tennis courts, and swimming pools, compounds allow expats to live a nominally Western lifestyle — at least within their immediate neighborhood.
Expats may be comfortable in these compounds, but it can also isolate them from the local community. It is not unusual to find foreigners who come to work in Saudi Arabia and leave the country without forging any friendships with Saudis. But that may suit conservatives who fear Westernizing influences just fine. Hardline clerics such as Sheikh Safar al-Hawali say that non-Muslims should not even be allowed in Saudi Arabia at all. « In principle, they should be kicked out of this country, » he writes on his website, and dealing with them should be minimized until they accept Islam.
Most conservatives, however, rarely speak publicly against such compounds because it can be seen as a direct challenge to the government that has sanctioned them, a challenge the conservatives know they can’t win. Instead, they are willing to turn a blind eye to what happens in these compounds in return for full control over the larger society.
Some enclaves are not just tolerated by Saudi Arabia — they are constructed on the express orders of the Saudi government. The centerpiece of such enclaves is KAUST, which King Abdullah opened to much fanfare in September 2009. Thanks to its $10 billion endowment, its modern facilities, and partnerships with prestigious universities like Stanford, it has attracted a world-class faculty and student body. But it is more than a school, it is supposed to be a vehicle for change: As the first and only co-educational learning institution in the country, KAUST promised to promote academic freedom and critical thinking to an environment severely lacking of them.
Aramco was entrusted by the king to build and run KAUST, and some people describe it as an Aramco outpost on the west coast. Its vast campus, located near the small fishing village of Thuwal, 50 miles north of Jeddah, boasts its own movie theater. Women who live there are also allowed to drive, and they don’t have to cover up.
This is still Saudi Arabia — but it is different from the Saudi Arabia most of us experience. Conservatives were unhappy about KAUST, but few of them dared to speak against the university because it was the king’s personal project. One of those who did, a cleric named Saad al-Shethri, was quickly dismissed from his post.
Around the same time, some KAUST students posted photos and videos on Facebook showing themselves clapping and dancing, sparking another backlash from the conservatives. A leaked State Department cable from December 2009 noted that mixed-gender socializing had continued « without notable problems » since the incident, but students have become more careful about sharing photos from life on campus. What happens in KAUST stays in KAUST.
It’s such behavior that has led some Saudis to believe that the kingdom’s gated communities represent an escape from reality rather than the first building blocks of a more liberal kingdom. One Saudi blogger wrote a letter to the Saudi government after visiting KAUST, opining on the top-down nature of the project and the secrecy of what occurs on campus. « You managed to force a new open campus, with a different take on what a Saudi culture should be, » he wrote. « Please, tell me that you’re doing this just to test how it works, and then later implement it all around the kingdom. »
One can hope, but it’s more realistic to see the existence of such enclaves as a sign of the government’s failure to liberalize its rules in the face of resistance by religious conservatives. The Saudi government is appeasing conservatives instead of confronting them, as it has always done. The walls around these gated communities are not only meant to keep Saudis out, but disruptive cultural forces in.