By Steve Kelman

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Impressions of a new Saudi Arabia

For the first time in three decades of teaching, I canceled a class. I did so in order to accept an invitation to attend a conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Institute for Public Administration, a Saudi government training and research facility. I told my students that the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia — particularly as an American Jew — was simply too interesting to turn down. (Until a few years ago, it was impossible to get a visa to come to the country simply as a tourist, except for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Now, tourists may come as part of groups organized by a small number of recognized tour providers.)

This is clearly a nation in transition. One can see it in the physical appearance of Riyadh and in the changes in the ways women appear in public.

The city has expanded dramatically from a tiny old core into a sprawling multimillion-person metropolis. The expansion is relatively new. The build-up of areas even slightly outside the old center has happened just in recent years. Many international brands have arrived for the first time in the last decade. I saw the largest Pizza Hut I've ever seen — probably by a factor of five — on the main drag coming in from the airport. A new "financial city" is going up just north of the center of town, and King Saud University has expanded its campus dramatically, with many new buildings.

One of the new landmarks is the Kingdom Tower, a striking modern office building with a necklace design at the top, reminiscent of some of the modern buildings in Dubai or Shanghai. At the base of the Tower is a shopping mall where I was able to see the evolving relationships between the sexes. The building includes a "Ladies Kingdom," which is a shopping area for women only, with a separate entrance. However, women are also allowed in the main mall.

In the food court, there are separate lines for men and women buying food, separated by a sort of flimsy, maybe five-foot-tall, screen. There are separate seating areas, separated by a high barrier, for men and "families." The Starbucks in the mall, away from the food court, has two separate entrances. However, at other stores, men and women buy from the same counters, without separation, though clerks seemed to be all men. No one I asked was really able to explain why there were different practices for food and other items. About 90 percent of the Saudi women in the mall had fully covered faces (except, often but not always, for eye slots). Many Western and Asian women in the mall wore headscarves, but some had uncovered hair. However, all, including those with uncovered hair, wore long black, loosely fitting abaya dresses.

I was told that wearing an abaya was considered to be more important than covering one's head. One couple was holding hands! I asked about this as well and was told this is seen more and more. However, if a member of the so-called religious police stopped a couple and they could not show they were related (by blood or marriage), they would be in serious trouble. (However, one person I asked added that the religious police seldom came to the Kingdom mall because it was owned by a high-ranking member of the royal family.)

At the conference I'm attending, women had a choice between sitting in a separate section in the main hall or in a separate room into which the proceedings were transmitted. My room has been cleaned by men, and I haven't seen any women employees at the hotel, at least in customer-facing jobs.

More to follow!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 02, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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