Witness – Searching for reforms in King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia
Ulf Laessing was Reuters chief correspondent in Saudi Arabia until last week when the government terminated his accreditation over coverage of recent protests in the kingdom. He was based in the Saudi capital Riyadh since 2009 and previously worked in Kuwait after joining Reuters in his native Germany in 1997. In the following piece he describes the little progress of reforms launched by King Abdullah often titled as “reformist” in the Western press.
By Ulf Laessing
RIYADH (Reuters) – The moment my wife and I left our apartment compound in downtown Riyadh, a jeep screeched to a halt in front of us and a bearded man stepped out. “Is this your wife? I want to give you some advice. Don’t let her wear makeup,” said the religious policeman, dressed in a traditional white robe. “If she uses makeup, other men will only look at her,” he added, raising his forefinger to stress his point and staring hard at me.
A woman wearing makeup or not completely covering up would go unnoticed in most parts of the world, but in Saudi Arabia it can be enough to get you detained for “immoral behaviour.” Encountering religious police roaming the streets to uphold the kingdom’s values of an austere version of Sunni Islam was one of the most striking experiences of living in Saudi Arabia. It was also a reminder that the Gulf Arab state remains a deeply conservative country despite hype in the West praising King Abdullah for reforms such as overhauling outdated state education or liberalising the economy.
“Moderate” and “reformer” are regular descriptions of Abdullah by Western diplomats, intellectuals and business people since he took office in 2005. Some even call him “liberal.” But during my two years as Reuters correspondent in the Saudi capital, I did not notice any changes in a strict social code banning unrelated men or women from mixing and forcing shops and restaurants to close five times a day for prayers.
In fact, I felt the country got slightly more conservative, not just because of religious police cops roaming the streets.