Beyond the World news headlines
Escaping Saudi Arabia
One of the oddest, and yet most understandable, features of
Saudi society is the need that many of its citizens have to
escape themselves. For the clerics who are given massive
influence in the running of society beyond the key
decision-making areas of government — the preserve of the Saudi
royal family — Saudi Arabia is no less than their own private
Utopia. They are given free rein by the ruling family to
administer their version of Islamic sharia law through the
courts, the education system and the mosques. They even have a
police force all of their own in the form of the notorious
Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
But for the average citizen, this perfect world can be suffocating. Just getting into a shopping mall for a single young man is a wonder unless you happen in to be in the one of the liberalised enclaves like Jeddah or Khobar. Getting to know nembers of the opposite sex can be difficult unless you move among the affluent sectors of society or have the chance to infiltrate the world of foreigners.
Or you can get away for a weekend break.
Every Wednesday night literally thousands of Saudis clog up the narrow causeway to freedom that joins the Eastern Province to
the island state of Bahrain. The atmosphere is joyous and triumphant because once you’ve gone through the six checkpoints
of various types, it’s a quick ride into what appears, in that incredible liberating moment, to be paradise. With the social rules out the window, people make the most of it. Families head to the cinema and cafes, bars and nightclubs are heaving with unrelated men and women who actually “mix” i.e. they inhabit the same physical space in a public place.
Indeed, Saudis don’t only head to Bahrain to mix and match with women and alcohol, they also flock to Dubai, Beirut and Cairo. Those are the favourite haunts in the vicinity. If you’ve more time on your hands you head east to Malaysia or Indonesia — “you can spend only 3,000 riyals ($800) on accommodation, food, drinks and women in one month!” someone enthused the other day — or West to Morocco and the resort of Agadir, a royal favourite.
But like gas trapped in an enclosed space, Saudis can tend to explode. Bahrain has some 24-hour bars and a recent weekend trip was a warning sign of what can happen to anyone bottled up for too long. The air was smoky and the beer was flowing, and the night was getting more raucous as it hurtled on to dawn. An endless flow of Morrocan prostitutes were on tap and pimps were hawking around for potential customers.
Then a fight broke out downstairs. My colleague saw the hotel staff grab plastic potplants and anything they could get their hands on to assail a thin young man in a white dishdasha who ran past me on the stairs covered in blood. We completed our way to the ground level where two security guards lay groaning on the floor, the victims of the young guy who had fled upstairs to hide. We gingerly stepped our way through the spats of blood and made a quick exit from what bore a considerable resemblance to the bar of intergalactic detritus that featured in the first Star Wars film.
We searched the papers and Internet the next day for any reference to the bizarre incident the night before but there was no mention of it, as if it didn’t happen. Heading back over the causeway to Saudi Arabia, land of authentic values, suddenly Utopia didn’t seem half as nutty as the place we were leaving.