Escaping Saudi Arabia

September 2, 2008

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.

Saudi women shop at a market stall in RiyadhBut 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.


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I was in Saudi Arabia in Ramadan of 2006 for Umrah and stayed there for a week. There is no crime, and during my week long stay i travelled Makkah, Medinah, Taif and Jeddah. Also, i frequently visited some of the malls. Muslims from all over the world go to Saudi Arabia on visit.
What should stop the Saudis to visit overseas? The Saudis are very hospitable and take care of visitors, they deserve all hospitality abroad ( not evils like alcohol, etc..) The incident took place in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia does not allow such crap in the Holy land and therefore no such incidents take place. Infact, countless people who visit Saudi Arabia from all over the world and get spiritual upliftment. The Saudi society cannot be absolutely perfect but it is definitely better than many.

Posted by UMPK | Report as abusive

Well, anyone who thinks that Islam is a religion of peace and happiness, think again. This article proves it. It is a fanatical belief system based on hatred…of course they will deny this. They will tell you that the Koran is very similar to the Christian Bible. Ha! The Christian Bible does not see any reason to kill those “infidels” that disagree with it. Mohammed deserves no special respect..he is dead as is his religion. Those who cannot see the danger of this organization and continue to support groups like this need to investigate the facts for themselves. Most who support Islam take the information that has been spoon-fed to them. It is a characteristic that is somewhat unique to our 21st century.

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

I fail to understand why the comment posted in response to the article Escaping Saudi Arabia should try to evoke hatred , caution and demonise Islam. Why would anyone even talk of the Bible when actually the words of the Bible and the state have been seperated long ago. The west has concluded that the word of God in the Bible is redundant and impractical to be part of life, society and state–hence the secular mode. People in Saudia are actually escaping an authoritarian regime which is famous for its repressive policies against all. The regime is the creation of Britain in its hey days against the Ottoman empire.. This could be the reason why for the last 50years whereas the media and the West talk of democracy –yet never promoted this ideal for Saudia or its ilk because –they enjoy its oil wealth and Saudia does its bidding. Besides, so far as funspots are concerned we have our own share of Las Vegas , Renos and brothels galore throught the ritzy areas of Europe and America and moreso in the name of free society. Followed by all kinds of Gambling casinos, drinking and the crime which follows such activities. Why at all should we even criticise others never ceases to amaze me. Even a casual look at any paper on violence or drunkeness or crime would make that clear. Is all of this because of Christianity. Are the readers that naive. So why would people doing the same in Bahrain or Dubai would evoke such comments about Islam. What a terrible lack of comprehension and what a bizarre way of trying to lambast Islam. I would suggest that at least read the Bible and try and espouse the lifestyle and values it teaches– maybe then you would be enlightened enought to understand Islam.

Posted by shabbir lakhani | Report as abusive

This comment is based on very poor observation. i Wonder why Auther is trying to make a fuss out of a Bar fight?
Isint this something, that happens every weekend in each city, each state of united states too. Many many fights inside the Bar+Clubs+Stripclubs do go unnoticed.
Secondly, it was so immature of ” Andrew Hummond” to wake up next morning and search on internet “bar fight in arabia”. These bar fights are not published on internet even here. He should’ve tried harder and searched for Local newspaper of that particular city, Just like we do here in north america. Overall article is full of biased opinion and ones own perspective, missing true insight.
Thirdly Comments posted above, by Mr.Mike. I am only going to say this, ” You will never even see a muslim child bad mouthing Jesus or christianity.” Hence that may be one of the reasons that christians are converting to islam and it is the Number one religon with most followers in the world.
The saudi arabia, is full of their ancient tradition and culture, which obviously educated people can differ only. Illiterate people will see saudia as islam which is totally wrong. Religon and culture are two different things.
It was a big and very major news that POPE helped a muslim man do the conversion into christianity. However on the other hand many many christians and other religon’s convert into Islam and that goes unnoticed too.
What a Bar’s fight view eh?

Posted by Elton John | Report as abusive

Mike you need to shut up. Islam is a complete way of Life. And Muhammad(PBUH) is the last of Prophets of God and a massenger. Many people around the world accepted Islam and converted to this faith, still many are born Muslims and follow this faith. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today.
You are rather fanatic, making false accusations and allegation against the Prophet. Islam stands for peace and tolerance as opposed to intolerance and destructive behavior potrayed by some people.

Posted by UMPK | Report as abusive

I was in Saudi in the mid-80’s and it was the same story.

No legitimate vent for youthful high energy and sex drive- so of course they go nuts when they’re let off the leash.

Any expat has stories of Saudis on the loose and getting into trouble in places like Cairo or Bangkok.

For that matter, when some of the Saudi kings were young they raised hell, too.

And it’s not hatred or intolerance simply to note that hyper-orthodox repression just makes matters worse.

Posted by Martin Owens | Report as abusive

I understand Hummond’s attempt here at observation, but he has to take care not to confuse views and issues.
Firstly, this incident he referred to in his article was mentioned in a way that links it to the effect of Saudi society. While this is in a way true, it is wrong to imply it as an effect of Islamic teachings. It is not just Saudis that fight in bars. Any form of exaggerated religious or ideological-based social repression can have that same effect, and it has nothing to do with the Islamic faith. Hummond inadvertently proved this point when he said how Saudis go to another predominantly Muslim country – Bahrain – in order to escape the atmosphere in Saudi Arabia. ‘Sharia’ is a term that needs to be used carefully here, as it can take different meanings depending on who you talk to. Not all people claiming to be Muslims believe that women should not work, drive or interact with other human beings, nor do all believe it is evil to visit the malls or theaters on occasion. It is very dangerous to generalize on issues without trying to understand to fully understand them, and Hummond should learn that lesson out of his experience.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive