Saudis Excited And Nervous About Societal Changes

Apr 28, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We've heard a lot about the dramatic changes in Saudi Arabia - women driving, permission to play music in public, socializing with the opposite sex. Now we're going to hear what Saudis think about them. NPR's Jackie Northam was there and reports that Saudis view the sudden change with excitement but also, for some, confusion and nervousness.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

(LAUGHTER)

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It's a packed house here at a comedy club in Jeddah, a port city in western Saudi Arabia. On the tiny stage, a young comic laments how he has no baby pictures of himself.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

NORTHAM: He talks about how his parents ripped up the family photos in the early 1980s. That's when ultraconservative religious authorities in Saudi Arabia deemed photographs were haram - forbidden - supposedly by God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

NORTHAM: The punchline now is not only are photos suddenly not forbidden, all the people who banned them or tore up the pictures are now happily posing for selfies. But he wants to know what happened to all his baby pictures.

(LAUGHTER)

NORTHAM: The comic's routine is a dig at the Saudi government and religious establishment reversing decades of social restrictions. Much of what was supposed to be forbidden - cinema, music, theater, women driving, even the mixing of men and women in this comedy club - is now suddenly acceptable. In fact, it's being encouraged by the Saudi government. The founder of the comedy club, Yasr Bakr, says the changes are long overdue.

YASR BAKR: I think that this is what to do after 40 years of being asleep honestly in Saudi Arabia. Honestly, this is what they need to do. Some of it is dramatic. Some of it is extremely fast. But it is the way to do it.

NORTHAM: The social liberalizations are being driven from the top by Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And they're popular with many young people we met, such as this young girl we ran into at a cafe in Riyadh. She asked us not to use her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm really happy that it happened now that I'm young and, like, I can, like, live all these changes. The cinema - I'm really excited about it. Like, that's the most thing I'm excited about because I love movies so much.

NORTHAM: Still, many people we spoke to are nervous about Saudi Arabia's social changes. It's too much too fast. Just look at what happened during our two-week reporting trip earlier this month. Saudi Arabia announced it would start issuing tourist visas for the first time. It held its first ever fashion week and opened the first cinema in 35 years. For many Saudis, their whole way of life, their whole belief system, is being upended.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's nothing short of shocking to me. I'm not sure if one can have a culture shock within their own country. But that's what I'm experiencing right now.

NORTHAM: This 26-year-old Saudi man comes from a large and conservative family, so conservative he's asked his name not be used so as not to anger his family for talking to the foreign press. He looks at his own family members and worries they'll be alienated and left behind because they're not fully on board with all the changes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So on a personal level, when I see them just shrinking and excising themselves from the public sphere, that's upsetting that they believe that the future doesn't include them, you know? Saudi Arabia should be big enough for all people.

NORTHAM: Princess Reema bint Bandar heads up the Saudi sports authority, which is allowing more women to take part in athletics. She's making the rounds to promote the changes but acknowledges the government and the religious establishment need to do a better job explaining them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REEMA BINT BANDAR: When you live in a community where overnight what was a no is a yes, it's very hard to rationalize if there's no why. Why was it a no? Why is it a yes? And I know when I was raising my kids, they'd asked me why. And I'd be like, because I said so. That's not an answer that most people can accept anymore.

NORTHAM: Some worry that there is no room for dissent. The government has cracked down on opposition figures, including clerics and members of the independent press. While there's some rumblings of discontent in the big cities, it's more obvious in the kingdom's smaller towns, like the one we went to called Huraymila, an hour's drive south of Riyadh. Here, it's so conservative you still can't even buy cigarettes. And, of course, music in public was banned as it was around the country. Rules like this were supposed to be based on guidance from God. And Saudis are now asking, who can decide that suddenly changed? So it's no surprise when the government tried to stage a concert here a few months ago, the town boycotted it. Nasser al-Nasser is a retired health care worker in Huraymila.

NASSER AL-NASSER: (Through interpreter) There's no doubt that in small provinces accepting such changes is hard. It should be gradual, step by step. And it should be what the people want. There could be festivals and activities every now and then. And God willing, people will eventually accept it.

NORTHAM: We spoke with a member of the religious police. But we are not using his name so he could speak freely. He points out that Saudi Arabia is still an Islamic country and any social changes need to be in line with Islamic teachings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through Interpreter) If the changes violate our religious edicts and beliefs, then we will reject it as a Saudi society.

NORTHAM: He says if the government tries to organize another concert, the religious police in Huraymila could consider it a violation and petition those in charge. But he and his colleagues have lost some of their power recently.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Arabic).

NORTHAM: He says the government took away the power to arrest from the religious police. Now they can only advise and guide. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Huraymila, Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.