‘I Can’t Believe I’m in Saudi Arabia’

Iman al-Dabbagh
A woman practicing driving in preparation for the end of the ban on female drivers, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 2018; photograph by Iman al-Dabbagh

In June the circus came to town. Nothing remarkable, you might think, except that the town was Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where until two years ago all forms of entertainment were banned. The previous week, the head of the General Entertainment Authority—sometimes called the Ministry of Fun—had been fired because a female performer in another circus had worn a tight-fitting, flesh-colored outfit that had sparked protests on Twitter (75 percent of Saudis use social media, about the same as Americans). The mutaween—the religious police—had carefully vetted the circus I attended, and the ankle-length black leggings and sparkly long sleeves of the lady with the dancing Dalmatians had passed muster, as had the body-hugging dark costumes worn by a group of androgynous flamenco-style dancers.

It was a particular joy to be in the audience, watching the delight of both children and adults, oohing and aahing at the tightrope walkers and convulsing with laughter at an act involving a large poodle leaping in and out of a garbage can. In the intermission I canvassed opinion. It was a few days after women had been permitted to drive legally for the first time, and spectators understood that this was about more than the right to go to the Big Top. “I hope that everybody benefits from change while respecting our religion first of all,” said a woman whose face was covered by a niqab, sitting with her husband and three kids who were munching popcorn. “It’s a big change here, with women driving and everything,” said a knowing ten-year-old girl. “I can’t believe I’m in Saudi Arabia!”

For middle-class urban Saudis the social changes brought in by King Salman and his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, generally known as MBS, are significant. A movie theater has been built where men and women may sit together—the first film shown was Black Panther, which proved very popular. Women have been permitted to attend sporting events, albeit in single-sex areas, but the most important decree, introduced in 2016, may have been the one curtailing the powers of the mutaween. No longer can the men tasked with “promoting virtue and preventing vice” arrest women on the streets and whip them for failing to cover themselves adequately. Their job must be carried out “in a gentle and humane way.” Robbed of the powers they used to exert with such arbitrary cruelty, they have melted away.

Jamal Beshri, a musician, told me how in the old days he feared walking on the street carrying his guitar, in case the mutaween or random zealots attacked him and broke it. “We would gather and play a jam session but not in public,” he said. “When I put my…

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