Written by Vivian Nereim
It was time to showcase the new Saudi Arabia. Under pulsing lights, men and women danced to the bass line of house music superstar David Guetta after electric racing cars whizzed around a track.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old de facto leader, toured the government-sponsored event over the weekend taking pictures with loyal followers. Then, on Tuesday, came the announcement of another year of handouts worth billions of dollars to citizens in the budget.
Yet the smiles and largess mask a darker side to the kingdom that’s emerged over the past year, one that was thrust into the spotlight with the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. And some Saudis quietly question whether the fun is just a distraction to change international opinion.
The social change taking place in Saudi Arabia has undeniably brought joy and new opportunities to many citizens, but they come with an implicit threat: indulge in the fun, just don’t challenge the leadership.
Women can drive after a decades-long ban was lifted, gender segregation is dissolving and cafes are filled with music, previously deemed immoral in the conservative Islamic kingdom. At the same time, any space for freedom of expression has vanished.
In its place, an aggressive form of nationalism has risen, venerating Prince Mohammed as the steward of progress rather than the brash leader blamed by the CIA for Khashoggi’s murder in October.
The Saudi government has vehemently denied the prince had a hand in the killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the affair has since led to an internal reckoning and the removal of top officials. But it’s only heightened the sense that you’re with us or against us.
“We’re targeted, we have an imaginary enemy, and everyone hates us,” said Waleed, 30, sipping tea in a crowded Riyadh restaurant on Sunday. Like most Saudis interviewed, he asked not to be identified by his full name. “I’m optimistic, but the current signs are bad. People are living in a delusion.”
Prince Mohammed consolidated his power with the protection of his father, King Salman, at home and allies including U.S. President Donald Trump abroad. The official narrative is that he is the man who can transform Saudi Arabia.
Stamping out dissent is the cost of eradicating extremism and fostering change without sparking a civil war, the prince has said. Conservative clerics and political activists have been imprisoned and accused of treachery. A declared crackdown on corruption saw hundreds of royals and rich Saudis interned in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh before it reopened in February.
By contrast, the series of concerts held alongside the Formula E race in the Riyadh suburb of Diriyah melded partying and patriotism, and most people interviewed were positive about them. Women drove up to the race alone and uncovered in their sports cars. The once-feared religious police were nowhere to be seen.
As Guetta remixed an Arabic ode to King Salman, the crowd erupted in cheers. About 1,000 foreign tourists entered the country on a new type of visa to attend the festivities, some invited by the government. They were the first in Saudi Arabia where dancing was allowed with no gender segregation.
“Society has changed,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi political analyst. “The old assumptions that people had about Saudi Arabia didn’t hold.”
Saudi media framed the electric sports car extravaganza as a gift from Prince Mohammed. “Saudi Arabia racing into the future,” Arab News declared.
A column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times headlined “So, I Asked People in Saudi Arabia About Their Mad, Murderous Crown Prince” was reframed by Saudi newspaper Okaz as the American visitor being awed by his trip. “American journalist after his visit to Diriyah: Saudis are pleased with their crown prince and the support for him is real,” the Okaz headline read.
Indeed, with little opinion polling in Saudi Arabia, it’s difficult to tell if most people are supportive or if dissenting views have been pushed underground. Even before Prince Mohammed tightened the screws, people were divided over his plans to loosen rules of gender mixing and entertainment.
Several Saudis interviewed said they were disturbed by what they viewed as moral and religious violations at the concerts. Others, like 19-year-old Fahad, were conflicted. While he had fun attending one, he described leaving with a moral hangover because of the men and women dancing together.
“I enjoyed it, but I think it’s wrong,” he said. “If I had the option, I wouldn’t allow it.”
Wejdan, a 28-year-old woman who covers her face with a black niqab, sometimes worries that the new national ethos is being forged for the liberal elite, not people like her.
But when she lamented the “replacement of our ideology and culture and identity” on social media she was hit by a backlash from supporters of Prince Mohammed. It was as if “any attack or even critique of him is equal to my being a traitor,” she said.
Not one for crowds, 21-year-old Talal watched the party on Saturday remotely, on his phone. Like most citizens in the conservative Islamic kingdom, he’d been taught for years that “concerts are wrong, singing is wrong, and my religion prohibits it,” he said.
When he returned to work on Sunday, Talal found his colleagues hesitant to even broach the topic. “People are afraid to say their opinions,” he said.
Many Saudis were thrilled by event, where Enrique Iglesias and the Black Eyed Peas also performed. For Leena, 22, it was particularly special because she’s not able to attend concerts abroad. Saudi women need permission from a male guardian to leave the country, and hers won’t allow her to travel.
“Having something I really wanted to do abroad brought here – home – where no one could tell me not to go, that was liberating,” Leena said. “We can’t lock ourselves up and expect us to grow as a country.”
QuicktakeSaudi Arabia’s Shift
In private, other Saudis said that the parties rang hollow at a time when their limited political freedoms are being stifled and the economy is struggling to adapt to the prince’s shock therapy. It doesn’t help that the price of oil has fallen by a third since Khashoggi’s murder.
King Salman said on Tuesday that government spending would increase 7 percent in 2019. He ordered the renewal of the cost of living allowance for state employees until a study of the kingdom’s “social protection system” is completed.
At the restaurant in Riyadh, Waleed said the weekend’s entertainment felt like more of a public relations exercise for international consumption. The cheapest tickets were about 350 riyals ($93), pricing out low-income citizens.
“They could have a Saudi singer every week,” he whispered from behind the partition. “It’s as if the first target is Western coverage and impressing the West, like ‘look at us guys, we’ve changed,’ — instead of the change being for us.”