It was all going so well. Saudi Arabia felt, to the untrained eye, like a country on the brink of extraordinary change—a place in the midst of one of those uplifting end-of-movie montages. In June, women were driving, attending soccer matches and lecturing at universities; cinemas and theme parks were opening, and the Red Sea coastline was being developed into a tourist destination to rival to Dubai.
And then things fell apart. By August, female activists were being arrested for dressing inappropriately and demanding further equality, human rights abuses were escalating, and foreign policy was becoming increasingly erratic in the case of Canada and violent in the case of Yemen.
Ending the façade of human rights progression altogether, earlier this month, outspoken Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, disappeared from the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul. He is now believed to have been murdered in what looks like a vicious attack on free speech from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known), the supposed savior of the country.
I flew to Riyadh earlier this summer to witness the transformation from ultra-conservative society to tourist hotspot. As part of Vision 2030—a major initiative put in place help the Kingdom diversify away from oil—Western tourists are soon to be welcomed with open, and visa-free, arms, marking a major change for a country that currently only allows in businesspeople and pilgrims.
None of this has happened yet, so I had been invited and issued a visa on the basis that I would write about Saudi’s emerging fashion scene, a statement that would have been absurd even three years ago. The hook was that women’s clothing was finally up for debate—the Wahhabi religious police had lost their powers and in a television interview, MBS had spoken about easing restrictions around the abaya (the long black robe women currently have to wear in public).
I was confronted by my gender from the moment we landed in Riyadh. Women were moved to a separate queue in passport control and my hotel key card was a restricted one, denying the female user access to the pool, spa and gym. On the first morning, I hadn’t gotten my hands on an abaya yet and I was banned from leaving my room until I found one. Later in the week, I was allowed into the museums, castles, and fortresses on Riyadh’s historic trail, but only during “family time”—a couple of hours in the morning or afternoon allocated to women and children.
But the fact that I—a youngish, unmarried Western journalist and a woman to boot—was even there, and writing about fashion, was an example of MBS’s modernizing influence.
Over the course of a week, I was taken to a series of shows where models wore slinky dresses and couture-clad Saudi matrons on the front row left their abayas in a heap beside them. This meant all events had to be women-only.
If we had been anywhere else, it would have almost felt feminist. Female photographers crowded the end of the catwalk and women oversaw the lighting, set design, and hair and make-up. Female bodyguards walked around the tent looking for anyone taking pictures of the unveiled audience—images that could then be posted on social media and seen by men, destroying the women’s reputations (and that brief illusion of feminism).
It is here that tourism will supposedly flourish. Saudi Arabia is touting itself as the Gulf’s major vacation destination and it has announced plans to create a tourism hotspot the size of Massachusetts on its unspoiled Red Sea coastline in a bid to attract visitors away from Dubai and Jordan.
Admittedly, Saudi has a number of jewels in its crown. One is Al Ula. Covering nearly 9,000 square miles in north-west Saudi Arabia, it is an otherworldly desert landscape about the same size as New Jersey, allegedly containing extraordinary human burial grounds and ancient villages. Mada’in Saleh, which is to the north of the capital, has 111 spectacular tombs carved into rocky outcrops, and is one of four UNESCO world heritage sites in the country. Built by the Nabataeans—the same civilization behind Petra in Jordan—it is a rose-gold spectacle that is made even more haunting by the fact it is almost entirely free of visitors.
Riyadh itself is packed with historic sites and will have a Six Flags theme park, as well as a series of dazzling new museums, while Jeddah is being touted as the creative capital of the Gulf.
But how will tourists square all this with the severe penalties that still exist for any behavior considered “immoral”? This includes jail time and even corporal punishment for homosexuality or extra-marital sexual relations, as well as imprisonment for drinking alcohol or wearing inappropriate clothing.
Being straight and unlikely to go on a Tinder date in Saudi Arabia, I was personally not affected by the first two issues. My more pressing concern was the abaya and headscarf I had been told to wear at all times in public. Uncomfortably hot under the searing Gulf sun, it at least removed the issue of having to find appropriate clothes of my own.
But mostly it made me feel physically invisible in a way that was at once liberating and restrictive. There was something calming about not being physically assessed by strangers for the first time since puberty, but equally, self-expression disappears. The women I met in public spaces seemed almost unknowable for being uniformly draped in black.
Alcohol is also illegal throughout the Kingdom, even in the privacy of your own home. I consider myself to be a moderate drinker, but after a sugary week of apple juice with dinner and sweet lemonade at parties, I found myself daydreaming about a glass of red wine.
Certain moments appalled me. As we walked across yet another searingly hot central square in Riyadh, my guide casually mentioned that this was where the beheadings were held and that the ground sloped inwards so the blood could drain away. One night as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard the muffled thud of rebel missiles being intercepted in Saudi airspace somewhere above my head. Over dinner, young women told me that many of them were still unable to go to university, get a job, travel, or even visit a doctor without written permission from a male relative.
At other times Saudi was more progressive than I expected it to be. Contrary to the reports I had read, nobody suggested I have a guardian and I traveled alone—and easily—around the city with Uber. I rarely wore my headscarf, and while it is apparently frowned upon for unmarried men and women to eat together, mixed gender groups gathered freely in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Riyadh (yes that one), where I was staying.
Over the course of the week, I became close to a young, female Saudi fashion designer and she took me to eat with her friends in Najd Village, a traditional restaurant where each table is hidden behind heavy brocade curtains, and diners eat on the floor. We were a mixed group of unrelated men and women eating local food—slow cooked meat and savory rice pudding. Another evening, we smoked shisha in the gardens of a private hotel on the outskirts of Riyadh. In those brief moments, her life didn’t seem that different to my own in London.
The National Museum of Saudi Arabia was a delight. But even more than its clothing exhibitions and detailed model recreations of nomadic life, I was struck by the enthusiasm of its female guides, who had recently been allowed to take up their posts and whose excitement at being able to explain the history of Saudi Arabia was infectious.
Many of my most interesting encounters were with women who had taken advantage of the recent relaxation of the gender laws. I visited Sama’s Creative Hub, a gallery and boutique owned by a female artist who offered drawing lessons to women in the upstairs studio, and then exhibited their work in the airy space downstairs.
Another day, I met a group of female designers for coffee and cake in the leafy diplomatic quarter; even as all the lights were mandatorily switched off when the men left to pray, they chatted away in the semi-darkness, explaining how female-only workshops could help women enter the workforce.
Together we went to the souks—ancient shopping streets filled with leather boutiques, silverware makers and shoe shops. With their help, I bought a colorful woven rug that now brightens up my London home. We watched an auction take place in the market square and wandered down oud-scented passageways. Later that day, we went to the modern incarnation of a souk—a fashion bazaar in a glitzy skyscraper, where women snacked on sugar-coated almonds and shopped for expensive silk dresses from Parisian couture houses.
For most visitors, myself included, a lot of Saudi’s appeal will lie in how cut-off it has always been. The lack of foreign influence allows it to fulfill all the Middle Eastern stereotypes we yearn for—those scented bazaars and photogenic ruins in the desert.
But much as I relished those moments, it is impossible to ignore the reality. These new Red Sea complexes will apparently be governed by “international customs,” which suggests women will be allowed to wear a bathing suit and alcohol will be served. Whether they will go as far as allowing unmarried or gay couples to visit remains highly improbable.
Which means the biggest obstacle to visiting Saudi is a moral one. Deciding whether to travel to a country with a government that acts in a way you find reprehensible is an entirely personal decision. Over the years I have visited China, Kenya and Egypt—all nations with a history of human rights violations—and have questioned my choices, while delighting in each place and its people. Saudi, particularly in light of the alleged Khashoggi killing, feels far more problematic than all of them.
Months after my visit, I sometimes catch a glimpse of the abaya in my wardrobe, crushed and drooping amid my summer dresses and silk shirts. I’m not sure why I kept it. While I would like to go to Saudi again one day and see those famous rose-gold ruins or swim in the Red Sea, I hope it would be to a different incarnation of the country. One where a man like Khashoggi is free to write opinion pieces, and where wearing an abaya won’t always be necessary.