A girl goes wild in Saudi Arabia, pointing to its future

Summary: In 2013 I wrote that western civilization was an irresistible force that would sweep through the Islamic world from end to end. Now Saudi Arabia fights the tide. Here Fatimah Baeshen tells how the Princes responded to a challenge by a pretty girl. It reveals much about their future. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knows that Saudi Arabia can not continue as it is. He has begun changes, and none can see their end results.

Khulood Al Yafie

 

Girl in Saudi Gone Wild.
“There she was just a’walkin’ down the mud-caked alley.”

By Fatimah Baeshen at the Arabia Foundation, 19 July 2017.
Posted with their generous permission. Images added.

A strut and a milliseconds-long backwards glance has captured the world’s attention.

The strut and glance in question were made by Khulood Al-Yafie, a beautiful miniskirt and crop top clad Yemeni woman visiting Saudi Arabia’s Ushaiger cultural heritage site. Her tour, recorded on video (which has since gone viral) has not only invoked the wrath of the Kingdom’s religious police and sizable conservative population but indirectly expanded the scope of social and cultural discourse inside the Kingdom.

I have visited Ushaiger. It is a sleepy historical site just outside the Saudi capital, Riyadh; a labyrinth of mudhuts and alleys that speaks to the country’s centuries-old heritage. For generations, the same families have occupied this religiously-conservative part of the country. So, a stunt like this tends to attract a tremendous amount of (possibly unwanted) publicity (despite the potentially positive ramifications for Saudi tourism – but I digress).

 

Questions as to the rightness or wrongness of Khulood’s actions aside, I want to spotlight the range of responses this incident elicited, rather than the incident itself, to highlight an important point about the role social media is playing in expanding the Kingdom’s public sphere (and the diversity of opinions contained within). After all the only reason we are talking about a beautiful woman’s stroll down a mud-caked alley is because said stroll occurred in a country popularly known in Western culture for autocracy, repression, and austere religious practices.

Historically, the Royal Court, the Council of Ministers, and the Shoura Council have dominated decision making in the Kingdom. However, over the last ten years, the government has increasingly moved to allow for extended periods of public discourse on social, cultural, economic, and on very rare occasions, political moves. This has occurred for several reasons; most importantly, either to normalize a controversial change through prolonged discussion or to hear the array of opinions that exist as they pertain to potential critical reforms in the hope of building a broader consensus. The key point is that once the public debate plays out it culminates into policy-change.

With this latest event we are witnessing, live and in real time, the expansion of social and cultural discourse in the Kingdom. And as with previous expansions, this incident may also come to impact policy; in this case, by further advancing women’s rights.

Khulood

The fact that a women was bold enough to walk through Ushaiger, a traditional heritage site in the heart of Najd (the Kingdom’s conservative central region) without an abayah while wearing a mini-skirt and crop top speaks volumes as to where the Kingdom is heading with respect to social and cultural change. For this bold move to be captured and disseminated is one measure of progress but for the public – men and woman, conservatives and progressives – to freely debate this matter on social media is another sign of advancement in and of itself.

Oh, the times they are a’changin’…

I recently published “Freedom of Tweet and Freedom to Seat,” a report reviewing what the 1st amendment looks like in Saudi Arabia. In it, I discuss how a localized form of freedom of speech has not only been tolerated, but expanded, accommodated, and used to inform policy-decisions.

“In June 2013, Saudi Arabia changed from a Thursday–Friday to a Friday– Saturday weekend to align itself with other Middle Eastern economies, this despite pushback from the conservative base arguing that to do so would mimic the Western lifestyle. However, the government publicly floated the idea several years prior to instituting the change. They allowed the Saudi public to openly debate the issue via informal channels such as Twitter, op-eds, and coffee shop conversations. Actual implementation of the transformation was quick — Saudis received one week’s notice — but, because this followed years of frank discussion, opposition to the change was limited.”

Khulood’s action, and the debate surrounding it, may well yield a similar result.

As for Khulood herself, she has been taken in for questioning by police and will likely be asked to sign a pledge not to repeat her actions, in order to placate Saudi’s more conservative elements, before ultimately being released.

As for my personal view, I think the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage (SCTNH) should hire Khulood and use her advertising prowess to bolster domestic interest in the Kingdom’s under-visited historical sites. This stands to be a win-win-win: increasing women’s participation in the labor market, boosting development in a Vision 2030 target industry (domestic tourism), while raising awareness about the Kingdom’s rich heritage and culture.

Who knows? Soon, Khulood could be sauntering down muddy alleyways as the SCTNH’s most famous tour guide.

————————————-

Fatimah Baeshen

About the author

Fatimah S. Baeshen was a socioeconomic strategist and a director of the Arabia Foundation. In September 2017 she was appointed as spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington. She joined the Arabia Foundation after working for the Saudi Ministry of Labor and the Saudi Ministry of Economy and Planning in Riyadh. Before that, she worked as a consultant in socio-economic strategy for the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development.

Baeshen has published in many publications, such as Arab News and TIME magazine. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago with a focus on Islamic Finance.  {Bio from the press release.}

About the Arabia Foundation

The Arabia Foundation is an independent, Washington, DC-based think tank focused on the geopolitics and socioeconomics of the Middle East with a particular focus on the states of the Arabian Peninsula.

“Established in 2017, our core mission is to provide insights and encourage debate on the domestic and foreign politics of key regional states and non-state actors as well as their relationships with the United States. We also aim to highlight and contextualize the significant social and economic transformations that are currently taking place within many of these countries.

“Our reports, analyses, commentary, and events are designed to be a resource for {those} who wish to better understand the complexities of an opaque part of the world that remains critical to global stability. The Arabia Foundation is …privately funded by corporate and individual donations. For more information, follow us on Twitter (@ArabiaFdn) and on Facebook.”

Note their all-star Advisory Board and the analytical depth of their professional staff.

For More Information…

For more about this incident see a story about the video and the reaction to it: “Saudi Arabia investigates video of woman in miniskirt” — and the resolution: “Saudi police release woman in miniskirt video.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Saudi Arabia, about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, about Islam, and especially these…

  1. Hard (and disturbing) information about schools in Pakistan – the madāris.
  2. The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds.
  3. Important: We are the attackers in the Clash of Civilizations. We’re winning.
  4. Important: Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.
  5. Stories about Saudi Arabia reveal mysteries of the world’s most powerful kingdom.
  6. Stratfor on the Saudi’s political intrigue (bigger and more interesting than ours).
  7. Stratfor explains this week’s coup in Saudi Arabia.
  8. Ali Shihabi explains what the media won’t about Saudi Arabia.

Two timely books about Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril by Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants (2015).

Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond by Simon Ross Valentine (2015).

And not shown but very interesting: Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt by Pascal Menoret, Cambridge Middle East Studies.

Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril
Available at Amazon.
Force and Fanaticism: Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond
Available at Amazon.

 

4 thoughts on “A girl goes wild in Saudi Arabia, pointing to its future

  1. Saudi Arabia has certainly been bitten by the Western Hedonism Bug to put it mildly. I know someone who went there a few years ago. He told me that SA has plenty of clubs and bars, you just have to know where they are. They even provide accommodations to let you sleep off your buzz (walking around drunk in Riyadh has consequences apparently). The authorities know about these places but turn a blind eye.

    1. Rando,

      Yes, lots happening. The best book about this I’ve seen is Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt by Pascal Menoret, Cambridge Middle East Studies. From the publisher:

      “Why do young Saudis, night after night, joyride and skid cars on Riyadh’s avenues? Who are these “drifters” who defy public order and private property? What drives their revolt? Based on four years of fieldwork in Riyadh, Pascal Menoret’s Joyriding in Riyadh explores the social fabric of the city and connects it to Saudi Arabia’s recent history. Car drifting emerged after Riyadh was planned, and oil became the main driver of the economy. For young rural migrants, it was a way to reclaim alienating and threatening urban spaces. For the Saudi state, it jeopardized its most basic operations: managing public spaces and enforcing law and order. A police crackdown soon targeted car drifting, feeding a nationwide moral panic led by religious activists who framed youth culture as a public issue.

      “The book retraces the politicization of Riyadh youth and shows that, far from being a marginal event, car drifting is embedded in the country’s social violence and economic inequality.”

      Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt by Pascal Menoret Available at Amazon.

  2. I can’t believe such a story is still being covered my media. What the woman did can’t be overlooked. I bet she was trying to make a fuss when she decided to go out wearing a short skirt, especially she grew up in Saudi Arabia and she truly know their rules and norms.

    1. Emma,

      Different peoples have different cultures, different values. Your are not theirs; theirs are not yours.

      Why isn’t that clear to you?

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