On a balmy Thursday evening, dozens of young Saudis stream into the AlComedy Club in the western port city of Jeddah. It’s the start of the weekend, and the crowd snacks on popcorn and ice cream before grabbing some of the sagging seats in the theater. Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” blares from speakers hanging above a tiny stage.
Comedian Khaled Omar takes the mic and begins his act, lamenting how he has no baby pictures of himself. His parents ripped up the family photos in the early 1980s, when ultra-conservative religious authorities deemed photographs haram — forbidden, they said, by God.
The audience is lively. Some women wearing abayas and headscarves banter with Omar and men in the audience.
Omar’s punchline gets a good laugh: Now, he says, not only are photos suddenly not forbidden — but all the people who banned or tore pictures up are now happily posing for selfies. He still wants to know what happened to all his baby pictures.
Omar’s routine is a gentle dig at the Saudi government and religious establishment reversing decades of social restrictions. Much of what was forbidden in Saudi Arabia — cinema, music, theater, women driving — is suddenly acceptable. In fact, the Saudi government is encouraging it. But for many Saudis, their whole way of life — their whole belief system — is being upended.
The founder of the comedy club, Yaser Bakr, says the changes are long overdue.
“I think that this is what to do after 40 years of being asleep, honestly, in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “Honestly, this is what you need to do. Some of it is dramatic, some of it is extremely fast, but it is the way to do it.”
Bakr points to his own club, which operated in a low-key way, largely underground, when it first started. Now it’s sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority. Until recently, it was strictly segregated — women sat in one section, men in another.
“We used to have partitions in the first five years. This is the first year where crowds are sitting mixed together,” he says. “It surprises me how fast all of these changes became normal.”
The social liberalization is being driven from the top, by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The hard-charging, tech-savvy 32-year-old launched an ambitious plan called Vision 2030 to open the kingdom, diversify its economy and create jobs, especially for young people. More than 70 percent of Saudis are under 30.
Many of the social changes are popular with the kingdom’s younger citizens.
“I’m really happy that it happened now that I’m young, and, like, I can live all these changes,” says a 19-year-old woman at a café in Riyadh who asked that her name not be used so she could speak freely. “The cinema, I’m really excited about it, that’s the most thing I’m excited about because I love movies so much,” she gushes.
Others — like her own sister, who is 29 — are nervous about the sheer breadth and pace of the social changes underway.
“We have to change, that’s something I know is a fact,” the sister says. “Just, the way we are changing, I wish it was mindful of everyone. I talk to younger people, they are happy with it. But older people are not.”
Rules about music, cinema and the like were supposed to be based on guidance from God. Government-issued edicts came via clerics. So far, the new rules are coming directly from the Saudi government. It has been confusing for some Saudis.
Consider the changes in April alone: The kingdom rolled out its plans for its first-ever tourist visas, held its first Arab fashion week and opened its first cinema in 35 years.
A 26-year-old man in Riyadh, wearing a thobe, a long white gown, says the changes are nothing short of shocking.
“I’m not sure if one can have a culture shock within their own country, but that’s what I’m experiencing right now,” he says.
He describes himself as a traditionalist and says he comes from a large and conservative family. He asked that his name not be used so as not to anger his family by talking to the foreign press. The man worries his family members will be alienated and left behind because they’re not fully on board with all the recent changes, and feel they can’t express their concerns publicly because it is dangerous to appear to criticize the government.
“So on a personal level, when I see them just shrinking and excising themselves from the public sphere — for me, that’s a bit sad,” he says. “That’s sort of upsetting that they believe that the future doesn’t include them. You know, Saudi Arabia should should be big enough for all people.”
Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, a cousin of the crown prince, runs the Saudi General Sport Authority, which is allowing and encouraging more girls and women to take part in athletics — in schools, at gyms, or even just attending sporting events like soccer games. She’s making the rounds to promote the changes abroad, but acknowledges the government and the religious establishment needs to do a better job explaining them at home.
“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,'” Bandar says.
It reminds her of raising her kids. “They’d ask me why, and I’d be, like, ‘Because I said so.’ That’s not an answer that most people can accept anymore,” she says.
Some Saudis wonder if these sudden changes will last. Abdulrahman Khawj, a filmmaker in Jeddah, says all this is happening because of one man’s vision.
“If another man comes and takes his place and he has a different vision, it could go away,” he warns. “So [Crown Prince Mohammed] is good for us. But who knows who’s going to be next.”
Some worry that even with the changes, there is still no room for dissent. Last September, the crown prince cracked down on and jailed opposition figures, including clerics, economists and journalists and bloggers.
Two months later, about 200 government ministers, businessmen and members of the royal family were rounded up and detained without due process at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, as part of the crown prince’s anti-corruption crackdown. Most have since been freed, after paying large settlements, but in certain cases, the whereabouts of some detainees are unknown.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, says he doesn’t want to belittle some of the crown prince’s moves, such as allowing women to drive. But political repression in Saudi Arabia, he warns, is extremely high right now.
“If you criticize [the crown prince] or the king, you not only have exposed yourself to arrest, you will be likely charged with a terrorism crime carrying a sentence of between five to 10 years,” he says.
While some rumblings of discontent are apparent in the kingdom’s big cities, it’s more obvious in smaller towns, such as Huraymila, about an hour’s drive north of Riyadh, past plenty of camels and new construction in the desert. The town of wide boulevards and squat, sand-colored buildings has a conservative reputation. You can’t buy cigarettes, and music in public remains unwelcome. When the government entertainment authority tried to stage a concert here a few months ago, the town refused to attend it.
Nasser Alnasser, a retired healthcare worker who lives in Huraymila, says there’s no doubt that outside the big cities, accepting such changes can be 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,” he says.
In the center of Huraymila is the local office of the religious police. One 26-year-old employee says that Saudi Arabia is still an Islamic country, and any social changes need to be in line with Islamic teachings. NPR is not using his name so he could speak freely.
“If the changes violate our religious edicts and beliefs, then we will reject it as a Saudi society,” he says.
He says religious conservatives now feel that they are “strangers in this time of openness.” If the government tries to organize another concert in the town, he says, the religious police could consider it a violation of religious edicts — the new rules haven’t made clear that concerts are permitted on religious grounds — and petition those in charge.
In the past, hard-line members of the religious police might have disrupted such a concert. But he and his colleagues have lost authority recently. For decades, they were able to arrest Saudis for religious infractions. Women were frequently targeted — they could be stopped and reprimanded, possibly arrested, for not having their hair fully covered.
But the power of the religious police to arrest was recently revoked. In this new era, all they can do is advise and guide.