Searching for reforms in King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia | Pakistan Today

Searching for reforms in King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia

RIYADH – The moment my wife and I left our apartment compound in downtown Riyadh, a jeep screeched to a halt in front of us and a bearded man stepped out. “Is this your wife? I want to give you some advice. Don’t let her wear makeup,” said the religious policeman, dressed in a traditional white robe. “If she uses makeup, other men will only look at her,” he added, raising his forefinger to stress his point and staring hard at me. A woman wearing makeup or not completely covering up would go unnoticed in most parts of the world, but in Saudi Arabia it can be enough to get you detained for “immoral behavior”. Encountering religious police roaming the streets to uphold the kingdom’s values of an austere version of Sunni Islam was one of the most striking experiences of living in Saudi Arabia.
It was also a reminder that the Gulf Arab state remains a deeply conservative country despite hype in the West praising King Abdullah for reforms such as overhauling outdated state education or liberalising the economy. “Moderate” and “reformer” are regular descriptions of Abdullah by Western diplomats, intellectuals and business people since he took office in 2005. Some even call him “liberal”. But during my two years as Reuters correspondent in the Saudi capital, I did not notice any changes in a strict social code banning unrelated men or women from mixing and forcing shops and restaurants to close five times a day for prayers.
In fact, I felt the country got slightly more conservative, not just because of religious police cops roaming the streets. REFOMERS’ REPUTATION IN SHATTERS: Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family in alliance with clerics where conservative and more open-minded princes are in constant battle, with the result that little actually happens – one step forward, one step back. True, there was one reform push while I was there, with the launch of the first mixed-gender university in September 2009 – the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near Jeddah which reveled in almost unlimited funds.
It was a bold move for a country which imposes strict sex segregation, but the inauguration gave the impression that Saudi Arabia was more concerned about window dressing rather than looking to kick start much-needed education reform.
Riyadh flew in hundreds of journalists, academics and Nobel Prize winners to the campus, built in a remote spot far from the prying eyes of clerics. We attended a lavish ceremony and met students and professors who praised the academic freedom. I found out later that only a fraction of the students were Saudis, while those we talked to on the campus had been briefed by a foreign PR agency what not to tell us – such as the fact the campus Internet was censored, like in the rest of Saudi Arabia.
Soon afterwards, reporters were no longer welcome while even some academics were discouraged from visiting. The few that made it were not allowed to take photographs of unrelated students studying together for fear of annoying the clerics. It was as if the government wanted to forget the place. The writer has been Reuters correspondent in Saudi Arabia

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