(CNN) — I have seen countries change before, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the change taking place in Saudi Arabia. It is not like the fall of Soviet Europe, nor the upheaval recently witnessed in Sri Lanka. Saudi’s change is deliberate, deep-reaching and dramatic.
It is difficult to visit Saudi Arabia without a host of preconceived ideas, stereotypes and prejudices creeping into what one expects. After all, the country has spent the last five decades shielding itself from the outside world — and until recently — making it very difficult for anyone to visit, unless they were on religious pilgrimage to Mecca.
We’ve all heard about how women must be fully covered and veiled, no mixing of the sexes and a religious police force that is draconian and uncompromising. Frankly, it would be surprising if Western tourists wanted to go on vacation there — it’s hard to have a good time in that oppressive environment.
So the decision by the nation’s leadership to blow hurricanes of fresh air through the country has turned the whole place on its head. As part of this change, Saudi is spending obscene sums of money creating new cities and tourist attractions — long-term planning for the post-oil world. In today’s Saudi there is only one constant: change at breakneck speed.
It would be silly to go further without talking about the man behind these changes — Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, better known simply as MBS. And no discussion of MBS can take place without reference to the controversy he generates.
MBS is the architect of Saudi Arabia’s reforms. He is modernizing the economy at a phenomenal speed, and creating massive opportunities within the country, but he is also heavily criticized for Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
Many say he’s been selective in his reforms. While he famously changed laws allowing women to drive, critics say that there is still very little room for public dissent.
I raise this now because it is the core of the contradiction that is Saudi today: MBS is lauded for making societal and economic reforms, giving new freedoms to millions of ordinary Saudis, yet there is this dark side to the reforms that offends Western values and prevents full-throated endorsement.
US President Joe Biden experienced this contradiction when he visited Saudi in July, balancing needs for Saudi oil and economic force with trying to not appear too cozy with the man his office of national intelligence says approved the killing. It is a contradiction to be witnessed in so many ways by anyone visiting this amazing country
The genie is out of the bottle
There is one fact that everyone here reminds me of with a frequency bordering on a mantra: The majority of people in Saudi Arabia are under 30 (just over 40% are under 25!). Nowhere showcases that better than The Boulevard.
This is a new entertainment district in the city, where young women can openly socialize with men and women can veil or not — their choice. (Yes I know, tradition and social pressure can force you to do things you don’t want to do, but we are talking about progress and societal progress is never neat and tidy.)
In Saudi, I never expected to see men and women mixing together, DJs pumping out loud tunes and crowds swaying to the music.
Yet there it is in front of my eyes.
“This only happened in the past five years,” explains Rajaa Alsanea. A dentist by training, Alsanea is also the author of “Girls of Riyadh,” a fictional tale of four women and their complicated love lives which has been dubbed the Saudi “Sex and the City.”
Al Masmak fortress.
Rajaa specializes in root canals — and like the dentistry she loves, she knows the difficulty of pain. She swam against the tide for so long that now she is rightly enjoying riding the waves of change. She doesn’t believe those changes could be reversed.
She says, the “…genie’s not going back [in the bottle].”
So how does this country, where the call to prayer still rings out loudly five times a day, negotiate massive change while being true to tradition and religious sanctity?
Can you rebuild the house, without pulling it down around your ears?
That’s Saudi Arabia’s conundrum: attempting to respect the country’s past while bringing in reforms designed to benefit local people and draw in tourists to a place that can feel undiscovered — a rare commodity in the modern age of travel.
The country’s tourist destinations are here and waiting. The renovation of Riyadh’s imposing Al Masmak fortress, where the al Saud family began its rule of the country in 1932 is now a must for any visitor. As is the At-Turaif district — a UNESCO world heritage site which has been restored with such archaeological care and detail. In Saudi when they say “no expense spared” they are talking about a different league of spending.
Alsanea took me for a ride in her car — women driving in Saudi is still a novelty, and while the headline fact is progress, there are still glaring anomalies. Women need guardian permission to marry or pass on citizenship. It is one of those “job half done” aspects of Saudi reform.
Rajaa Alsanea, the author of “Girls of Riyadh.”
Alsanea’s book “Girls of Riyadh” is not a bodice ripper in the traditional sense, but in Saudi it is a big deal.
“I think a female writing about women’s issues and love and the social life of everyday and the struggles of work, the struggles of tackling this life,” she says.
She is effusive, too, about what is happening now in the country.
“We’re very eager to learn,” she says, “…very eager to own this culture.”
Time for coffee
There is no legal alcohol in Saudi. Simple fact.
Yes, there’s talk about whether hotels or restaurants or certain places for foreigners will be allowed to serve wine, beer and so forth in the distant future. After all, if you are intending to turbo charge your tourism industry, not having such libations puts one at great disadvantage against other destinations.
Where Riyadh does excel is the sheer number of places for coffee. With no bars, Western-style coffee shops have sprouted everywhere over the last few years. It’s simple social economics: relax the rules and the coffee shops become the place to meet, although few are like MW Café.
MW has a very unlikely owner, from the United States and with an incredible tale to tell. Mutah Beale was once known as the rapper Napoleon. He was a member of the group Outlawz founded by his friend, the late Tupac Shakur.
Rapper turned coffee shop owner Mutah Beale.
“I was signed to Death Row records,” he explains. “This is the record company that was responsible for spreading gangster rap music in the 90s. They had Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Outlawz, so we was in the midst of this. And the people that was involved inside the studio were gang members… It was a very violent situation.”
From gangster rap to Saudi Arabia? He grew tired of the life he was living, especially after Shakur was murdered in 1996. He says he spiraled out of control and was looking for something that would bring him peace. He found it through converting to Islam, moving to Saudi Arabia and completing the Hajj pilgrimage. He’s lived here for 11 years, and coffee has become his passion.
“When I first came here, you couldn’t just sit outside and have a cup of coffee,” he says. “I enjoy these things now, you know what I mean? You have a lot of changes that I think make more people feel like…” he exhales loudly.
“I can get on my bike now in my neighborhood and I can literally grab a coffee, grab a sandwich.”
These might sound like small things. But they are actually major developments in a country that has lived a different way of life than the West and many parts of the Arab world for decades.
‘Our moment of enlightenment’
To only see Riyadh will give a false sense of what’s going on. When I go to Asir Province, 900 kilometers (560 miles) from Riyadh, in the southwest, I see transition happening, but much more gently.
For instance, in our hotel, there are separate tables for men, women and families. And while we can all sit together, there are few who are choosing to do so.
Those who are unveiled are expats or Westerners. Here, I see Saudis thoughtfully digesting what is taking place and individually deciding what is the right pace for their lives.
Al Muftaha is a haven for artists.
Asir’s capital, Abha, has long been a maverick. During times of intense conservatism in Saudi, and for centuries before, creative expression thrived here.
It was here, at the city’s Al-Muftaha Arts Village, where the famous Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem came as a teenager to train at the feet of local elders. His work has since sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.
Remarkably, the governor of Asir province, not the artists themselves, set up this space for creatives in 1989. Since then, the colony, which is funded by the government, has churned out art freely in a country bound by a strict religious code.
It’s a classic example of Saudi contradiction.
“In the whole country, it was… the only place where you can find art and music,” says Gharem as he shows us around the village where he made his name 30 years ago. “It was so difficult, to be honest, because we can feel the resistance from the society.”
Gharem embodies the balance Saudi Arabia is trying to strike. As well as being a renowned and commercially successful artist, he was a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Army, a position that is about as establishment as it gets. He believes the world created at Al-Muftaha Arts Village has shown the way for the country as a whole.
Above the clouds in Asir region.
“I think it’s the spark of what’s happening now all over the kingdom,” he says.
As an artist, says Gharem, he needs to be two steps ahead of what’s happening. With so many other pioneers working at these studios, it’s perhaps why this place has had such a profound effect.
“Right now, I think we are living in a narrative, I could call it an enlightenment. You know, each nation has their own moment of enlightenment. And I think we are still in the phase of constructing our discourse.”
A country transformed
Maraya concert hall in Al’Ula.
In a country undergoing such profound change, only a fool would come to sweeping conclusions, because we are in the middle of the storm and it’s hard to see the final result.
So, I visit Al’Ula, a vast ancient city set on the incense route which crossed this corner of the Middle East, and the nearby Tombs of Hegra, the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, where a massive restoration project is underway.
Here money is being spent to preserve the past, and even more money on mirrored buildings like the Maraya concert hall, a work of art in its own right. The two live together seemingly in harmony.
At Al’Ula, spectacular tombs were constructed by the Nabataeans in the first century BCE. The ruins have been left untouched for almost 2,000 years and represent a gold mine for archaeologists.
Al’Ula’s ruins, seen from above.
“Saudi Arabia is one of the last opportunities we have to find out something completely new about how humans became the people we are today,” says Jane McMahon, an archaeologist digging in the region. “We believe there are neolithic houses [here] dating to around 7,000 years ago.”
Today’s change across Saudi Arabia is being anchored in efforts to establish its true past, something which visitors can see for themselves in a place that is sure to rival ancient cities like Jordan’s Petra and Turkey’s Ephesus in years to come.
What I discovered, whether on the teeming streets of Riyadh, in the cool mountains of Asir or exploring the ancient past at Hegra — from social to commercial, to archaeological, to everyday life — is that everything in Saudi Arabia seems to be transforming.
There is one postscript to my visit that I think perhaps shows the difficulty everyone faces when it comes to Saudi: The week after I left, in March, the country executed 81 people in one day, for terrorist offenses.
It is a staggering number. The hows and whys are for others. For me, it raises the question of how far Saudi Arabia can go to bring the world in before excesses become too much.
Or maybe these contradictions are precisely what makes the country so fascinating — it can be difficult, ugly and harsh, but it’s also captivating, invigorating and improving the lives of a nation.