Well, I haven’t been up the lovely Hijaz or visited Jeddah.
The thrust of my understanding and critique of the Saudi rulers and their social order comes from listening to the brilliant Saudi feminist and academic Madawi al-Rasheed and a ten year long dialogue with a close friend who is also the daughter of an affluent Jeddah family. Her circle of Saudi and Arab friends was also one of mine for a couple of years in the middle of the last decade. Some of them had hair-raising ideas and conspiracy theories about Zionists and Masons despite being quite Westernised, and this didn’t always detract from their physical allure.
Yet they were all united in their hatred of the Al-Saud and the constricting and unhealthy nature of Saudi society. They all suffered to some degree from its deep institutional and social chauvinism. It is not something I experienced first hand, needless to say. But then I haven’t written a piece of reportage, but a polemic in the manner of my 2005 King Fahd obituary. I wrote that because of the almost universally lenient pass Fahd got after he died, which I found bewildering and (almost) unbelievable. It made me angry. I felt the same this time, too.
I have got a lot from the work of Stephen Schwartz, whose main target (as a Sufi convert) is Wahhabism and (therefore) their Saudi patrons. In my piece I also draw on the experience of Ed Husain, who lived and taught in the Kingdom with his wife, and who were both (as moderate Sufi-leaning Muslims) appalled by what they saw. Other writings that shaped my understanding (for what it is) include those of John R. Bradley, Robert Lacey, Thomas Hegghammer and Qanta Ahmed. I was also electrified and appalled in the very beginning by Said K. Aburish’s partisan but detailed screed, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud.
There were parts of this piece I had serious doubts about including, but decided to anyway. My point is not to stereotype Saudi subjects, and I do realise I am pointing to the extreme effects of a system of rule and religious manipulation and oppression that I have collated from second hand accounts. I don’t claim anything more than that. If I am completely wrong here, and Saudi Arabia is actually fine and healthy and a pleasant place to live for men and women alike, with an accountable ruling family whose malign imprint on global terrorism and religious reaction is overstated or false, then all I can say is: phew! That’s good news for everybody.
As for the hijab, abaya and niqab, which are direct and terrible Saudi exports, I understand the justifications and reject them all. From every angle, they are nothing but a sexist imposition.