Saturday, June 09, 2007

Saudi Arabia – relaxing the grip

Kingdom Tower : Riyadh

Four year ago : As soon as plane does a touchdown at Riyadh , ladies rush for their abaya (A loose, usually black robe worn, covering the body from head to toe and worn with a headscarf and veil )to cover themselves up.

Two years ago: Ladies walk out of the aircraft clad in normal attire, but while standing in immigration queue, take out Abaya and start wearing it before they arrive at immigration desk.

Now: They hardly bother about Abaya; go through immigration, baggage screening and customs. But as soon as they are out of the airport, they are in their ubiquitous black attire.

My four day trip to Riyadh, gave me this changing impression of Saudi Arabia .Albeit at snail’s place, Saudi regime is slowly relaxing their formidable Islamic grip on the society. No more customs officials ransack bags; tear the parcels, insist on switching on laptops to look for symbols that would connote Islamic blasphemy. Immigration clerk too are relaxed. Bags go through X ray machines and very little attention is paid unless it needs. Riyadh even now has FM that plays music. A far cry from those days when music was anathema to Islamic traditions. Satellite TV beam European and Indian channels – sometimes explicit in contents.

Riyadh over the years represented a city of hardliners; Dammam and Jeddah are relaxed and easy going. So if changes are visible in Riyadh, a wind of change is on its way. Women still cannot vote or drive but one never know if these rules too get relaxed. Women can now officially have their own identity cards, rather than being included on the card of their husband or father. Travel restrictions have been eased, allowing them to get blanket permission from a male relative for travel abroad, rather than needing separate permission for each trip. They can also own businesses instead of having to register them in the name of a male representative or proxy.

In old days – there would be heresay stories of Mutawa – religious moral police who have been made guardian of keeping Islamic morality intact. But they are losing their teeth with newspaper openly and blatantly publishing stories about their excesses under the guise of ‘Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue’. The religious police are indeed zealous in their work. I was surprised that we didn’t need to get out of the Italian resturant as evening prayer time began. In old days, if you happen to just start your dinner in a restaurant when the call to prayer sounds over the loudspeakers, you must leave the restaurant and your dinner until prayer is over. I remember standing outside internet café during prayer time. This resturant did pull the shutters down but didn’t evacualte diners.

Next to me, During my flight from Riyadh to Damam was 16 year old chubby, roly poly kid – who was restless all through the flight. He started scribbling on flight magazine with his ink pen. When he wasn’t satiated with his creativity, he transformed every model in the magazine into bearded man.i remembered my school days, when I mutilated famous authors in my textbooks. He soon got tired of this portrait making, pulled out his - fancy plastic dark sun glasses – and tried to snuggle himself to sleep bu pushing his head on the table tray. Slowly, he strick converstaion with me in his broken english. He was returning from Manila with his engineer father and seem to have been awed by Manila’s open and free lifestyle. He was on the threshold of adulthood but his innocence amused me. The last I saw him pulling out big suitcases from the conveyor belt .

I visited first time Kingdom Centre – a symbol of Riyadh - tallest skyscraper in Saudi Arabia and 25th tallest building in the world. Built by Al Waleed, top portion of the tower is shaped like ‘ bottle opener’ or ‘nail’ and lit up in changing colourful illuminations. At night, from a distance, the top portion looks like cobra snake with its open hood . Inside, building interior is not all that grand with shopping mall , a Four Seasons Hotel and state-of-the-art apartments. I didn’t go to the top floor to get a view of the whole city of Riyadh but heard from my colleague who had been to Italian resturant. In the lobby resturant, I saw Two white ladies wearing Abaya but without covering their head sitting side by side on a table next to a man. Obviously they must not be married to each other and so, strictly speaking, should not be together in public. But nobody in the lobby seemed to mind, but they appeared comfortable.

Al Khobar is a pleasant town, cosmopolitan, colorful and interesting place that is merged with Dhahran and Dammam. From large, modern malls, to small local shopping streets, the town provides all that the expatriate needs in terms of everyday requirements. I had lunch in ‘grill ‘ an Indian restaurant that proudly displayed its Indian connection – by pasting Indian photographs of Vaidynath chavan prash painted shop shutters, fisherwoman in Goa and Mumbai dabbawala. It was weird to see décor of hanging colorful dupatta over ones head. But food –Manchurian shrimp, fried rice with dragon soup was sumptuous. Eating Indian Chinese food in Saudi Arabia along with Palestine, Pakistani and Japanese was true example of globalization.

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