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Saudi Arabia's dual identity

By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, Saudi Arabia

With Saudi Arabia now earning more than $1bn (500m) a day in oil revenues, its rulers are under increasing pressure to speed up the process of social change.

Hummer fuel cap
Gas-guzzling off-road vehicles are cheap to run in Saudi Arabia

The auto mall in Jeddah is a temple to the car and consumerism.

The glitzy showrooms are filled with gleaming motors. Only a few are sensible family vehicles. Most are gas-guzzling monsters.

With petrol selling at five pence (10 US cents) a litre, Saudi Arabia is the place to buy that Hummer you have always dreamed of.

But nothing in the auto mall prepared us for the fleet of modified cars that a group of young enthusiasts calling themselves the Jeddah Boyz had brought to show us.

Youthful country

Fahad's sleek, red Dodge Charger was my favourite. Like the owner, it was cool if not altogether understated.

Fahad and his fellow Jeddah Boyz spend tens of thousands of dollars modifying their cars.

Then they cruise around town trying to find girls.

To help get around the suffocating restrictions in the kingdom, some have stickers with their e-mail address pasted to the back windscreen.

Officials say 70% of Saudis are under 24

This, they maintain, is a failsafe way of meeting young women.

Wealth and globalisation are changing parts of Saudi Arabia.

Sure, this remains a deeply conservative kingdom, dominated by tribes and a clerical establishment, but it is also a youthful country. Officials say 70% of Saudis are under 24.

Many, especially in the cities, are heavily influenced by Western culture.

That is most obvious in the shopping malls that are springing up in Jeddah and it is in places like this that girls and boys secretly meet.

Challenging authority

In one corridor, I spotted a teenage girl talking to a young man.

Young men in a shopping centre in Saudi Arabia (archive)
It's risky for unmarried men and women to be seen together

Her abaya - the black all-enveloping gown that Saudi women are obliged to wear - was open, exposing a red top and just the slightest glimpse of her cleavage.

If the religious police had seen the pair, they would have been in serious trouble, but the owners of this mall are influential enough to make it clear to the mutaween (the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) that they are not welcome here.

Indeed during my 10-day stay in Jeddah, I did not see these guardians of morality once.

That is not to say that they have disappeared though.

I was told that one evening the religious police went into a Western coffee shop in the city centre and found a couple who were unrelated, sitting together.

The pair were hauled outside.

The coffee shop then emptied and a group of young men attacked the religious police.

The boy and girl got away and the religious police were severely beaten.

If true, this story is remarkable. A direct challenge to the religious police on one of the main streets of Saudi Arabia's commercial capital.

'Pet project'

Map of Saudi Arabia

But Jeddah is a cosmopolitan city and not, perhaps, representative of the entire kingdom.

For thousands of years, this has been a trading port, as well as the gateway for pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

It could not be more different from the capital, Riyadh, in the heart of the Nejd, the desolate centre of the country where the royal family - the House of Saud - comes from.

People in Jeddah say that it is perhaps inevitable that the monarch, King Abdullah, should choose a site near Jeddah for his pet project.

In just 15 years he is promising that a city the size of Washington DC will rise from the sands.

The reformers will tell you that the King Abdullah Economic City will be at the vanguard of social change.

The king is also believed to be in favour of a change to the law that prevents women driving. Campaigners hope that this could mean that the ban is lifted soon.

Model of the proposed King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia
The King Abdullah Economic City project was revealed in 2005

His reformist credentials received another boost when he organised a major international conference between Sunni and Shia religious leaders in Mecca recently, to increase dialogue between the sects.

But despite being the monarch, there is a sense that King Abdullah is not the sole ruler.

The Interior Minister, Prince Naif, and his son are said to be influential forces of conservatism.

There were reports that the ministry closed down three Shia mosques in the east of the country on the day that the Mecca conference began.

A warning from the traditionalists, some observers suggest.

Moving forward

Saudis have had opportunities for change in the past but there is a sense among the young people we met in Jeddah that this time it may be different.

The royal succession will be critical though.

The monarch is an old man and the crown prince, Sultan, is unwell.

King Abdullah is believed to want the next generation of 60-somethings to take control of the monarchy after his death.

The process of choosing the King of Saudi Arabia is even more opaque than the business of selecting a new pope.

But the competing sections of the House of Saud are believed to be in extensive negotiations at the moment.

The choices that they make will have a great bearing on the future of the kingdom.

For youngsters like the Jeddah Boyz and that couple in the mall, the choice is clear.

Yes, they say, the kingdom may be founded on Islam but, if the country is to move forward, there must be social freedoms to accompany the wealth and economic reform.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 19 June, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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