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Inside the secret kingdom

By Edward Stourton
Today programme, Jeddah

Riyadh at night

Saudi Arabia is a deeply private country, but beneath the facade of wealth and contentment, the social currents at work are far from simple to define.

Sheik Wajid Majd Hashim al Awjani is extremely proud of his indoor swimming pool - beautifully tiled in varying shades of blue, it has been installed on the first floor of the new rural retreat he is building just outside the city of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Sheik Wajid Majd Hashim al Awjani
Sheik Wajid Majd Hashim al Awjani extolls the virtues of the Saudi state

He is proud of the view too: there's a large picture window looking out over the main Jubail to Daharan highway, which is, the Sheik told me with an expressive wave of his elegant hand, "the best road in the world".

But then the Sheik, a religious leader of Saudi Arabia's minority Shia community, is much given to superlatives.

For 15 minutes or so he read out carefully prepared notes praising Saudi Arabia for the wisdom and justice of its rulers, for the merits of its monarchical system of government, and for the peace-loving nature of its people.

Nothing in Saudi Arabia, it seems, could possibly be improved upon.

When I asked him about the recent unrest in Qatif - in which 14 people were injured - he dismissed it as a "summer cloud", and the work of "hands from outside" - by which he meant Iran although, for reasons I am not entirely clear about, he would not actually say so.

We had flown to the Eastern Province to investigate the longstanding friction between the Shia who live there and the government in Riyadh, and we had arranged to interview a veteran champion of the Shia cause about his community's grievances.

The Ministry of Information told us flatly we could not do that, and the government "minders" who accompanied us everywhere insisted we interview the Sheik instead. He played the part of government stooge with such obvious relish and conviction that it was almost endearing.

Saudi society is extremely complex, and trying to understand its subtleties is made that bit more difficult by the hoops you must go through to have a frank conversation about a sensitive topic.

The globe restaurant
The Globe restaurant, a rendezvous place for wealthy Saudis

In Riyadh I interviewed three young women campaigning for women's rights. Once they got talking they showed themselves to be highly articulate and intelligent and - I thought - very brave. But arranging the meeting required skill and subterfuge.

We had to give our government minders the slip - we told them we were going out to dinner - and the rendezvous was set at a place called The Globe, a futuristic restaurant and bar in a glass bubble suspended on the 38th floor of a skyscraper.

It was fearsomely expensive and there was a wall of security guards screening the doors to the restaurant lift. It is one of those places in Riyadh where men and women meet without worrying too much about the attentions of the religious police, and our campaigners explained that they felt comfortable talking there because it was "discreet".

In some parts of the Middle East people live their lives on the streets - walk through Cairo and you can watch the city's drama unfold around you.

Saudi society places a much greater premium on privacy - most of the houses turn their backs on the streets with high walls and shuttered windows - and you only learn about the way people live once you step through the doorway.

You quickly find your pre-conceptions being challenged. One evening I interviewed a young woman who had been gaoled for seven months for "disobedience" to her father.

She said her father had abused her for years and her only "crime" was to want to marry someone she loved, but that apparently cut no ice with the court. The story has a happy ending - she is now free and married - but the case seemed to confirm my worst suspicions about the way the Saudi system treats women.

Saudi couple who defied Saudi law
Life can be very difficult for Saudi women who defy their guardians

Yet the following morning I interviewed an educated married woman who was happy to stand up for Saudi Arabia's "guardian" system, which places all women under the authority of a male relative or family friend.

Her guardian is her husband, who is also her business partner, and since both relationships are harmonious she enjoys the idea of living under his protection.

I came with one pre-conception which I very quickly re-evaluated: any idea that Saudis feel the sort of hostility towards their government that we saw on the streets of Cairo or Tunis is well wide of the mark.

There are certainly some Saudis who want change - and the Saudi system does not tolerate much dissent - but there is no sign of the burning popular rage which has challenged governments elsewhere in the Middle East.

That is a partly because the Saudi government is, to put it bluntly, rich enough to bribe its people - King Abdullah announced a huge increase in public spending in March - and partly because Saudi society in general sets so much store by stability.

The issue which seems to concern Saudis most at the moment is the mortality of their king.

King Abdullah is immensely popular, and much admired by reformers for the way he has introduced change - like the voting rights for women he recently announced - without provoking a conservative backlash.

But he is 86 and went through back surgery this week. And the man most likely to succeed him has a reputation as a hardliner.

Abudullah's death is, as one young women's rights activist put it to me, "the elephant no one wants to talk about" - but almost everyone is worrying about it.

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