How is life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Susanne Koelbl"Twelve weeks in Riyadh"

Living alone in Saudi Arabia as a Western woman is a real challenge. How do you find an apartment ?, asks Susanne Koelbl when she arrives in the capital Riyadh. That would be practically impossible for a single local resident - the strict Saudi reading of Islam would not allow it.

"In private matters, the family is still the all-determining law here, and very few would allow an adult woman to live without male protection. Without the consent of a guardian, an apartment owner would not even rent to a woman Rented out to single men if women already live in the house. As a western woman, however, I do not fall under local customs and family laws. "

So Koelbl finds an apartment with a balcony and a view of the riad's skyscrapers. From here she begins her journey through a country that gives foreigners of different faiths only a few glimpses of its inner life. She meets royalty, attends weddings with other women, goes on desert trips and meets foreigners who secretly produce alcohol at home. She lifts the veil that lies over Saudi Arabia at a time when the kingdom is experiencing a unique upheaval:

"The Saudi Arabians themselves are unsettled by what is happening in their country, which is more ultra-conservative than any other on the Arabian Peninsula. At the same time, the kingdom is striving with all its might into a new, prosperous future - with an uncertain outcome. It is a stroke of luck to be able to experience this historic departure up close. Every encounter in Saudi Arabia is like a little adventure. "

Emphasis on women's rights

Because the oil reserves will one day be used up, the country will have to reorganize its economy - with consequences for society. The change opens up new opportunities for women in particular. Koelbl dedicates one focus to them. Men rule over almost all areas of life. Women live withdrawn. Many are only allowed to show their faces to their closest relatives: their father or brother. Not to a cousin because he is a potential husband. Many women want more freedom - at the same time, local customs such as full veiling are often not called into question by themselves either. Women have to protect their beauty from men, says Amira, who Koelbl meets at a Koran competition for girls.

"She is in her early forties, perfect English, elegant make-up with bright red lipstick, an English teacher, diplomatic wife. She comes to the Koran school every day when the children have been picked up from school and taken care of [...] women are seductive and seductive, says Amira [...] The fact that it could possibly also be up to men to restrain themselves or to be punished if they sexually harass women or do violence to them is obviously out of the question here. "

But the conflict that many Saudi women suffer from is also very clear. One of the book's strengths lies primarily in the fact that Koelbl takes up western clich├ęs, but does not leave them at them, but rather takes a much more differentiated and deeper look at the country. There is Jamila, 29, on the one hand a successful banker, on the other hand deeply religious and veiled with the Nikab. Since childhood she has strictly followed the rules of religious scholars - only to find that the clergy are suddenly preaching something different in order not to lose the favor of the rulers.

"Jamila says she feels cheated. She wished to be ten or twenty years younger to be able to enjoy the social upheaval of these days. All these years she was one woman among many because she was not allowed to show her face. She had never been recognizably different from others [...] She could no longer take the Nikab off: The father would be disappointed, the mother sad and her reputation [...] destroyed. "

The ambivalent leadership

The change is being driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the actual ruler of Saudi Arabia: young, ambitious, impatient. The young Saudis owe it to him that the country is opening up. The 33-year-old is correspondingly popular. But Mohammed bin Salman is also the man who ordered the Saudi military intervention in neighboring Yemen. Human rights activists are in custody where they are tortured, as Koelbl writes. She considers the Crown Prince unpredictable, cruel and nefarious. The CIA is certain that he also ordered the brutal murder of the government critic Jamal Kashoggi, whom Koelbl knew personally.

"The message emanating from this murder is clear. It is aimed at all who want to harm the king and his mighty son: Nobody is safe from our power. No matter where you are in this world, we get you. In the days after Jamal's murder, my Saudi Arabian friends are silent on the case. They look down when I want to talk to them about it. They distract from the subject, too dangerous. "

Would it be better if such an authoritarian ruler failed with his reforms? Hardly, warns Koelbl.

"A failure would increase unemployment, lead to the impoverishment of the majority of young Saudis, at some point there would probably be riots. But an end to the Saudi government would now bring further instability in the Middle East. Radical religious forces quickly gain the upper hand. Then billions would be of petrodollars in the hands of extremists, world markets are on roller coaster and new refugee movements are to be expected. "

The Spiegel journalist has succeeded in creating an entertaining country portrait that is well worth reading, critical but open-minded, charming in tone, with rare insights into a country that is mostly closed to the West. Saudi Arabia, it is also becoming clear, is at the beginning of a difficult and long transformation that will have an impact on the whole world.

Susanne Koelbl: "Twelve weeks in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia between dictatorship and new beginnings",
DVA, 320 pages, 22 euros.