In 1990, a friend of mine, a writer and an intellectual, went to visit his son in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His son worked for a Multinational corporation. The writer had been there for about three days when, in the early morning, he received a phone call from a Palestinian friend. The friend asked him to quickly drive to the downtown area of the city. ‘Why?’ he asked. The friend said he would see something very funny and the drive would be worth it.
The writer drove into the city and was just about in the downtown area when he had to stop. Blocking the road were armoured personnel carriers, and army trucks. He got out of the car, walked around the area to observe what was happening. What he saw was hilarious. All the roads had been cordoned off and hundreds of troops were busy with buckets of water, brushes and mops. And what were they doing? They were cleaning up the graffiti on the walls of the buildings. The graffiti, probably written the night before, poked fun at the Saudi Royal family, calling for its overthrow, and the army was hurriedly called in to wipe out those infectious words. The blockading of the roads had led to the piling up of traffic on all sides, and people had gotten out of their cars to find out what was happening. They all got to read what was not to be read.
Now, I must confess that I have never been to Saudi Arabia and whatever I know about the kingdom have been from the reports that I have read in various magazines, newspapers and journals, people that I have met who have visited it, and images of the kingdom that very rarely appear on the television screen. And, putting all these together, the mopping up operation that my friend witnessed in Jeddah, was perhaps the essence of a kingdom that was frightened about a lot of things.
It was frightened of those words because it knew that quite a sizeable number of its own citizens believed in them. Given a chance, those citizens would write them too. There would be a lot of graffiti around because there was so much to write about. There were the innumerable stories of royal brats blowing up millions upon millions of dollars in casinos, yachts, palaces, parties and whores. The wealth didn’t belong to the people, it belonged to them. Then, the stories of the billions upon billions spent on arms. Arms for whom and who was the enemy? The billions invested in government bonds in the United States of America, that the kingdom could not tell its own people about, for fear of a backlash. The billions spent on maintaining a foreign army to protect the royal family because it could not trust its own soldiers or people.
Inside the country, the kingdom had a strange attitude towards its women citizens. It treated them with unusual harshness. They could be seen, yes, but strictly within the kingdom’s interpretations of Islamic law. They could rarely be heard. At one point in time, it even banned them from driving cars that had floor-shift gears because some cleric or clerics in their wisdom decided that the erect gear stick resembled a phallus! Imagine these stories being recounted on the walls of buildings by an imaginative graffiti artist!
Yes, the royal family had a lot to be frightened about.
It was a royalty trapped in schizophrenia. To the Moslem world it had to present itself as egalitarian, benevolent and just because Islam said so. But could the royal family really be all that Islam demanded from it with so much cash lying around? Being of the flesh, it caved in. So, it decided to live in two worlds. The strict one in Saudi Arabia. The philandering one in the West. And it hoped the twain would never meet! Unfortunately it did.