Going back to Saudi Arabia, the country where I was nearly murdered nine years ago, meant taking a long, deep breath. I left it then on a hospital gurney, barely conscious. Now I was returning fit and well but based in a wheelchair, after al-Qaeda’s bullets damaged the nerves that connect my spine to my legs. What sort of a country would I find? Would there still be check-points and barricades, shifty-eyed policemen and the omnipresent signs of government surveillance?
I noticed the change at once. Within an hour of landing at Riyadh’s futuristic airport I joined our film crew in the Faisaliah Mall, a popular multi-storey shopping arcade not unlike London’s Westfield. In the shop windows the faces of a European family advertising children’s clothing were still pixelated to appease religious conservatives who believe it un-Islamic to reproduce the human image, a ban from which the ruling princes seem to be conspicuously exempt.
Inside its air-conditioned corridors a robed and bearded religious policeman still stalked the walkways, telling shoppers to go to the mosque at prayer time. And yet, despite these outward trappings of austerity, there was a comparative lightness in the air. As we filmed, publicly in plain view, hardly anybody gave us a second glance. Ten years ago I was nearly arrested for bringing out a camera here. Back then, the religious policemen scowled at everyone, putting off shoppers and harassing women to pull their headscarves tighter over their faces. Now the man we saw steering the faithful to prayer was polite and courteous, almost genial.
Out on the streets and at the entrance to hotels the checkpoints, concrete chicanes and sandbag gun emplacements that had sprung up after al-Qaeda began its insurgency in 2003 were gone. It took the government several years to successfully crush it, arresting or killing its leaders in shootouts, and more than 200 lives were lost. Since the insurgency effectively ended in 2007 Saudi Arabia has been largely at peace, but when we flew down to its mountainous border with Yemen we found guards in remote hilltop out-posts, nervously scanning the unmarked border.
One side effect of the Arab Spring, they told me, was that on the Yemeni side of the border security had all but evaporated, leading to constant incursions and infiltrations by drug smugglers, terrorists and illegal immigrants simply looking to escape the poverty of the Arab world’s poorest country. “For us border guards it’s very dangerous,” said Lt Col Hamed Al-Ahmari as we drove along a rough dirt track, watched by a troop of wild baboons in the trees. “As everybody knows, there is a lot of al-Qaeda personnel staying now in Yemen. Also there are a lot of smugglers who are willing to use weapons against us.” Hamed produced a chart showing more than 1,200 weapons seized in the last year, adding that in the past few months five border guards had lost their lives there.
Like many Arab countries, Saudi Arabia remains somewhat obsessed with security and in recent years thousands have been arrested, accused of aiding terrorism. Human-rights groups say that in a country without a proper penal code, many of those arrested were simply calling for more political freedom or for a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. When we tried, as part of our documentary, to interview a husband-and-wife pair of human-rights activists in Jeddah, our previously docile government minder from the Orwellian “Ministry of Information” leapt into life. “It is not possible,” he insisted. “It is not in the programme.” We professed tiredness, sent him home and went back to a hotel, where we then conducted the interviews anyway.
Mrs Samar Al-Badawi’s story is shocking and sadly indicative of the uphill battle Saudi women must fight for their rights. Her father was a drug addict and when she was a teenager he used to lock her in the bathroom for weeks on end, smashing the light bulb so she would be alone in the dark. He stopped her going to school and pushed scraps of food under the door. As soon as she was able she took him to court but the father filed a counter case on the grounds that she was “disobedient” and “refusing to obey our customs”. He befriended a judge who ruled against her, sending her to prison for months. “Men have impunity from everything here,” she told me. “The state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is zero. They have no law that protects them.”
Political parties and public protests are still strictly forbidden. Women are not allowed to drive, or even to travel around the country without a mahram, a male guardian from their family. Yet reforms are creeping in, often instigated by King Abdullah who is nearly 90. This year, in a surprise move that infuriated religious conservatives, he issued a royal decree appointing 30 women to the influential Shura Council that debates – but does not enact – legislation and which advises the king.
“The step is huge,” said Thoraya Obaid, one of the chosen 30, when I interviewed her in her family’s date farm outside Riyadh. “It’s as big as [introducing] girls’ education in 1962… Yes, there is resistance to open up spaces for women and to keep the world segregated.”
Today there is a huge new liberal phenomenon simply unimaginable in the Saudi Arabia of a decade ago. The advent of the internet has given bored young Saudis, deprived of any public entertainment, an outlet both to air their grievances and to satirise the government’s shortcomings. In a modern film studio in Riyadh I met Fahad Albutairi, one of the thousands of young Saudis recently returned from studying in the US. He and his friends produce immensely popular short topical films on YouTube about Saudi culture that often poke fun at the government. Some have had more than 50 million views. “Most of the issues we talk about,” he told me, “like corruption and so on, come from basically caring about the country… we’re trying to be constructive in our criticism. Very high officials follow our shows and love them.”
Over on the country’s Gulf coast, in a province racked by occasionally deadly clashes between Shi’ite protesters and the security forces, I met Ahmed Al Omran, a prolific 27-year-old blogger. He is a fierce critic of the government but seems to know where to draw the line, stopping short of naming individual princes. For their part the Saudi authorities appear to be drawing a line between online criticism in cyberspace – which they know they can’t suppress – and actual street protest, which is not tolerated.
So with all these tensions bubbling below the surface, how is it that Saudi Arabia has so far resisted the Arab Spring? There are several reasons. Money is one. When republican autocrats were being driven from power in 2011 King Abdullah suddenly announced a $130 billion welfare package, including raising salaries.
There is also a loyalty factor. Saudi Arabia is an intensely tribal country and despite the lack of democracy there is, in many quarters, a genuine affection for the ageing king. To openly challenge his rule would be seen by many, especially in the conservative central Nejd plateau, as even being un-Islamic. And of course, there are the security and intelligence forces, on constant lookout for anything that smacks of insurrection against the ruling family. For now, that family, the Al Sa’ud, have survived the first phase of the Arab Spring. But that may not always be the case. A new generation will soon be in charge and how they manage looming issues like unemployment, corruption and women’s rights will determine if this regime endures or falls.
Frank Gardner is the BBC’s security correspondent.
Frank Gardner’s Return to Saudi Arabia is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2