Videos taken during Saudi National Day, a Saudi public holiday celebrated on September 23, show young Saudi men and women dancing to blaring pop music. The footage captures a rare moment of freedom in this ultra-conservative society, but doesn’t hide the new wave of repression launched by the regime’s new strongman.

Saudi Arabia turned into one big party last weekend in celebrations to mark the 87th anniversary of the country’s founding. The Saudi General Authority for Entertainment put on a panoply of events ranging from free concerts and performances to laser shows and more in 17 different cities across the country. The Authority for Entertainment is a new official body created as part of Vision 2030 — a programme of reforms that aims to diversify the Saudi economy, which is heavily dependent on petrol.The man behind Vision 2030 is Mohamed Ben Salman, often called "MBS". MBS is the Deputy Prime Minister, a member of the royal family and one of the Kingdom’s strongmen.

Women dance on Tahlia Street in Riyadh on Saudi National Day. Their celebrations provoked the ire of the ultra-religious and conservatives on social media.

"It was the first time I have ever seen such freedom in a public space"

Samira (not her real name), 60, went with her daughter to the celebrations held on Tahlia Street, the main street in Riyadh.

It was surprising! I’ve never seen anything like it before. There were events organised all over the country, even in Riyadh, which is considered the most conservative city in the country. Kingdom Tower, a towering, 99-storey building, was decorated with portraits of well-known Saudi women including the sprinter Kariman Abuljadayel, who was part of the Saudi Olympic team in Rio. I was proud to see such strong, active, and inspiring women celebrated for their achievements.

"Change is coming to the kingdom"

On Tahlia Street, there was an incredible, jubilant crowd all celebrating together to music. Not so very long ago, it was forbidden to play music outside. I went to see a Saudi DJ mix. The atmosphere was incredibly festive. There were men, women and young people all dancing and singing to house music.

I was enchanted. I clapped, I yelled. It was a euphoric moment. I have never seen such an incredible outpouring of joy… Especially at a free public event, open to everyone, and sponsored by the government! Change is coming to the kingdom.

Most of this change is taking place within the private sphere. Young people get together, have fun and dance to Western music. But to see such freedom in a public space and, what’s more, during an official ceremony… For me, that was a first.
 
A Twitter user who describes himself as a pious Muslim condemned the celebrations for Saudi National Day, taking issue with the fact that women were dancing, that both men and women attended festivities and the atmosphere of general “depravity” that occurred.
 
"Young people want to live"

A lot of young people are tired of listening to our country’s religious leaders. They want a more open society. The internet means that they have been exposed to other cultures. Many of them learn English. They want to live in a different way and are starting to question our social norms, such as the segregation of men and women.

This angers the most conservative among us. Some of them took to social media to condemn the “sin” during celebrations. But Saudi’s young people just want to live. The government — at the instigation of Prince MBS — understands this.

The festivities this year were open to both men and women. Women were allowed to enter King Fahd International Stadium for the first time. Cars were blasting music. The other side of Saudi society is emerging, coming out into the light.

"Don’t be mistaken — this societal liberalisation isn’t being reflected in politics"

But for Stéphane Lacroix, an associate professor at the university of Sciences Po Paris and a specialist in Saudi Arabia, this societal liberalisation doesn’t necessarily entail a political liberalisation.

It’s not the first time that Saudi authorities have organised this kind of event. Coming up with specific policies for entertainment and recreation is part of Vision 2030. With the creation of a specific authority in charge of entertainment, Vision 2030 aims to earn back some of the 22 billion dollars (19.5 billion euros) spent by Saudis abroad each year.

A crowd celebrates along Tahlia Street on Saudi National Day.


But don’t be mistaken — this societal liberalisation isn’t being reflected in politics. About two weeks prior, on September 9, authorities arrested dozens of people — most of them public figures like Sheikh Salman Al-Awdah, a Saudi preacher who defends individual liberties and has close to 14 million followers on Twitter.

Those arrested came from a spectrum of ideologies: many were Islamists, some were ultra-conservatives and some were people known for their pro-democratic beliefs. This means that you can’t say that these people were arrested because of their ideologies. They were arrested because they are all powerful and all represent either proven or potential opposition to Mohammed Ben Salman’s projects. One thing to note: it’s not the Ministry of the Interior behind most of the arrests, which were carried out very suddenly, but a new body created during a security service overhaul carried out by MBS in July 2017: the Presidency of State Security.

"The space for liberty of expression is decreasing"

The space for liberty of expression in Saudi Arabia is decreasing. Saudis are afraid to speak out. For proof, all you have to do is look at the comments on social media. Before, people were able to express differences of opinion. Now, people no longer dare to say the name of MBS, who holds most of the country’s power in his hands. And with good reason, because the young prince has chosen to silence dissident voices in order to implement his programme of diversifying and privatising the economy.

"MBS represents a role well-known in the Arab world: that of the modernising autocrat"

In this way, he is reproducing the United Arab Emirates (UAE) model, first established ten years prior in the UAE by Mohammed Ben Zayid, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

The feasibility of MBS’ plan for reforms might be questioned in a country with 25 million residents. But, so far, it is being implemented according to the UAE recipe — that is, giving people the right to recreation, entertainment and consumer goods, but not human rights. In this way, MBS represents a well-known figure in the Arab world: that of the modernising autocrat.



Article written with
Dorothée Myriam kellou

Dorothée Myriam kellou , journaliste rédacteur arabophone