This week I walked into a free open-air concert in the seaside city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. ‘Uptown Funk’ was being blasted over the speakers. I had visions of Michelle Obama dancing to the same tune on US late night TV.
The people funking along here in Jeddah were not American expats. Those enjoying the music were mixed gender Saudis, families and singles. Women were almost universally wearing the head to toe black abaya and black head covering. The men were almost universally wearing the head to toe white flowing thobe with the red and white ghutra head covering.
The liking for traditional clothing could nevertheless not hide the real change that is coming over Saudi Arabia represented by the music and the public gathering.
Thousands thronged the Jeddah Corniche with many women wandering in groups with or without men. Children were playing on fairground rides and buying soft-drinks and sweets. I was met, not with the hostility that the western media may make you think, but with the unambiguous hospitality that is typical of the Islamic world in general, and Saudi in particular.
Few countries have as rapid and as drastic rise from poverty to wealth as Saudi Arabia. Few are as threatened by a potentially catastrophic return to poverty either. Nor is Saudi a perfect country. The war in Yemen, the complicated relations with Iran and issues such as the Khashoggi killing, are just three issues that spring to mind.
Yet Saudi is changing and it is time for us to recognise this change for what it is: an unambiguously good thing.
Modern Saudi dates back to 1902 when 27-year-old Abdulaziz al Saud led a small band of 60 men from their Bedouin camps to successfully attack Masmak Fort in Riyadh. He was 27 years old. From this base he spent the next 30 years unifying the disparate Bedouin tribes declaring himself King in 1932.
Globally, Saudi was little more than a relatively undervalued desert with little strategic value until oil was discovered in commercial quantities in 1938 – just in time to feed the second world war.
Critical to understanding current Saudi Arabia is to recognise that Saudi’s rise is within the memory of the current generation of rulers. The current ruler, King Salman, is the son of Abdulaziz. Salman was born before oil, and can remember Saudi Arabia as a poor and barely relevant country. He doesn’t want to return his country to that position.
Should Saudi continue an almost sole reliance on oil revenue, then the death of oil will end the influence and wealth of Saudi. The country must open and reform its economy, increase women’ participation in the economy and encourage foreign investment and diversify trade – including tourism.
The Saudi rulers have decided that brutal economics dictate that their country must change. Make no mistake, Saudi Arabia is liberalising. This change, while too fast for some and too slow for others, is real.
Saudi and Islam get bad press in the West for the actions of radical extremists. But in the West we don’t read about the overwhelming sense of hospitality that is a key tenant of the Islamic religion and the Saudi people.
Some may think that my positive view is skewed by my gender. My female business colleague with me was also overwhelmed by openness, respect and genuine hospitality.
As a non-married mixed gender pair, we have not experienced any hostility or negativity at all. The warmth of the people, be it in our business meetings, or in the shops, on the streets or in the Uber, has been overwhelming.
In the West some also think of the alcohol ban as a restriction on freedom. But in many ways, it is a liberation too. As much as I’d love a gin and tonic, the lack of alcohol means that there is no drunken and brutish behaviour that we see late night in Australia, UK, US etc.
The consequence is that at midnight along the Corniche of Jeddah as well as the music there are families enjoying the warm outdoor evening. Men and women mingle amongst the food stands and the entertainment.
What struck me the most at midnight amongst the throngs of people was the children. Lots of children.
In Australia would you take your five or six-year-old children to a music festival in Bondi or St. Kilda? Would you be too scared to let children out at midnight on a summer evening by the waterside?
Recently Australia has seen women tragically killed by strangers. Male violence sees drunken thugs in brawls with ‘king hit cowards’ not unknown. Freed from the negative impacts of alcohol Saudis are able to do some things that in the west we simply cannot.
This is a difference in perspective that gives one something to think about.
But the reforms in this country are real and it is time that we in the west re-think the way we look at the country as it continues on its path of reform. After all an economic collapse of Saudi Arabia is in no-one’s interest.