Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On Saudi Arabia and Stereotypes

Saudi Arabian Spring Break Central. (Apparently.)

[I’m trying to be better about serving as host, and letting other, smarter people do the talking. Bear with me.]

Saudi Arabia is what you think (the laws), and it isn’t (a handful of other things, at a minimum). And on more levels than you think. Most people who care to carry some defining details in his/her head – e.g. women can’t drive, open bank accounts, etc., and corporal punishment is still very, very much a thing in Saudi Arabia. I mean, the article I’m referencing here contains this passage:

“[Mohammed bin Salman] had marked the New Year by executing forty-seven people—including forty-three Sunni jihadists and four Shias—the kingdom’s largest group of executions since the crackdown that followed the retaking of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979. Throughout the meeting, the young prince watched reports of the executions on a large television screen—seeming to confirm the caricature of himself on social media as a teenager who played at brutal statecraft as if it were a video game.”
Saudi Arabia also boasts a small (10% of total population), concentrated Shia community on its east coast. Moreover, the review, “Saudi Arabia: Can It Really Change?” talks to people within the ruling elite who see the wisdom in opening the society to fuller participation by women, and, toward the end, the review it talks about a musical festival in Jeddah (from what I gather, one of the more cosmopolitan Saudi cities) where, “After the show, the more adventurous of both sexes then mingle onstage, taking group selfies.”

And, personally, did not think one could get away with such shenanigans in Saudi Arabia without one’s day ending very, very badly. But that’s the thing: for all that stereotypes help people manage their understanding of the world, they’re placeholders at best, a blank page that you can fill in later when you know more. (And that’s emphatically outside the question of whether all stereotypes are created equal – and, to be clear, holy shit, no, they are not.) Even then, the work of knowing more falls on you. Or, maybe just tripping over something in a magazine you get…see how algorithms rob of bumping into something unexpected?

Anyway, that review was amazing and, as with the overwhelming majority of articles in the New York Review of Books, it’s all about the further reading. And they’ve got two books in that one. Before closing out this one, I want to share another passage about (roughly) contemporary Saudi Arabia:

“Wahhabi forces loyal to the monarchy counterattacked, saved the al-Sauds, and retook the mosque. But a crucial deal was made: loyalist clerics approved the removal of the militants by force; but in return demanded that Saudi royals cede them power to strictly control personal behavior. The last cinemas and concert halls shut down. Women were obliged to shroud themselves in black.”

Guess what year that happened? 1979. Societies don't always stop evolving. Sometimes they revert. This is not an isolated phenomenon.

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