In Saudi Arabia, an Undercover Revolution

The freedom to buy lingerie from other women may not sound like much. But activists say it's a start.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—On the "ladies' level" at the Kingdom Centre shopping mall in the Saudi capital, winds of change for Saudi women are blowing among the racks of bras. Gender barriers are falling among the body-shapers and panties. In what Saudi activists argue is one of several potentially momentous moves this spring and summer to ease some of the toughest strictures in the world upon women, Saudi Arabia says that it is remaking employment regulations -- so that women clerks can wait upon female customers in lingerie stores.

Never mind that it took changes in the labor law in 2005-2006, a boycott and online campaigns by Saudi female activists, and, ultimately, personal intervention by King Abdullah himself this month to counter fatwas regarding lingerie clerks, simply so that Saudi women wouldn't have to talk to male clerks about cup sizes and overflowing muffin tops.

In deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah's government moved this year to further open jobs and education for women and responded surprisingly leniently last week to the most significant protest in decades against the kingdom's ban on women driving, this summer is what amounts to hopeful times for supporters of greater freedom for Saudi women.

"This is something great! A huge change," says 18-year-old Latifa al-Fahed, scanning the racks in the lingerie section at the Kingdom Centre's Debenhams department store.

(King Abdullah's edict, yet to be implemented, requires that female clerks sell what the king called "women's necessities," even in malls where men are present. Currently, most stores in Saudi Arabia, and the majority of workplaces overall, are staffed by men -- Saudi women make up less than 15 percent of Saudi nationals in the workforce. The exceptions include female education and health care, and segregated women-only malls and "ladies' levels," where women can shop alone among other women, at a price premium.)

Even conservative women who oppose other moves, such as allowing women to drive, are applauding the lingerie measure. "I'm married, so I wanted to buy something a little sexy," Fatima, a 22-year-old in niqab that covers all but her eyes, explains to me after buying something lacy and floral on the ladies' level. "These are sensitive issues, and I definitely would not buy from a man. I support this change."

While on the surface quite small, each of the pending changes, Saudi activists argue, should be viewed as a chipping away at the gender segregation that crushes the employment prospects of most of the kingdom's more than 10 million Saudi women and drains fortunes from Saudi women and their families.

Reem Asaad, a banker and analyst in Jeddah who was one of the leaders of the campaign for female lingerie clerks, started the lingerie effort after receiving one-too-many unwelcome bits of advice from a male clerk about her underwear, she says. Ultimately, though, Asaad told me in a phone call, her campaign has been about economic justice, starting with what activists say is the more than $1 billion annual lingerie trade in Saudi.

Thanks to the single promised change regarding lingerie stores, "thousands of women can now set foot in the working pool of people," Asaad says. "This cannot be bad."

Smashing one of the first of many barriers to mixing genders in the workplace may lead to breakthroughs in other professional and trade fields, says Princess Ameerah al-Taweel. The wife of a Saudi prince who is one of the world's wealthiest men, Taweel, at 28, has emerged as an outspoken advocate of women's driving, employment, and education.

"This step will lead to other steps, and people will get used to the sight of women working," the princess told me. "This is a big step for us."

"Things are happening, but we want them to happen faster," she said. "Everything we're asking for is extremely good for our society."

In general, most of the restrictions on Saudi women are meant to block mingling of the sexes in shops, workplaces, and schools, which many in the country's Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam say is immoral. The government's own permanent committee on religious edicts underscored the perceived prohibition in a statement this month, citing a line from the Quran: "When you ask them [wives of the Prophet Mohammed] for any goods, ask them from behind a curtain. This is purer for your hearts and for theirs."

Advocates of more freedoms for Saudi women say this interpretation of the Quran is extreme. Even the Prophet Mohammed's own first wife was a shrewd businesswoman and, according to tradition, rode into battle on a camel, they say.

Efforts to apply 18th-century tribal customs and interpretations of Islamic law to 21st-century Islamic life lead to some awkward contortions. The prohibition on women's driving compels millions of Saudi women to share an enclosed vehicle with a hired driver. The prohibition on women working in mixed environments means that overly aggressive all-male cosmetic clerks yell across the store that they have just the thing for your dry skin, while lingerie salesman hawk push-up bras with all the discretion of a used-car salesman with a lot full of Ford Tauruses.

In most civil affairs, whether a matter of business permits, dowries, or inheritance, women must work through male guardians, or -- on small issues -- through comparatively powerless female clerks.

The financial impact upon Saudi women can be devastating. The ban on women driving alone amounts to a $10,000 annual tax on women -- the yearly salary of a hired driver, blogger Eman Fahad Al Nafjan says.

Nafjan, talking to me one day last week, also cited cases of divorced or widowed mothers of grown daughters forced to live off charity even though they are fully employable.

While 60 percent of Saudis pursuing higher education are women, the restrictions contribute to a stunning estimated unemployment rate of 75 percent for Saudi women with college degrees.

Ultimately, economics should force some of the barriers to fall, says John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh. As elsewhere, "it's becoming an economic necessity in Saudi Arabia" for households to have more than one wage earner. "We're going to see more and more women who will look for jobs."

So far, though, Saudi Arabia still is moving slowly on women's issues -- inasmuch as it is moving at all. In Riyadh, 22-year-old Noufi al-Sheikh was one of many women who said they might take a drive themselves -- in four or five years. "Now, the country itself is refusing the idea," Sheikh said.

As activists young and old glumly pointed out, news archives show Saudis have been giving that any-year-now time frame since at least 1975.

King Abdullah typically casts his measures for women as economic and employment opportunities rather than as rights issues. Saudis who support his changes believe he has managed, six years into his reign, to come to terms with more conservative elements both in his family and in the country's religious establishment. Some say they see exposure to the Internet, and to dialogue on Facebook and Twitter, as broadening Saudis' points of view, and that the king needs to push harder.

Activists say they expect more improvements for women under King Abdullah, but they privately worry about what comes after the king, who the Saudi government says was born in 1924.

Women's issues often have strained Saudi society, and at times threatened even the al-Saud monarchy. King Faisal deployed troops in the 1960s to keep open one of the country's first schools for girls. The religious extremists who took over the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979 were motivated in part by anger over newly arriving satellite dishes that were streaming images of unveiled women into Saudi homes.

In 1990, when 47 women staged the last significant demonstration over driving in Saudi Arabia, angry crowds of religious conservatives mobbed government buildings in protest.

Fawziah al-Bakr and the other 46 women drove on a Tuesday, in 1990, she recalls. By Friday of that week, mosque speakers were calling the names of Bakr, her husband, and the others from minarets, and urging that they be killed.

This time, the response to a June 17 driving protest by a new generation of women has been more muted, she acknowledges -- a few traffic tickets from police, some sputtering in Internet chat rooms.

Then Bakr, now a university professor, stops herself. She slaps her hand to her forehead.

"Oh, my God," she moans. "I can't believe it's 20 years later and we're still talking about women driving."



A Five-Star Retirement Home for Dictators

Welcome to sunny Saudi Arabia, land of fallen tyrants.

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia—Where once there were gilded gates and sweeping views, now there are parking lots, hospital ceilings, and object lessons for the Arab Spring's new dictators-in-exile to contemplate.

For the routed presidents of Tunisia and Yemen, the latest additions to Saudi Arabia's guest list of leaders no longer wanted by unappreciative homelands, exile after their people pulled the plugs on their presidencies-for-life is appearing gloomy and isolated. Their Saudi hosts are forbearing but not especially thrilled, either.

From King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, on down, the ruling al-Sauds have followed Arab tradition by offering asylum even to some toppled leaders they haven't particularly liked, Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kabeer, undersecretary of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me in Riyadh this week.

In the case of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Saudis offered refuge to a leader who wasn't even an ally; who had failed, like Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, to support the U.S.- and Saudi-backed Gulf War after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Prince Turki said.

"This man asked for our protection. This custom is part of our life," Prince Turki, who is the Foreign Ministry's official in charge of multilateral relations, said. "You can't refuse if someone comes and asks for your assistance and protection."

Commentators and news reports have painted the conservative monarchy as the leader of a "counterrevolution" nearly as sweeping and intense as the winds of change blowing across the region. But by giving the dictators an escape hatch, the minister argued, Saudi Arabia also has often helped avoid further carnage. In the Saudis' estimation, Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia effectively ended a vicious rear-guard guerrilla campaign by his militia against Tunisia's demonstrators.

In Yemen, fighting in the capital Sanaa has eased since the Saudis helped medevac Saleh and a number of his wounded aides after a deadly June 3 blast in the private mosque of Yemen's embattled and stubborn leader.

This year's trickle of ex-dictators follows the path of other once-powerful asylum-seekers to Saudi Arabia in decades past, from the cannibalistic Idi Amin of Uganda to all-but-forgotten prime ministers, presidents, and heirs-to-the-imamate.

The influx of ousted leaders exposes Saudi Arabia, which is solemnly mindful of its role as the protector of Islam's two holiest cities, to some resentment and chaff.

"How long until King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz changes his title to 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and Unwanted Despots'?"one wag tweeted recently.

 "This tradition of this regime is to bring in the company of toppled dictators ... as if our country was a dumpster," Mohammed al-Qahtani, an outspoken rights activist, complained to me in a recent conversation in Riyadh.

Tunisia's Ben Ali, the first Arab leader this year to face a decision of fight or flight, arrived in Jeddah in January with an entourage that included his intensely unpopular wife and, according to rumor in Tunisia, 1.5 tons in gold.

Ben Ali had flown out of Tunis ahead of vast crowds filling the squares of his capital and other cities and towns to demand he relinquish power after more than two decades. France and Italy were among the countries that reportedly turned away Ben Ali's plane on Jan. 14, before Saudi Arabia let him land.

The Tunisian leader's home away from home, Jeddah, is a breezy and comparatively relaxed city on the Red Sea. Press reports have identified Ben Ali's Saudi abode as a long-out-of-use palace that King Faisal once used to house honored guests.

The cream- and lemon-colored palace remains both imposing and graceful, with grilled gates and high walls. But time and urban sprawl have overtaken the compound, which abuts Jeddah's diplomatic neighborhood. Drive-bys this week showed shards of splintered plywood jammed into one gate to block the view inside. While the palace faces the sea, a parking lot and busy main road stand between the Tunisian ex-president and the beach. A bustle of guards and the light-colored, American-made sedans favored by Saudi officials at the back gate suggested a dignitary was indeed in residence.

Ben Ali's old home, outside Tunis, was a gleaming, gilded palace draped in magenta bougainvillea and hugging a lush green shore of the Mediterranean. On the glittering morning when I drove past in January, with blue sky and sea gleaming past the palace walls, my Tunisian cab driver broke into a smile at the thought that his country's longtime leader was not there to enjoy the view. "No, Ben Ali, he is in Saudi Arabia," the cabbie said, laughing.

Ben Ali's mere presence in Jeddah now raises uncomfortable mental associations in Saudi Arabia -- reminding, for instance, that leaders sometimes rob and kill their people, and that people can overthrow their leaders.

A block from the palace, a Saudi man heading into a coffee shop apologized and excused himself when I asked him whether people around the neighborhood ever saw the fallen Tunisian leader. "Please, this is a political matter," he said. "These times..."

In fact, Ben Ali has been notable in Jeddah for not being notable, journalist and political commentator Jamal Khashoggi told me in Riyadh. There has been no gossip of Ben Ali accepting a dinner invitation, Ben Ali strolling in one of the city's malls, Khashoggi said. "He's never been spotted out."

Publicly, Ben Ali hasn't been grateful, either. This week, as a court in Tunisia quickly tried and convicted him and his wife in absentia of embezzlement and misuse of state funds, Ben Ali issued a statement saying he had never meant to leave Tunisia in the first place.

Ben Ali flew to Saudi Arabia only to escort his family to safety, but the crew of the plane disobeyed orders and left the kingdom without him, he said in the statement. The ousted president did not explain why he had not availed himself of any of the regular commercial flights between Riyadh and Tunis since then.

A nice villa in Jeddah presumably would have been on offer to Yemen's Saleh, too, had he signed an accord sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would have had the Yemeni leader yield power after three increasingly tumultuous decades.

Instead, Saleh recanted on signing -- three times. It took the June 3 explosion at his mosque to send the reportedly bleeding and burned Saleh, other wounded survivors of the bombing, and 35 members of the president's family to Saudi Arabia. Unknown members of Saleh's inner circle are widely suspected to have played a role in the explosion.

For Saleh, his determination to resist national and international calls for him to yield power mean that his exile -- either in part or in full -- is being spent in a bed in a Riyadh military hospital.

Saleh's condition currently is "not serious, but not comfortable," Prince Turki told me, a rare on-the-record comment on the Yemeni leader's condition, which has been the subject of many an anonymous rumor over the past few weeks. Saleh was weeks, not days, away from being able to travel if he chose, the prince said. Saleh was well enough to promise King Abdullah in a telephone call earlier this month that he was ready now to sign the GCC deal to give up office, the prince said, but Saleh, who is on painkillers, has not been ready to speak to executives of the GCC directly.

Whether or not Saleh signs what effectively is his resignation, Saudi officials say they feel they cannot block the Yemeni president from returning to Sanaa if he chooses.

Yet many fear the violence will pick up again if Saleh tries to return to power. In a letter made public Tuesday, June 21, Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of Yemen's most influential tribal confederation, appealed to the Saudi monarch to keep Saleh from coming home. "His return will lead to sedition and civil war," the sheikh warned.

Whatever the fate of the other Arab leaders now fighting or wheedling for political survival, there is at least one among them who likely could never land a one-way ticket to Saudi, Arab hospitality or not.

Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi allegedly plotted in 2003 to assassinate then-Crown Prince Abdullah, and otherwise made himself unwelcome to the Saudi royal family, Prince Turki pointed out when I asked him of the colonel's prospects for exile in the kingdom. At an Arab League summit in 2003, an angry Crown Prince Abdullah warned Qaddafi: "Your lies precede you and your grave is in front of you."

The probable Saudi response if Qaddafi asked for asylum? The diplomat only shook his head.