HOFUF, Saudi Arabia — Fifty men and women were arrested on New Year's Eve in a coffee shop in the Saudi city of Jeddah, according to local news site Sabq. Their crime: They were together.
The arrest, unfortunately, is business as usual in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is an absolute monarchy that practices a strict interpretation of Islam where the mixing of unrelated men and women is forbidden. Members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, sometimes known as the religious police, patrol the streets of the country to ensure that gender segregation is observed. Women must wear a black cloak, called an abaya, when they are in public, and they are not allowed to drive. Selling and consumption of alcohol is illegal.
But there are places in Saudi Arabia where the conservative country's rules don't seem to apply. It's one of Saudi Arabia's many paradoxes: The government builds gated, liberal communities and promotes them as an attempt to change the culture of a conservative society. But at the same time, it punishes those who attempt to replicate these communities' values outside their walls. It's a prime example of the kingdom's scattershot, and usually ineffective, approach to reform.
Take, for example, the Aramco camp in the Eastern Province, where the state-owned oil giant provides housing for some of its 52,000 employees, who hail from 65 different countries. With its wide streets, lush green fields, and neatly trimmed trees, the Aramco camp looks more like American suburbia than a Saudi town. Men and women work side by side at the company's offices during the day and then later pass the evening by going to one of the parks, watching a baseball game, or playing golf. They can even watch the latest Hollywood films at the movie theater -- a pleasure denied to most Saudis, as theaters are banned in Saudi Arabia.
In early December, a foreign geophysicist who lives there invited dozens of friends to a party at his house. Men and women in their 20s started to arrive around 10 p.m. Dance music was blasting from the speakers, and alcohol, some locally made and some smuggled from abroad, was available on the kitchen counter for those who wanted a drink.
The party crowd was mixed: Americans, Irish, Arabs, and Saudis. Most of them work for Aramco, but there were some outsiders too. They talked, drank, smoked shisha, and danced the night away. It was the weekend, so no one was in a particular hurry to leave -- except those who wanted to catch other parties going on in the camp. The party continued throughout the night: The last guest left around 6 a.m.
Parties like this are not limited to the Aramco camp in Dhahran. If you know the right people, you can find such gatherings in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter and the campus of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), as well as in dozens of private residential compounds around the country.
These areas, or "liberal enclaves" as former Reuters correspondent in Saudi Arabia Andrew Hammond calls them in his new book, remain outside the control of the conservatives who dominate most aspects of social life in the country. Such areas exist in a legal gray zone -- there are no official edicts that exclude them from the kingdom's laws, but the religious police are reportedly ordered to avoid them.