Party in the KSA

Behind high walls, the kingdom's restrictive Islamic laws don't apply.

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.

These enclaves have been the target of ire for those who see them as a threat to traditional Saudi values. Conservatives were outraged when news spread about an "Arabian Night"-themed party that took place in one of Aramco's compounds last April, featuring music and a belly dancer. Hessa al-Malki, writing on the conservative site Lojainiat, wrote that it is unacceptable for Aramco to spend money on organizing musical events and hosting liberal figures. "We say it loud and clear: enough. Enough, Aramco!" she wrote.

Aramco has proved vulnerable to conservative pressure. It canceled a scheduled concert for renowned Iraqi musician Naseer Shamma later in 2012. The company said it could not get Shamma an entry visa to the country, but local news sites said the cancellation came after conservatives lobbied the local governor to ban the concert.

Not every company, however, can build and run its own camp like Aramco. That's why some investors built residential compounds in the major cities to house expats who have no desire to deal with the social restrictions that make up daily Saudi life. Kingdom City, owned by tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, is one of the most luxurious compounds in the capital, Riyadh. Its residences, its website boasts, combine "the beauty of Najdi architecture … with all the comforts of a western lifestyle." With their open-air restaurants, shops, cafes, tennis courts, and swimming pools, compounds allow expats to live a nominally Western lifestyle -- at least within their immediate neighborhood.

Expats may be comfortable in these compounds, but it can also isolate them from the local community. It is not unusual to find foreigners who come to work in Saudi Arabia and leave the country without forging any friendships with Saudis. But that may suit conservatives who fear Westernizing influences just fine. Hard-line clerics such as Sheikh Safar al-Hawali say that non-Muslims should not even be allowed in Saudi Arabia at all. "In principle, they should be kicked out of this country," he writes on his website, and dealing with them should be minimized until they accept Islam.

Most conservatives, however, rarely speak publicly against such compounds because it can be seen as a direct challenge to the government that has sanctioned them, a challenge the conservatives know they can't win. Instead, they are willing to turn a blind eye to what happens in these compounds in return for full control over the larger society.

Some enclaves are not just tolerated by Saudi Arabia -- they are constructed on the express orders of the Saudi government. The centerpiece of such enclaves is KAUST, which King Abdullah opened to much fanfare in September 2009. Thanks to its $10 billion endowment, its modern facilities, and partnerships with prestigious universities like Stanford, it has attracted a world-class faculty and student body. But it is more than a school; it is supposed to be a vehicle for change. As the first and only co-educational learning institution in the country, KAUST promised to promote academic freedom and critical thinking to an environment severely lacking of them.

Aramco was entrusted by the king to build and run KAUST, and some people describe it as an Aramco outpost on the west coast. Its vast campus, located near the small fishing village of Thuwal, 50 miles north of Jeddah, boasts its own movie theater. Women who live there are also allowed to drive, and they don't have to cover up.

This is still Saudi Arabia -- but it is different from the Saudi Arabia most of us experience. Conservatives were unhappy about KAUST, but few of them dared to speak against the university because it was the king's personal project. One of those who did, a cleric named Saad al-Shethri, was quickly dismissed from his post.

Around the same time, some KAUST students posted photos and videos on Facebook showing themselves clapping and dancing, sparking another backlash from the conservatives. A leaked State Department cable from December 2009 noted that mixed-gender socializing had continued "without notable problems" since the incident, but students have become more careful about sharing photos from life on campus. What happens in KAUST stays in KAUST.

It's such behavior that has led some Saudis to believe that the kingdom's gated communities represent an escape from reality rather than the first building blocks of a more liberal kingdom. One Saudi blogger wrote a letter to the Saudi government after visiting KAUST, opining on the top-down nature of the project and the secrecy of what occurs on campus. "You managed to force a new open campus, with a different take on what a Saudi culture should be," he wrote. "Please, tell me that you're doing this just to test how it works, and then later implement it all around the kingdom."

One can hope, but it's more realistic to see the existence of such enclaves as a sign of the government's failure to liberalize its rules in the face of resistance by religious conservatives. The Saudi government is appeasing conservatives instead of confronting them, as it has always done. The walls around these gated communities are not only meant to keep Saudis out, but disruptive cultural forces in.



Syrian Purgatory

As winter clutches northern Syria, thousands displaced by the civil war take cold comfort in a temporary tent city.

ATMEH, Syria — Um Ibrahim shivered in the rain outside her tent. It was less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the winter wind cut to the bone. When I asked why she didn't have a blanket like everyone else at the Atmeh refugee camp, she shrugged and looked down. "I sold it to buy bread for my children."

While the world is abuzz with news that 60,000 Syrians have died so far in the 22-month-old civil war, it is the roughly 3 million refugees and internally displaced persons who are suffering daily. At camps such as Atmeh, located less than 1,000 feet from the border with Turkey, they are struggling to survive without heat, electricity, or adequate sanitation. The meager rations provided by a smattering of small NGOs leave them scrounging in order to keep their hunger at bay.

The camp's managers, employed by the Syrian-American Maram Foundation, based in Houston, Texas, do what little they can. But understaffed and underfunded, the most they can offer on many occasions are encouraging words and hope that the next day's aid shipment will alleviate the suffering of the camp's 13,000 residents -- mostly from Syria's northern Idlib province. For Um Ibrahim, such supplies cannot come quick enough. Unable to feed her nine children on the daily bread ration, she sold her camp-issued blanket to pay for another bag of loaves. Now she spends her nights huddled with her children for warmth.

Camp residents not only complain of paltry provisions, but also erratic service. "We get two meals a day," said 70-year-old Said Ahmad, a retired farmer from the village of Salut Zuhar. "But there are no specific times. Sometimes breakfast comes at 2 p.m. and dinner much later." When the food does arrive, it looks more like a selection of bite-size hors d'oeuvres than a full-course meal. The first offering is often limited to one piece of bread, small packets of butter, and jelly or chocolate spread, topped off with a few olives. The small rations have forced residents to improvise. Those lucky enough to have extra bread leave the desiccated crumbs out to soak. When the rain rehydrates them, they eat the edible portions. "We are learning new uses for food every day," notes Ziyyad Najib, a 35-year-old taxi driver from Idlib.

Water is slightly more plentiful, but like most supplies at Atmeh, it also runs out too soon. The four to five 1-liter bottles that each of the roughly 1,300 tents receives every day are always empty before the sun sets. Residents then refill them at water trucks, the contents of which are often of substandard quality. "It's not clean water," complained Anwar Sharqi, a 51-year-old mechanic from Killi. "It comes from wells that villagers use only for washing, not drinking."

Most shortages are due to how supplies are rationed. Each family is only allotted six bags of food. But families vary in size, forcing members of some families to split the already-limited provisions among them. And life in a shared tent is just as difficult as sharing food. The 180-square-foot canvass dwellings sag under the weight of the elements and occasionally collapse. As the rain seeps under the flaps, the cold earth softens into clay, leaving behind a pit of mud.

In late December, when I visited Atmeh, a bulldozer was carving up the earth behind the camp's communal bivouac shelter, which doubles as a mosque. Workers placed black pipes in the excavated areas and connected them to a nearby concrete structure, which had been built to house bathrooms. The temporary camp was taking on a permanence few want, but everyone desperately needs.

But provisions are slow in coming. Unlike the dozen other camps spread out across Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, Atmeh does not receive funding from international organizations like the U.N. World Food Program or the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Such organizations are barred by international law from operating in countries without the consent of the government. "It is a completely fluid situation," said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards. "We at the moment do not have an operational presence in places like Atmeh.… That would be for OCHA to negotiate with Syria," he said, referring to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

But with Damascus reluctant to allow international organizations to operate in rebel-held territories, it is left to tiny NGOs like the Maram Foundation to foot the $3,000 to $4,000 daily bill for meals, gas, and water in Atmeh. Other small NGOs bear some of the operating costs. The Turkish Red Crescent, for example, supplied the tents and provides breakfast. The International Medical Corps pays the camp's three to four doctors (depending on the day), and the International Rescue Committee provided roughly 1,300 winterization kits, one for each tent.

Every day, however, roughly 100 new Syrians arrive in Atmeh, stretching the camp's resources even thinner. "The shelling [forced] us from our village," explained 38-year-old Sabah Jauda, who fled her home in Kafar Taal. "We tried to outlast it as long as we could, but then the regime soldiers set fire to my house. My son fights with the Free [Syrian] Army, so that was [President Bashar] al-Assad's revenge on me."

As the Syrian government has intensified its bloody campaign in recent months, the flow of refugees into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey has steadily increased. Today, more than 508,000 Syrians have fled the country, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Another 2.5 million, like the residents of Atmeh, are internally displaced, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Once they arrive in Atmeh, however, refugees have trouble putting the horrors of war behind them. The regime has targeted Free Syria Army positions near the camp, and the loud explosions caused by heavy weaponry frequently wake residents. But at Atmeh's makeshift clinic, composed of two adjoining trailers, it's not bombs that are killing refugees -- it is lack of medicine and proper sanitation. The camp's medical staff treats roughly 300 people per day for diseases ranging from tonsillitis to gastrointestinal ailments. Every day, an average of three toddlers contract bronchitis, but there is little the medical staff can do. "We don't have enough [breathing] masks for everyone," explains Hassan al-Khawam, a 26-year-old general practitioner. "So we sterilize the masks and reuse them."

The poor sanitary conditions are taking their toll. Children are contracting hepatitis A from contaminated food, and cholera has afflicted some of the older residents. Their suffering is prolonged by a lack of medication. "We just don't have what we need here," explained Khawam as he rubbed the stomach of a dazed child.

At the end of the day, however, the responsibility for keeping Atmeh running falls to Yakzan Shishakly, the head of Maram. During the day, the 34-year-old, who sports scraggly hair and an unkempt beard, has no time to speak. His cell phone constantly hums with requests, problems, and queries from headquarters, other aid organizations, and others trying to help. At night, he makes the trek back to Turkey to procure new supplies.

From purchasing fuel for the generators to procuring potatoes for the residents, Shishakly and his small staff are getting a crash course in refugee camp management. But if his time as an owner of an air-conditioning company in Houston did not prepare him to manage Atmeh, his pedigree certainly did. Shishakly's grandfather Adib was president of Syria from 1953 to 1954 -- and his family name earns him instant respect throughout Syria.

In Atmeh, however, it's Shishakly's hard work that has won the refugees' admiration. "Yakzan is there for us, to help with everything," said Jauda, gratefully. Shishakly grinned bashfully, but his smile quickly dissipated when his cell phone rang with the latest crisis. "Problems with aid delivery," Shishakly relayed with a sigh of exhaustion. But he quickly found a second wind. "Tomorrow we'll try to resolve it," he said before trudging back across the border.