From public execution sites to glittering shopping malls, from desert wadis to soaring five-star hotels, the modern Middle East is a study in contrasts. This winter, I shed my hat as a political advisor and went as a tourist -- to get a bit of sun before heading back to Yale University to teach a course on Middle East politics, but also to see how the Arab Spring has touched the monarchies of the region. I had toured some of the republics -- Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia -- in 2011, and I found them in various stages of revolt against their rulers. This time, I headed to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Jordan to hear what their people thought of their leaders and to try to get a sense of whether the kings and sultans of the Arab world still feel safe on their thrones. This is my journey.
"Here is Chop Chop Square," my Bangladeshi escort informed me, pointing to a square that was so named because it was the site of previous executions. We were exiting the museum at Masmak fort, which Ibn Saud had captured in 1902, thereby reasserting his family's control over their ancestral home of Riyadh. He went on in 1922 to conquer the Nejd, the center of the Arabian Peninsula, and in 1925 to take the Hejaz, the western coast that includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina -- establishing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 out of these dominions.
Ibn Saud fathered 45 sons (as well as numerous daughters), and following his death in 1953 up until today, the kings of Saudi Arabia have all been sons of Ibn Saud.
I had never previously visited the kingdom -- nor had I desired to, frankly. My earliest image of the country had been formed by watching Death of a Princess, a 1980 docudrama about a Saudi princess who was executed in the square for adultery. But friends of mine had recently moved to Saudi Arabia. And how can one try to understand the Middle East's past -- or its potential futures -- without visiting the country where Islam began?
I checked the buttons on my abaya to ensure I was fully covered before striding onward into the square. I had purchased the simple black robe a month earlier in Brooklyn. The shop owner had proudly shown me the latest fashions, embroidered with glitz and bling. I insisted that I was only looking for a functional garment.
"I am going to Saudi," I told him. "I just need a black cloak to throw over my clothes." Disappointed, he took me to the backroom to view the cheap abayas. I tried one on. "It looks beautiful on you," the shop owner insisted. "We can take it in at the sides to show your figure more."
I told him it would not be necessary. "It's a burqa, for goodness sake. I am not going to Saudi in search of a husband!" An old Arab woman, seated in the corner of the store and dressed in full Muslim garb, laughed out loud.
As a woman, I was not permitted to venture out on my own in Saudi Arabia. I was supposed to always be accompanied by a husband or male relative. However, for reasons that I did not want to fathom, Asian men are allowed to escort foreign women. The country is awash with Asian workers, brought in to do the jobs that Saudis regard as beneath them. The government, faced with a demographic youth bulge and growing unemployment, had recently embarked on a policy of Saudization, using tax incentives to encourage firms to employ Saudis and cut down on the numbers of foreign workers.