My Bangladeshi escort showed me around Riyadh. I was expecting it to be like cutting-edge Dubai, and I was surprised that the city was not more modern. The public spaces were not well cared for, and the roads were poorly maintained. Yet there was considerable wealth in private spaces: Over tall walls, I could peep at opulent mansions -- substantial buildings, two or three stories high. Saudi Arabia's GDP per capita stands at $24,000, but that figure gives no sense of the gulf between rich and poor.
We visited Dariya, an old neighborhood of Riyadh, in which the houses were made out of mud. The area was being restored, but the Saudi foreman allowed me to wander through the dusty streets. I took photos with my brand-new iPad mini, which I showed to the foreman expecting to impress him with the latest technology. The foreman took out his iPhone 5, grinning at me. All the latest Apple products were already available in Saudi Arabia.
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By chance, I was invited to ladies tea one afternoon and had a glimpse of life behind the walls. I discarded my abaya immediately on entering the house, and soon my eyes were bulging at the apparel of my fellow guests -- cleavage-revealing tops, Prada handbags, 3-inch heels. In an effort to have us all mingle, the host proposed "speed-dating." So I found myself moving from sofa to sofa, while grabbing mouthfuls of food and gulping tea.
One woman told me how her divorced husband had prevented her children from traveling outside the country. He had received a text from the airport authorities when she and her children had tried to fly out of Riyadh.
I asked her why women in Saudi Arabia put up with all these restrictions on their lives. "King Abdullah is a modernizer, but he is pushing against traditional forces which are very resistant to change," she explained. "Women were not so much scared of the mutawwa [religious police] but feared being ostracized by their families. The alternative to the monarchy is religious conservatives -- and that would make the position of women even worse."
She told me that Saudi society had not been so strict when she was growing up. Things changed, however, after Islamist dissidents seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 during the annual hajj (pilgrimage). The two-week battle left over 200 dead. In its aftermath, the monarchy chose to co-opt its Islamist opponents by enforcing stricter Islamic codes.
Despite the kingdom's great wealth, its education system was a disaster, and as a result, King Abdullah established a scholarship program, run by the Ministry of Higher Education, to send tens of thousands of Saudis overseas for undergraduate and postgraduate study. Now they were returning to Saudi. "This is bound to have an impact on the society one way or another," my tea companion said.
A beautiful young woman told me she was convinced that change was coming to Saudi Arabia. "The country cannot withstand the influence of the Arab Spring," she said. "However, we do not look at Egypt as the model." Saudis, skeptical of the chaos in Cairo and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, largely do not see any good coming from the overthrow of the kingdom's old ally, Hosni Mubarak.