At first glance, this city in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula looks like any American metropolis. Starbucks and KFC blend with broad boulevards lined by glassy office buildings. In fluorescent-lit store windows, curvy mannequins model low-cut tops and skintight jeans.
But open the door of a Hardee's, say, and you're quickly reminded that you are still in this conservative kingdom's most conservative city. In public restaurants, women eat in segregated dining rooms. They enter through separate doors – though a male relative must accompany them there. This is the heartland of Sunni Islam, after all, where women are rarely seen in public. When they do appear, they're cloaked head-to-toe in black.
The symbols of Islamic fundamentalism and American modernity bump up against each other frequently in Riyadh, occasionally causing sparks as the kingdom slowly succumbs to pressure to reform from inside and out.
Take two young Saudis whom I met on a recent trip through Riyadh.
Abdullah Mohammed al-Mutawa sports a thobe (traditional white robe), a red-checked head scarf, and sandals. He's a 30-something assistant professor at Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University and an imam at his mosque.
Ahmed al-Omran, a pharmacy student who writes one of the kingdom's most popular English-language blogs called Saudi Jeans (http:// saudijeans.blogspot.com), is easy to spot, sitting in a Lebanese kebab restaurant in the city's downtown Olaya district. Purple T-shirts aren't that common. He's definitely not the thobe type, he says, a fact underscored by his late-model jeans and Pumas.
But those don't fly at King Saud University in Riyadh, where he goes to school. In fact, when he showed up for class in his jeans and T-shirt, he was told by school administrators to wear scrubs (his school uniform) or don a thobe. "It's such a stupid thing. What kind of effect would my clothes have? There is such hate here for individualism," he says.
That's the kind of issue Mr. Omran writes about, but he also crosses into the political, sometimes drawing the attention of Saudi censors. His site was blocked in August soon after he criticized the government for censoring another Saudi blog. On his site he asked who would be next. He was.
"We are afraid that a little bit of freedom will make our society explode, that it'll make the society collapse," he says. "It's not just that Saudi Arabia is conservative. People view it as the model Islamic state" that sets an example for others.
Dr. Mutawa, by contrast, is my guide through the institutions that compel this kingdom's very public austerity: the mosques, madrassahs, the mutawaeen (the religious police). As we crisscross Riyadh, talk swirls around the elements of Saudi education (it's teaching the Koran, not intolerance) and the origins of its traditional life, as well as the Saudi view of the Iraq war – which is largely viewed here as the West's war on Islam.
Saudi Arabia has been unfairly tarred as a country of extremists because of the actions of a few, Mutawa charges, even though 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. "We consider Osama bin Laden a bad person, [but] we consider Bush a bad person, too.... Bush is a friend of the government, not of the people."
As the sun sinks behind the beige clusters of low-rise buildings, prayer criers call out across the city in advance of maghreb, the fourth prayer of the day. At the city's largest mosque, Al Rajhi, the parking lot fills with SUVs and new sedans.
Prior to praying, Mutawa washes and then walks barefoot across the plush oriental carpet of the interior, which could easily fit a few thousand faithful. Chandeliers hang over the men – six rows deep of young and old. I'm told women pray on the second floor, but there's no sign of them.
After prayers, Mutawa introduces me to Bandar al-Mutery, who is partly responsible for ensuring public piety. He manages the local office of the Committee for the Protection of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice, or the mutawaeen. In this city alone, the mutawaeen has about 40 offices and some 400 officers, he says.
"The main target of this organization is for the country to live in safety.... We are concerned about religious safety," he tells me, dispelling the notion that they are simply the sharia thugs.
But they are also sidewalk enforcers, ensuring that women are "properly" covered, merchants close their stores during prayers, that there's no fraternizing between young Saudi men and women, and no entertainment deemed un-Islamic.
Indeed, the lack of any public entertainment gives credence to what one journalist here told me: In Saudi Arabia, people either pray or shop.
At a nearby mall, where Omran and I walk after dinner, two religious police officers stand out among families: They are the only two Saudi men walking together. As mall security aims to keep single Saudis from getting in, I have to convince them that Omran is my interpreter.
Inside, women and young girls, gliding like black ghosts, shop for what appears to be anything but mutawaeen-sanctioned attire. But I don't inquire why. The religious police are watching.