Wave of Saudi youths challenge kingdom's conservative sway

Saudi Arabia's rulers are allowing young people to push social boundaries – a little.

Young men in a cafe here laughed when asked if, in an attempt to get dates, they still discreetly toss phone numbers at girls as they pass their cars or tables.

"That's so five years ago," says one. "We just get together in the family sections of cafes," referring to the area of a restaurant that is walled off from where single male patrons dine.

In Saudi Arabia, the young are findings more ways around the conservative regulation of public life. From dating to listening to music, they are testing the strict hold of religion on a kingdom ruled by the Koran and the same family for decades. Indeed, with more than 70 percent of its citizens under 30, the oil-rich country is being forced to find more room for freedoms than outsiders typically expect from this monarchy. While the young people aren't likely to lead a revolution on the scale that America saw in the 1960s, the urge for greater independence is coming under the rule of reform-minded King Abdullah, who many say is giving some license for Saudis seeking change.

"Look, of course this is still a very, very conservative place, and half of the time all I think about is leaving," says Ibrahim, a 23-year-old hipster in baggy jeans, a goatee, and a T-shirt. "But it's a lot better than a few years ago. Just look around."

To be sure, there are still controls on free speech and political activity. Conservative clerics still stand in the way of women driving, public movie theaters, and concerts. Shops must close during the five daily prayer times, restaurants must have gender-segregated seating, and adultery and homosexuality are still technically punishable by death.

A vast array of book are still banned here, but are available nonetheless. This year's Riyadh book fair had lots of banned titles, including "The Others" by Sada al-Haize (probably a pseudonym), which took a look at the daily life of lesbians here.

And while the Koran may still be Saudi Arabia's constitution, Rotana, the company that promotes most of the Arab world's pop stars and their sexy videos, is based in Riyadh. The company, owned by the Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, is also branching out into film.

Ayman Halawani, the head of the company's film-production unit, says they have permission to start making the first feature film in Saudi Arabia this fall, and that he's hopeful the kingdom's ban on public cinemas will be lifted next year.

He says making movies here will be much more expensive than in Cairo or Beirut, the region's film capitals, but that in the long run it will be worth it. He thinks the king supports their efforts. "How do you tackle the ideology of people?" he asks. "If you're direct about it, they'll reject you. If you're subtle about it, through movies, you can help things change."

Things are even loosening up in Riyadh, the desert capital in the center of Nejd, the province that gave rise to both the ruling Saud family and the Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab, who gave the kingdom an interpretation of Islamic law that is among the strictest and most limiting in the world.

On the streets there, where just a few years ago the religious police would have harassed a woman who didn't cover her face, some women go about with their hair uncovered – though a scarf is always handy. The religious police, or mutawaeen, have been much less assertive since Abdullah ascended to the throne two years ago.

The 84-year-old monarch has said he wants to give women more rights and allow more room for personal expression. For the moment, he has reined in the more reactionary of the country's clerics.

"What are they afraid of: If I'm allowed to drive the country will collapse?" asks Sera Kattoua, a 23-year-old photographer whose lip ring and T-shirt places her well outside the mainstream. "I want this country to really open up, but it's moving very, very slowly."

Of course, there are still few outlets for expression. Abdul and Saleh are part of Jeddah's graffiti subculture, and spend a lot of their free time "tagging" – spraying their nicknames on city walls. "We're looking for ways to express ourselves, there aren't a lot of outlets here," says Abdul. "There are a lot of people who want to show what they can do."

The rash of graffiti across the city in the past few years prompted Nasi bin Salim al-Moteb, president of the municipal council in the Jeddah neighborhood Briman, to erect some walls for the use of spray-can-toting young men. "We have a problem here: Everything is set aside for family activities, and the kids need a place to enjoy and have fun," he says. "This is a start."

While Abdul, an enthusiastic amateur photographer, recently helped set up an art show for local youth at a cafe, the gathering was technically illegal because they didn't have permission.

Fans of Wasted Land, a "death metal" band from Jeddah, are resigned to downloading the group's music from the Internet or traveling outside the kingdom if they want to hear the band. Their plans for a concert at a private compound earlier this year was shut down after authorities caught wind of it. "We got a call and they said, please, you've got to stop this because it will create problems for us and for you," recalls guitarist Ahmed Khojah.

Singer Emad Mujallid says: "It's frustrating. We want to play for people here. Maybe someday."

Young women are also finding a way to live out a minor teen rebellion. The Sultanah abaya shop in downtown Riyadh caters to young Saudi women with elaborate bead work on the shapeless black robes that most wear when outside.

For about $300, shoppers can take home designs that range from the cute (Hello Kitty in shimmering silver) to the mildly rebellious (the Rolling Stone's logo).

Sultanah seems a perfect example of the emerging Saudi Arabia – until the shop assistant says that no pictures are allowed. His fear, though, is not of attracting attention from religious authorities. "These are all original designs!" he protests.

If mutawaeen are lurking around the nearby Kingdom Mall, they aren't bothering the young women who toss their head scarves to their shoulders as they come in and out of the store. One, on her way out, closes a rob over cut-off jeans and sneakers; another on her way in opens a robe to reveal more stylish jeans and high heels.

But her abaya itself is what would probably raise the ire of the protectors of public morality, if only they were hip enough: On its back is a huge, green marijuana leaf.

Tomorrow: In the absence of public venues, male and female Saudis have taken to gathering in homes for weekly salons to express ideas. But now the government is threatening to force such groups to register with authorities.

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