Things not always what they seem as Saudi Arabia loosens up


One by one, many of the stringent social restrictions that have defined life in Saudi Arabia for decades are being abandoned. But things aren’t always what they seem.

At a time of unprecedented flux in the kingdom, a possibly deliberate lack of official clarity is sowing confusion among a population split between those for whom greater freedoms can’t come fast enough and more conservative citizens alarmed at the pace of change.

The latest example arrived on Tuesday, when the government said it would let some stores and restaurants operate around the clock. Even official denials failed to stem speculation that the measure means no more mandatory closures during prayer times.

Another change that may be in the cards is dropping the requirement for women to get permission from a male guardian to travel abroad. A report in the Okaz newspaper that officials were studying allowing Saudis over 18 to jet off without that consent didn’t specify whether the shift would apply to women — but many jumped to interpret it that way. Two people familiar with the matter said the policy may indeed change soon, confirming reports by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

Critics Held

The ambiguity is typical of the past few years in the kingdom as officials dance back and forth, perhaps in an attempt to gauge how much change is acceptable. The upheaval hasn’t been without controversy, but the backlash from conservative circles has been muted — out of deference to the kingdom’s rulers and also due to a climate of fear that grew as the government cracked down politically, detaining dozens of domestic critics.

“Ambiguous statements are not only a way to test public opinion but also serve as a means to normalize and introduce potential changes, especially relating to social issues that have been contested among Saudis for years,” said Eman Alhussein, a Saudi visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The sense of bewilderment has even spread to Saudi-owned media, usually reliable conduits for government decrees. Television channel Al-Arabiya initially interpreted Tuesday’s move to allow 24-hour trading for some firms as meaning they could now stay open during prayers, and it published a tweet to say so.

‘People Lost It’

Some Saudis rushed to celebrate, praising the economic effects of the decision and the personal freedom it gave them. Others lamented the religious and cultural consequences. Then an official rejected the idea in an interview with the same network. The tweet was deleted.

If the change did happen, it would amount to another substantial loosening of regulations since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began an overhaul of the economy to reduce its reliance on oil. In the past two years, the government has lifted a ban on women driving, allowed cinemas to open and sponsored gender-mixed concerts in a country where music was rarely heard in public. Now there’s talk about relaxing the male guardianship laws, or perhaps even allowing the sale of alcohol.

On Wednesday, businesses continued to shut for their regular 30-minute prayer breaks, but the doors of debate were wide open.

“A decision was issued for shops to open 24 hours a day and people lost it — ‘Oh it’s not permissible, woe on us, we’ll die,’”Saudi social media personality Saeed Al Shahrani said in a widely-viewed video. “Our religion is simple, don’t complicate things for us.”

Doors Unlocked

The prayer closures have long been part of the rhythm of life in Saudi Arabia, with cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls and pharmacies shutting down for half an hour or longer at designated prayer times. The practice contrasts with neighboring Muslim-majority states, many of which close businesses for a special Friday prayer but otherwise continue commerce as usual.

The only official clarification on Tuesday’s decision was given by Khalid Al-Degaither, a deputy at the ministry implementing the change. In an interview on Al-Arabiya, he said the cabinet decision “doesn’t touch any previous decision related to prayer times.”

Yet when he was pressed repeatedly by the presenter about whether a shop that opened during prayers would be violating the law, Al-Degaither didn’t commit either way.

Already over the past year, many shops and restaurants in Riyadh have relaxed their approach, quietly keeping their doors unlocked during prayers. On Wednesday, Okaz said that allowing stores to open during prayers was “imminent,” citing unidentified sources. In another article in the same edition, it left the question open.