The weather in Saudi Arabia is actually noticeably more hospitable than in Dubai. The dry dusty heat of landlocked Riyadh is more bearable than the humidity of the Gulf city of Dubai, although I know which I prefer.
Have been speaking to a mixture of officials, political analysts, and journalists so far, with the objective of further understanding internal and external developments in the kingdom. Relative progress is being made, but more interestingly perhaps have been the unexpected, almost off the wall, experiences. Visiting an office of a reform-orientated Islamist lawyer took me, thankfully, away from the mall scene of where I am based and allowed me to peruse an open street market where more ordinary folks come to shop. Highly observant in the mainstream religious tradition, and wearing his hatta in the loose manner of the like-minded, this man can amuse with the variety of the sources for his conspiracy based understanding of western politics. Although my facial reaction made him concede that the Da Vinci Code had some flaws, he was quite sure that this book captured the flavour of the secret powers of the Catholic Church. On his home turf, as it were, he is a more informative source, expressing the frustrations of those who want a more religiously orientated but apparently pluralistic model of authority, with legislative power held by an elected assembly and the powers of the executive clearly defined. Genial and generous to a fault, he asked if I would join him and one or two others of like mind for the maghreb (sunset) prayer when they would pay their respects to the family of a recently deceased senior government advisor. We set off in his beaten-up BMW, a measure of funding problems for this wing of political opinion, and arrived shortly to the melee that was the entrance to the departed patriarch’s home. My friend made his way to the mosque – I had assumed he meant that prayers would include me and all those paying their respects at the home – while I unhesitatingly stepped past the morass of police vehicles and limos to enter the grounds. I was the only westerner there and practically the only one not wearing regulation dish dasher and hatta. I was very soon approached and asked my business there, but in the most courteous manner. This was as much about curiosity about me and the desire to ensure that I could be properly received as an outsider, as an attempt to protect the relative solemnity of the occasion from a possibly inappropriate guest. An English speaker was produced, although I did not really want one, as my rudimentary Arabic really sufficed for the occasion. I proffered details about who I worked for etc, but emphasised that I too wanted to pay my respects and this was keenly facilitated as my “handler” introduced me to the two senior sons of the deceased and light-bulbs flashed and the crowds parted as I exchanged firm hand shakes with the two men and somewhat nervously made suitable obloquies about their father’s highly respected status and influence. There was genuine appreciation for the fact that this westerner wanted to join such an occasion. My handler, presumably satisfied that I was what I professed to be, was happy to leave me to the attention of the reformers who had invited me, and I was introduced to a more senior figure from the trend. The occasion proved to be an instructive flavour of how this “movement” seeks inside allies in its gentle but sometimes quite public effort to advance its case. That said, there had not been any insider encouragement of their recent initiative to propose changes, and arrests had followed. That though was a development that can seemingly be blamed on more conservative parts of the authority structure. It is also a measure of how those with radically different political views seek to find entry via official doors, not all of which are firmly closed, and how social and religious ties maintain a kind of unity, especially when the departed can garner relatively wide political sympathy.
The next day I had an appointment with a foreign national, but long resident, journalist. Urbane, he proceeded on a long discourse about what he saw as the conflict of societal opinion in the kingdom’s modern history. More usefully he then related this recent events and how openings were occurring for popular grievances to be expressed against targets that some of the leadership want to be reined in. I scribbled away, feeling this to be a meeting providing genuine insights from a good, ear to the ground, journalistic source. The seriousness of the exchange would inevitably be punctuated by bawabs bearing tea and phones ringing, but, more unexpectedly, climaxed in an alarm call from his desk clock to the tune of My Way. I swallowed hard and kept focused on the hints of top family intrigue.