Saudi Arabia needs public relations, but not everything can withstand the light of day

Twelve weeks in Riyadh
Forfatter: Susanne Koelbl
Forlag: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt (Tyskland)
OPENNESS / A country in crisis should become more open, but if the subjects resist, they are thrown into prison and risk torture.


The fact that women are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia seems a clear step forward. But where should they go, to what or to whom? The majority do not yet move outside the home without a male "protector". They still walk around like black ghosts, except in pure women's parties, where they adorn themselves with elaborate and sparkly creations. Here, only selfies are taken, because no one is allowed to photograph another woman – the picture could end up in the wrong hands (a man's).

Journalist and author Susanne Koelbl has been reporting regularly from Saudi Arabia since 2011, and in 2018 she spent twelve weeks in Riyadh for Der Spiegel news magazine. She rented an apartment there – a feat in itself for a lonely woman, she moved around astonishingly freely and came close to people with unique life stories. As electrician Khalid al-Hubaischi and his wife, Alma. Khalid trained men who made bombs for Osama bin Laden. He first thought that Osama was a hero who would do good for his people. Three months after the 11 attack. In September, Khalid was arrested by Pakistani intelligence service. He spent five years in a cage at Guantáhome

The most spectacular thing about Khalid's story is that his wife Alma does not know it. She didn't know that her husband had
jailed as a terrorist.

The most spectacular thing about Khalid's story is that Alma does not know it. She did not know that her husband had been imprisoned as a terrorist. She did not know who Osama bin Laden was. When Koelbl disbelieves asking how this is possible, the wife cries out of the room crying. Transparency in Saudi Arabia is an unmatched bomb.


Koelbl describes changes in turbot tempo. Through oil exports, the country in a few decades went from being an insignificant desert community to becoming a state of global influence. With the powerful oil company Aramco in the back, the kingdom has acquired loyalty and exported its extreme interpretation of Islam to the rest of the world. 1968, King Faisal said in a speech in Mecca: "We want an Islamic rebirth without nationalism, without ethnicity or political parties, but with Islam and jihad, to defend our religion."

However, the ever weaker petrodollar cannot prevent the kingdom from being in the deepest crisis since the state's founding 86 years ago. The 33 year old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has vowed to drive back radical religious forces and open the country. But he does so dictatorially: If the subjects oppose, they are thrown into prison and must count on harsh penalties, including the death penalty.

Many brave women who fight for repeal of the Customs Act, which gives men the power to decide on women's living conditions, are in prison under torture, including on the grounds that they have betrayed their country (talked to reporters). Family and friends, even diplomats, are puzzled. If they do, no one knows about the women's fate. Publicize the case, the women run the risk of being punished again, and the helpers even come under the spotlight of the authorities.

Need PR

Susanne Koelbl

Along the way in Koelbl's story, it becomes understandable how she manages to meet so many open doors, including the royal house. That she gets into women's circles, she can thank her gender for. That she avoids many of the social norms can be written in the foreigner's account. The rest she can thank her profession for. Saudi Arabia needs PR that gives them financial leeway and space in the international good company, especially after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a friend and colleague of Koelbl.

She summarizes: “The blood-dribbling affair surrounding his death I experience quite differently in Saudi Arabia than if I had been in Germany; the grotesque murder, the state that for weeks denied any responsibility. ”Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was an influential connoisseur of the ruling elite. When he went into exile in the United States and publicly criticized the Crown Prince's policy, the Riyadh leadership regarded this as treason. "The message from this murder is clear. It is aimed at all who threaten to harm the king and his powerful son, namely that no one escapes our power. Wherever you are in the world, we take you, ”Koelbl explains.


Koelbl's writing style follows the recipe "it is the reader who should be upbeat, not the author". And she does her best to fit in the picture – dressing in the foot Abaj, keeps a lot to themselves and shows everyone the expected respect. In the chapter "How the percentages are bottled" she even offers a party – a drinking party. Alcohol is strictly prohibited in holy Saudi Arabia, yet wine and snaps flow in large streams. For life in this well-controlled society can become rather monotonous, and then it does well with some life in the hidden.

Tonight's Cavalry is a supermarket manager, and he assures: "Same thing you need, Susanne, whether it's a potash or a bottle of champagne – I can help you." , and where the men have replaced the jeans with jeans and replaced the tea with whiskey.

It's time for a party behind closed doors, where the women swing by
fluttering hair, and where the men have replaced the robe
jeans and replaced the teen with whiskey.

This hidden life is only the fewest, but one of those who has access to it is the beautiful bank official Dschamila (29) from arch-conservative Buraida. She is financially independent and looking for a husband she can talk to, but with her "high standards" Dschamila goes for being a complicated woman. Dschamila, and many like her, is a product of religious fanaticism, where the change will come too late for the circumstances of life to change.

Koelbl calls the changes Saudi Arabia undergoes, not just dramatic, but historic: the rest of the world."

And from summer 2019, the kingdom opened the doors to tourists from fifty countries.

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