Saudi Arabia Then- 1980s
Most people are surprised when I tell them that I enjoyed my upbringing in Saudi Arabia. I was a few months old when my family left Pakistan for Saudi Arabia and so I literally grew up in the coastal city of Jeddah. Somehow, we became used to the strict way of living, but at the same time, I had a brilliant time as well.
- No cinemas/ TV shows and movies were censored
- We had to smuggle in Archie comics, pop music posters as every luggage was checked at the airport
- Women couldn’t drive
- Shops closed during prayer times
- Restaurants had no music
- Concerts/ Live Music events not allowed
- Men and Women not allowed to be in a mixed gathering- segregagtion at restaurants
- Women not allowed to work in public places
- Religious police were everywhere
Since I grew up in Jeddah in the 80s and 90s, I have an affinity for all things Saudi. I love keeping a check on what’s going in the country. At times, I mistakenly tell people I consider Jeddah my hometown. That’s how much Saudi has been infused into my system, so much so, I still recollect fond memories of growing up in Jeddah.
Saudi Arabia Now- 2019
On my recent trip to Jeddah in 2019, I was flabbergasted to see how much it has changed.
- Cinemas allowed/ TV shows and movies not censored anymore
- Luggage is scanned and so people get away with lots of stuff now easily
- Women can drive
- Shops don’t close during prayer times
- Restaurants had music, some even have live music
- Concerts/ Live music events are allowed
- Men and Women allowed to be in a mixed gathering- segregation finished
- Women are working everywhere- hotels, malls, grocery stores, driving Ubers, etc
- Religious police not to be seen anywhere
Who is responsible for this change?
It’s none other than MBS- Mohammad bin Salman!
He has been credited with changing the dynamics of Saudi Arabia, where once it was a closed and secretive country, it is now an open country to visitors from the world over. I need not go into details but American stars have performed concerts, WWF wrestling matches have taken place, live EDM concerts have taken place, halal nightclubs had been operational, women have been allowed into the stadiums to watch football, women can be seen working at all major institutions (we noticed there were 80% women working at the hotel we stayed).
This book is written by Ben Hubbard, who is a journalist with over a dozen years working in the Middle East, giving him enough experience and expertise to understand the dynamics of the various Middle Eastern countries. Hubbard does say at the beginning that this book is merely his attempt to capture the life of MBS, his upbringing, his rise to power, and his position today as a game-changer for Saudi Arabia. MBS himself declined to be interviewed for the book, so Hubbard based his book on a large number of articles, hundreds of interviews, social media posts, and his numerous trips to Saudi Arabia.
A. There isn’t much known about MBS childhood experiences so we don’t really get enough information on that. However, we do get enough to know about his father, the politics of Saudi Arabia, the shuffling of ministers and now MBS was able to enter the royal monarchy and work his way up. Unlike his elder brothers who were all educated abroad in the West, MBS studied at the local university in Saudi Arabia. He was the quiet one, the withdrawn on, and you know how they say the quiet ones are the ones who make the biggest noise!
In one anecdote, MBS mother had hired an English professor to help the children learn English. The professor recalled that despite MBS being the quiet one, he was also very assertive, cheeky, and would get his way at the end. The markings of a politician.
B. Along with MBS personal life story, the author also details the upheavals and changes Saudi Arabia would go through. One of the major issues he talks about is the issue of women driving, and how the government would oppose the movement, even putting the female protestors in jail.
C. International players also played a part in bringing about the change in Saudi Arabia, most prominently the American President Trump. MBS close connections with the White House gave him all the power to shake things up in Saudi Arabia.
He also talks about the close connections between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and how the key players attempted to change things around.
D. Another highlight of the book covers the moment when MBS arrested up the wealthy people in Saudi Arabia and put them up in the luxurious Rotz Carlton, in an effort to show the world that corruption is being rooted out.
E. Finally, the author talks about the infamous murder of Jamal Khashoggi, implying MBS was behind the murder.
Should I read it?
I remember on my trip to Jeddah in 2019, I asked the local Saudi taxi driver what he thinks of MBS, and he outright blurted out saying he doesn’t like MBS: “Everything is too open now. This is not Saudi culture and all the jobs for women. No jobs for young Saudi men.” On the flip side, when I talked to the woman at the hotel check-in desk what she thought of MBS, she smiled and said, “We love MBS! He has made life so much easier for us. We have jobs, we have freedom, we love him.”
One has to keep in mind that book is not a biography, so once you get past that, I feel this book does make for an interesting read. If you are interested in understanding Saudi Arabia in-depth, wanting to know more about MBS, how the changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia, then this book is for you. What you will not find is a detailed history of the Kingdom (for that you should read Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey).
Is MBS a dictator? Is he playing into the hands of the Western powers? Is he genuinely making an effort for the local Saudis (some, especially women, are happy with him, others (mostly men) aren’t happy with him)? MBS is a divisive figure in Saudi Arabia but nonetheless a very secretive, intriguing, and mysterious person at the same time. The book may not answer the above questions but it will certainly give you a rare insight into the mind of the powerful mind of MBS.