Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
A town went nuts last Wednesday night…
…in a way that’s completely, utterly different from the rest of its Middle East and Africa neighbors in turmoil.
The occasion: The Return of the King.
The town: Riyadh, 6-million-strong capital of Saudi Arabia.
I went to a professional development seminar after work in the Al Mughrizat district just northwest of the city center and later a small group headed downtown to a Turkish restaurant we all like.
Little did we know that all hell had broken loose in Riyadh.
King Abdullah had returned in the afternoon and every youth who can drive was out—in a city where nearly 60% of the population is under 25.
Along with thousands of green flags.
The traffic was worthy of a sports minded American city, say Pittsburgh or Philadelphia after an NHL or Super Bowl championship.
Saudi youths hopped up on adrenaline, Barbican* and the prospect of a three-day weekend were not content to simply cruise fashionable Olaya St.; they had to hang out the windows of their cars, waving flags, draped in flags, jumping around on the roofs of the cars with flags and running up and down the highways…with flags. Youths near Prince Sultan University–a favorite strolling spot for locals–actually ran into the streets from sidewalks as though to storm the cars.
You could see by their faces that there was no malice intended–just boyish exuberance.
(However it was disturbing to see 5-year-old girls and boys sitting on car windows while the drivers cavorted in traffic in the traditional Saudi way.)
What should have been a 40-minute drive home took about three hours
The Arab News modestly reported: “As the evening wore on, hundreds of smiling Saudi youths took to the streets.”
Watching these maniacs smiling youths in the street of any other country and you’d have thought they were high. I’d say there was zero chance of that here and little prospect of violence or personal harm other than traffic accidents.
The Faisaliah tower (aka “The Mall with the Ball”) was lit up like a, um, December 25 tree with bands of green lights and a green topping (below left and right). The Ministry of Interior building (aka “Alien Space Ship”) had hundreds of yellow light streamers completely encircling it. Only the Kingdom Center Tower (aka “The Bottle Opener”) remained oddly unfestooned.
As part of the celebrations organized by the government (headed, of course, by the King) to mark the King’s return to the Kingdom, citizens found out Wednesday morning that all public sector employees, including humble, hardworking English teachers would get a special one-off holiday on Saturday (the Saudi equivalent of a Monday).
I’m advised by a trusted local source that it’s customary when one of the inner circle of high level al-Sauds returns from an extended leave to give the workers a day off, put up banners and run congratulatory front-page stories. Something of this magnitude is very unusual though.
Arab News: “In appreciation of the unprecedented joy and happiness shown toward his recovery, the king unveiled a series of measures for the benefit of citizens estimated to be worth SR135 billion ($36 billion).”
It’s hard to believe that the King simply welled up with joy Wednesday morning as he flew in from his rehabilitation locale in Morocco, saw the preparations being made (by his own people) and said “Gosh, I’ve got to show some appreciation for this. Prince Sultan, hand me the royal checkbook!”
No, there’s something else going on. Here it is.
This was not about welcoming back the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.
With the domino uprisings going on all around the Middle East and Africa, this Welcome Back love-fest was a carefully orchestrated effort on the part of the monarchy to bolster its base of support.
Now, you just can’t trick, manipulate or bribe 20-year old thobe-clad lads into staging a massive street party to demonstrate support for the government. But you can create conditions, starting with a three-day no-school weekend.
The King’s return had undoubtedly been planned for quite some time. He left his New York hospital in December, was recuperating in Morocco and was due back any time he chose. Back in early December no one knew the magnitude of Tunisia or that Egypt, much less Bahrain and Libya would follow. So as the Egyptian revolution unfolded in January the King and his counselors must have been worriedly conferring to see what they could do to batten down the hatches and head off any thoughts of dissent in the KSA.
As I have said elsewhere, the Kingdom may not be immune to an uprising but it’s in pretty good shape for four reasons, one of which is the likeability and good favor the king is held in.
The other reasons are: 1) vast oil wealth, 2) a powerful conservative religious establishment, and 3) a youthful population that is, as one commentator put it, “culturally resistant to change.”
Still there are those pesky Shiites making up as much as a third of the population in the oil region of the Eastern Province (10-15% overall) and a government would be crazy not to be examining all possibilities.
So the King announces a massive public welfare program, gives everyone in the public sector a day off and plasters the kingdom with pictures of the smiling monarch. No billboard, bridge overpass, government building or public square is left unadorned. (Actually, I did find exactly one billboard.)
Like I said, you can’t make teenagers, young adults and grown men drive around madly, letting their toddlers hang out their car windows, waving flags, chanting, dancing from their car rooftops like high school cheerleaders and carrying on like…well, high school cheerleaders. But you can create the conditions in which a street party could occur and let the people’s natural good feelings about their king and country emerge in a show of solidarity to the world.
For this was not about welcoming back the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. This was about nationalism and making a statement to the world that Saudi Arabia, the birthplace and foundation of Islam, is not like the surrounding regimes with their autocratic tyrants, corruption, decadent women tramping around sleeveless and oppressed citizenry.
“See how we love our king!” really means mahfee mooshkela — no problem here.