It’s the same city, and the same country, but briefly, I’ve entered a different world. The décor may be old Arabia – long low benches lined with brightly coloured cushions, carpets hanging on the wall – but the vibe is new Saudi. A young man in jeans and shirt sleeves holds sway over an array of coffee and tea options that makes Starbucks look like a jar of Nescafé. Below the giant TV screen next to the counter sit Nintendo Wii controls. The magazine racks are bursting with back issues of Wired, New Scientist and Oasis, a new English-language magazine about contemporary Saudi culture. Pinned to the wall is a computer-printout headed 80 Ways To Know You’re A Caffeine Addict. Item 56: You go to AA meetings for the free coffee.
Women sit with men. There is no screened-off family area, to which we have been consigned for every other meal or drink out. Most startlingly, the women here remove their veils (though the hijab remains in place). I witness something I have not seen anywhere else: a young man and woman sit across a table from each other, smiling, staring into each others’ eyes.
For two weeks, I feel, I have been looking for this. Partly, the mythical Arabic coffee house that I have only read about, the social hub where you catch the pulse of what is now and next. For two weeks I have looked, but found nothing more than drive-thru Starbucks. But also, buzz: a sense of how the younger generation here wants to see itself. This place is, y’know, cool.
This little haven – it does not seem to have a name – is located discreetly, if rather surreally, above an interior design shop. Desert Designs lies in what seems an affluent part of Khobar, and is a rarity in itself: quietly classy, free from the garish ostentation that dominates elsewhere. Its furniture is modern, a nod to Arabic heritage with a wink at Scandinavian functionality. Cupboards, coffee tables, free-standing drinks counters. Expensive carpets, but quality ones. This is the only shop I’ve visited where you cannot barter over price (apart, that is, from a Baskin Robbins ice cream stall, and a giant supermarket called Lulu, modelled on a French hypermarché). Most of the furniture customers appear to be expat wives. But in the coffee shop, we are the only Westerners.
I’m told the Mutawa – the religious police whose remit is to uphold public morality – visited this place not long ago, threatening closure unless the lack of segregation was addressed. The café’s answer has been to hang a few cloths from the ceiling, so that some benches and tables can be concealed. But when we visit, these cloths have been pulled back and tied to the wall.
You can get used to anything, and in just two weeks I’ve become, if not accustomed to, at least familiar with a segregation that cannot be a million miles from apartheid. A fast food joint in downtown Khobar renowned for a local speciality – a soft, fresh bread base topped with cheese, egg and herbs – reserves its pleasant, naturally lit shopfront for men, consigning women to a grotty, window-less box room in the back. A traditional Saudi restaurant in Dammam’s Heritage Museum shuts families inside one of a dozen ‘cells’ – small rooms, again windowless, filled with carpets and cushions – so that diners cannot witness a woman, to whom they are not related, eat. Even the more cosmopolitan hotels – the Carlton in Khobar and the Sheraton in Dammam – position wooden screens around tables with female diners, though the Carlton does boast a large, mixed “family tent” where groups of women can share Sheesha Pipes without chaperones. Even banks have separate entrances for women.
But if women are overtly limited in what they can do here, I do not sense that men are overwhelmed with activity. There just does not seem a lot to do. There are no cinemas here (though satellite television and the internet are in the ascendent); there is no live music scene, no dance scene; there is no theatre, opera or ballet; there are not, as far as I know, any art galleries in Khobar or Dammam, though there are two in Riyadh. There is a striking lack of public space, and the few small parks or gardens I have seen seem poorly maintained; they are often accompanied by vast billboards warning people not to play ball games or light barbecues. I have not even seen leisure centres, though hotels have gyms, spas and swimming pools. I thought I would find coffee and Sheesha houses of the sort one sees in London around Regents Park and Edgware Road, albeit for men only, but Girlfriend’s Dad knows of none and we do not discover any on our many driving tours.
Instead, life is dominated by the mosque, and the five daily prayers. I have seen more than one hundred mosques (from the outside, of course); the rule of thumb is that wherever you are in a Saudi town, you should be within walking distance of a mosque. There are mosques inside industrial works, or at the outskirts of shopping malls. Though the call to prayer is considered chanting, not music, to my ears the air is often full of song. Wherever you are, at prayer time you hear the voices of three or four imams piped through crackly loudspeakers, floating towards you from different directions, never in synch. The mosques themselves are often startlingly beautiful, sometimes in contrast with otherwise run-down areas.
For a religion to supply architectural, even cultural excellence is not unusual, but what fills the other hours? The only leisure activity I have seen Saudis performing en masse is shopping, primarily at the vast, lavishly designed malls, most of which are owned by (and named after) princes. In Dammam, those who cannot afford upmarket designer chains go instead to the sprawling complex of thrift stores. A giant honeycomb of adjoining pound stores, most sell identical factory-made toys, clothes and trinkets. Shops close during the afternoon but stay open late into the night. The sight of dozens of Saudi families passing their evening traipsing through a grubby lattice of shops offering everything from Qur’an fridge magnets to bootleg Manchester United tops is an enduring image.
Deeper into the night, young men with money attack their boredom in a different way. Extreme driving, both on and off road, seems virtually a rite of passage for Saudi teenagers whose fathers can afford to write off a car or two. Living at the edge of a compound that backs onto a highway, we could hear this ourselves – brakes screeching, engines revving. Further out of the towns, tarmac is scarred with tyre marks crossing every lane, the residue of countless handbrake tricks. The desert sand is remapped every night with a fresh wave of criss-crossing tracks. Sand dunes buckle under the onslaught of cars attempting to master them.
So the trendy coffee shop above Desert Designs is an intriguing oasis, a glimpse of how a more relaxed Saudi Arabia could develop out of the energy and appetites of its young. Outside, we walk back to the main road. Across six lanes of jostling American cars sits yet another McDonalds. The contrasts are so sharp here; I want to capture this. An older man in a parked car spots my camera, and at once begins waving his arms and sounding his horn. I put my camera away. Old Saudi.