It begins when K discovers the train line connecting Dammam to Riyadh. It turns out to be the only train line in the country. 400 kilometres away, Riyadh is inaccessible to us unless we fly, which we would not be allowed to do. It is simply too far to ask Girlfriend’s Dad to drive. But we both yearn to go. It is the capital. It has been the focus of some of the grandest public building projects of a kingdom which loves to show off. And it is several measures more traditional than Dammam and Khobar, the nearest cities to our compound, which betray the creeping Western influence on Saudi life. But these are the very reasons why GD is adamant that we do not even consider strolling down to the station and enquiring about a return fare.
“I don’t mean to scare you,” he says. “But if you two go on that train, you might come back with fingers missing. It only needs one person to take exception to you. The police will be called, and they’ll throw you in jail while they try to figure out who you are.”
There are two sorts of lockdown that occur in the life of an expat in Saudi Arabia. The first is when a security scare means you have to retreat behind the walls of your house and hide until the terrorist threat passes. The second is more elusive: the sense of virtual lockdown that everyone who has been here for a while begins to feel. It is infectious, and it is depressing.
It is immeasurably worse for women. When we make our first excursion into Khobar, I witness a bleak reality of daily life. To leave the compound, K and her mother must don the abaya, a floor-length black cloak that envelops the body from the neck down, masking a woman’s flesh and figure. Abayas are big business here. The better ones are made of lighter materials – you can even buy silk abayas – which somewhat mitigates the oven effect of stepping out in desert heat with your entire body swathed in an extra layer of black material. There are abayas with lace trimmings or modest decorative swirls. But essentially, they are black and all-encompassing. It is strange to see my girlfriend, who might normally wear high-cut shorts and a tshirt in this climate, fastening herself into this alien cloak, with its many ties and buttons to guarantee it does not flap open. At first it reminds me of a university gown. Or even a wizard’s cloak. At certain angles, if you glance briefly enough, you might think it was a lavish black ballgown. But it does not take long for comic novelty to wear off.
The Al-Rashid is a vast shopping mall in Khobar. Like Dammam airport, the interior is disarmingly lavish, with giant chandeliers, marble-effect tiles and water fountains. Across three brightly-lit levels, among endless parades of shops and cafes, Saudis enjoy the sort of brash, capitalist experience unthinkable to their parents’ generation.
Here the gender divide becomes grossly apparent. K and her mother’s abayas represent an appropriate modesty for a Western woman but fall short of what is expected of their Saudi counterparts, whose hair is covered by a black hood, the hijab, which hugs the perimeter of their face like a tightly tied parka. Most also have a black veil across the face itself. Only their eyes are visible. But while some men dress in correspondingly traditional clothes – the long white thobe topped with the keffiyeh (headdress), held in place by a circular black agal – many men seem to have jettisoned custom in favour of Western fashion. Designer jeans and chinos abound, as do surprisingly loud shirts, particularly among the younger men. I spotted a Bob Marley tshirt; Girlfriend’s Dad told me he’d recently seen one celebrating Ché Guevara. Whether these are deliberate acts of subversion towards a drug-free, far-right state, or merely naive attempts at modism, is unclear. The contrast of a cloaked, veiled woman trailing behind a man who would look equally at home in a Shoreditch boozer is unsettling.
Most Saudi couples promenading through Al-Rashid are mobbed by their brood; often the wife carries a baby while two or three youngsters flit about her. The children run in and out of shops, hiding in window displays, or weave through the fountains in the water features. I have not seen a Saudi mother publicly rebuke a child; I sense it would require more authority than women possess in public. Nor have I seen a father appear to notice his children’s behaviour as he marches ahead. Girls can dress in Western clothes until the first signs of puberty, at which point they must wear an abaya. Girls at abaya age no longer run amok: they fall dutifully into step with their mother.
Throughout our visit to the mall we are warned to keep watch for the Mutawa – the religious police, who can be identified by their brown robes and the whips they carry. Though we do not see any on this visit, Girlfriend’s Mum says they are notorious for sudden, sweeping raids on malls, finding fault with the tiniest details of dress or deportment. On a previous visit, GM was at the receiving end of a furious verbal assault because she had loosened her abaya while sitting in a cafe, even though she was sat in the separate, partitioned, women’s section. The whips they carry are theoretically for lashing exposed flesh, though I’m told such a punishment is increasingly rare.
The shops themselves are a striking contrast. They are home, predominantly, to Western fashion labels. Karen Millen, Armani, Gucci, Guess… Some have mannequins in their windows sporting outfits no woman could wear in public – bras, bikins, skimpy tops. The only presentational difference I can see between here and, say, Westfields in London, is that these mannequins invariably have no heads. Unless, of course, decapitation as punishment for vice is the intended message.
One large shop, which sells everything from cut-price laptops to books and DVDs, furthers the sense of moral confusion. There are Jackie Collins novels and 18-rated American films alongside books about the Qur’an and CDs of religious songs. There are British newspapers, even though we had to surrender ours when our flight entered Saudi airspace. There is a rudimentary attempt at ethical censorship: a picture of a woman on the front of the Daily Mail sports a white sticker which covers the flesh exposed below her knee-length skirt. But inside the newspaper, similar pictures go undoctored.
On a subsequent excursion, GM takes K and I by taxi into downtown Khobar. It is modern, urban, but inconsistent: around the corner from a row of gold shops, you find an alleyway lined with cockroach carcasses, full of tailors stitching robes. The desert provides a thin layer of dust everywhere. There are many building sites, but they often appear unmanned. Sometimes, I’m told, building projects are halted midway because a religious objection has been lodged. K is rebuked for taking a picture of some men resting at the edge of an otherwise derelict site.
Shortly after 11.30am, the late-morning call to prayer wafts through the air from mosques in every direction. At once, the shops switch off their lights and pull down their shutters. They will remain shut until late afternoon. But I see only a few men walk into the nearest mosque. Men in thobes remain on the pavements long after the chanting has finished. The constant, aggressive traffic along the main road in and out of Khobar barely abates.
When our taxi delivers us back to the compound gate, GM is pulling off her abaya before she has crossed the threshold. “I hate this fucking thing,” she says.
K’s parents have been in Saudi for nearly two decades. There is little novelty left here for them, only frustration and boredom. They talk every day of the Spanish villa whose construction GD’s tax and expense-free salary has underwritten. Though both make a touching effort to show us their semi-adopted country, I sense their struggle to feel enthusiastic about a life they have mentally left behind.
This is why K and I are broaching independent travel. But GD is vehemently opposed. Even a trip into downtown Khobar unaccompanied by one of Kelly’s parents is ruled out. Saudi military is supporting neighbouring Yemen in strikes against rebel forces who have taken control in northern Yemen; meanwhile US and Saudi fighter planes are jointly targeting areas of Yemen said to be new Al-Qaeda strongholds. The two interests may overlap. The upshot is that threat of a terrorist backlash in Saudi increases with each fresh report of Yemeni civilian casualties. These are, of course, gleaned from the internet: little of this appears in national newspapers. Twice, now, we have found ourselves queuing in spontaneous roadblocks as Saudi police inspect the occupants of every vehicle.
As it is his own daughter’s safety at stake, not to mention his job, we must cede to GD’s fears of Al-Qaeda kidnappers, which are not without precedent. GD says that he and GM were warned to stop going for evening strolls along the corniche, a tree-lined boulevard in Dammam, because militants were driving by taking pot-shots at Westerners. And although we carry passports, visas and security passes everywhere we go, GD is concerned that the site of two young people, of opposite genders, who are neither married, siblings nor permanently resident here, would be sufficient to merit arrest. “Saying you’re cousins is not good enough for them,” he tells me, as I bite my lip and nod my head. “What you have to remember is that you’re not supposed to be here.”