In the changes in AlUla, seeds of a Saudi Spring - Hindustan Times
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In the changes in AlUla, seeds of a Saudi Spring

Feb 05, 2024 07:50 AM IST

Saudi Arabia is warming up to the notions of choice and AlUla can be called its social laboratory

Imagine a temperature-controlled swimming pool under a bright moonlit sky, with prehistoric hills casting their shadow on the sandy ground and turning this infinity pool into a cocoon of comfort. Two young men have finished their swim and are lounging on the submerged beds when a woman in a black and pink bikini starts her laps. They exchange hellos. An ordinary event in an extraordinary setting — not just geographically so.

Rainbow Rock or The Arch is a sandstone, arch that is 90 minutes away from the centre of AlUla town PREMIUM
Rainbow Rock or The Arch is a sandstone, arch that is 90 minutes away from the centre of AlUla town

Barely five years ago, no woman could dare reveal her hairline in Saudi Arabia, let alone don a bikini in public. Sure, there are still abay-clad women all around this swimming pool in the north-western oasis city of AlUla. The winds of change, however, are blowing. The contrast between the black abayas — the Saudi version of the burqa — and the black-pink bikini highlights the vast strides a country and its people are taking. No, being bikini-clad is not a mark of “progress” — that reading is reductive.

The ancient city of AlUla is the flagship project of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS)'s “Vision 2030”. The Saudi government’s top-down approach to enforcing an alternative way of living may be controversial but it is bringing palpable and commendable changes. And, they are not limited to five-star resorts.

Many may remember Jeddah as one of the most annoying and claustrophobic layovers because it, quite literally, smelled of testosterone. Women were invisible. Not anymore. Women are everywhere from immigration desks to sale counters. They aren’t chaperoned by mahram men (men whom the women are not allowed to marry). The mutawa (religious police) are conspicuously absent. They are probably grumpy and bristling. The women do not care.

Saudi Arabia is warming up to the notions of choice and AlUla can be called its social laboratory. The biblical region of Dadan-AlUla is said to be a cursed city because it was destroyed by lightning bolts after its inhabitants ignored all warnings and continued to indulge in idol worship. There are idols everywhere in AlUla now — new and ancient to be admired and studied. The prehistoric rocks of this region house Iron Age tombs which are being studied for the clues they can offer about human history.

A glimpse into the pre-Islamic ways of life in the region is being offered as the top attraction for visitors, both foreign and domestic. Tours have a language of assimilation and acceptance. There is history in the rocks, art in the desert, gargantuan food portions in the markets, and expansive nothingness of nature in sustainable resorts. For a country that thrived on fossil fuel and religious travel, it’s a long leap of faith.

And it seems to be paying off, at least for now. All the resorts are houseful and visitors from all across the world belonging to all faiths are flocking here. There are surya namaskar lessons in the morning and Buddhist sound meditation sessions at night, all conducted by women.

Women students are being offered special scholarships to train abroad to partake in the process of archaeological explorations in the region. They are also being formally trained in local arts and crafts to enable them to participate in this momentous transformation of the apocryphal cursed land.

MbS seems to have made his mission to bring about a Saudi Spring on his own terms. Being politically invincible comes with certain privileges. The most important one is the ability to will a metamorphosis. Love it or hate it, you cannot stop it. The crown prince doesn’t seem to care for the criticism levelled at him by the traditional lot. Politics aside, his way of governance is proving to be heralding an era of acceptance in the Saudi social sphere. Yes, a lot can be said about freedom of speech and expression, but let’s not turn perfect into the enemy of good. One step at a time. And as long as this step is taken towards mainstreaming women, it is welcome.

Since last week, non-Muslim foreign diplomats can freely buy alcohol from an exclusive store in Riyadh. It is no small development for it puts individual choice at the forefront. This image makeover is aimed towards increased participation in global processes. Saudi Arabia is going the UAE way in understanding that oil and religion aren’t enough. The grand NEOM plan, re-entry of cinema, development of tourist destinations, international sports and entertainment events — Saudi Arabia is trying it all.

For the traditional-minded, AlUla remains the cursed city, perhaps even more so now, that must be avoided. After all, women are exercising choice here. But as an enthusiastic tour guide, abaya-clad, from the Madinah region puts it succinctly and with a hearty laugh:

“We have the power now. You (the trads) don’t like us, it’s your problem.”

This laughter is the biggest tourist attraction in Saudi Arabia at the moment. Go visit!

Nishtha Gautam is an author, academic and journalist. She’s the co-editor of In Hard Times, a Bloomsbury book on national security. The views expressed are personal

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