The Arab Gulf’s Split Personality

The king of Saudi Arabia made a momentous proclamation not long ago: women will be granted, for the first time, the right to vote and run in future municipal elections. This, in a country that practices a strict separation of the sexes, prohibits women from driving, requires them to have a male chaperon for most public excursions. Given that the next election cycle is almost four years away, this could just be a sop to activists. They have been demanding–against the backdrop of the Arab Spring’s dramatic political upheavals– more rights for women, along with a more equitable and representative form of government. Saudi Arabia suffers from the same repressive regime and sectarian divides that plague most of its Arab brethren. But it has an additional problem, one that also affects the other wealthy oil kingdoms of the Gulf: a split personality.

This duality results from the wealthy elites sending their sons and daughters send off to the West to be educated, where they experience an unprecedented amount of freedom, both intellectual and physical. By the time these students return home, they often have changed greatly. But not their countries. The returnees are thus forced to engage in extreme forms of subterfuge to continue living their newly expanded lives. I got to experience this bizarre double-existence firsthand while reporting in Kuwait, courtesy of a businessman who invited me to his “farm” for the weekend.

On Friday, the day of rest in Islam, I was picked up at my hotel in a Mercedes limousine and driven about an hour outside Kuwait City, along the sea coast. The “farm” turned out to be a beach house set far back from the road, among the sand dunes. The businessman, a quiet Standford graduate, had always received me in his office in the capital dressed in a dishdasha, the traditional long white robe, and ghutra, Arab headdress. On that day he greeted me adorned in the tiniest of swimming thongs. His wife, cocktail in hand, sported the type of bikini whose minuscule bottom Brazilians refer to as “dental floss.” Rock music blasted throughout the house and grounds. Their three children raced all-terrain vehicles on the sand, screaming as they flew across the dunes. Similarly and scantily clad neighbors drifted in from nearby compounds.

The drinking and dancing and raucous conversation continued throughout the afternoon until suddenly,  at sunset, the music stopped and my host disappeared into the recesses of his house. He returned dressed in his dishasha and ghutra.  Everything about him had reverted to his former self: his countenance, speech, demeanor, even the pace at which he walked.  The picture of the traditional Kuwaiti, he was now ready for the ride back to the capital–and to his other, work-week life: subdued, segregated by sex, tee-totalling.

The contrast between his two lives was stunning. I have often wondered since about the toll it takes. Imagine having to subvert part of yourself for most of the time, able only to express it–if at all–secreted away. (Gay life before the advent of Stonewall? Gay life in the U.S. military before the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? ) This privation obviously can’t compare with the  life-and-death struggles for basic human rights that are occurring in Syria and that were hard-won in Egypt and Libya, among others. It’s just another facet. Or a metaphor for the lack of self-expression enforced throughout the region. One can only hope that women’s limited participation in Saudi political life–if it truly is allowed to happen–begins to chip away at these barriers.