Secrets of Saudi Arabia: Inside the State (Culture Documentary) | Real Stories
(upbeat music) - Paper was like gold in medieval times. (upbeat music) - A rolled tobacco, sugar. (upbeat music) - Everything we thought we knew about the world might turn out to be completely wrong. (upbeat music) - [Sinan] We see Saudi Arabia as the country of oil and strict Islam, where women wear veils and kisses are edited out from films. But suddenly there was a new crown prince. He says he wants to reform the country, women get more rights, and tourists will soon be welcomed.
The country has become less dependent on oil. At the same time, the people are ruled with an iron fist. One wrong word can have serious consequences. In this year of changes, I travel around the country and follow the developments on the inside through the eyes of the citizens. Are they just empty promises or is Saudi Arabia really able to change? (calm music) (speaking in foreign language) For years, Saudi Arabia kept her treasures hidden.
But with oil revenues decreasing, Crown Prince Bin Salman is looking for new sources of income. He wants to open the country up to tourism. I am taking a sneak preview. (speaking in foreign language) This place is cursed. According to tradition, Allah wanted to punish the Tamudi, the original inhabitants, for their barbaric ways, as they had killed a camel mother. The area was ravaged by earthquakes and lightening strokes.
Muslims aren't allowed to visit this place, according to the hadith. (speaking in foreign language) The Saudi government wants people to forget the curse and visit the site. The green light will need to be given by Crown Prince Bin Salman.
Luxurious tents have already been set up, and I am the only guest sleeping here. Okay. (speaking in foreign language) (upbeat music) These changes are driven by the country's young people. 70% of the population is less than 30 years old. This demographic group, increasingly, doesn't want to be told what to do. (suspenseful music) (speaking in foreign language) These guys are taking a big risk talking about this.
Out on the streets, we are accompanied by a man from the Ministry of Media. He takes pictures for his report. The government keeps a check on everything. (speaking in foreign language) The guys disappear in traffic again.
They remain anonymous. They didn't give their names. Saudi Arabia's new strong man, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, says he feels connected to young people. MBS, as he's called, says he wants to embark on a new course.
(people chattering) The feared religious police, that checks whether Islamic laws are respected, is restrained and women get more rights. (speaking in foreign language) In Jeddah, the gateway to Saudi Arabia, the fight for reforms has been fought for years below the surface. Abir Abu Sulayman is one of its fiercest warriors. She wants to receive official permission for guiding visitors.
- So, this is a characteristics in all the historical cities. Okay, let's go from here. If your guest is not interested, you stop, you move to the next movement. - My father was (indistinct), so we had to move with him since the age of nine years old. So, I love traveling, I love tourism, and this is what made me start as a tour guide.
Now, I have been working seven years in a new job. - Was there, at that time, a lot of a women tourist guides? - Well, I was the only one. - [Sinan] Wow, the only one? - Yes.
- [Sinan] You started? - Yes, as a female. - [Sinan] Did you get any negative reactions? - [Abir] The only negative reaction that I had was from the men tour guide. - [Sinan] Mmmh.
- They didn't like this competition. These men, they will go and try to complain, because I was not certified. The certificate is only for men. - [Sinan] As a woman, you can't get a certificate? - Of a tour guide.
Some of them went to the police station. - And what happened with the complaints? - When they saw my case, they were laughing. There is no killing, there is no injuries, what is this? So, I explained. They said, "Just continue, "but try to bring a permission from a higher rank."
And this is what happened. Hopefully in a few months, I'm going to get my license. - [Sinan] Official? - After eight years, officially. - What characterizes the City of Jeddah, look up? - Roshan. - [Abir] Yes, Gamal. What is roshan? - Roshan, it's an persian word.
It means like window. - [Sinan] While Abir awaits official permission, she tries to train the next generation, young guides, who received permission from the parents to guide foreigners. - You will take the role of explaining. (speaking in foreign language) - We can notice here few things. The first thing is that the houses are so close to each other, and they also used to name them as houses. They don't say a building or such.
And what makes the house unique is also their doors or their gates. See every single door of every single house is unique, and you cannot find two identical doors, okay? - This is my girl. (laughs) And you see the ventilation that is coming. (speaking in foreign language)
You look at their face, if you-- (speaking in foreign language) (indistinct) - [Sinan] What do you study? - [Farah] I study English and translation. - I can imagine it's not easy for a girl to be- - Yes. - A tourist guide? Maybe for some families? - Well, yes. It's because there are a lot of men around us, and that's kinda creeps me out a bit - Is it the man who gives negative reactions? - Well, yes, sometimes it's men, other times it's women, but mostly men. When they see you doing a good thing better than them, they will be like, "Why would you do that? "Why is she better than us?" So, we faced many issues because we're women here working. When the women start driving, there'll be a lot of problems from-- - [Sinan] What problem? - Men might be aggressive sometimes.
And if you ever noticed on Twitter, some people talk that they will burn the cars of women, that they will hit the women, that they will harass her and stuff. - [Sinan] Really? - Yes. They do that a lot. - But what is their problem? - It's kinda hard to get the picture of us women working, and there are a lot of guys listening to us. - [Sinan] It's very brave. - I love it. - [Sinan] Okay.
- So, yeah. - [Sinan] The new freedoms for women have been dictated by the crown prince. Women who profit from it, like Farah and Abir, feel strengthened by it.
But, Abir, is it not better that change comes from the bottom than from above, and put it on people? - Do I have to wait centuries to have the right to drive? Do we have to wait centuries to have the right not to have a guardian? So, as long as we have these small groups, who are disturbing our development, no, it must come from up. This is the only way to let everybody accept the changes. - [Sinan] A lot of resistance needs to be overcome, from clergymen to government, the conservative parts of the population. Steps are being made.
But if you want to survive, it's crucial that you know how far you can go. Malik Nejer teaches me how to recognize these limits. He provokes the authorities every day, and has become hugely popular. - We made a show named "Masameer." It's distributed online.
We've surpassed 750 million views. - 750 million views, wow. - And 50 million views. - [Sinan] In our Middle East? - [Malik] Yeah. - [Sinan] How is that possible, such a big success? - It's basically, we go to places, where other people don't dare to go.
And I think there is a sense of a novelty, when you see some characters that represents your society. And I think this is... Definitely, this is what people see in our creations. - So, the cartoons are from the real life of Saudi Arabia, from real people, also? - [Malik] Yeah, yeah. - Inspired by real people? - We talk a lot of taboos in our society. Animation allows you to go further than what you would usually do.
- [Sinan] You get more tolerated? - Exactly. It's like a joke or dancing around the king, and making jokes. (Sinan laughs) And the king will just tolerate this joke, because after all he is not a serious figure.
- What's your favorite character? - I'd say Dr. Adel. - [Sinan] This is Dr. Adel? - [Malik] Yeah, this is Dr. Adel. He's feeding his pet frog.
And the pet frog doesn't really like him very much. - [Sinan] For the Saudis, this is a new type of social commentary. The show exposes all kinds of problems in society. Most of all, Malik lets his animated figures ridicule the government.
- Yeah, I'm gonna do Dr. Adel. - Dr. Adel, okay. - Right, and he would go something like this. (speaking in foreign language) - It is only when people are horrified, that means, okay, you're breaking new grounds. Now, there is a thin line, right? Because you want to create this conflict, but you don't want to overdo it. - [Sinan] But is it difficult to break down taboos? - It is, but every time we create something, we tend to gauge what's going on.
And so, I've created something about women rights issues, right? I've created something that is mocking this ridiculous idea of women are not allowed to drive. And so, what we do is, basically, we just... We start piece by piece. First time we just show a woman that drives.
(speaking in foreign language) And so, the second time she turns him into a car. She's driving him, right? Okay, she's driving on his back. And I remember when we put that, we got a lot of negative feedback. - [Sinan] Is that a red line or? - It used to be, it used to be.
I mean, I was there, right? Five years ago, it was a red line. - [Sinan] Yeah? - You know, you know. People will get furious about that. - [Sinan] Farah ignores all the comments she gets when she's not wearing a niqab, or goes out without a guardian. She's willing to give me a peek into her life.
We meet somewhere, so that I can give her her first driving lessons. It's easy. - Should I press this button here? - [Sinan] Yeah, press there.
- [Farah] Press it? - [Sinan] Yes. - You don't wanna put your seatbelt? - Yeah, I will. (chuckles) You're comfortable there? - Yeah, I'm very comfortable.
- All right. - [Sinan] Your mirror. You have acceleration and you have the brake. Take it very slow from the brake now. Oh, (laughs), that's good.
- [Farah] Like this? - Yes, like this. Very good. Yeah, just be careful. Brake, brake, brake, brake, brake. Slowly brake.
Yes, very good. Okay, but don't accelerate. How does it feel driving? - It feels good. - [Sinan] Yeah? - It feels good.
- [Sinan] Is it special for you? - I think it is, yes. First time driving, nobody says no. Out of 10, how good am I? - [Sinan] You are fantastic. (laughs) - Oh, thank you.
- [Sinan] Did you mom ever drive? - No, she never did. Actually, she's not as supportive of driving. - [Sinan] No, she's not? - No, no.
- [Sinan] Okay. - My dad is, but she's not. - [Sinan] And why your mother doesn't want? - She's not used to this. - [Sinan] Yeah, okay. - To the whole idea. Like I said, not part of the culture or anything. So, they're moving now slowly, step by step.
It's like in our religion, it's not wrong to drive, it's not wrong to open our faces. - [Sinan] You never had any cap? - No, never. So, it's kind of personal.
See, nowadays, people... A woman can open their hairs, they can open their faces. We have this thing it's called delheia. - [Sinan] Mmmh. - They were very active. Like we were walking in a mall. I remember that I was once walking in a mall and my abaya was opened from down. - Yeah, yeah.
- So, the guy came and he yelled at me. He was like, "Close your abaya." - Yeah, yeah.
- The whole wall heard me, walahi, the whole mall heard that. - [Sinan] Where are they now? (chuckles) - [Farah] They're gone now. - So, what would happen if we were talking like this, three years ago on this court? - Oh, that would be super wrong.
Like you and I would be freaked out. Like, don't talk to me. Pretend you're doing something there, just don't talk to me directly. It would be so weird to do that. - [Sinan] The hai'a, the feared religious police, may have been disbanded, but this doesn't mean that Farah and I aren't being watched. We managed to brush the attention off.
For a while, I'm afraid she won't dare to continue, but she won't let a man intimidate her. - Men here, some of them, have control over women. Like she's mine, no one gets to look at her, she doesn't do anything behind my back.
My word goes right in everything. But there are others that knows we're actual human, we have rights, and we have a life. We really need a life. Like I can't walk behind them on my whole life. (suspenseful music) - [Sinan] One would think that more women would take the freedom of dropping the veil, now, that the hai'a is powerless. But the ancient Islamic regulations are still being respected.
(suspenseful music) (speaking in foreign language) (suspenseful music) (speaking in foreign language) (Muezzin reciting adhan) The shopping mall is slowly emptying out. These men are also going to pray. They still support the work of the hai'a. One of them is willing to talk, but we can't speak freely in the shopping mall.
We are being watched too closely for that. He would rather receive me on his own territory. I am invited to visit him outside of the city.
- Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. (speaking in foreign language) (camel growling) - Oh, hello. - [Sinan] Hello. (laughs) - Good.
- Oh. - Milk. - Oh, very good. - [Khaled] Good.
(Sinan laughs) - Fresh. - [Khaled] Fresh. (Sinan laughs) (speaking in foreign language) (Sinan laughs) - [Sinan] Outside of the cities, conservatism still rules supreme. Many supporters of al-hai'a can be found here. For Khaled, the organization is, also, of the highest importance. (speaking in foreign language) - Khaled, fanatically, clings to the demands al-hai'a puts on women, such as the mandatory wearing of the abaya. (speaking in foreign language) (Khaled crooning) (speaking in foreign language) The walls in this country are almost impenetrable, conservatism on one side, more freedoms on the other.
Cafes and restaurants have separate rooms for men and women. There are exceptions, and I meet Farah in one of them. She finds it difficult to escape from these traditions. She's open about that. (speaking in foreign language) - Well, I got engaged, but it was arranged, arranged marriage by my parents. - [Sinan] How did it start? - The guy who got proposed for me was from our family.
I kinda had this hard pressure on me to say, yes, say, yes. And I said, yes, I did. We got engaged for three to four months. And then things turned out to be very... Like how can I say that? First, he didn't want me to work as a tour guide, and he preferred me working in a female area only. I didn't agree to that.
- So, he didn't want you to work as a tour guide? - [Farah] Yeah. - And that's your dream? - Yeah, he just told me, "Just leave it on your mind "that I don't want you to do that." So, he didn't just say no, and refused the first place, but you never know. - She managed to get out of the arranged marriage.
She prefers to show tourists around. The only question is, how she will now meet her future partner? How do girls and boys meet each other? - Through work, relatives, or a friend. - Not spontaneously, just in a cafe like this? - Well, if it happens spontaneously, like you mean I would get up and say... Or that guy would get up and come sit with me, and start talking? - [Sinan] Yeah.
Or just that you have a date here? (Sinan and Farah laughing) - That's pretty hard, I don't know. Never happened to me, so I don't know. It would be weird if a guy came and said, "Can I grab a cup of coffee with you?" It'd be weird. - [Sinan] Yeah. I'd say, no, what do you want? Stay away from me.
- In the west, there is a lot of places where you can meet someone. - Well there are like mixed parties, that we are not allowed to do, but it happens anyway. I get invitations to these parties. But come on. - [Sinan] You don't go? - I don't like it. Police come to (indistinct), the black van.
First, they'll take the whole girls and guys, call their parents, and then send them home. - [Sinan] Young Saudis have their own rituals with which they provoke the police. They look for ways to get into touch with each other. (speaking in foreign language) Why the guys were running? - [Boy] Because there's police.
- [Sinan] Police? - [Boy] Yeah. - But why they are running for police? - [Boy] Because he- - [All] Family, families. - That he talked to a girl? What did he do? - [Boy] No, no, no, no. We were just walking.
- [Sinan] Yeah. - [Boy] And they catch us. - [Sinan] But what happens when the police catches you? - [Boy] Then you go to the bus, and then they get you to a small prison. - [Sinan] A small prison, yeah? - [Boy] Just for two hours or three hours. (people chattering) - [Sinan] You're also chasing girls? - [Boy] Ah, yes. - [Sinan] Yes? - The police come- - Run! (people whistling) - Allahu Akbar.
(Khaled singing) (speaking in foreign language) Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. (speaking in foreign language) - [Sinan] He feels the duty to compel young people to live according to Sharia law. He has come up with a special plan to spread the Islamic faith.
(speaking in foreign language) The message is clear. Khaled wants the entire world to become Muslim. Right after I have left, Khaled puts comments on our meeting online. I see that he has over 1 million followers. (speaking in foreign language) This is the conservatism that is blocking new freedoms. Anybody who opposes it will be resistant.
Which thing was where you get most negative reactions about? - Yeah, there was an episode that we created these guys who, basically... These three guys who decided to be... We have the hai'a here in Saudi Arabia. - [Sinan] Yes. - Which is the- - [Sinan] Religious police. - Religious police. And pretty recently they started losing their grip on society, right? We created this episode where these three people, who do the same thing, but in a reverse way.
They go out, find people who are not happy, who are not enjoying life, and making sure they enjoy. So, you can see this guy. He's obviously a religious figure. (Sinan laughs) And then there's this guy, on the other side here. He's liberal. He calls the police, and he tells them, "I see a guy who doesn't look happy.
"You guys need to come over here, "and sort it out immediately." (speaking in foreign language) They go- - This is how they always come, normally? - Yeah, yeah. (laughs) And there's a logo. (speaking in foreign language) "Why aren't you smiling?" And this guy has a good reason not to smile, because he had a bad day. And then they just said, okay guys, take him in. (speaking in foreign language) - This is a reverse of what happened? - Yeah, exactly.
This is a reversal of what happens. - [Sinan] With his animations, Malik helped erode the authority of the religious police. But where is the limit? To survive in this country, it is crucial that you know how far you can go. - Are you walking in a minefield, right? And so, that's how it is. This is how the game is played. - Is religion a red line? - It depends on what is it.
- Yeah. But can you make some of the Royal Family? - You can't. You can't make funny things about the Royal House. - So, that's a red line? - That is a red line, yeah. This might put us into trouble.
- So, I'm also walking in a minefield, as a journalist? - Well, you are, but by the time this will be published, you'll be somewhere safe. - [Sinan] Malik's fear is justified. A few weeks later, there is an example of why pushing the limits is dangerous. Just before the prohibition on women driving is canceled, a couple of activists who fought for that are arrested. They're accused of espionage and treason.
It causes a lot of confusion. What is the direction of the reforms? (suspenseful music) (speaking in foreign language) (suspenseful music) It is under these circumstances that I meet Farah again. I am tense.
I am curious how she holds out. The mood in the country has changed so much that it isn't clear how far we can go during our conversation. Hey, Farah. (laughs) - Hey, Mr. Sinan. Hi, how are you? - I'm fine, how are you? - Welcome back.
- Yeah, nice to see you again. - Yeah, please have a seat. - This is a very exciting place here. - It's really nice atmosphere here. Well, you don't see the separation between men and female here.
So, that's another advantage of the place I think, you know? - Is this the new Saudi Arabia, Farah, or is it just a free place? - Oh, God. (laughs) Well, let's just call it a free place. We don't know how Saudi Arabia is gonna be. - [Sinan] I see girls without the hijab. Do you also come without hijab to this cafe? - Oh no.
- [Sinan] No? - No, not. (laughs) In general, no. - [Sinan] Not here? - No, no. That's what I was brought up, so. - [Sinan] So, you're not gonna take it off? - No. - [Sinan] Also not in the future? - Well, you don't know.
People change, beliefs change with time. So, you never know. - [Sinan] Farah hopes that the changes will be carried through, and that she will have the same opportunities as the man around her. Do you have your license? - No, not yet.
It's too expensive. - [Sinan] Why, why it's expensive? - Well, comparing it to guys' license, it's about 2000 to 3000 for us females, and for guys it's 400 riyals. - So, women pay more than men? - It's really unfair, but I think they wanna let good drivers go out to the world, not just anyone.
- So, the thing is that, you know what's going on in Saudi Arabia? - Before we could talk about anything, but now there's the something criminal. If you said something that against the will of the country, you'll get-- - [Sinan] You'll get problems? - Yes, you get a lot of problems. - [Sinan] Caught between tradition and modernization, Farah tries to find her way.
She has tasted freedom for a short while, until the Royal Family intervened. It's clear that openness in Saudi Arabia has its limits. Next week, I manage to infiltrate Saudi Arabia's elite.
How loyal are people to the Royal Family after being accused of killing of Khashoggi? - It was a total error. It was a crime, and government has accepted the fact. (upbeat music)