Saudi Arabia’s Scary Politics
Two days ago, it was Halloween; that beautiful time of year where one can spot a very drunk Harry Potter hold back a vampire’s hair while she does what students do best on our pristine sidewalks. While in most parts of the Netherlands Halloween is seen as violently American, Maastricht’s international nature forgives this. That doesn’t make the holiday any less American. Drinking, the partying, and the natural progression from Snow White to slutty Snow White past a certain age. But in this article I’d like to shed some light on the absolute last place where one would expect Halloween to be celebrated: Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is a country with a very complicated hierarchy and, especially with Western ideas that we cannot shake, it is difficult to grasp a political system so different from “standard” democracy. The country is ruled by one family; the House of Sa’ud. They are the descendants of Ibn Sa’ud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. The House of Sa’ud is estimated to consist of 15.000 members, although the power and wealth is had by “only” 2.000 of them. Right now, king Salman rules, and he has placed Mohammad bin Salman as crown prince.
The new crown prince projects an image of modernisation; already he has reformed many laws, giving women more freedom under Sharia law and allowing more Western phenomena into the country like WWE events, hosted by Hulk Hogan (I’m not kidding). It is important to note that while the crown prince appears to be leading Saudi Arabia into more progressive times, there has been heavy criticism on him as well, especially following the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Besides the royal family there is also the hisbah, the moral police. They are the ones implementing the Sharia law, holding the country to a moral standard according to their strict interpretation of the Islam. The hisbah and the royal family hold different kinds of power within the country. The hisbah polices the public but holds no jurisdiction over the royal family.
A great example of this is Halloween. As a Western tradition, at least in the way it is celebrated by teenagers and students, Halloween tries to incorporate every vice the moral world has to offer, such as drugs, alcohol and sexual clothing. This is why it is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia. Last year it was big news that 17 women were arrested by the hisbah after taking part in a Halloween celebration where they all dressed up; keeping in mind that this was a one-sex party indoors without any alcohol present. This arrest happened just after major social reforms for women pushed by Mohammed bin Salman, which had many people questioning the legitimacy of both the new reforms and the power the royal family holds.
Prince Faisal al Thunayan on the other hand, managed to already successfully celebrate Halloween in the ancient times of the 2000’s. While it was somewhat of a yearly tradition, it got most abrasive in 2009. Eyewitnesses supported by Wikileaks claimed that he had invited 150 young Saudi men and women to an underground party. The entire event was sponsored by the US energy drink company KIZZ-ME, a product which for the record, is strictly forbidden in the country. Many of the women were said to be Filipino prostitutes, and the wide range of both alcohol and cocaine made available by the prince made it a party that could put any US rock star to shame. The moral police was kept at bay by private guards serving the royal family. Not that this was necessary; Thunayan is high enough on the royal food-chain for the hisbah to know to turn a blind eye.
So obviously there is a huge double standard concerning who can celebrate the holiday. The political structure of Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow for the princes to be held to same restrictions as the public. But even within the public the controversy of Halloween gives a look into the Saudi mindset. Last year the city of Riyadh organised a three-month long “Riyadh Season”, which was a series of cultural events aimed at tourists. One parade had inflatable devils flying though the city to the sound of techno music. And while the name tag of Halloween was never stuck to the event, the intent of it was clear. The reactions to this were split; a different group were arrested for celebrating Halloween, with some having to serve time. That this event is accepted for the sake of tourism and economic benefit, is a sour pill to swallow for the public, not to mention for those sitting out their sentences On the other hand, Saudi social media flooded with criticism of the parade: One person tweets: “I wasn’t sure if this was Riyadh or New York, what a waste in a place where Islam was born.” Others blame Mohammed bin Salman for the Halloween event, saying this is where he is leading the country with his social reforms and contact with Western leaders.
Claiming that Halloween gives insight into such a complicated political and religious hierarchy and into the mindset of different groups of Saudi citizens is almost as strange as stating that Hulk Hogan will be giving his usual rousing (sweaty) speech to thousands of Saudi WWE fans in 2020 again, but both are nevertheless true. Maybe Halloween will never be generally allowed in Saudi Arabia. Maybe it shouldn’t be. But, in any case, Saudi Halloween brings a lot of interesting things to light, ever-changing as it is. And I’ll be waiting to see what Saudi Arabia will be for Halloween next year.