August 20, 2008 / 12:29 AM / 11 years ago

Liberal pockets in Saudi Arabia's rigid state

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - The Saudi government has a project to develop at least four “economic cities” where many expect the religious establishment will be kept at a distance from social life, the workplace and education.

Women will be able to drive in them and there may even be cinema houses.

There are already some spaces in the country of 25 million people where the religious police — charged with maintaining “public morals” — are nowhere to be seen.

They are Jeddah, which has a population of about three million people, and the tri-city area of Khobar-Dhahran-Damman, which houses about two million.

Jeddah carries the slogan “Jeddah is different” and Riyadh residents spend summer holidays in the Red Sea city, where local women with uncovered faces swan through shopping malls or sit in late-night shisha-pipe dens.

Tickets sell out for concerts not only by classical singers, but also young rappers.

“For people in Riyadh, Jeddah is their breathing space if they can’t afford to go abroad,” said public relations manager Rayyan al-Dahlawi as he headed into one of Jeddah’s famed malls.

This year the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) — run by the once-U.S.-owned state oil giant Aramco — will open just north of Jeddah with desegregated education.

Islamists constantly fulminate against the situation in Jeddah as if it was Sodom and Gomorrah.

The religious police generally also avoid the diplomatic district in Riyadh and Dhahran in the Eastern Province that houses Aramco.

Residents of the Eastern Province say the vice squad generally also leaves the city of Khobar alone, but has a strong presence in the neighboring city of Dammam.

Many Saudis remember the 1970s — the time of the first oil price boom — when some women even went out without the required abaya, or black cloak, and Jeddah had cinemas.

A coalescence of circumstances in the late 1970s — an attempted rebellion in Mecca, the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — caused the government to cede ground massively to the Islamists.

“As a teenager I had a free life,” said women’s activist Wajiha al-Howeidar. “I left in 1981 and when I finally moved back in 1993 I felt like a stranger. Money harmed this society and they decided we don’t need women to run it.”

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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