3:35 p.m. August 14, 2013

The Dumbest Thing I've Ever Read. Saudi Arabia As The Next Silicon Valley

Some headlines just smack you in the face. This was the one that hit me today: “Why Saudi Arabia Might Be the Next Silicon Valley,” from TechCrunch.

My first thought was, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” But I didn’t want to be hasty, so I looked back through a lifetime of reading, and when I was done—yup, that’s definitely the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. To be fair, the worst offender was whoever wrote that headline. I guess that in his enthusiasm for the vision of Saudi silicon, he missed this recent headline: “Twitter, Saudi Arabia’s Top Cleric Says, Will Damn Your Soul.”

The TechCrunch story was just a chance to let the guest, tech journalist Chris Scrhoeder, introduce his book about young techies in places like Cairo and Doha. Neither of those places will ever be much like Silicon Valley either, but at least you can see what he means. As for Saudi Arabia—no, just plain no. Schroeder may know that, but it doesn’t help when he talks to TechCrunch about going to “a place like the Middle East.” The Middle East is a lot of places, of course, and while some of them may become havens for tech genius, it’s never going to happen as long as the “Saudi” part is attached to the “Arabia” part, because “Saudi” means Wahhabi, and Wahhabi means…well, rather than explain it in abstract, let’s see how Wahhabi rules would affect a typical day in the life of a hip (and very hypothetical) young techie living in Riyadh.

How do you, you hot, heavily-recruited tech whiz you, begin your day? Maybe you and your significant other have a cozy little habit of going out for coffee before work?

Well, not in Saudi. This is impossible for all kinds of reasons. First: How you gonna get that significant other into your room? Or your equally significant self into his or her room? There is no such thing as privacy in Saudi. Every police officer on the street has the right to demand a marriage certificate from any male/female couple he sees. If you and your object of affection don’t have one, you cannot be in the same room together.

They’re not kidding about this. That’s what I’d really like to say to all the naïve Westerners who think the Saudis can’t really be serious about such things: They are. For example, when Katherine and I transferred from our little Yemen-border town to Riyadh, we dragged the luggage into our hotel room and called our friend Carlos, already in Riyadh, to come by. Meanwhile another friend, Glenn, asked me to help him find the glasses he’d lost ducking under one of the flood tunnels you use to bypass the killer highways. So I go off with the now semi-blind Glenn to look for the glasses. Meanwhile, Carlos comes in and Katherine invites him to sit down on the chair in our room, since he’s just walked a mile in the Riyadh sun.

In walks the weedy little desk clerk who says, “This is Saudi. Man…woman…not allowed.” And Carlos, who could have picked the clerk up and broken him in half, sighs and says in an amiable Manchester voice, “All right mate, we’ll talk in the lobby.” So he and Katherine wait for me and Glenn in the lobby, in the glaring light and inevitable overstuffed fake-gold armchairs.

If your partner happens to be of the same sex, you might get away with it—that paradox social historians have noted about extremely repressive societies whereby gay liaisons are less carefully surveilled than heterosexual ones. But if your homosexual relationship is discovered, you can count on instant deportation if you’re lucky, and worse if the partner is a Muslim.

Now, let’s say you and partner have a document certifying the legality of your doin’s. Let’s go get that latte! Well no, not if one or both of you are female. Women are not supposed to be moving about in public, and when they do they are usually stopped by the police, who want to know basically who owns them and why he’s letting them walk around loose. Most small cafes and restaurants don’t admit women at all. Period. Women are admitted only if there’s a so-called “Family Section.” What that means is that one side of the restaurant is partitioned off with closed booths. Women are allowed to zip into one of those partitioned booths, and the man of the party then pulls the curtain open to order, closing it quickly lest someone see the women inside. He orders, then takes the food from the server so no one else sees the women. (And the food, when you get it, is very bad. The big restaurant in Najran was an imitation US fast-food chain called Kudu, inspired by Jack in the Box.)

Of course any female member of your party can only leave the house if she’s fully covered. When we arrived, we thought that meant the “Western female correspondent in Kabul” option. You know, the tasteful headscarf and long dress. Noooope. Katherine, already dressed in that style, was informed it wouldn’t do and handed the full kit: hijab (black headscarf), niqab (black face-veil), abaya (black dress long enough to sweep the dust). That’s compulsory. All day, every day. Great for a hot desert climate, as you can imagine.

And please—that shit about how this costume is “liberating”? Bull. Shit. As a Pashtun colleague complained, “They say the abaya is to free women to move about but a woman cannot move about!” He knew about that. He’d sent his wife and kids home to South Africa on vacation, only to get a call from Jeddah Airport. His wife, crying, told him the Saudi guards wouldn’t let her out of the country because she didn’t have a male guardian present. He actually had to fly from Najran to Jeddah to tell Saudi Immigration, “Yes, this is my wife, these are my kids, I give them my permission to leave.”

Women are treated like contagion in Saudi, like walking pornography. I get very, very sick of well-meaning idiots who, out of a patronizing noblesse-oblige impulse, try to find some kinder explanation for straightforward, obvious misogynistic repression.

But maybe we’re talking about an all-male Silicon Valley crowd. After all, those geeks are always pretending they want more women in their ranks. Wouldn’t Saudi be OK for a guy? Surprisingly, no.

Let’s go back to that excursion, this time with an all-male crew. You’re heading off to a restaurant and the loudspeakers go off: Prayer time. In most Muslim countries, that’s something you learn to keep in mind, but in Saudi it’s the law. Everything must close for 45 minutes, five times a day. If that interferes with your lunch plans, too bad; the Muttawa, the “Promoters of Virtue and Preventers of Vice,” send hundreds of men around in pickup trucks to make sure every shop closes during every prayer time, every single day. If a kind Pakistani curry place lets you stay a little late, the kind Pakistani may very soon find himself on a compulsory flight home, courtesy of the Promoters of Virtue.

You might feel like going home and having a drink out of frustration. Well, you can’t. It’s a felony. Yyou will be deported, at the very least, if you are caught with alcohol. A Finn from our company, thinking he’d be clever, brought “Vodka flavoring” through Customs in Riyadh hoping to savor the taste, if not the blitz, of his national drink. Again: Nooooope. Buzzers went off, men in uniform started screaming, and the Finn did a week in a cell before being deported, even after he’d finally explained that his “flavoring” was a worst-of-both-worlds special, all that vodka taste with none of the payoff. You can’t even buy vanilla essence because it has alcohol in it.

Sure, foreigners try to make their own booze. Sometimes it works, sometimes you hear about a whole group of foreign workers, poor overworked and abused Bengalis as a rule, going blind or dying from homebrew that went wrong. Sometimes the cops bust a drug ring—which in Saudi means booze. Yeah, suck on it, boozers—now you know how us druggies feel!

As for the other drugs, the ones that are repressed over here as well…I never even heard of anyone trying them, because it’s beheading if you’re caught. Antidepressants are big, of course, because…well, duh. But pain medications are unavailable, as I found out after a very rough root canal operation. They have the one unacceptable side effect: Pleasure.

That leaves sex. Or rather, no it doesn’t. Do you have a strong imagination? And a good wrist action to match? If so, you should be fine. If you’re used to getting a little assistance with your fantasies from online or onscreen images—are you kidding? This is Saudi. The Saudi government runs all internet traffic through its own site. Everything is screened, and any site that has even a remotely sexual, political, or heretical content is blocked. Politely blocked—a green screen comes up with the headline, in Arabic and English, “I’m sorry, this site is unavailable.” You’re told that if you think it’s been unjustly blocked, you can contact the government. I never heard of that happening, for obvious reasons. Just trying saying, “It’s not ‘porn,’ it’s erotica, it’s art,” to a Wahhabi censor.

Granted, Saudi censorship is odd and spotty. We watched an episode of “The Simpsons,” the one where Krusty rediscovers his Jewish roots, on TV in Najran. No censorship at all until the climactic moment at Krusty’s belated Bar Mitzvah where he announces triumphantly, “Today I am a Jew!”

On Saudi TV, what you got, in that gravelly Krusty shout, was “Today I am a…..” Silence where the word “Jew” had been. If we hadn’t seen that episode a dozen times before, we might’ve thought the lack of a predicate was some unusually annoying conceptual joke. As it was, we knew that episode by heart and knew what had been cut: That one fatal word. There had been plenty of drinking, swearing, allusions to drugs, but what the Saudi censors picked up on was that one three-letter word.

Of course, the Saudi government isn’t shy about its take on Jews. When you apply for a visa, the rule is stated simply, in clear English: “Jews are not permitted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Period. That’s what people really don’t get: They’re not shy about any of this. On the contrary.

So if any of your new hot tech crew happen to be of the Jewish persuasion, forget it. Or, for that matter, if they happen to be observant Christians, or adherents of any faith that requires communal ceremonies to affirm its faith. Because all such ceremonies are illegal in Saudi Arabia. Not frowned on, not harassed, not barely tolerated—just flat-out illegal. This is one of the reasons the Saudis hate archeologists: They construction crews keep revealing old churches and synagogues on the Arabian Peninsula, and as soon as they do, the government sends bulldozers to obliterate them.

And if you’re Muslim? Home free, no probs? Noooope. You better not be a Shi’ite. According to the local people, the desert around Najran is full of shallow graves holding the young men from the town who fought for their Shia faith ten years ago. Now all the big expensive mosques are not just Sunni but Wahhabi.

Now, about those visas: You won’t get one anyway. There’s no such thing as a tourist visa to Saudi. They don’t need your money and don’t want your cultural cooties. You think a work visa will do it? OK, choose: Either the short-term kind where you can’t drive a car but get to keep your passport, or the Iqama, which allows you to drive but forces you to give up your passport to your employer. Except “employer” is not the word they use. The word is “master,” and they mean it. For the duration of your visa, you are the property of your owner, just like the Southeast Asian maids who are routinely groped, raped, tortured and killed by their owners. If your employer doesn’t want you to leave, he keeps your passport. You’re stuck.

If you opt for the other visa, you keep your passport but can’t drive. And if you think L.A. is car-crazed, you have no idea—NO idea—what a truly car-obsessed culture really is. The kids who passed for students at my university drove their white Toyota Hiluxes around all day because otherwise…well, what else is there to do? Of course the girls Katherine taught couldn’t even do that. Women can’t drive, of course. Many of her students weren’t even allowed to leave the home compound, even to visit female friends. They can leave when they’re married off, at which time they come under new ownership.

In one way, and one way only, the nightmare life of a Saudi girl has possibilities for tech entrepreneurship. If you are only allowed to travel online, if your actual physical body is chained to one house (Saudi women stay indoors so much they often suffer from Vitamin D deficiency), then you become very good at Facebook, and sometimes at other social media. Whether that will ever translate into “the next Silicon Valley” is another issue. Offhand, I’d say no. But it’s a form of mental escape, not the beginning of entrepreneurship, and most of their energy goes into an unhealthy obsession with Korean pop and soap operas (Korean pop culture is HUGE in Saudi).

It gets frustrating trying to explain any of this to people over here. And it’s worse when you see idiot headlines like this TechCrunch nonsense about Riyadh becoming Silicon Valley, The host of this show, Andrew Keen, actually asks the relatively well-informed guest, Schroeder, if kids “…just start these things up in their garages…” as if everywhere in the world is either the California suburbs in Wozniak’s youth, or is striving to become as much like them as possible, as soon as possible.

That’s what makes Saudi Arabia so alien, interesting, horrible and memorable: They’re not striving to become the next San Jose, and they have the money to indulge their opposite urge, to not become that, to remain as unlike Silicon Valley as possible. Every minute of every day in the life of a Bay Area tech geek is impossible in Saudi, and most of it is just plain illegal.