"There ain’t no party like a Riyadh party” I told my friends as I set off. I was leading a delegation of MPs to what I saw as surely one of the most closed-off and secretive countries in the world – Saudi Arabia.
I was full of questions. Would the little garnet cross round my neck cause a diplomatic incident? Would any of the Saudi men actually speak to a woman leading a delegation? Awkward. I was going to have to wear an abaya – the long robe and headscarf of the Saudi women. What on earth does one wear underneath? The Moroccan ladies in the abaya shop on Edgware Road were very kind and, on learning I was off to Saudi Arabia, helped me pick an elegant black garment, and advised against short skirts underneath. I was then on my way and ready to feel oppressed.
Disappointment of my expectations was quick to arrive. As we got ready to land in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I donned my black abaya and prepared to feel the first real touches of oppression. My expectations were rudely shattered by the energetic young woman – a woman! – from the Saudi Embassy who met us, un‑headscarfed with flowing hair, sporting an abaya of glorious colour, with her male colleagues following behind her. “Take your headscarf off!” she laughed.
Things in Saudi Arabia were not as I had been led to believe at all. Un‑headscarved women in coffee shops would grab my arm and excitedly tell me how the Religious Police had been stripped of their powers. How just one year ago, things were quite different and that this time next year, things would have changed even more. This time next year there would be mixed-gender cinema, and music concerts… and already the head of the Saudi Stock Exchange is a woman.
As I stood outside the Victoria’s Secret lingerie shop in a Riyadh mall, faced with lacy underwear in the shop window, I felt distinctly cheated. Here was the secret Saudi Arabia the West never sees. The era of ever-more clamping down was evidently over and I had missed it. The thaw had begun.
The name on everyone’s lips was the young man largely responsible for all this – the young Deputy Crown Prince who has just been appointed first in line to the throne: Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Through film-set opulence and incense, we were led to meet the great man. And great he was. A towering physical presence, in his early thirties, bursting with energy and vision. Stopping occasionally to correct his poor interpreter, and jocularly intervening in immaculate English, he set out his vision for a modern Saudi Arabia. With his booming laugh, you got the impression that here was a man who was driving through change in his country using the sheer force of his intellect and personality.
Make no mistake – Saudi Arabia is a deeply complex country, with practices that we in the West find abhorrent. It is engaged as part of a pro‑government coalition in Yemen’s civil war with its immense human cost, and no easy answer. But these aspects are all we ever see in the West.
As I sat as a guest at Riyadh’s great camel festival, I reflected that I have never encountered a country changing so fast; albeit a precarious change, with powerful opponents among the radical Islamic groups. That is the secret Saudi I discovered, and the man behind it all is now next in line to be king.