It is impossible to tell how long Saudi Arabia’s Formula 1 course is, where it goes, or how it’s shaped. Whatever’s taking place down below the carving stations and espresso bars inside the soundproofed Paddock Club at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, down on a floodlit straightaway of asphalt so eerily pristine that it seems impossible a car has ever touched it, remains an auto-racing-themed abstraction even during a potential outbreak of real excitement. When defending world champion Max Verstappen’s engine failed mid-lap on qualifying night this past March, sending him to the back of the starting grid for the next evening’s grand prix, the image of his stalled race car on an overhead TV screen barely distracted the club level’s courtiers, VIPs, and professional schmoozers from their wagyu steak.
In contrast, cheers sometimes erupted from the opposite grandstand, where a more modest, more sports-focused, and seemingly unrelated event was taking place. That event could be visited by forsaking the wonders of the club lounge and stepping outside. Every few seconds an aeronautical sound-wave would suction the still desert air and a jet engine enclosed in insect skin, piloted by an international sporting celebrity whose face was impossible to see, zoomed by just long enough to hold a flickering perception of the vehicle’s brief physical presence. The brain-pinching whoosh entered through the right ear long before its origin appeared; by the time the whoosh exited the left ear its source was already deep into the unknowable frontier that lay beyond Turn 1. The smell of perfume overwhelmed whatever faint suggestion of combusting organic matter accidentally floated up to the loggia. It was a specifically Saudi perfume, arboreal instead of florid, and like the race car exhaust it had the nose-flooding sweetness of something burning.
The men all wore the perfume, and they were dressed almost exactly the same, in ankle-length, button-up white robes and red-on-white checkerboard headdresses held in place by a scalp-hugging black ring. One of the men I met, I was told, controlled $6 billion in real estate and commercial assets. Another was the son of a very senior diplomat, a man responsible for cutting deals with various problematic neighboring states.
Thanks to one such agreement, a Chinese-negotiated thaw in relations with Iran announced just eight days earlier, there would be no repeat of the ugliness surrounding last year’s grand prix, when Iranian-backed militants launched missiles at Jeddah shortly before the race and nearly succeeded in canceling it. The peace dividend was right here at the Paddock Club—I was told Will Smith was somewhere nearby. A white man with a sweater tied around his neck looked especially lost. Most of the white people on hand, like the European wagyu-slicers and the pair of young blond hostesses speaking Russian to one another, were there to wait on the Saudis, who might have traveled to Sochi or Monaco for an event like this before the race premiered in 2021.
In another reversal of decades of national precedent, the Saudi women were dressed with far greater individuality than the men. Their hair was often worn in long black tresses that streamed below the shoulders of tastefully concealing gowns. In a not-so-distant past, a pricey handbag was a Saudi woman’s only means of flaunting any higher status in public, a realm she could only enter when covered head-to-toe in a black abaya. The abayas are optional now, as are the hijabs. “We’d never imagined we’d be here from five years ago,” said Tala al Jabri, a Riyadh-based and U.S.-educated investor in Saudi-based tech startups, who, like most of the other younger women on hand, looked like she was dressed for a cold day in Beverly Hills.
Among the identically costumed men there is still a Saudi vision of egalitarianism on display, one that obscures everyone’s role and wealth in order to maintain a hierarchical reality. In photos on display at the Murabba Palace museum in Riyadh, King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, is dressed in almost the same robes as his servants. Abdulaziz and his six successors are buried in graves that are nearly unmarked and barely ever visited, in accordance with Salafi practice.
Saudi-style equality—namely, the equality of shared subjecthood, applicable to royals and commoners alike—reigns in one other obvious way at the Paddock Club. No amount of money or power will buy you a single drop of alcohol. “The beer is coming,” an official assured me as we drank guava juice out of sleek glass stemware. “We need it for business, for tourists.” The possible introduction of alcohol into a conservative tribal monarchy of 35 million whose government is responsible for overseeing the two holiest sites in Islam seems a prospect with no easily predictable outcome. But my interlocutor, like the government he worked for, was confident in his read of the current national mentality. “Most Saudis are convinced the alcohol ban is not for a religious reason,” he claimed. “In some schools of Islam, under 5% [alcohol by volume] is acceptable.”
The question of just how much change the Saudi crown can declare without threatening the integrity of the system it built has been dramatically answered in recent years. Since 2016, the palace, under the leadership of 37-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely referred to as MBS, has embarked on a bold program of social and economic reform. As Syria and Libya burned, ISIS consolidated control of northern Iraq, and the Egyptian military crushed the country’s brief spell of elected Muslim Brotherhood rule, Saudi women saw the rapid disappearance of such mainstays of national policy as the driving ban, compulsory hijab, male guardianship laws, and employment prohibitions. A nationwide ban on cinemas was lifted in 2018. The once-ubiquitous religious police still technically exist, but they are almost never seen in public anymore and have lost all of their formal powers. Saudi Arabia no longer exports fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam, long its state ideology, and has largely ceased the promotion of Wahhabism even within its own borders. The country began offering tourist visas for the first time in 2019, reversing a long-standing official fear of the contaminations of the outside world.
The palace has courted even greater dangers in the economic realm. The government introduced a value-added tax, essentially the first tax regime in the country’s history, and then raised the rate from 3% to as much as 15% while slashing subsidies on energy and food. The government’s sovereign wealth fund has led a massive shift in state investments, pivoting the public sector away from its usual focus on extractive industries and into new realms like tourism, real estate development, entertainment, logistics, and hazily innovation-related projects involving things like cryptocurrency trading and the construction of a cube-shaped Sim City arcology in central Riyadh.
Old trading families and the once-influential import sector have lost much of their former prominence. “Economic power in the private sector is changing hands,” explained Mohamed Alyahya, a Saudi political commentator and fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
The days of the palace using endless supplies of oil money and religious conservatism to drug Saudis into a mutually reinforcing culture of indolence and obedience are over.
MBS’s reforms, whose effects are plainly visible in every area of Saudi life, amount to a wholesale rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract. The days of the palace using endless supplies of oil money and religious conservatism to drug Saudis into a mutually reinforcing culture of indolence and obedience are over. In its place, the population is now meant to derive its sense of direction and meaning from a rebooted idea of Saudiness, while its wealth will now come from exciting new economic sectors. It will be possible for the government to create these sectors now that it has purged the kleptomania of the former order, mostly through the detainment of over 400 allegedly corrupt members of the royal family at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in late 2018.
With many of the old subsidies and handouts eliminated, the relationship between the state, the subject, and the market is no longer mediated through oil-financed social bribery: “It is a big mind-shift we’re trying to induce, of becoming productive citizens,” explained a young Saudi woman who worked on the reform package during her career as a private consultant, and is now studying for a graduate degree in the United States. “A productivity mindset, which is the essence of the vision, has been achieved,” she claimed.
The population has thus far accepted MBS’s changes with astounding equanimity—a possible result of having been trained for decades in obedience. There have been no tax riots or bread riots. There was no visible rearguard action by the old order, or at least none that inflamed or incited any divisions within society at large. Saudis went to work as shopkeepers and Uber drivers with little apparent complaint—not that public complaining is socially tolerated or even all that legal in Saudi Arabia—with some treating participation in the new economy as a kind of patriotic duty.
MBS is gambling that the fruits of openness and modernity can be reaped on Saudi terms, and that prosperity, stability, and a recharged, secularized sense of national purpose won’t shatter existing norms or generate dangerous civic appetites. The reforms have created a rising class of ambitious executives, entrepreneurs, and artists, and for now almost everyone seems to accept the idea of a national horizon defined by the wisdom and vision of a single family, and perhaps even a single man. His program has created an atmosphere muggy with floating potential, as the palace carries out an uncertain experiment on tens of millions of people. MBS’s subjects could be the engine and the beneficiaries of the only successful 21st-century governance project in any populous Middle Eastern state—or they could mark the disastrous limits of utopia declared from on high.
The young former consultant who worked on the reforms described them as “fast-paced social nudges, rather than shocks.” Some nudges are less subtle than others, and one of them comes in the form of a vast and mostly empty construction site surrounding an isolated gray slab south of the Jeddah race track. “Here they are building the world’s tallest tower,” a young government official told me, referring to the slab. “Here is the megaproject, downtown Jeddah. It is one of the five megaprojects.”
The word “megaproject” fails to fully capture the awesome scope of reform-era Saudi ambition. Saudi Arabia has become perhaps the only country on earth where the term “gigaproject” is employed without irony. Behind the future downtown was a glorious sunset, yellow fire turning palm trees into arching shadows, with the light breaking through a sky of soft neon blue. There were no human beings anywhere near the deserted base of the future tower, in the empty center of a city of nearly 4 million.
Who will live and work in this high-rising city-within-a-city an hour-and-a-half from Mecca and 10 minutes from the excitement and inconvenience of an annual Formula 1 grand prix? The answer, broadly speaking, is young Saudis, the roughly 40% of the country that’s under the age of 25. “This is going to have a very young population,” promised one official who showed off a model of Diriyah, a city-size planned sector of Riyadh built in traditional clay-colored crenelated north Arabian architecture. If completed, Diriyah will have 500 times the square footage of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards project.
Significant portions of Diriyah, including an attractive dining and retail district opposite the ruins of Turaif, the place where the Saud dynasty was launched in the 18th century, have already been built. The neighborhood-in-progress is where nationalism, development, and high-end consumption have already merged into a tangible whole. An Ivy League-educated Saudi financier in his mid-20s I met suspected that 10 years from now most of his social circle will have relocated to Neom, the futuristic megacity-by-decree planned for an empty stretch of Red Sea coastline 100 miles south of Eilat.
There have also been policy “nudges”: For instance, the Saudi government has implemented a new requirement that any company whose largest regional client is the Saudi state must have its Middle East headquarters somewhere inside of Saudi Arabia itself, which is part of a broader attempt to force large corporate offices to relocate from the United Arab Emirates. Other nudges have come in the form of capital, much of it from the government’s $620 billion Public Investment Fund. In another bid to keep young people engaged and employed, the state has taken a marked interest in every manner of tech play, pouring money into online retail and ride-sharing. The Central Bank has started its own “fintech sandbox,” which will make it easier for nontraditional financial institutions to operate in the country, explained Tala al Jabri, the startup investor. “I would not be investing in startups if I didn’t think they had a culture to disrupt markets,” she said as we both ignored the action below us on the Corniche Circuit. “Startups believe the government has their back,” al Jabri continued. “They think they can succeed because they think the government wants them to succeed.”
Many of the big winners of the reforms are private companies working in sectors that the government now prioritizes. This includes defense manufacturing. When I met Hmoud Alshethre, the youthful and modest executive director of alliances at the Riyadh offices of Intra Defense Technologies, he was dressed in the standard-issue white robe, with a model of a handheld drone perched behind him. A succession of large, white South African men came in to briefly interrupt a generously long discussion held over dates, nuts, and an endless supply of lightly spiced Gulf-style coffee. Intra’s small unmanned aircraft can survey the country’s isolated desert frontiers and oil pipelines, which are often the targets of Iranian-backed sabotage.
“We have a very reasonable government here,” Alshethre explained. The ultimate proof of the government’s “reasonableness,” in Alshethre’s telling, was that it had sensed an incipient popular urge for a different kind of life: The reforms are working, he said, because “people are willing to change.” As evidence, he showed me a government smartphone app called Tawakalna, which aggregates every imaginable official document and service. Tawakalna lists your passport information, traffic violations, and vehicular paperwork; the ownership of a car can be transferred through the app, as can power of attorney and commercial registrations. It has copies of your birth certificate and your real estate deeds, your health information, your international travel record, and a digital kiblah for locating the direction of Mecca during prayer. This is a level of government power over the individual that few democratic citizens would tolerate, merged with a logic and seamlessness that few democratic governments seem capable of delivering these days.
But the most important thing about Tawakalna is that it proved Saudis could rapidly accept a digitally based and state-controlled civic existence. “The government could launch an app and assure that 80% of the population would use it,” Alshethre claimed.
Citizens in a democracy, including the elected leadership, must resign themselves to the wondrous and horrible reality that public space is basically unmanageable, and that the state probably can’t forcibly eliminate things one might think are unspeakably evil, like gun ownership or abortion or the fentanyl trade. The Saudi government takes the opposite approach: The state exerts a tight grip over the public realm while respecting its subjects’ traditional sovereignty over the home. Private spaces are still considered sacrosanct—the police don’t go hunting for alcohol or sexual deviancy beyond locked doors, and unless you’re a jihadist, there is no Mukhabarat that seeks to penetrate the inner spaces of your true self. “There are consequences for expression here,” as one Riyadh intellectual put it, “but not for thought. You can think whatever you want.”
Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t pretend to be a Jeffersonian democrat, and nobody pretends to have voted for him.
The system’s essential clarity explains why the Saudi leadership is so convinced that the population will continue to trust in its guidance and vision even as society becomes freer and more exposed to the outside world. There is mass deception at work in most autocracies, which retain the ceremonies of democratic procedure and other performances of civic openness in order to hide which section of the regime or the security services actually holds power—or to create the constant sense of terror that comes with living in a place where the rules are strategically obscured. There are no comparable lies at play in Saudi Arabia, according to Alyahya. “Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t pretend to be a Jeffersonian democrat, and nobody pretends to have voted for him,” he explained.
The system functions not only because of what it can provide, but because the expectations and lines of authority are so clear. They have only gotten clearer lately. I asked Tariq Alhomayed, the former editor of the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and a host on Saudi television, about what first made him think the reforms weren’t an illusion or a ploy. There was the consistency of the government’s messaging, Alhomayed replied, along with the speed of new development projects. “But the main thing was the Ritz,” he said.
In the fall of 2018, the new crown prince detained 400 of his relatives at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh and pressured nearly all of them to turn over billions of dollars that they had allegedly embezzled from the state. At the time, the Ritz gambit seemed like an arbitrary and maniacal power grab. But much was accomplished. MBS broke the old economic elite, allowing a new one to arise in its place. The Ritz was part of the crown’s indigenization push: The crackdown fell hardest on figures who had expatriated the people’s wealth, spending their money on yachts and fancy real estate far beyond the kingdom’s borders.
The Ritz gambit showed that the crown prince could act decisively against perceived enemies, including within his own family. Some of them had publicly aligned with U.S. intelligence agencies that saw the reforms as a threat to their own longstanding, quasi-corrupt relationships inside the kingdom. The Ritz also encapsulated the sensitivity to the public psyche that has made the reforms so risky and yet successful so far: MBS was announcing to his subjects that their own government had been stealing from them for decades with total impunity—and, by implication, with the blessing of the crown—while also assuring them that the problem was on its way to being solved.
The Ritz itself is an opulent and isolated megacomplex towering over the beige desert fringes of the downtown sprawl. It is built in a Louis XIV aesthetic, the look of late European monarchy, with filigrees and columns and porticos damming the invisible floodwaters. The interior is cladded in especially severe Islamic patterns, stark and eye-straining networks of latticed domes and interlocking geometries. Statues of four white horses on their hind legs rear over the junction between the lobby and the main dining room, proclaiming an innocent tribute to the Arabian stallion as well as the apocalypse.
A Saudi friend who took me to the hotel explained that it had originally been built as a royal guest house, to accompany the pineapple-domed conference center located one compound over. The palace that contained the actual Saudi royal court was nearby too, though it was far enough off the main highway to be unseeable to a casual visitor. In a more-than-symbolic demonstration that the crown didn’t consider itself exempt from the market-bound logic of the reform package, MBS ordered that the free VIP hotel instead be used as a for-profit facility, with the future operator paying a royalty to the government.
It was lunch inside the dining room, where armies of uniformed Filipino and Pakistani migrant laborers, almost all of them men, attended to a cornucopia of global cuisines arrayed across a vast mileage of bars and buffet tables, with the dull desert light pouring through the back windows of a space too massive to see all at once. A bass and guitar murmured while a woman without a hijab sang in French, every element of it a violation of Salafi injunctions regarding music, art, and gender roles. My friend pointed out a middle-aged couple, a woman in a black abaya across from a man whose headdress lacked the usual black ring. This omission symbolized humility before God and served as the local way of announcing yourself as a committed Islamic fundamentalist. A tall glass of a ruby-colored substance accompanied his expensive lunch.
For my friend, this surreal mix of the forbidden and the permitted at the site of MBS’s greatest administrative masterstroke summed up Saudi Arabia’s entire present situation. “The religious guy with fake sangria and a band playing,” he summarized, as he noticed me tapping away at my iPhone notes. “There’s your scene.”
Yet the Ritz turns out to be one of the least representative places in the entire city. Riyadh is the epicenter of the reform era’s goal of reorienting the Saudi economy around technology, services, and internal consumption. As a result, the young people moving back from Dubai or newly returned from Harvard actually have places to go and things to do now—hookah lounges, which offended the sensibilities of the religious conservatives who ran Riyadh for decades, were finally legalized in 2019. There is remarkably good arrabbiata and risotto on offer for $30 a plate, along with English speakers in their mid 20s to eat it with.
“There’s so much more drama in American social circles than in Saudi social circles,” one lunch companion, a recent Ivy graduate now working in the newly sprouted forest of sky-high squiggles and cantilevers that forms Riyadh’s King Fahad Financial District, recalled of his time back in America. Dressed in the usual white robe, he blamed it all on American dating culture. We were joined by a woman in discrete Western-style dress and no hijab, who was also back from a fancy education stateside and working for an investment bank in Riyadh. “In America,” she said, “you have to watch what you say ... we have to give them tolerance, but there was no tolerance back to us.” Everyone in America, she said, “is super sensitive.” The young man agreed: Educated Americans were in fact so sensitive that they didn’t have the ability to debate anything except by indirection. “In American society you can never say something is bad: You say that it’s bad for children. In Saudi you’d appeal to religion, not to children’s welfare.” In another city we might have been drinking a white wine made for dry and sunny afternoons. At this restaurant our best option was a mysteriously ash-clouded lemonade infused with charcoal. I pointed out that New York City banned activated charcoal as an ingredient in foods and beverages in 2018.
Today, Riyadh is the second-largest city in the Arab Middle East by population, smaller than permanently dysfunctional Cairo and slightly larger than war-rattled Baghdad. After a brief 1960s flirtation with density and walkability overseen by a Greek urban planner, the infinite space of the desert was divided into giant kilometer-by-kilometer squares and the new oil economy ballooned the city into its current endlessness of shopping malls, walled villas, and eight-lane roads. The old downtown, the one place in Riyadh with lively street life, is now a bustling neighborhood of Filipino and Pakistani migrant workers. Everywhere the traffic design verges on the vindictive: The main arteries are split between a tangle of service lanes, protected turning lanes, underpasses, exits, and entries that dismay, flummox, and terrify people who are familiar with it all. Because these highwaylike streets lack any logical turnaround points, it is common to wind up on the wrong side of the road and have 20 minutes added to your journey.
Given the psychic stress of just getting around, it is a miracle, or perhaps a triumph of tribal-based desert social solidarity, that the people of Riyadh are so unfailingly easygoing and so lacking in any visible suspicion or aggressiveness once they’re off the roads. It is perhaps the only major Middle Eastern city where bargaining in the souks feels impolite.
In Riyadh the current lack of dedicated public space, along with Salafism’s hostility toward any shared public aesthetic experience, has displaced much of the artistic energy into interior design. Riyadh is glutted with sleekly decorated coffee shops that don’t open until the early afternoon, and sometimes not until the late afternoon, since the city is nocturnal even in the winter. There are a conspicuous number of kitchen supply stores; the souks offer elaborate jewelry that’s barely ever worn in public, along with oceans of perfume and incense. It is an economy set up around things a visitor will not see unless they’re invited into a private home.
The public Riyadh is a pale outer layer of the private city, which is an almost complete inversion of life in New York, or even in Cairo. The homes themselves are inscrutable from the outside, walled-off domains with servants, endless coffee services, and majlises, courtlike traditional living rooms where friends and family lounge for hours on elegant floor cushions. Among the Riyadhi elite, it is common to have an entire separate, villa-size majlis where nobody actually lives.
The visible security presence in Riyadh is light both by regional standards and any standard, although things like the total public absence of alcohol or the state-mandated calorie counts on every single restaurant menu confirms the authorities’ thoroughgoing control. There are plentiful signs of an enduring conservatism, like separate women’s entrances for banks (newly optional), curtained-off booths at restaurants, and a relative lack of mixed company even at the hipper and newer coffee houses. The reforms have not yet destroyed the existing social system. And yet, they are meant to turn Saudis into workers and taxpayers, and to change their attitudes toward everything from romance to art to foreign travel.
Perhaps MBS’s project goes even further than that. In JAX, a government-created arts warehouse district near Diriyah, there is an elaborate exhibition previewing Neom, the planned city under construction on the northwestern coast of the Red Sea. Most of its millions of projected inhabitants will live in The Line, a single 100-mile structure, 660-by-1,500 feet, extending into the desert. What will be contained within it is scarcely imaginable, even by teams of world-renowned architects. The concept models at the JAX exhibition are baffling entanglements of walkways, staircases, upside-down skyscrapers and parkland stretching toward an uncannily indoor vanishing point. “This is a cognitive city that will not only adapt to your needs but learn to anticipate them,” a soft and robotic female voice promised during an introductory video. It is “a portal connecting the digital and the physical, conceived by the visionary mind of his highness, Mohammed bin Salman.”
There were no houses of worship depicted in The Line, no women in hijabs, no men in robes walking among the indoor rivers and hanging towers. Present-day Saudi Arabia is car country, but in Neom the whole city is on a single train line, and everything is meant to be walkable within 15 minutes. In The Line, your community would be defined by the people you lived near, not by your family or your origins.
“In essence, we are building a newly composed biome,” one video informed me. What, if anything, did this mean, and was it meant to mean anything? Would the cantilevered parks become a suicide hazard? There couldn’t be anything less Saudi than The Line, I thought, a place with no walled villas, a dream in the mind of an obscured, humanized God, the god of architects or urban planners, or maybe of especially grandiose kings. Even Diriyah, despite its traditional-style architecture, represents a stark rejection of spacious homes walled off from forbidding highways—the kinds of places where the children might stick around until they get married—in favor of denser blocks of apartments and single-family houses. Diriyah will be connected to downtown Riyadh by a thick greenbelt planted with 20 million trees, which will have a pedestrian and bicycle highway named after the crown prince. Six million of those trees have already been planted, I was told.
In my discussions with Saudi officials, they always emphasized the speed of the reforms: The idea is to fund a massive economic and social transition while oil is still in high demand, and then build an entirely new economy in time for the 40% of the population that’s now under 25-years-old to actually have something meaningful and productive to do with their lives. Part of the reason Saudi Arabia signed on to the recent Chinese-brokered diplomatic normalization with Iran was to pause the onslaught of Tehran-supported drone, missile, and cyber attacks against the kingdom, securing the peaceful conditions under which the crown’s development package could be implemented. Several officials pointed out to me that speed was important because it meant the changes could rapidly become tangible to ordinary Saudis. This marked another curious instance of the monarchy showing a kind of backhanded concern for what its subjects think: The government recognizes that its citizens will not automatically trust that the country is changing unless they can see the changes themselves.
In Riyadh, Saudis can experience the permanence and seriousness of the reforms at Boulevard World, an Epcot-like circuit of nationally themed zones circling an ameboid artificial lake. I walked around it gobsmacked for hours, listening to tabla players at the fake Taj Mahal, watching a costumed procession through fake Morocco, dangling in a cable car over the robin’s egg domes of fake Greece, and perusing the Naruto figurines in fake Japan. I considered eating at the Nathan’s Famous in fake America, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. In Dubai, the malls and theme parks are pitched at tourists, but at Boulevard World I went long spells without seeing even one other Westerner. Entire large families were out together, the adults in robes and abayas. Any dating was so discreet as to be invisible.
At AREA15, an amusement park version of a warehouse rave located a few buildings over from a fake Mayan pyramid, women in abayas and their robe-clad husbands watched a hijab-less female DJ bop to a bass-heavy mix of an Arabic wedding song. Strobes and lasers flashed. The turntable podium helpfully read “AREA15 Riyadh,” perhaps so that Instagrammers might broadcast to their countrymen and to the rest of the world that yes, this really is happening—the changes are real, or else this wouldn’t be possible.
Like so much else in reform-era Saudi Arabia, Boulevard World is credited to the unique vision of some prince or another. It was built in a mere 81 days according to Ahmed Al Mehmadi, the chief marketing and communications officer for the Saudi Arabian government’s General Entertainment Authority. We met in the back of a hotel conference hall that had been converted into a vast office during Riyadh Season, an annual series of events focused on the capital during the milder winter months. There were “14 zones of activation” during Riyadh Season, Al Mehmadi explained. Behind him was row after row of young adults in a mix of Western and Middle Eastern business-casual dress whose age seemed to average out to 25 at most.
Al Mehmadi, raised partly in London and educated in Riyadh, wore a long white robe, and had a prayer rug and a small statuette of a white Arabian stallion on his desk. Boulevard World, he said, was home to the world’s largest statue of Grendizer, a character from a globally popular anime franchise that he’d loved as a child in Saudi Arabia in the ’90s.
I asked Al Mehmadi if there was some deeper message to Boulevard World. Maybe the place is telling Saudis not to fear other nations or cultures after a long spell of paranoiac conservative governance? It was much simpler than that, Al Mehmadi replied. “We’re telling people you can enjoy your life, you can enjoy being here.”
Saudis didn’t have to travel to Dubai to go to a theme park anymore. And no one had forced anyone to go to Boulevard World—this was something Saudis had apparently already wanted, and the government had now given it to them. By this point, “People are used to a certain way of living,” Al Mehmadi said of the reforms. “It can’t go back.”
For now, the Saudi system has brought newfound normalcy to 35 million people in a time when the Arab republics collapsed into mayhem and every regional democratization effort foundered, backslid, or failed. But even if the reforms stick, at some point, maybe 30 years from now—which is both a long time and also less time than it seems—the majority of Saudis will have no strong memory of how oppressive their country used to be. For the reforms to have really been successful, those future Saudis will have to believe in the monarchy for reasons other than the half-forgotten opening of an earlier generation. Something larger has to endure.
To that end, a multi-square-kilometer dust pit east of downtown Riyadh, now a construction site of terrifyingly Pharaonic scope, will be the location of King Salman Park. A futuristic collection of museums and cultural institutions called the Royal Arts Complex will run through the park’s central axis. The government has already launched two arts biennales, one held under the canopies of the former hajj terminal at the Jeddah airport, and one in the desert city of al-Ula, near a notable collection of ancient Nabatean ruins. A cultural ecosystem, along with a burgeoning local fine art market, has been decreed into existence. “If you’re developing an arts sector,” one government official pointed out, “a biennale is the end of the value chain.”
Art existed in Saudi Arabia before the reforms, just as art has existed in every human context across all of time. As the internationally known Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem explained to me, a would-be artist in his country used to encounter the paradoxes of the state’s fundamentalist ideology even as a young child. “From the first day of elementary school, when they were teaching us to practice the execution of images in schoolbooks,” he recalled, “we had to draw a line across the necks of all creatures with a soul, and the heads of images of animals and people. The teachers said: To create an image is the job of Allah. If you leave it to exist, you are going to be punished and go to hell. I was only 6 years old. And I was wondering why I had to do this, because those images were there on the paper. The government had printed them.”
Gharem joined the military to “hide from being an artist,” he told me. He spent 25 years as an armory and supply specialist and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Then he became perhaps the leading conceptual artist in Saudi Arabia, someone who gained global renown while working within the strict limits of a system he intimately knew, and to which he remained loyal. A decade before the reforms, his ghostly photographs of the mushroom-topped, nonnative trees that were often planted along city streets became a comment on how unnatural, constructed, and imposed the national commons had become. In another photo from the early 2000s, a Quranic word meaning “path” repeatedly appeared on a bridge where villagers had died during a flash flood, sheltering there on the advice of a local sheikh. Obedience can either rescue you or kill you, the work suggested.
Gharem’s studio is in a high-ceilinged villa in a Riyadh neighborhood that had been trendy in the ’60s and ’70s, during the city’s initial period of rapid expansion. The house has a crystalline wall of high windows, a cactus garden, and that most essential of Riyadh amenities, a wall that blocks any view from the outside. In the studio there are intriguing mounds of found objects awaiting some artistic use. Why the pile of antique luggage? “I was in the military for 25 years,” was Gharem’s full explanation. A multivolume set of religious texts, the ones where the spines combine to spell out a Quranic phrase in Arabic, sat near books dedicated to the works of Richard Serra, Ai Weiwei, and James Turrell. Gharem himself had a wiry frame and bushy gray hair. He wore turquoise shoes and a florid button-up shirt, and smoked liberally.
“I belong to freedom of thought more than freedom of expression,” Gharem explained. “The freedom of thought is a human right, and a person’s free actions occur primarily in the mind and not in nature.
“As an artist,” he added, “you can’t fall back on where you belong.”
Thanks to the reforms, someone like Gharem, who believes that an artist can never become overly captive to their surroundings or to their own identity, is now in the strange position of having to be skeptical of something that’s directly helped him. “You can be an artist—not hiding like before,” he said of the changes he’s seen since 2016. “The government gives us infrastructure we never would have dreamed of when we were young.” In an earlier time, “You never would’ve told your neighbor you were taking your daughter to a private piano teacher.
“Today we are living a grand narrative: The enlightenment that we were waiting for has begun from within,” he continued. “Despite the fact that some perceive it as a harsh enlightenment, there is great progress.”
Dubai, the Gulf’s reigning logistics and financial hub and one of the Middle East’s few real bastions of cosmopolitanism, is often seen as the value proposition for what a more liberal Saudi Arabia could be. But one important commonality between Dubai and whatever Saudi Arabia is becoming is that neither are democratic accomplishments. What disturbs an American visitor about Riyadh, and Dubai for that matter, is the possibility that for the time being, liberal idealism has little it can credibly add to the market-driven vision of order, harmony, and ambition that surrounds them. The enlightenment might be harsh. Did that mean it couldn’t also be real?
After the Formula 1 qualifier was over, there was an after-party where Charlie Puth performed in front of tens of thousands of teenagers cloaked in darkness. No, this wasn’t some different and less-famous person named Charlie, I realized shortly after arriving midset. One of the world’s biggest pop stars and TikTok icons seemed to really be enjoying himself up there, dressed in a red leather jacket with cream-colored sleeves. “Your food is the best food I’ve ever had in the entire world,” he gushed, with visible surprise at how nonmedieval his host country had proved to be. He read signs in the crowd between numbers: “‘Hii, with two i’s. Yes, hello!” He sang “Loser,” a song about dating and alcohol abuse, here in a dry country where quasi-arranged marriages are still common. “Thanks for being one of the most impressive crowds we’ve ever played for,” he beamed. Next up was Swedish House Mafia, who headlined Coachella last year. “I don’t know how they’re going to dance to Swedish House Mafia without any drinks,” wondered a Frenchman watching next to me on the VIP deck, before correctly predicting that Sergio Perez would win the next day’s grand prix.
The robe people, the well-connected types in their mid-30s, dominated the sedate and uncrowded club section, which loomed over a festival-sized pit. I set out for the lower shadows, curious as to which Saudis belonged in the less rarified strata of concertgoers. What I saw were thousands of young people practicing at being mirror images of American teens: The boys wore Death Row Records hoodies and fake Balenciaga, and I spotted dew rags, tight leather jackets, cornrows, and a shirt coated in black sequins. Travis Scott, popular in Saudi Arabia, was headlining the post-race show the next night.
The girls mostly wore jeans; exposed belly buttons were about as common as hijabs, which is to say the number of both was noticeably higher than zero. There was plentiful, unashamed mixed company, although I did see a couple jerk their heads away from each other mid-kiss, realizing they were now under the floodlights near the exit of the hulking amphitheater. What will happen in a few years when half the guys here are drunk? I wondered. Maybe half of them were already drunk and their cultural environment had made them adept at keeping it secret. It was awfully dark up front.
Swedish House Mafia was a black outline against a horizon of screens, lasers, and bursts of fire. They played at supernatural volumes, the punishing bass combining with naive peals of melody to induce brief spells of disembodiment. The great majority of Saudis still didn’t know who Swedish House Mafia was, but there were relatively privileged teenagers on hand whose lives would probably never be the same again, and who—perhaps without consciously realizing it—had just felt the exhilaration of seeing their world begin and end in the same flash of light.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.