In Jeddah, the glass and marble shopping malls of this cosmopolitan and comparatively laid-back Saudi city on the Red Sea have long served as a meeting place for Saudi boys and girls. They slip each other bits of paper with their names and mobile-phone numbers scribbled on them and later meet up in the family sections of the malls' many Western-style restaurants, where mingling of the sexes is allowed.
In recent months, however, Jeddah's malls have also become meeting places for gay Saudi men, who openly make passes at each other. And at a disco north of the city, whose existence is an open secret, gay men gather each week to drink beer (which is also officially prohibited), dance together to Western music, and introduce their partners to friends. Carmen bin Laden, the sister-in-law of Osama bin Laden, recently published a book, in French, in which she tells of lesbian affairs among the kingdom's wealthiest women.
Traditionally, self-identified gays and lesbians who openly displayed their sexual preferences lived in mortal fear in Saudi Arabia. Homosexuality has long been illegal here, and, in theory, the official punishment for sodomy is death. In January 2002, the Saudi interior ministry reported that three men in the southern city of Abha had been 'beheaded for homosexuality,' although one Saudi diplomat said the men were executed for raping boys. Periodically, gay Westerners in the kingdom were fired from Saudi companies. One long-term expatriate says employers have told friends of his, 'You have 24 hours to leave the kingdom, or we'll inform the authorities of your behavior.'
But in some Saudi cities the authorities have started to look the other way. In part, the government has realized that the thousands of Saudis who have recently returned from the United States because of stricter visa policies, and who are relatively liberal-minded, are unwilling to countenance such harsh antigay policies. 'I don't feel oppressed at all,' said one gay man, a 23-year-old returnee from the United States who was meeting in a coffee shop with a group of gay Saudi friends dressed in Western clothes and speaking fluent English.
Saudi Arabia's domestic reform initiative and the government's eagerness to shed its international reputation for intolerance are also factors. In recent months, Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler, has called for greater debate within the society and more freedom of expression in the press. Consequently, previously taboo subjects are discussed more openly, and some Saudis have begun to question the harsh tactics of the fearsome religious police, who enforce public morals.
Slightly freer to cover gay and lesbian issues, the Jeddah-based daily newspaper Okaz recently reported that lesbianism was 'endemic' among schoolgirls: The article revealed salacious details of lesbian sex in school bathrooms. Despite the Okaz report, Ibrahim bin Abdullah bin Ghaith, head of the religious police, said he would not send enforcers to investigate -- perhaps because of pressure from higher officials. He even acknowledged recently, in unusually tempered language, that gay Saudis exist.
What's more, the kingdom's Internet Services Unit, which is responsible for blocking sites deemed un-Islamic or politically sensitive, recently unblocked access to a home page for gay Saudi surfers after being bombarded with critical e-mails from the United States. Saudi Arabia seemed concerned about the bad publicity that blocking the site would bring, said A. S. Getenio, manager of GayMiddleEast.com, a Web site devoted to homosexual issues in the Arab world.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia is still a closed society, as became clear recently when the cutting edge of foreign gay culture tried to land on the kingdom's shores. Saudi authorities raided a house in the city of Medina and arrested dozens of gay men who had apparently gathered to witness the wedding of a Saudi man and his male Sudanese partner.
John R. Bradley is the author of the forthcoming Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and Politics in the Wahhabi Kingdom. From The New Republic (April 27, 2004). Subscriptions: $79.97/yr. (45 issues) from 1331 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20005