Queer Sheik

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).
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