JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia—From the outside, Effat College doesn't seem like a bellwether of change. The all-girls school in Jeddah, a port city on the coast of the Red Sea, is rimmed by unscalable high walls and an empty parking lot, resembling the scene of a freshly departed circus in Middle America. In many ways, the college's exterior illustrates conventional misperceptions—closed, drab, and unwelcoming—of modern Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the only thing less inviting is the bold, red lettering at the top of the form handed to visitors as they enter the kingdom, which reads: "WARNING: Death to Drug Traffickers."
But inside the walls of Effat College, female students stroll along the campus pathways with their heads and faces uncovered when male visitors are not around. Some of the students even play sports—something traditionally off-limits to young women in the kingdom. Two weeks after my visit, the college was due to host a basketball tournament, fielding squads from all over Saudi Arabia and even one from Beirut. I asked Dr. Rania Mohammad Ibrahim, an Egyptian professor at the college, if women shooting hoops didn't provoke the country's conservative clerics. "We must tread calmly," she admitted. "We are moving forward slowly, but steadily."
Saudi Arabia is considered one of the world's worst violators of human rights. International organizations regularly chastise the kingdom for its mistreatment of liberals, journalists, religious minorities, and especially women. In February, a U.N. report concerning women's rights in the Arab world found severe inequalities between men and women, highlighted by women's inability to seek legal protection from violent husbands—or to even drive a car.
But Saudi society is also in the midst of a minor social revolution, as several faculty members at Effat College could attest. Effat College was founded in 1999, in honor of Queen Effat, the wife of the late King Faisal. Faisal ruled from 1964 to 1975. The current king, Abdullah, fashions himself as a reformer, much like his half-brother Faisal. Soon after taking power in 2005, Abdullah flew to the Vatican to the meet the pope, and more recently he called for interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Such a statement is not taken lightly in Saudi Arabia, where anti-Semitism is rife. (One night at a dinner in Riyadh, a Saudi man informed me that Jews had funded Christopher Columbus' expedition to America.) "This is one of the only countries in the world where the government wants change more than the people do," said Faisal bin Abdur Rahman bin Muammar, secretary-general of the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue.
If a government wants to implement wide-ranging reforms, it needs money. Fortunately for Abdullah, there's no shortage of that. With oil at $115 a barrel, and Saudi Arabia holding the world's largest oil reserves, Abdullah is flush with cash. (A gallon of gasoline costs around 73 cents here.) And yet, rather than relying solely on energy revenues for the future, the kingdom is striving to diversify. The Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority champions the slogan "10 in 10"—that is, to become the 10th most competitive economy in the world by 2010. In its debut on the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report this year, Saudi Arabia ranked 35th, surpassing Italy and Portugal. And in the 2008 "Doing Business" report, sponsored in part by the World Bank, Saudi Arabia ranked 23rd in the "ease of doing business" category, beating out Spain, Austria, and Israel. American economic gurus have taken note, too; Michael Dell of Dell Computers recently lunched at SAGIA's office.
Saudi Arabia's economic development depends on the labor of foreign workers. An estimated 27 million people live in the kingdom, of which at least 6 million are migrants from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Saudis have always despised manual labor, perhaps because of confidence stemming from their oil wealth, or perhaps because the concept of royalty pervades society. Many Saudis live as if the world were their five-star hotel, with bellboys and waiters and maids always eager to please. In 1962, the kingdom abolished slavery, though human rights organizations argue that expat workers are subjected to inhuman conditions today. One Saudi man in his late 20s confessed that, should he take a scholarship to study overseas, he would end up spending thousands of dollars a year on underwear. At his home in Riyadh, his family kept a Filipino cook, driver, and maid who washed his briefs. "I don't know how to cook or to clean my clothes," he told me. "So, whenever I am in the United States, I just wear my underwear once … and then throw them away."
Saudis have had a tough time studying in the United States since 15 of their countrymen flew airplanes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Though glimmers of progress appear throughout the kingdom, the modern Saudi state is nonetheless founded on a strategic marriage between despotism and Islamic fundamentalism. A contract between the House of Saud and Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab in the late 18th century made Wahhabism the state ideology. The agreement was signed in Dir'aiyah, a village of mud-spackled homes barely an hour outside Riyadh.
On the way to Dir'aiyah one afternoon, our car pulled beside a minivan loaded with female students. All the girls wore full veils over their heads and across their faces. Only their mascara-lined eyes shined through a slit of black cloth. One, sporting raspberry-colored bangles around her wrists, and another, her fingernails painted bright yellow, waved, smiled, and blew kisses in our direction. I assumed, from their conservative dress and the dilapidated minivan, that they were returning to households considerably more modest than the ones Effat College students went home to. Perhaps some of these girls, after a long day of hitting the books, were heading back to abusive homes.
But I could guess that few of the girls' mothers had the chance to go to school. Maybe this was the kind of slow, steady change Dr. Ibrahim referred to. Regardless of the pace, however, the girls' smiles and kisses reflected happiness. Oil, when it is priced at $115 a barrel, can do that for a country.