In the glass and marble shopping malls of this cosmopolitan and comparatively laid-back city on the Red Sea, young Saudi Arabian men are taking advantage of the emergence of an increasingly tolerated Western-oriented gay scene.
Certain malls are known as cruising areas, and there are even gay-friendly coffee shops. A big gay disco takes place at a private villa in the north of the city once a week. And young Saudis who frequent these venues, many returnees from the United States after the 11 September 2001 attacks, say that they get to know one another through the Internet.
The paradox of Saudi Arabia is that while the executioner’s sword awaits anyone convicted of the crime of sodomy, in practice homosexuality is tolerated.
“I don’t feel oppressed at all,” said one, a 23-year-old who was meeting in one of the coffee shops with a group of self-identified “gay” Saudi friends dressed in Western clothes and speaking fluent English. “I heard that after 11 September, a Saudi student who was going to be deported on a visa technicality applied for political asylum because he was gay,” he added, provoking laughter from the others. “What was he thinking of? We have more freedom here than straight couples. After all, they can’t kiss in public like we can, or stroll down the street holding one another’s hand.
“Saudi Arabia’s domestic reform initiative, combined with the kingdom’s eagerness to shed an international reputation for fostering extremism and intolerance, may even have some benefits for this strict Islamic society’s gay community.
Shortly after the attacks on America – most of the suicide-hijackers were Saudi nationals – a Saudi diplomat in Washington denied that the kingdom beheads homosexuals, while openly admitting that “sodomy” is practised by consenting males in Saudi Arabia “on a daily basis”. Even the head of the notorious religious police has since acknowledged the existence of a local gay population.
The treatment of gay men here received international attention when an Interior Ministry statement reported in January 2002 that three men in the southern city of Abha had been “beheaded for homosexuality”. The report provoked widespread condemnation from gay and human-rights groups in the West – and a swift denial from an official at the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC. Tariq Allegany, an embassy spokesman, said the three were beheaded for the sexual abuse of boys. He said: “I would guess there’s sodomy going on daily in Saudi Arabia, but we don’t have executions for it all the time.”
A Riyadh-based Western diplomat, aware of the details of the case, confirmed the men were beheaded for “rape”. “The three men seduced a number of very young boys and videoed themselves raping them. Then they used the recordings, and the fear the boys had of being exposed, to get the youngsters to recruit their friends,” he said.
While homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, doubt surrounds specific punishment for it. Some gay foreigners were deported in the 1990s, “but no Saudi has ever been prosecuted for ‘being a homosexual’. The concept just doesn’t exist here,” the Western diplomat said. Since the uproar over the beheadings, the kingdom’s Internet Services Unit, responsible for blocking sites deemed “unIslamic” or politically sensitive, unblocked access to its home page for gay Saudi surfers after being bombarded with critical e-mails from the US.
A S Getenio, manager of GayMiddleEast.com, said Saudi Arabia seemed concerned about the bad publicity blocking the site would bring, “at the time it was involved in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in the US to improve its image”.
Ibrahim bin Abdullah bin Ghaith, the head of the religious police (the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue) acknowledged, in unusually tempered language, that there are gay Saudis, while also speaking of the need “to educate the young” about this “vice”.
But he denied media reports that gay and lesbian relationships were the norm in the strictly segregated schools and colleges, that homosexuality “is spreading”. In an unprecedented two-page special investigation, the daily newspaper Okaz said lesbianism was “endemic” among schoolgirls. It justified the article with a saying of the Prophet’s wife Ayeshathat “there should be no shyness in religion”.
The article told of lesbian sex in school lavatories, girls stigmatised after refusing the advances of their fellow students, and teachers complaining that none of the girls were willing to change their behaviour. Mr Ghaith dismissed a suggestion that he should send his “enforcers” to investigate. Armed with sticks, they routinely hunt down men and women in public they suspect may not be directly related. “This perversion is found in all countries,” he told Okaz. “The number [of homosexuals] here is small …”
That assessment is contradicted by teachers and students who say that, in the absence of other outlets, a “gay” subculture has inevitably flourished among youth.
“A particularly beautiful boy always gets top marks in the exams because he’s some teacher’s favourite,” said Mohammed, an English teacher in a government high school in Riyadh. “On the other hand, I know many older boys who deliberately flunked their final exams so they can stay … with their younger sweethearts.
“Ahmed, 19, a student at a private college in Jeddah, said there was no shame in having a boyfriend in his private high school. Although he firmly rejected the label “gay”, he admitted that he now has a “special friend” in college, too. “It’s those who don’t have a boy who are ashamed to admit it. We introduce our boy to our friends as ‘al walid hagi’ [the boy who belongs to me]. At the beginning of term, we always check out the new boys to see which are the most ‘helu’ [sweet] and think of ways to get to know them.”
By John R Bradley
The Independent, London
20 February 2004
(Reprinted without permission)
I am in my hotel room in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, speaking on the phone to one of several men I contacted via e-mail before I arrived, in the hopes of getting a glimpse of gay life in what may be the most closed society remaining in the world. Like the three others I end up interviewing during my short stay in this complicated country, this man feels most comfortable meeting me in the relatively safe space of my hotel lobby.
“How will I know you who you are?” I ask as we arrange a meeting time.
“I’ll be wearing a red T-shirt,” he says. “Believe me, no one in Saudi Arabia wears a red T-shirt!” he says about the conservative dress code here. In public, every Saudi woman wears the obligatory abayeh, the black garment that covers her body from head to toe. And while it’s not uncommon to see men dressed in Western slacks and collar shirts, by far most men dress conservatively and traditionally, too, in the white, floor-length robe called a dish-dash, topped with a red checkered kifeyah headdress.
I enter the lobby at the designated time, on the lookout for the signature coloured garment. I spot “Haitham” immediately. (All the men I interviewed in Saudi Arabia asked that their real names not be used.) But even without the red signpost, gaydar would have quickly led me to my mark.
A 28-year-old architect, Haitham could be a gay man right out of Chelsea or the Castro. He’s wearing red sneakers and tight jeans, and his hugging red shirt shows off a muscular body that is obviously a regular at the gym. A sharp jaw line cuts his angular face, and his eyes are dark and deep. The short, thick black curls on the top of his head are kept stiff with mousse.
Later, after we go to my room, the only place Haitham and the other men feel safe speaking openly, he tells me that his dress code is one sure sign to other gay men of his sexuality. But more importantly, it’s a symbol of just how much the country has opened up for gay men in the past decade. These days, he says, gay men can be “out” in the way they dress. “If I wear a tight or flashy T-shirt, straight men just think I am trying to show off,” he says, smiling. “But other gay men know.”
The number one way people meet is through the Internet, he says, including several sites specifically for gay men in Saudi Arabia. “The government blocks a lot of sites,” he says, “but if you know how to navigate the Net, you can get around it.”
The opening up of gay life in Saudi society includes a network of private parties, at least one each weekend, attended by anywhere from 20 to 50 men, says Haitham. There are several cruisy streets that men drive back and forth on after midnight. (No one walks anywhere in Riyadh.) And Riyadh even boasts three gay cafes, two of which draw mixed crowds, but one of which is 90 percent gay.
Only after promising that I will not reveal it in my article, Haitham tells me the name of the gay cafe, and draws me a map of how to get there.
The next night, I convince a reluctant “Fahed” whom I meet by chance in the hotel lobby to take me to the gay cafe. We arrive about 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and yet the place is packed, with most of the small, round chrome tables and matching chairs placed outside to take advantage of the warm night air. I am surprised that the men sit so freely in the open. Even more surprising is that most of the customers are clad in the Saudi dish-dash and kifeyah, rather than the jeans and T-shirt look sported by Haitham and Fahed. At first, I wonder how gay this cafe really is. But within minutes, I feel the heavy gazes of men cruising a newcomer, and all doubts melt.
Inside, the walls are painted a bright peach, and colorful strands of neon light overhead liven up the place. The waiters are mostly Filipino, and rush back and forth from the kitchen with trays of hot sandwiches, cappuccinos and French deserts.
Fahed, a tall, slim 25-year-old who drives his father’s Mercedes, is a little nervous about being at the coffeehouse. He’s been before, but not for a several months. The last time he visited, he found a note from an anonymous admirer on the car windshield. It freaked him out that a secret suitor knew what car he drove.
Like the other men I spoke with while in Saudi Arabia, Fahed is highly educated, speaks nearly perfect English, and is comfortable with himself as a gay man. His fears about coming out revolve almost exclusively around his family rather than the government or religion. All four men I interviewed, including Fahed, rolled their eyes and laughed when I inquired about whether the Saudi government executes men for being gay.
“Oh come on, please, that is so exaggerated,” insists Fahed. “Americans love those kind of dramatic stories, but they are mostly lore. I mean, it’s well known there are several members of the royal family who are gay. No one’s chopping their heads off.”
“Of course, there are no gay rights groups,” he adds. “Political groups of any kind are not tolerated.”
But more than fear of the government, family shame keeps gay men in the closet here, he says. “If I would come out,” Fahed says slowly, shuddering at the mere thought, “I wouldn’t just ruin my life. I’d ruin four other lives too,” referring to his brother, sister, mother and father. His father who’s a highly placed Saudi government official would certainly lose his job, and the family would be totally disgraced, he says.
So while things may well be easier today for gays in Saudi Arabia than in the past, he says, “There is always a limit. There will never be a real gay society here.”
By Mubarak Dahir (E-mail: MubarakDah@aol.com)
21 November 2002