RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, June 29...They're speeding, kvetching and sporting lacy teddies under their abayas. Welcome to the new Saudi Arabia.
The desert theocracy, long under the iron control of Wahabist fundamentalists, is experiencing a massive social upheaval that will change it forever, analysts say.
In recent days the kingdom was rocked by news of a methamphetamine seizure in the cities of Jiddah and Riyadh. "No one even knew we had a problem," says Mahmoud el Fatit, of the Jammal Fund, a Saudi think tank, grinding his teeth and twirling his worry beads.
But the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says that Saudi Arabia, with its small, tightly-controlled population, accounted for 28 per cent of all global amphetamine seizures 2006. The Financial Times reports that 12.3 tons were impounded in 2006,equal to the sum of six years of seizures in the UK, which is considered the largest amphetamine market in Europe.
And two tons of amphetamine about to be shipped to Saudi Arabia were confiscated last week across the Gulf in the Sultanate of Oman.
"14.3 tons for a population of 27 million, many old and young," says el Fatit, lighting one cigarette off another. "This is an epidemic we did not know existed."
UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa says he is "very perplexed" by the upsurge. He says Saudi Arabia is not a transit point and the drug is intended for "local consumption."
But el Fatit has an explanation. Daubing at his bloody nose with a tea leaf he says that "women are responsible." "They are obsessed with dieting," he shrieks, his dilated pupils gleaming
"They are using the drug to control their weight. It is the foolish, vain women..." Meanwhile, the Kingdom's Religious Authority was outraged when it was announced that King Abdullah had extended an invitation to what he called the "other members of the Abrahamic faith" for an interfaith dialogue.
This meant that Christians, known as "infidels" and Jews, long described as "sons of pigs and dogs" in Saudi children's books were to be officially received by the Saudi royal family.
Saudi officials said Abdullah was concerned about the negative view of Islam that was being promulgated in the wake of the oil shock and the terror attacks and wanted to emphasize the shared heritage of the major religions.
"Outrageous," said Sheik Nasrany Jahoudi. "We share nothing with them. They are sexually permissive. They refuse to accept the Koran. Now they will desecrate our holy places."
But the most shocking news of all came with the opening of an all-female shopping mall in Riyadh. The modernist gleaming glass building is host to all the major luxury retailers in the world. A walk down its hushed, cool corridors passes women, their veils off, exposing elaborate coifs and flamboyant make up, browsing in Tiffany, Prada, Gucci, Stella McCartney outlets.
Up until now Saudi women have not been permitted to own businesses. The mall was started by women who were tired of having to shop at male-owned stores.
"If we wanted a bra or a piece of lingerie we had to go to a man," says mall manager Fatima Kabiratone-Bubbis. "If he fondled us we could say nothing or face punishment by our own families."
Women account for the bulk of the luxury shopping in the Kingdom. The mall is booming and male retailers are fuming.
"Those men who own female clothing stores will soon be out of business," says el Fatit, pulling a scab off his face. "The trade will be controlled by anorexic amphetamine-addicted women consorting with Jewish homosexuals..." He shakes his head with a scandalized expression. "It will be just like New York."
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