THE DJ had the dance floor rocking. The bartender served up a special vodka punch. The host was a prince – complete with his own entourage.
An A-list LA party? Fashion week in Paris?
Try Saudi Arabia, home of roving Islamic morality police enforcing the most austere codes in the Middle East.
That’s the insider account by a US diplomat, whose night on the town in the Red Sea city of Jeddah (mission: to observe “social interaction” of rich Saudi youth) was summarised in a confidential memo released this week by WikiLeaks.
“The underground nightlife of Jeddah’s elite youth is thriving and throbbing,” the memo said. “The full range of worldly temptations and vices are available – alcohol, drugs, sex – but all behind closed doors.”
Wait, this is Saudi Arabia they are talking about? The place where women are banned from driving and can be jailed for socialising with men outside their family? The land whose brand of Islam, known as Wahabism, is perhaps best known in the West for beheadings and its role as sombre guardian for the holy pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medina?
The US cable touches on a basic lesson for understanding the region: public mores and private passions can be very far apart. Wild parties rage behind closed doors in Tehran even as Iran’s hardliners tighten their grip. Conservative Gulf sheiks make sure their wine cellars are well stocked.
Outside Saudi Arabia, it’s not unusual to see a traveller from the desert kingdom hunkered down at an airport bar or letting loose in Bahrain. “What one quickly realises about the Middle East is that there are layers upon layers in society,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar. But he does not believe Saudi officials will face much fallout from the disclosure.
“It’s really not in anyone’s interest to call attention to these deals or try to tear them up,” he said. The US diplomat who wrote the cable in January last year added just enough flourish to give the invitation to a Halloween party an intrepid feel. It’s a look, he wrote, “behind the facade of Wahabi conservatism in the streets”.
It began by clearing the prince’s security detail. Next up was a coat-check area where women pull off their head-to-toe black abayas. Inside, Filipino bartenders served up a cocktail punch using moonshine vodka. A US “energy drink company” – whose name is blacked out on the WikiLeaks release – helped bankroll the bash that included, the diplomat was told, some prostitutes mingling in the crowd.
“The scene resembled a nightclub anywhere outside the kingdom: plentiful alcohol, young couples dancing, a DJ at the turntables and everyone in costume,” the message continued.
“Saudi youth get to enjoy relative social freedom and indulge fleshly pursuits,” the cable said, “but only behind closed doors – and only the rich.”