Foreign trips can offer a sense of perspective. Heading to Saudi Arabia, I prepare for my first stint of diplomacy. While most of the world has been fixated on Ukraine, a different subject has dominated the news in Britain for the past few weeks. I wonder how, if asked, I’d explain to a Saudi minister the British media’s interest in whether an open packet of crisps and a length of mauve tinsel constitutes a party.
My first problem is more practical: what clothes does a feminist pack when visiting Saudi Arabia? Ministerial briefing packs are not terribly helpful on this point. As a mother of three adult daughters, I’m not exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to defending women’s rights, and I’m not sure what to expect from the trip. I seek advice. ‘It’s a desert, it’s hot,’ well-seasoned travellers tell me. I am aware of this, but what do I actually wear? More terrifyingly, I’m facing down a back-to-back programme of long days discussing tourism, entertainment and culture. As someone who has been eligible for a bus pass for almost five years, I’m not sure I’ll survive.
It’s about 8 p.m. when we arrive. Very sensibly, I wore comfies for the long flight. The ambassador is meeting us, but it’s all very relaxed, I’m assured. Just a light supper and straight to bed. Our arrival doesn’t go quite to plan, though, as in the airport I round a corner and am greeted by a flank of photographers, before being ushered into my first (and completely unexpected) formal engagement with a Saudi ministry team, who address me as ‘Your Excellency’. As I sip my green Arabic coffee with cardamom, in rose oil-scented surroundings, sat on a chair which could easily be mistaken for a throne, I realise that I am wearing a cardi and that all the men are far better dressed than me.
Pretty soon, I find my preconceptions of Saudi Arabia are outdated. This place is changing. Four years ago, female drivers were outlawed. Now the streets are full of them. The first female soldiers have started to graduate from the Saudi military academy, women judges are being trained and equal pay laws have been passed. I’ve seen women dancing on a stage in tight leather in the middle of a new restaurant complex and running in their footie kits out of a stadium tunnel onto a pitch. Until recently tourists were not allowed into Saudi Arabia — that’s changed, too. I was shown around the inaugural Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, a project that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and the site for a new outdoor opera house. Some Saudi artists are talking about an ‘escape from the Dark Ages’ and the events at that biennale showed the level of ambition. I suspect that biases will ease and Saudi Arabia will become an oasis for tourists — particularly the ancient sites of AlUla. It is, perhaps, the most rapidly changing country in the world.
At the UK ambassador’s residence, I catch up with messages from friends about what people are saying as I defend the Prime Minister. ‘You are the target of an organised campaign on Twitter and Instagram. Don’t look. You support the PM, they want to undermine and discredit you. It’s just the mob trying to prise another woman out of her job.’ I, of course, look — and really wished I hadn’t. The next message is to tell me that someone has connected with my 87-year-old mother online, impersonated me and engaged her in conversation. I hope whoever it was enjoyed all the photographs of the knitted baby matinee coats and crocheted pram blankets.
I agree to an interview with an American news channel. ‘No one at home will see it,’ I’m told. ‘It’s CNN.’ On air, I’m asked if anything would make me withdraw my support for the Prime Minister. But it is my job to support the PM. I think for a second. ‘Well, I suppose if he went out and kicked a dog,’ I reply, honestly. Anticipating the response, my special adviser contacts No. 10. As this will definitely be raised by lobby journalists, Downing Street will need a line. Later that day, my phone is flashing. ‘Don’t look at Twitter.’ This time, I don’t.
As I wait for my flight home, wrapped from top to toe in a traditional Bedouin farwa, a long warm cloak for protection from the freezing desert nights, I learn that another woman, Cressida Dick, has been forced out of her job, and I am filled with sadness. Alicia Keys is flying in to give a concert in AlUla’s new concert stadium just as it begins to snow in Saudi Arabia. I hope she’s packed her thermals.
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