Riyadh to Dammam

A Woman's Place Is Clearly Marked

The Guardian, 22 February 1991 (just before the outbreak of the first Gulf War)

The indicator boards at Riyadh’s railway station are magnificent; they could easily do duty at Charing Cross or, for that matter, Heathrow. But from Riyadh, unfortunately, there is only one destination.

Twice a day a train heads east to Dammam, 250 miles away on the Gulf Coast. Since Desert Storm broke out, civil aviation in eastern Saudi Arabia has ceased and the railway has come into its own, ferrying people away from the war and towards it.

The stations are modern and spacious, the trains are pulled by German engines resembling tanks and, even in second class, would delight British Rail regulars.

Some passengers, however, might have problems with the railway by-laws. Saudi Government Railroad Organisation rule 1: “It is absolutely unacceptable for women to travel by train without being accompanied… by her father, brother, son or husband.” Women are obliged to board first and sit, with their minders, in segregated compartments.

This is not unique to the railways. Female motorists are banned, of course. Then again: “Women”, says a sign in one of Riyadh’s more sophisticated streets, “are kindly requested to not enter or sit in the restaurant”. There is a side door marked “For Women Only”.

Subtler establishments, like Wendy’s Hamburger Joint, phrase the same instruction more delicately, and split the place into two completely separate rooms, for Singles (ie, men) and Families. I have seen not dissimilar signs before, in another country with the initials SA, but it is a long while since we have fought shoulder to shoulder with them for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

My neighbour in the all-male train compartment was a civil servant. “We don’t think women are inferior. We are, I would say, over-protective. It’s not that we don’t repect them. Maybe we respect them too much.”

The train pulled out and the view was obscured by a curtain of sand, like gauze, thrown up by the wheels. Would the landscape change? “Oh yes,” he said. “It gets much more sandy. This is just rock.”
He was a nice bloke, aged 31 and about to marry. Would it be an arranged marriage?

“No,” he said.

“What’s she like?”

“I don’t know who she is. I’m about to start the process of consulting the right families. We have no chance to meet girls, no dating or anything. A girl who did that would not be suitable.”

Did he think the presence of half a million foreign troops, including many women, would change Saudi attitudes? “This isn’t like Algeria or Iran,” he said. “We’re not experiencing an Islamic revival. We’ve always been this way.”

The businessman sitting in front joined in. “There is no problem… But I think the war will change things. It will open people’s eyes.”

“Towards democracy?”

“Who can say?”

The civil servant grew nervous. He asked me not to mention even his first name, though he had said nothing remotely subversive. “They know who is travelling on this train. They could work out who I was.”

Expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia make a tacit deal. They earn far more money than at home; in return they accept the customs of the country. The troops have made no such deal.

We arrived bang on time. Later, I saw a US woman corporal. I asked what she thought of the Saudi attitude towards women. She glared. “What do you think I think?”