The beauty amid the harsh penalties of a theocracy

Al Haddah overlooking Mecca and the Red Sea
Al Haddah overlooking Mecca and the Red Sea

A visit to Saudi Arabia at Christmas time.

About 30 miles east of Jeddah, after crossing the sand flats and rocky mesas of the coastal plain, you come to a police post and a large sign reading "Non-Muslims are Forbidden to Pass this Point”.

The road ahead leads to Mecca. We turned right here, of course, up the hairpin escarpment, its slopes littered with wrecks, to Taif, the summer capital. Nine of us in the giant desert ranger, all smoking cigars, with Julio Iglesias, Al Martino and Rod Stewart full volume on the radio, aero parts strapped to the roof.

The night was canopied with stars, the heat had abated, and the strange alien smell of Arabia wafted in at the windows. That moment, long ago, remains vividly with me. As a devotee of Lawrence, Thesiger, and Doughty, I had longed to visit the land of their exploits, “crazed with the spell of far Arabia” (in the words of Walter de la Mare’s fanciful poem), where “the princes ride at noon”.

I didn’t see too many princes, though Prince Fahd (later king) turned up unannounced one morning in military fatigues to inspect the facility.

Things I did see included a beheading in “chop square” after Friday prayers; and, in the Jeddah souk, all the money-changers trooping off to prayers, under the eyes of the mutawwa, or religious police, leaving unattended their tables piled with currency. (Ironically, Saudi Arabia is the only place where I’ve had my wallet pinched.) Christmas is not celebrated there. No cards or trees allowed.

I recall how a hotel pianist in Riyadh who ill-advisedly broke into “White Christmas” was led away by the men with big sticks.

On the day, a bunch of us Brits gathered after work in someone’s apartment for tea and cake. To be honest, I found the total absence of all the consumerist fakery, the stress, gluttony, Santa hats, and general horror of Christmas rather refreshing.

There’s something to be said for escaping to a strict Muslim country at this time of year. The Bible is a forbidden book there. School texts have images of churches redacted. There’s no alcohol – officially, at least (an elderly expat, Karl Andree, was recently jailed for a year and threatened with 350 lashes for possessing homemade wine). Homosexuality is a capital offence.

Saudi Arabia today walks a tightrope. They are finally getting to the end of the sons of their founder, Ibn Saud, and the next generation may lack their authority. The population has tripled, with scant prospect of employment for many. The 5,000 actual princes often bring infamy – as with the one recently convicted of murdering his lover-servant in London.

Reforms are sparely meted out: women were allowed to vote for the first time last week – the reactionary Grand Mufti called it “opening the door to evil” – but remain forbidden to drive. Rape victims are liable to be flogged and jailed, as happened to a teenager in Qatif in 2007.

The judiciary, mostly strict Wahhabi clerics, keeps the lid on disaffection and dissent. Raif Badawi, flogged and jailed for criticising them on a blog, is only one victim among many. Just last month a poet, Ashraf Fayadh, was sentenced to death for apostasy.Like any repressive regime, the Saudis manipulate the news – claiming the recent Hajj stampede killed only 717 pilgrims when the true figure was over 2,400.

Much of historic Mecca is being replaced by naff luxury hotels. Despite their wealth and experience in hosting multitudes, they have not taken any Syrian refugees.

The 34-nation Muslim coalition they have just formed to combat terror, although welcome, comes after years of inaction, while, arguably, worldwide funding of mosques which preach radical Wahhabism has been one of the root causes of the problem.