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'Behind The Kingdom's Veil' Offers Insights Into The Lives Of Ordinary Saudis

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

About a year ago, Saudi Arabia opened its doors to foreign tourists. The move was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's grand plan to transform the ultraconservative kingdom into a modern, open state with a more modern, open economy. Well, how that is playing out is a complicated, often contradictory story, as we have reported. And, of course, being a tourist anywhere right now is tough with the pandemic shutting down most international travel, all of which makes a new book that offers insights into the lives of ordinary Saudis in this moment all the more welcome. It's called "Behind The Kingdom's Veil." Its author, Susanne Koelbl, is a correspondent for Der Spiegel magazine who lived and worked in the kingdom.

Susanne Koelbl, welcome.

SUSANNE KOELBL: Thank you very much - happy to join.

KELLY: We are glad to have you with us. Your book tells the story of Saudi Arabia - its past, its present - through encounters that you had with all sorts of people - Sunni, Shia, men, women, rich, poor, powerful, not so powerful. I want to start by talking about Nora because Nora was in many ways your entree into Saudi life. Who is she?

KOELBL: That was really a stroke of luck to run into Nora in the - almost in the very beginning when I moved there. She worked as the assistant of a businessman who I knew. Actually, she was the person who took me to all these places - to weddings, to food festivals, to the desert, to places where women only meet. Certainly, that was an access which was rare and which I enjoyed very much, and we had so much fun. So actually, it was a wonderful person to accompany me throughout this time I was living there.

KELLY: You nodded to a food festival. Tell me - just, this sounds like such a normal outing, heading out to a food festival with a girlfriend. What did it reveal to you about how life in Saudi Arabia is changing?

KOELBL: Actually, it was a complete exciting thing. It was the first time that something like this was happening in Saudi Arabia, which, just a couple of years ago, was the kingdom of boredom. Just to go out with a friend and meet with other people - men possibly, even - and sit down somewhere, have a chat with people you have never met before who do not belong to your family, for instance, that is something which was absolutely impossible.

KELLY: Impossible as recently as - what? - a decade ago, five years ago?

KOELBL: Actually, it's only like three years ago, I would say. When I was living there, every morning there was another thing which was absolutely impossible to imagine the day before. Music concerts - what? - I knew somebody who was trying to learn an instrument. He had to drive to Bahrain every week - 500 kilometers - to get one lesson. And then when he came back, his family criticized him, to say, what? You want to do music? I mean, people who do music, they also do other bad things, like meeting women or drinking or other things which are haram.

KELLY: Haram meaning forbidden.

KOELBL: It's forbidden, yes. And this person now is one of the - he started a great career as a musician. And suddenly this became very normal, but before, it was not.

KELLY: I want to talk about the men for a second because as a Western woman, you can and did socialize with them. There was a group of young men who I found so fascinating who you met at an art gallery. These are Saudi millennials - a lawyer, a software engineer. As men, they face fewer restrictions than women, but they still are not free to do as they please. Explain.

KOELBL: Certainly. If you live in a segregated society, the other half is missing. And if you are the other half which is allowed to enjoy more liberties than women, certainly you feel bored because women cannot participate. So it's not only boring for women because they are oftenly (ph) confined to their houses. It's also - men would love to stroll around with their girlfriends. And many of them have them, but it's secret, and it's very difficult to hide that.

I have to say, it's very different groups in this society. You have these people who possibly had a scholarship outside of the kingdom and who lived in the U.S. or Great Britain or something. So they saw how other people live, and they certainly want to have similar lifestyles. But there are others who actually would love to keep their traditions and who still want to keep this religious face up and the lifestyle which comes along with it.

KELLY: Well, let me end by circling back to something I said at the beginning, which is that Saudi Arabia is now open to foreign tourists. And you make the case for it in the book. You say, you know, you're encouraging your readers, go visit Saudi Arabia. See it for yourself. When we're able to roam the world again, why should we go to Saudi Arabia?

KOELBL: I think it's very necessary to understand other places which are so influential on our lives. Even we think this is so far away, even we think this is a complete different world, which it is in some ways, but the stereotypes about Saudi Arabia are only few. Like, everybody believes it's terribly rich. You hear terrorism is coming from there, but we don't know very much more about it. We completely underestimate the connection between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and how important that is. And this is something where you find the answers inside the kingdom.

KELLY: That is the journalist Susanne Koelbl talking about her new book, "Behind The Kingdom's Veil: Inside The New Saudi Arabia Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman."

Susanne Koelbl, thank you so much. This was fascinating.

KOELBL: Was lovely - thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.