Last edited: July 11, 2004

Queer Sheik

Being openly gay in Saudi Arabia used to be a death sentence—but times are changing

By John R. Bradley

The New Republic, July/August 2004

Note from Al-Fatiha: Although this article portrays Saudi Arabia as being some-what tolerant towards sexual minorities, the government still officially endorses the death penalty as a punishment for male-to-male sex. Additionally, the government of Saudi Arabia is very intolerant towards gender minorities including transgender-identified and transvestite immigrant domestic workers. Many sexual and gender minorities have fled Saudi Arabia and sought asylum in other countries due to family pressures, societal ostracizing, and political dissenting.

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The glass and marble shopping malls of this cosmopolitan and comparatively laid-back Saudi city on the Red Sea have long served as a meeting place for Saudi boys and girls, who slip each other bits of paper with their names and mobile-phone numbers scribbled on them. After chatting by phone, some boys and girls meet up again in the family sections of the malls’ many Western-style restaurants, where mingling of the sexes is allowed.

In recent months, however, Jeddah’s malls have become meeting places for another group: homosexuals. Gay Saudi men now cruise certain malls and supermarkets, openly making passes at each other, and one street in Jeddah is said to have the most traffic accidents in the city because it is the most popular place for Saudi drivers to pick up gay Filipinos, who strut their stuff on the sidewalk in tight jeans and cut-off t-shirts. (Filipinos are one of the larger groups of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia.) Meanwhile, gay and lesbian discos, gay-friendly coffee shops, and even gayoriented Internet chat rooms are now flourishing in some Saudi cities; in the chat rooms, gay and lesbian Saudis discuss the best places to meet people for one-night stands. “We talk about places that aren’t gay cruising areas, because they’re now in the minority,” says one young gay Saudi, only half-jokingly.

Traditionally, self-identified gays and lesbians who openly displayed their sexual preferences lived in mortal fear in Saudi Arabia. Homosexuality has long been illegal here, and, in theory, the official punishment for sodomy is death. In the 1990s, several gay Filipino foreign workers were deported from the kingdom for committing homosexual acts, and, in January 2002, the Saudi Interior Ministry reported that three men in the southern city of Abha had been “beheaded for homosexuality,” although one Saudi diplomat said the men were executed for raping boys. Periodically, gay Westerners in the kingdom were fired from Saudi companies where they were working. One long-term expatriate says employers have told friends of his, “You have twenty-four hours to leave the kingdom, or we’ll inform the authorities of your behavior.”

But, in some Saudi cities, the authorities have started to look the other way. In part, the government has realized that the thousands of Saudis who have recently returned from the United States because of stricter visa policies, and who are relatively liberal-minded, are unwilling to countenance such harsh anti-gay policies. “I don’t feel oppressed at all,” said one gay man, a 23-year-old returnee from the United States meeting in one of the coffee shops with a group of gay Saudi friends dressed in Western clothes and speaking fluent English.

Saudi Arabia’s domestic reform initiative and the government’s eagerness to shed its international reputation for intolerance also have contributed to acceptance of gays and lesbians. In recent months, Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has called for greater intrasocietal debate and more freedom of _expression in the press. Consequently, previously taboo subjects are discussed more openly in Saudi society, and some Saudis have begun to question the harsh tactics of the fearsome religious police, who enforce public morals. Slightly freer to cover gay and lesbian issues, the Jeddah-based daily newspaper Okaz recently reported that lesbianism was “endemic” among schoolgirls, in an article that revealed salacious details of lesbian sex in school bathrooms. Despite the Okaz report, Ibrahim bin Abdullah bin Ghaith, head of the religious police, told reporters he would not send enforcers to investigate schools for lesbians—perhaps because of pressure from higher officials. Riyadh even seems to have informed some of its officials to show tolerance when they comment on homosexuality. Ibrahim bin Abdullah bin Ghaith recently acknowledged, in unusually tempered language, that there are gay Saudis. What’s more, the kingdom’s Internet Services Unit, which is responsible for blocking sites deemed “un-Islamic” or politically sensitive, recently unblocked access to one website’s homepage for gay Saudi surfers after being bombarded with critical e-mails from the United States. Saudi Arabia seemed concerned about the bad publicity blocking the site would bring, said A. S. Getenio, manager of, a website devoted to homosexual issues in the Arab world.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia is still a closed society, but times seem to have changed a bit. According to several gay Saudis, the number of gay-themed Saudi websites has exploded in recent months. Some of these sites are still blocked, but software to avoid the blocks is easily purchased in local markets. Most sites exist for one reason only: to facilitate meet-ups. One night, I sat with a 32-year-old gay Saudi, who spent the evening chatting online with other men. Half an hour after interacting online with a younger man he liked, the older man sped off in his car for a meet-up in person. The following day, he told me the younger man had spent the night in his apartment. Younger gays pair off at school. Ahmed, a university student in Jeddah, says that no one made fun of him for having a boyfriend at his private high school. He adds that he now has a “special friend” in college, too. “We introduce our boys to our friends as ‘al walid hagi’ [the boy who belongs to me],” he says. “At the beginning of term, we always check out the new boys to see which are the most ‘helu’ [sweet] and think of ways to get to know them.”

The Jeddah gay community also frequents malls, supermarkets, restaurants, and a disco catering to gay men, whose existence is an open secret. One Jeddah restaurant now features young Filipinos plastered in makeup and obviously taking hormones, possibly in preparation for a sex-change operation. At a disco north of Jeddah city, gay men gather each week to drink beer (which is also officially prohibited), dance together to Western music, and introduce their partners to friends. Many of the disco-goers are young returnees from the United States, but there are also older Saudi businessmen who have lived in the kingdom for years. One evening, the disco even featured two Saudi drag queens, who made a dramatic entrance onto the floor. Without an official complaint from the government or from Saudi citizens, the religious police will not raid the disco.

The upper crust of Saudi society is becoming more open as well. Carmen bin Laden, the sister-in-law of Osama bin Laden, recently published a book, in French, titled Inside the Kingdom, which is a look at the life of the idle Saudi rich. In the book, The New York Times reported this month, bin Laden tells stories of homosexual affairs among the kingdom’s wealthy and idle women. And Saudi anthropologist Mai Yamani has shown that all-female discos catering to rich Saudi women are often covers for lesbian get-togethers. Saudi princes, meanwhile, have frequented the Jeddah disco, where they openly interact with club-goers.

Even the cutting edge of foreign gay culture is hitting Saudi shores and showing the limits of Saudi gays’ freedoms. Last week, U.S.-based Saudi dissidents reported, the Saudi authorities raided a house in the city of Medina and arrested dozens of gay men. Apparently, the men had gathered to witness the wedding of a Saudi man and his Sudanese partner.

John R. Bradley is the author of the forthcoming “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom.”

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