Saudi Arabia is well known for being a particularly rich country, ranking 14th globally by the October 2015 GDP at $1.681 trillion. None are so privileged though as those born into its royalty. A US embassy cable from November 1996 that was released to WikiLeaks detailed that those at the higher end of the pecking order could expect to get an allowance from birth of $270,000 per month. It was estimated at the time that the cost of the Saudi royal family to the state was approximately $2 billion per year, and while these figures are some 19 years old, even in today’s money, these sums are extravagant.
Such luxury has continued in the time since and it was announced in July 2015 that over a mile of public beach would be closed to beachgoers to afford the affluent Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Salman, some ‘privacy’ during his three-week vacation in the South of France. It prompted petitions to be signed and demonstrations to be held in outraged opposition to the royal figure’s deferential treatment. Yet are Saudi Arabia and its surrounding countries truly as dominated by wealth, luxury and extravagance as we’re led to believe?
The Crown Prince aside, the super wealthy youth of the oil rich GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council consisting of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, U.A.E, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman) in fact live a paradoxical life, divided between lengthy and frequent luxury vacations to Europe and a quiet and devoted life of Bedouin culture back in their home countries; a trend I have witnessed first-hand through a vast experience of living and working in the Middle East.
Underneath the futuristic architecture and rapid development, many Middle Eastern cities including Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Riyadh, which exhibit the work of high-tech architects such as Sir Normal Foster, remain the sleepy towns they once were, guided by Bedouin tribal codes of patriarchy, conservatism and a love for Islam. This tradition is most perceptible to onlookers through the overwhelming popularity of the ‘thobe’; a long white garment that is full of under-stated elegance and modesty.
Choosing to dress in this way is not about status, as per the norms of designer fashion, which is normally associated with wealth. Instead, its relevance runs much deeper. Interviewing one young national, who requested to remain anonymous due to the serious consequences such an interview could have if her family found out, she explains: “To wear the traditional white ‘thobe’ is to represent the purity of our culture and to pledge allegiance to the values of the family elders.” It should be noted, though, with a hint of scrutiny that for some, these elders in reference are the ones who control the multi-billion dollar family businesses that these youth hope to one day inherit. Tradition pays.
That’s not to say that designer fashion is highly desired in the Middle East though. Talking with major retailers, they share how Ed Hardy, Versace, Roberto Cavalli and Billionaire Boys Club are some of the labels that continue to do a massive amount of business in the Gulf. Indeed, when Ed Hardy was struggling to pay its rental payments in London and closing stores in a lot of countries, it was still continually expanding in the Middle East, with a spokesman for Ed Hardy Dubai claiming that, due to the brand’s popularity, they were planning to increase the number of outlets – even with the recent collapse of the company’s Australian franchise.
The apparent disconnect between these two separate lives of lavish luxury and humble tradition, so often experienced by the super-rich Arab youth is not surprising. Deep respect and following of the conservative and patriarchal system is taught from an early age. However, most of these kids also attend international schools – if not boarding schools in Europe – teaching a Western Curriculum and equally installing in many an appreciation for the Western ideals of independence and expression. Many grow up watching the high school lives depicted by Hollywood movies, do so while living within the tribal codes of gender segregation and abstinence till marriage.
With such contrasting pillars as the foundations for their personalities, living two contrasting lives comes naturally. Ahmed – who requested his real name should remain unknown - is a member of one such elite family, who happens to be gay. Explaining his decision not to draw his ‘two worlds’ together, Ahmed says: “You know - why make it difficult? If our elders cannot comprehend it, why struggle with that? I got good beatings when I tried to come out. Now I find it easy just to pretend and live easy at home so there is no dishonour and embarrassment to the family. But when I step off the plane at Heathrow, I can wear whatever I want and do whatever I want. We usually travel together as friends so it’s a lot of fun and something to look forward to. I can live with that.”
Before the advent of social media, it was much simpler to keep the two worlds apart. Yet with the media – both social and traditional – today ensuring that what goes on tour doesn’t stay on tour, the once private life of many members of the Arab youth has seemingly now become more public than their public life, as the audience swells to an entire world. For now, it seems that the super-rich local youth are very apt in knowing what is public and what is to be kept private. But with the eyes of social media watching our every move, it remains to be seen just how long such starkly divergent lives can be maintained.
Words: Ali Klan
Images source: Andreas Gursky / Isaac Julien