Why is Saudi Arabia changing its way of thinking

Report: A visit to Saudi Arabia: a country between new beginnings and the death penalty

Fully veiled so that only a slit remains from the eyes. And mute, since only men are allowed to speak. This was my picture of Saudi Arabian women. Then Sulafah Jabarti teaches me better. The mother of two boys, 13 and 16 years old, is the managing director of the small IT company Clear Vision in the capital Riyadh. Like all women in Saudi Arabia, she wears a black robe, the abaya, and covers her hair with a headscarf. But she shows her face openly, she has a big smile and can hardly be stopped in her flow of speech. Jabarti wants to use her chance when the entrepreneurs from Germany are already there. When the CSU politician Peter Ramsauer brings a business delegation into the country, as he does every year.

Sulafah Jabarti says that women have had access to education and worked in Saudi Arabia for a long time. However, hidden in the background. Today the state supports women in working life. “We don't have to be shy anymore,” she says.

This also has to do with the fact that Mohammed bin Salman wants to reinvent his country. The youth revered the Crown Prince for his social reforms. “Vision 2030” is the name of the program with which he wants to turn the economy upside down. Since then, the role of women has also changed. “We're getting more support,” says Sulafah Jabarti. “There is room for dreams. Everything is possible if you have the will to learn. "

The streets are wide, there are McDonald’s, Ikea and Bäcker Kamps

Sulafah Jabarti learned to drive. And went to the Chamber of Commerce meeting himself. Women have only been allowed to drive in the kingdom since June, but you don't see many of them. The young woman does not shake hands, however, as this is unusual in her culture between men and women. She doesn't want a photo either.

When you think of Saudi Arabia, in addition to the years of oppression of women in everyday life, you inevitably think of a few more things: oil on the one hand and massive human rights violations on the other, the death penalty and the murder of the journalist Jamal Kaschoggi. Anyone who travels here, away from the pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina, experiences a country that is different than expected - a country of contradictions.

The sun is pale over Riyadh on this January day, dust is in the air. Including six or eight lane streets, restaurants, tire shops, pharmacies. And western brands such as McDonald’s, Ikea or the Kamps bakery. It's clean but not leaked. Glittering skyscrapers rise, but also ruins. There are no pedestrians, every route is covered by car. A subway, 180 kilometers long, is only under construction.

The country longs for recognition for its reforms

On the way to Parliament - the Shura Council - the delegation passes several checkpoints. Armed policemen search the trunk. The parliament building, a gigantic domed building made of light stone, inside full of marble and wood, looks like something out of an oriental fairy tale. Sweet tea and bitter, unusually light coffee are served.

Saudi Arabia is longing for recognition for its reforms. You can feel that when you visit Parliament, which has an advisory role in the Kingdom. Peter Ramsauer has been visiting the country regularly since 1991. In the past, he often sat across from senior government officials who barely said a word. Today he and the delegation meet four open parliamentarians - two of them self-confident women. Many who have visited the country several times say the situation of women has improved significantly.

There were long separate entrances for women and men at public buildings. Until now, the sexes dined separately in the restaurant, families were only allowed to meet in the “Family Section”. But it is loosening up: in a Japanese restaurant where we eat in the evening in Riyadh, the separation is over. Women and men work together in companies. Even western music has recently ceased to be banned. In December, for example, DJ David Guetta played at the Formula E festival, and young men and women danced together to his music. Only: The fact that he played a hymn to the Saudi king did not go down well with human rights activists.

Around 800 German companies have business relationships with Saudi Arabia

Joe Kaeser knows how tricky a visit to Saudi Arabia can be. Especially when there are many indications that a journalist critical of the regime was tortured, drugged and murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. But the Siemens boss hesitated for a long time before canceling his participation in an investor conference in Riyadh after the Jamal Kaschoggi case. He has meanwhile traveled back into the country - like other German entrepreneurs too. Around 800 German companies maintain solid business relationships with Saudi Arabia, around 200 have a branch.

If you drive to the historic fortress in Riyadh, from where the first Saudi king ruled the country, the place where public executions take place is not far away. This is rarely an issue during the delegation's trip, but reports have reported that people are still being executed in Saudi Arabia. It is certain that Saudi Arabia will remain an authoritarian system in which Sharia - Islamic law - and the death penalty apply, experts say. Germany has currently stopped all arms exports.

Omid Nouripour is a member of the Green Party in the German Bundestag and has been observing the country for many years. “Saudi Arabia has young people who are well educated and who are hungry for international contacts,” he says. “The dialogue is urgently needed.” Nonetheless, he is critical of the regime. He mentions three points: First, the precarious human rights situation. Numerous activists who would have fought for women's rights in the past are now in prison. Second, a “highly aggressive regional policy” in response to Iran's aggressive policy. A Saudi sea blockade, for example, exacerbated the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. And thirdly, the long-term support of Salafist groups, which seduced the youth into German pedestrian zones. “All of this is unacceptable,” says Nouripour.

The pillow maker says business people shouldn't get involved in politics

For Ramsauer, this way of thinking is too simple. His goal is to keep the dialogue going. Otherwise, no reforms are possible, says the economic politician. "One of the best ways to give impetus is to go to these countries and seize the economic opportunities."

Anselm Hintermann, 30, comes from the small town of Haidmühle in the Bavarian Forest. His family business Mühldorfer, founded in 1919, manufactures down pillows and duvets. The feathers, he says, are not treated chemically, but washed with the lime-free water of the Bavarian Forest. Hintermann equips hotels worldwide - including in Saudi Arabia. “Sleeping is the most unpolitical thing there is,” he is convinced. No matter what skin color you are or what religion you belong to, at the end of the day everyone wants to make a good bed - even as a pilgrim to Mecca and Medina. Hintermann says that he does not want to associate a political message with his product. And that a businessman should not presume to say what is right and wrong.

Trade relations between Saudi Arabia and Germany
  • About 33 million people live in the desert state of Saudi Arabia; 6.5 million of them in the capital Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is a kingdom and Islam is the state religion.

  • Saudi Arabia has around 20 percent of the world's oil reserves and 90 percent of its export income comes from crude oil. Since 2016 the government has been trying to broaden the economy.

  • Germany is the fourth most important trading partner for Saudi Arabia - after China, the USA and the United Arab Emirates. However, the volume of trade (imports and exports) fell from around eleven billion euros in 2015 to around seven billion euros in 2017 ...

  • ... The reason is probably not just the recession in Saudi Arabia. In addition, a scandal put a strain on German-Saudi relations. The former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had sharply criticized the politics in the region in 2017. Saudi Arabia then withdrew the ambassador from Berlin.

Then I meet someone from Augsburg. Abdullah Kuzkaya has been with MAN Energy Solutions in Saudi Arabia for ten years. The Augsburg company builds and maintains power plants there. He lives with his family in Jeddah on the Red Sea. It is not always easy for his wife and children, "but if you stick to the rules, it works well." Kuzkaya says he misses the beer and the football club in Augsburg. But he knows how important it is for MAN to be represented here: “Saudi Arabia has huge economic potential.” MAN Energy Solutions maintains power plants in Saudi Arabia, for example.

After three days the delegation leaves Riyadh. The bus ride leads out into the desert. After hours of driving we reach the city of Dammam on the Persian Gulf, later we continue to Jubail. Gigantic refineries and industrial plants along the motorway. Here is the empire of the Aramco oil company - and the origin of prosperity. But the drop in oil prices has recently driven the country into recession. This is another reason why the Crown Prince wants to take countermeasures with his “Vision 2030”. His kingdom is said to provide more export products than just oil. And foreign companies should receive incentives to set up a branch in Saudi Arabia. This should also bring jobs for the country's youth.

The Saudis praise the good relations with the Germans

Detlef Daues, 67, followed developments like no other. He first came to Saudi Arabia 40 years ago, when he was a young man. His business idea was to supply the new seawater desalination plants with spare parts. The city of Riyadh, for example, is completely supplied with seawater, which has to be laboriously desalinated. “It was the thirst for adventure that brought me here,” remembers Daues. He made his first trips across the desert in a Mazda. Back then there was nothing where the industrial city of Jubail stands today. Daues' company V-Line now has 250 employees. 70 percent of sales are made in the Middle East. Where does he think Saudi Arabia is headed? The businessman is confident: "I have great hope because I've seen what has worked here in 40 years."

At the end of the day, a Saudi family invites you to their home. A large hall, chandeliers glittering golden, on the walls there are benches for 40 or 50 visitors. Servants keep bringing tea, coffee, and dates. The Saudis call this assembly room, Majlis, where families meet and discuss. The food on this evening is opulent and the hospitality is great. The Saudis praise the good relations between the two countries, and so does Ramsauer.

At the end, the hosts and the Germans gather around a campfire in the courtyard. “Not everything is right here,” says Peter Ramsauer later. "But the country is also more complex than the left and the Greens in Germany imagine."