LONDON — It was an unexpected invitation. Two years ago it would have been an unthinkable one. But last month an email arrived in my inbox requesting my presence in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. The desert kingdom, one of the most conservative societies in the world and historically known as a place with a resistance to anything new, was in the final stages of preparations for its first official fashion week. Now the organizers wanted a reporter from The New York Times to attend.
I said yes immediately, and not just because I wanted to see local design talent on the runways, or experience catwalk shows at an event held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel (yes, that one), with women-only audiences and a strict social media ban. Not long ago, such access to Saudi Arabia as a journalist, especially as a young, unmarried Western female one, was virtually unheard-of. But the country is experiencing a time of great change, propelled by the ascendance of the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32. Alongside efforts to diversify the economy away from oil, “M.B.S.,” as he is widely known, has been spearheading the easing of many longstanding social restrictions. In recent months Saudi Arabia has given women permission to drive, join the military, visit sports arenas and cinemas, and as of last week, attend public fashion shows.
The prince even said last month that women do not need to wear the hijab or the black abaya (a loose-fitted robe), as long as their attire is “decent and respectful.” (For opening night, I opted to wear a floor-length, long-sleeved, midnight blue silk dress with hand-painted white flowers on the skirt, but kept an abaya close at hand in my bag.)
But did Saudis themselves believe real change was in the air? People under 25 represent 51 percent of the population; add Saudis up to their mid-30s and the proportion approaches 75 percent. I wanted to see what those citizens, most glued to their smartphones and plenty who have either been educated or spent time abroad, made of the lofty promises being made to them, and discover what government measures felt meaningful versus simply symbolic. I was curious to hear about their ambitions for employment in a volatile economy, and what their hopes were for what could come next. My chance came when the fashion week was unexpectedly postponed by 24 hours following my arrival into Riyadh (the event’s second abrupt delay), and I ended up with more time on my hands than originally expected.
So I went to lunch with a group of female engineering students and chemists, determined and excited to enter the work force after years of intense study. I also joined a 5-kilometer night run in full abaya with Riyadh Urban Runners, the city’s first female running club, to encouraging cheers from passers-by. I visited Sama’s Creative Hub, an art gallery and store focused on drawing together local creatives via art and design lessons and Saudi artist exhibitions. And I ate a traditional Saudi meal of jeerish and saleeg, best described as variations on savory rice pudding, with pickled lemons and slow-cooked meats, as part of a mixed-gender lunch on Al Bujairi Square with Prince Saud bin Sultan, who spoke with hopeful enthusiasm on the impending issue of tourist visas, a step that might finally open up a country whose borders have long been impenetrable to much of the outside world.