Stylists to the Saudis
One rainy winter’s day, out of the blue, my half-sister Lois and I received online offers to sign up to a two year contract as stylists at a well-known women’s-access-only boutique in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We had both worked previously as personal shoppers at a high-end store in Cannes, France, while struggling to write our first novels. Much of the clientele had been wealthy Saudi women, who would spend up to $40,000 in a single visit. We had been sent on an Arabic course by our boss, who referred to these women as his ‘whales’, so we presumed the job offer from Riyadh had come through some of our satisfied Saudi customers.
Driving ban lifted
At this time, conditions for women in the Kingdom appeared to be improving. There was talk of greater political enfranchisement. The driving ban was to be lifted, women no longer classed legally as minors, and permitted to travel without male consent. Thousands of western women were working in the Kingdom, legally or semi-legally, mainly as teachers, nannies and IT consultants. It seemed a propitious time to learn more about this most singular country.
Male protector guaranteed
The job offer included a tax free salary more than double our previous level. The contract also included riders guaranteeing accommodation in one of the expat compounds, deductible taxi costs, and a ‘male protector’ in the form of a retired Arab-American Aramco engineer called Bill — originally from Iowa. Bill was the owner of the villa on the compound we would be staying at, and would attend to any practical needs we had.
Trying it on was forbidden
What could possibly go wrong? The boutique was popular with wives of Riyadh’s super-rich business elite. Under Saudi law, in a store with all female staff it was legal for women to use the changing rooms. In other boutiques, with a mixed sex staff presence, trying on an outfit was forbidden. Female customers had to jump through the hoops of buying an item, trying it on in the nearest public toilets, then returning it if it did not fit. I worked from home, editing the boutique’s website, which was aimed at women in neighbouring Arab countries, as such sites were not encouraged within the Kingdom. My sister, Lois, who had a great figure, worked the store’s floor as a personal stylist, and modelled some of the new looks to customers in the back rooms.
Hot cougar Versace outfits
Sometimes Lois would be sent on call outs to the homes of the wives of high-profile politicians and business leaders. She would be taken by a male driver, a Somali employed for this purpose by the store. Glimpses of the hot outfits Lois was modelling, and the lavish estates she was visiting, would come back to me in the downloads the boutique fed me to use for their site. In the privacy of their homes, Saudi women embraced the Cougar disco look. Super skinny, skin tight, shiny creations, from Chanel, Gucci, Versace and Vivienne Westwood, were particular favourites.
Tranquilizers to numb the pain
After a few months I noticed a change coming over Lois. She seemed withdrawn, preoccupied, and no longer gave me colourful accounts of her working days. She had started using tranquilizers, Clonazepam and Zoplicone, something she had never done before. She told me she was having trouble sleeping, and they had been prescribed by a female Indian doctor recommended by the store. Finally, a few days later, I found her in her room sobbing and curled up on the bed. Everything came out.
Zombified for hours
A visit to one of the business leader’s wives had resulted in the woman, who Lois only knew as Samira, coming onto Lois and plying her with liquor. Lois, who is bisexual, admitted to finding the older woman attractive, and there had followed a series of call outs when Samira had performed oral sex on Lois and the two women had played with Samira’s extensive collection of sex toys. Samira had offered Lois gifts after these encounters, but Lois had declined. However, Lois had complained to our Lebanese employer, Nada, when at a later assignation with Samira her drink was spiked. On this occasion, Lois had woken up to find herself being penetrated orally and vaginally by two previously unknown men, while Samira watched and masturbated. Lois was so zombified by whatever had been in the drink she was unable to extricate herself from this situation for several hours.
Losing face payoff
Our employer, Nada, strongly advised Lois not to mention the incident to anyone and to continue to visit Samira. Nada tried to focus Lois on the large pay-off Nada would be able to extract from Samira, as this was the Saudi convention in settling such crimes when they potentially brought dishonor to the families involved. Lois declined to play along. A few days later, Lois did not return from work in the evening. A call came through from Nada telling me Lois was being held by the Midaween, the Religious Police, after making a complaint about the incident with Samira. Despite contacting the police multiple times and Bill doing likewise, we were not informed where Lois was being held, and there was not even an admission by the police she was being held.
Deprivation of liberty
Two days later, a taxi pulled up at our villa on the compound. A shaken-looking Lois got out and locked herself in her room. That night, unable to sleep, Lois told me she had been held alone by women guards at a prison to the south of Riyadh. Lois had not been charged with any offence, but subjected to degrading treatment. This had included being strip searched twice, and being made to bend over while her vagina and anus were examined. Lois had then been made to shower under cold water in front of the guards, deprived of sleep, and touched in an inappropriate manner when being escorted from her cell. The guards informed her she would be going to one of the worst prisons in the Kingdom for many years. A few hours later, Lois was driven, cuffed, in a blacked-out vehicle, back to the store, and told her visa had been annulled and she had three days to pack up and go home.
Arbitrary police state
Was this just an isolated incident? Trawling expat forums suggested that thankfully it may have been. Foreign male workers seemed far more likely to suffer arbitrary detention when reporting crimes against themselves by Saudi nationals than foreign females. But what happened to Lois and others like her, and the continuing shadow of the Jamal Kashoggi atrocity, reminds us that despite its much vaunted efforts to modernize, Saudi Arabia remains an arbitrary police state where the powerful play out their wishes and desires with impunity.
By BB Moore