The very high price of coffee in Saudi Arabia

Now I’m not a big one for sitting in cafes “working”. You know – Wi-Fi Access Here. Frappuccinos R-Us. Delicious Cinnamon Muffins Only £2.65. All that.

But I’m reliably informed that cafes are where all the “creatives” hang out, getting busy with their hand-held devices. Heck, even my own girlfriend keeps saying “meet me in Starbucks, I’ve got some reading to do”. So, yes, the cafe is the new office and we’re all fixing up meetings in Caffe Nero and deserting our unloved meeting rooms.

But hang on a minute. Are you sure that that meeting in the coffee shop you’ve just arranged isn’t a trap? That you’re not going to get arrested as soon as you put one of your fashionably scuffed old-skool Golas through the door?

Ok, expect not. But it’s exactly what DID happen to a university professor in Saudi Arabia a few months ago. Now, incredibly enough, he’s been sentenced to eight months in prison and – wait for it – 150 lashes. For what, you may ask?

Here’s what. The professor, Dr Muhammad 'Ali Abu Raziza, went to meet a woman in a coffee shop in Mecca after receiving a call from someone he took to be one of his psychology students. Saudi Arabia has laws that forbid a man being alone in the company of a woman who’s not an immediate relative, so he checked that she was bringing a chaperone. She was. He gets there and … she’s alone. Immediately the religious police swoop and he’s arrested. Read the full story.

The “crime”, known as “khilwa”, is part of the kingdom’s notoriously restrictive legal code that hems women in at all turns. No driving. No going out alone. No sitting in the male area of restaurants, or going to the male desks in banks and offices. And definitely no meetings in coffee shops with unrelated men. Have a read of Nesrine Malik’s Comment Is Free article (and lively debate) on the general un-free-ness of ordinary life for Saudi women.

The irony in this case is that the religious police nabbed not the woman but the man. It looks like entrapment, with officials from the (brilliantly named) Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice out to get Dr 'Ali Abu Raziza after he angered some of their members who were also his students. Now he’s facing flogging and prison unless the provincial prince decides otherwise. It may sound bizarre, but it’s real, it’s happening and you can take action for him.

That’s today’s main business but I can’t go without – belatedly – mentioning the excellent news of the Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan’s release on 26 April. He’d been in prison since 10 December (international human rights day: did his jailors have a twisted sense of humour?).

It would be wrong to pretend that any “good” can come out of imprisoning a peaceful blog-based critic like him, but it’s worth saying that his case has galvanised the lively Saudi blog scene (check out Saudi Jeans for example).

Suffice it to say – Amnesty and the human rights community will now be watching the situation very closely. My motto? Hands off our bloggers and make that another double espresso to go.

Ciao amici.

PS. Is the newly “open” Cuba going to learn anything from the past? I only ask after the dispiriting news that Cuba has prevented its leading blogger Yoani Sanchez from travelling to Spain to pick up an award for her blogging. Mmmm. Time for Fidel’s younger brother to start delivering on real human rights and freedom if you ask me.


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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