A short message to Saudis in love. If you’re reading this on Friday morning and don’t have anything planned for Valentine’s Day, be warned: You have no excuses anymore.
For the past three years, the celebration has been coming out of the shadows in the Kingdom, with shops openly selling Valentine’s Day gifts and restaurants less reluctant to hold celebratory dinners. But this is the first year that there have been no religious injunctions against the day, marking a moment of change.
It will also, no doubt, mark a lunchtime of frenzied shopping, as Saudis who thought they could get away with a modest dinner or a single rose begin to waver as lavish Instagram posts pile up.
Young Saudis now have the freedom so many have long craved – to convey the inexpressible love between two people through the medium of mass-produced Chinese products. And of course, to then argue about it throughout the weekend when it turns out
Ameerah’s husband surprised her with a trip to the Maldives.
On social media, the run-up to the day was dominated by users lamenting or sarcastically celebrating their single status. Some shared photos of solitary dinners with only a mirror as their date.
Given the nature of the medium, Instagram was more aspirational, with images of “perfect” (usually expensive) Valentine’s gifts. Only regular followers will know whether the reality of today will match their expectations.
Welcome, then, Saudi millennials to late-stage capitalism, where business competes to commodify the last scraps of emotion, scraped from the bones of human interaction.
It is place where a single rose can cost more than 200 Saudi riyals, or around $53. Where an adult can, without irony, gift another adult a teddy bear in a faux wicker basket. And where supermarkets can slap a red heart on their usual products and mark them up 20 percent. That’s why they say freedom isn’t free.
Saudis aren’t alone in enjoying a blossoming of Valentine’s Day merchandise. The whole of the Gulf is awash in similar offerings and sentiments. In other parts of the Gulf, Valentine’s Day was a concession to the large expat populations and was gradually co-opted by everyone. There’s been a process of change, even in ultra-connected expat hubs like Dubai. What was once seen as vaguely foreign and not quite in tune with Gulf values has been accepted as just another fun day to celebrate.
But Saudi Arabia is unique in that Valentine’s Day celebrations were officially banned in the Kingdom because of the association with the historical Christian saint. Although shops still sold Valentine’s Day merchandise, they often did so under the counter. The real shift began two years ago, when the former head of the religious police said the day wasn’t a religious issue and instead celebrated human values.
The current overt commercialization of Valentine’s Day in the Kingdom reflects a profound social shift.
Just a few years ago, unmarried couples on February 14 would have attracted the attention of the religious police, or mutawwa. That the mutawwa has been defanged and gender mixing become more common marks a profound shift in how Saudi society interacts. The cards and hearts of Valentine’s Day are just the most visible part.
It should be no surprise that it is Saudi millennials who were pushing for the change and who are embracing it most fervently. They are not embracing the trappings of a kitsch holiday; they are embracing what it means to pull away from the expectations of conservative traditions.
Everywhere that Valentine’s Day is celebrated there is criticism of the commercialization of the holiday; everywhere the pressure to publicly celebrate relationships is lamented.
But there’s something else going on in Saudi Arabia.
For too many years, an extraordinarily connected generation experienced few limits online and too many in real life. The way young people met and married, how they socialized and worked seemed to be different in Saudi Arabia to many other places in the world – different even to their neighbors in the Gulf. Now that those limits are being expanded, young people are grasping all it entails.
Just as the Valentine’s Day gift is only an imperfect reflection of what is in the hearts of a couple, the celebrations in the shops are just a shimmering reflection of what is changing below the surface.
Faisal al-Yafai is an award-winning journalist, essayist and playwright. He has been an investigative journalist for The Guardian in London and a documentary journalist for the BBC. @FaisalAlYafai