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Step Aboard A Passenger Train In Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia's crown prince is on a campaign to modernize the country. NPR correspondent Jackie Northam and producer Fatma Tanis recently visited to document the changes on a train ride from the capital Riyadh to the eastern city of Dammam. They found both optimism and a daunting relic of the past. Here's Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There are certainly other, faster ways to get from Riyadh to Dammam, but the vast, mysterious Saudi desert was calling to us. So we caught an early morning train at the main station in Riyadh. Trains are not a popular way to travel in Saudi Arabia. There are less than a dozen people in our car as we head out of the station.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi, ma'am. Cappuccino, sandwich, (unintelligible)?

NORTHAM: Cappuccino.

Before long, Riyadh's contemporary skyscrapers and low-slung apartment buildings give way to the desert. We start chatting with our neighbors. A retired schoolteacher named Amal leans against her headrest and gazes out at the desert.

AMAL: We like it. We enjoy it, especially in the winter and spring. The weather is good.

NORTHAM: We ask Amal about the social changes going on in Saudi Arabia driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He's allowing cinemas, music and new freedoms for women.

AMAL: And it's good, what's happening. I love it so much (laughter). He know everything, really. He knows everything, Mohammed bin Salman.

NORTHAM: Amal says she always felt sorry for her four sons. They weren't allowed to mix or work with women.

AMAL: It's good now. They work together - it's very nice, yes - in the companies, every place.

NORTHAM: Further down the car we join Haifa Saud. She returned to Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago after living in nearby Abu Dhabi. She's in the process of opening up her own business - a beauty salon.

HAIFA SAUD: It's so easy. My - the opportunities that are provided to women are similar to men exactly. I can do it online. I can do it - I can go to the, you know, government sectors and do it all by myself, the same as men.

NORTHAM: But there are still many restrictions in Saudi Arabia. There are no elections, and the crown prince has jailed many opponents, including religious figures. Saud worries the new freedoms in Saudi Arabia could be taken away because they're so dramatic.

SAUD: Even when they first announced that we're going to - able to drive, we got worried that they might cancel their decision.

NORTHAM: I asked her if she still worries about that.

SAUD: No, because it's so close.

NORTHAM: We're about an hour and a half now into our train journey across the desert from Riyadh to Dammam. We are seeing some camels out there. We're seeing a lot of Bedouin tents as well. But it's a beautiful sight. The desert is just - it's harsh. It's austere. And it's just endless.

We move into a different car and talk to Abdullah Alqahtani, a professor of theology. He's wearing traditional clothes and has a long beard. He was chatting in Arabic with producer Fatma Tanis when suddenly a security guard pushed his way in, demanding to know what she was doing. Soon a local policeman joins in, asking for our identification and our recorders.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: (Foreign language spoken).

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: (Foreign language spoken).

NORTHAM: It takes about 15 minutes of tense negotiations until the situation finally calms down. When we called our contact at the Royal Court, he was indignant and assured us that this kind of treatment is a thing of the past in the new Saudi Arabia. But our experience made us wonder, is everybody on board with the changes in the kingdom? Jackie Northam, NPR News, Dammam.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOLA SETE'S "BETTINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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