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Night Vision

A changing Riyadh hits the big screen

In mid-December of last year, the musical prequel Wonka opened across sixty-three movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, bringing in a little over $600,000—only to be blown out of the water by a homegrown Saudi thriller, Mandoob Al-Lail (Night Courier). A little more than five years since the first commercial movie theater opened in the Kingdom, feature-length Saudi films are beginning to find a broader audience: Night Courier joins recent offerings such as Sattar (on pro wrestling in the Kingdom) and Hajjan (on camel racing much earlier in the Kingdom’s history).

The mere existence of a Saudi film scene owes much to the major changes wrought on Saudi public life in the years since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 policy agenda was announced in April of 2016. Only a handful of feature-length films, such as Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda, or Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah, were shot within the Kingdom in the years prior. Night Courier’s director Ali Kalthami helped found production company Telfaz11 in this earlier time, which quickly built an online following through sketches and music videos released on YouTube. Now, he and many counterparts in the arts scene have benefited from the Saudi state’s greater tolerance for (and financial backing of) a modern arts-and-culture scene.

Yet Night Courier is not uncritical of the transformations wrought by the state through Vision 2030. It holds a mirror up to Saudi society in the midst of these changes, highlighting the class tensions and social upheaval that form a backdrop to the Kingdom’s “revolution from above.” At its core, it revolves around the efforts of a Saudi everyman, Fahad Al-Quda’ani, to navigate the city: both literally, as a deliveryman for an app called Mandoobak (“Your Courier”), and figuratively, as the demands on his time and money threaten to overwhelm. In following this journey, Night Courier highlights the competitive pressure that Vision 2030’s neoliberal underpinnings place on Saudi citizens, and hints at the kind of economic inequalities that arise as the spirit of capitalism—rather than religious orthodoxy—becomes the Kingdom’s dominant organizing ideology.

The intellectual pedigree of social engineering schemes like Vision 2030 is long, even looking solely within Arabic-speaking countries. Nineteenth-century Egyptian thinkers such as Rifāʿah Rāfiʿ Al-Ṭahṭāwī and Muhammed ‘Abduh looked to education systems as a means of “modernizing” Muslim societies en masse, while the idea of transforming society through grand cultural projects has been a generational dream for many liberal intellectuals. “There will be no Nahda (‘Renaissance’) for our Arab societies without an ambitious, attractive, and inspiring civilizational project,” wrote Saudi academic Abdullah Al-Buraidi in 2010, in a book titled Secrets of Social Engineering.

At its core, Vision 2030 seeks to transform the economic expectations of Saudi citizens, deemphasizing the role of the state in providing jobs and social safety nets while instilling values of entrepreneurship and self-reliance. Studying this process in the neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE), political scientist Calvert Jones emphasizes rulers’ goals of “citizens with a greater willingness to work hard and contribute to the economic development of the country.” Particularly for Saudi Arabia, which is less oil rich in per capita terms than the UAE, this willingness serves to ease the fiscal burden on state coffers, with the added benefit of freeing up funds for large-scale projects like the fantastical desert city of NEOM.

Night Courier is not uncritical of the transformations wrought by the state through Vision 2030.

When I visited Riyadh in January, this supposed spirit of neoliberalism was certainly in the air, at least among friends in the elite white-collar workforce. Many talked of setting up consultancy businesses, of their workplace increasingly competing for consultancy work, or of efforts to hire consultants to get government work accomplished on schedule. Thmanyah (“Eight”), a hip young media platform in which the state-aligned conglomerate Saudi Research and Media Group has a controlling stake, now has a podcast comparable to NPR’s Planet Money (JaDi), as well as Swalif Business, a podcast relating the stories of Saudi founders and CEOs, and Socrates, a podcast about the wise leadership of officials bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to the Kingdom’s transformation. 

Despite such promotional efforts, at the outset of Night Courier, Fahad still hasn’t gotten the message. Accustomed to uninspiring yet undemanding work at the call center of a major telecoms firm, our protagonist (played by Mohamad Aldokhei, known more for his comedic roles) runs headlong into an HR meeting brokered by his one-time colleague and now boss, Abu Saud. Fahad has racked up one too many violations of company policy, this time by hanging up on the daughter of one of the firm’s general managers, and has fallen short of in-house key performance indicators.

Neither Fahad’s protestations—“She’s the one who hung up!”—nor the circumstances (the caller was trying to access her father’s private account) hold water with Abu Saud and his team. A female supervisor, symbolic of the steady integration of Saudi women into the white-collar workforce, takes stock of Fahad’s past warnings (two) and provides paperwork from IT “showing that you’re the one who ended the call.” Abu Saud—unbuttoned collar and rolled-up sleeves testifying to his work ethic—can only offer a shred of dignity on Fahad’s way out: resigning in lieu of being fired. “Here’s your resignation letter—please read it, let’s wrap it up, and sign.”

Forced out of an office job, Fahad falls back on his part-time work as an Uber Eats-style courier, ferrying goods from one place to another across the city of Riyadh. At home, costs are mounting. Fahad’s ailing father, Nasser, is in and out of the local hospital system, with only expensive overseas treatments offering much chance of restored health. Fahad’s sister, Sara, is a mother and divorcee whose own entrepreneurial efforts face harsh critique when she scores a slot on a Shark Tank-style reality show. Social obligations are nonnegotiable, with a cash-strapped Fahad still putting out a generous weekend lunch spread for (male) family and friends.

Fahad’s deliveries present a marvelous opportunity for the film to showcase the Kingdom’s capital in a different light. As Ali Kalthami put it in the Kingdom’s English-language Arab News, “usually, when you see this city, it’s in commercials that only want to show you the beauty of Riyadh, but it’s a beauty without tension, so it’s missing truth.” In contrast to the bright, shining images of Saudi advertising campaigns about the Kingdom writ large—with their glittering buildings, ochre mountains, deep blue oceans, and lush green valleys—Kalthami’s Riyadh is pure grunge, a steel-grey labyrinth flecked with the haze of halogen bulbs, traffic lights, and slowly shuffling car headlights. True to its name, nearly all of the film takes place at night.

On the surface, this Riyadh is little changed from years past. Writing a decade ago, Pascal Ménoret presented the city and its geometric grid as “a particularly crude image of capitalist accumulation and authoritarian closure,” with roads and cars having “turned individuals into mere cogs in a disciplinary mechanism.” Night Courier certainly captures the grinding traffic so omnipresent in the city itself. The packed roads are a source of constant complaint and encourage residents to stay close to home (incidentally, helping to drive a post-pandemic boom in neighborhood malls and café complexes).

Yet if the built environment remains much the same, public life in Riyadh today is a world away from 2014. The removal of state backing for practices of gender segregation and most activities of the morality police have transformed the social dynamics in one of the largest cities of the Arabic-speaking world. After years of new cafes and restaurants chipping away at the idea of “family-only”—mixed-gender or all-female—sections, much of Riyadh now feels closer to Abu Dhabi or Doha in terms of the gendering of public space. Plenty of shops across the city still close during prayer times, but there’s less of a sense that the once-feared Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or morality police, are monitoring every social interaction, at least in the neighborhoods I frequent. Riyadh is the country’s major hub of state-capitalist economic activity, the metropole of a Kingdom more comfortable with acknowledging diversity among its citizens—over the occasional protests of a strident faction of hypernationalists.

Night Courier hints at the ways that these changes have brought into the open what has long been practiced in private. For one, alcohol—officially banned in the Kingdom since 1952—is central to the plot of the film. Fahad’s deliveries lead him to uncover the lucrative trade in off-brand liquor, in this case, brown-dyed moonshine passed off (inevitably) as Johnny Walker Black Label. With crushing numbers of night-time deliveries doing little to salvage Fahad’s finances, cashing in on not-quite-so-forbidden goods appears to offer a way out. In January, only a few months after the film’s release, Saudi authorities announced the Kingdom’s first government-run liquor store—justified in terms of cutting down on the illicit trade.

Deliveries also bring Fahad into contact with Riyadh’s underground party scene, including a memorable silent rave of black-lit bodies fueled by black-market alcohol. Still, the private events depicted in the film are nothing compared to the dance parties actively promoted by none other than the Kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA), a state entity chaired by the Crown Prince’s right-hand man and longtime friend Turki Al-Sheikh. Promotional material for music festivals by MDLBEAST (set up by the GEA, owned by the state’s Public Investment Fund) spotlights high-profile acts and the way that the shows “mix light and sound,” even if the mixture of drugs, alcohol, and overt sexuality seems a major part of the attraction as well.

But the attractions of the New Saudi Arabia don’t always come cheap. Even if the cost of a night out in contemporary Riyadh pales in comparison to that of flying to Dubai, Egypt, or Europe, prices in the city’s new restaurants, cafes, movie theaters, and entertainment zones do start to add up. (Back before the pandemic, one older friend from the south of the country joked that you could easily spend SAR 100, or $26 USD, on a cup of coffee in Riyadh.) A growing gap between haves and have-nots emerged as a point of concern at a private workshop on Vision 2030’s progress that I attended last September, even if government representatives were quick to highlight programs aimed at expanding access to opportunities, ranging from seasonal festivals to moviegoing.

It’s hard to miss the ways that economic inequality forms a touchstone for Night Courier. Kalthami noted to Arab News that the idea of the film stemmed from welcoming a delivery driver into a private gathering some years back. “I’ll never forget that look. He stared at all these celebrities and he was, like, ‘Where am I?’ . . . I used to be in that position, too. I came from humble beginnings, and I was an outsider to this world.” In the film’s realization of this anecdote, Fahad is the outsider to this world, gazing in on the kind of life that affords chic furniture, a luxury apartment, and a social circle of local stars. His job, his home, his neighborhood, all mark him out as one of Riyadh’s have-nots no matter how hard he strives.

If the built environment remains much the same, public life in Riyadh today is a world away from 2014.

His attempts to masquerade as a member of the upper class are painful. Fahad invites his love interest Maha to a night out in Riyadh’s booming high-end restaurant scene, yet gets more than he bargained for when she arrives with two coworkers, who relentlessly code-switch between colloquial Arabic and corporate English—“Series B” funding might come through any day now—while Fahad pretends to follow along. Adding insult to injury, one of these co-workers covers the check; not only is the restaurant far outside Fahad’s means, but the others, Maha included, know he doesn’t belong here.

Belaboring the point, the film later uses a long shot in a municipal bus that pans from an exhausted Fahad to members of the Kingdom’s vast workforce of Asian, Arab, and African expatriates, all of whom are riding silently through the night. Equating a rundown citizen with blue-collar expatriates is a jarring visual suggestion for Saudi audiences, given the ways that expatriate labor has long been relegated to a semi-permanent underclass in a de facto social caste system. And while the film shies away from overt political themes, Fahad’s responses to falling behind—physical assault, black-market dealing, even manslaughter—indicate the explosive potential of social change.

The present Saudi political system provides few channels for expressing these and other frustrations. As the Saudi monarchy’s defenders are quick to note, Vision 2030 promised only social and economic change, not political reform—that is, democratization. Activists and individuals have been disappeared into the Saudi detention system these past few years (whether for supporting peaceful activism or even Tweeting in support of detainees), and many have yet to resurface. The costs of any public opposition to the Kingdom’s leadership are both high and predictable, with the same going for almost any suggestion of independent political activity, even in support of Palestine. During my visit in January, there was not a single Palestinian flag to be seen in public.

Yet among its other accomplishments, Night Courier emphasizes that complex processes of social change play out far beyond the Saudi monarchy’s top-down control—and that Saudi artists and intellectuals can still surface these dynamics for public consumption. Part of what makes the film exciting to watch lies in the way that it engages with and documents social realities of Vision 2030’s mid-point without simply endorsing a sense of “progress” or getting lost in nostalgia for the past. Fahad is neither blameless nor a complete villain; Kalthami describes him as an antihero, striving for success but with plenty of faults of his own.

The challenge is whether this kind of success can be sustained within the New Saudi Arabia. Some Saudi artists and creators have found positions (advisory or official) within new cultural institutions, or won state backing for high-profile projects, drawing concerns that in doing so they sacrifice critical perspective for access to the halls of power. Others have retreated to private studios and galleries where they can explore artistic expression without attracting heavy-handed “encouragement” from the Saudi state, enjoying space for creative exploration that might bring forth new works in the future. Still, this necessarily limits audiences, at least for the time being, to a trusted few.

For now, Ali Kalthami and those around him have negotiated a middle path, creating a thought-provoking meditation on life in Saudi Arabia in the midst of dramatic social change and making it available for mass enjoyment. It is by no means the last word on the subject; Thmanyah’s own film critics gave it a six out of ten, writing that it may be “completely forgotten” once Kalthami’s oeuvre is complete. My hope is that he and others can continue to shed light on the internal tensions of present-day Saudi Arabia without running afoul of the Vision’s cheerleaders or, perhaps inevitably, becoming mere cheerleaders themselves.