Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — THE hem of my heavy Islamic cloak trailed over floors that glistened like ice. I walked faster, my eyes fixed on a familiar, green icon. I hadn't seen a Starbucks in months, but there it was, tucked into a corner of a fancy shopping mall in the Saudi capital. After all those bitter little cups of sludgy Arabic coffee,here at last was an improbable snippet of home — caffeinated,comforting, American.
I wandered into the shop, filling my lungs with the rich wafts of coffee. The man behind the counter gave me a bemused look; his eyes flickered. I asked for a latte. He shrugged, the milk steamer whined,and he handed over the brimming paper cup. I turned my back on his uneasy face.
Crossing the cafe, I felt the hard stares of Saudi men. A few of them stopped talking as I walked by and watched me pass. Them, too, I ignored. Finally, coffee in hand, I sank into the sumptuous lap of an over stuffed armchair.
"Excuse me," hissed the voice in my ear. "You can't sit here." The man from the counter had appeared at my elbow. He was glaring.
"Excuse me?" I blinked a few times.
"Emmm," he drew his discomfort into a long syllable, his brows knitted. "You cannot stay here."
"What? Uh … why?"
Then he said it: "Men only."
Hat tip: Sullivan and Yglesias.
I'm with Yglesias. I think a boycott of multinational chains that are willing to enforce gender segregation is quite appropriate. This articles starting to get a fair amount of play, if some group actually starts to put it in action, I'm on board. I think the issue is roughly analogous to boycotting companies that were willing to implement apartheid policies in South Africa.
So, to anticipate two likely objections:
- Can this actually change Saudi Arabia? Economic pressure on South Africa was successful, but it's kind of a unique case.
I hold no great hopes of directly changing Saudi policies. South Africa was generally more democratic and more liable to be influenced by the tactics used. This isn't to say I support military strikes against Saudi Arabia either. The country sucks but has a lot of oil and thus money. There's not a lot we can ultimately do. However, that does not mean we need to play by their rules. If enforcing gender segregation is the only way Starbucks can be in Saudi Arabia, than Starbucks should get out. Similarly I'm quite happy U.S. troops are no longer stationed in Saudi Arabia. It both compromised our virtues and pissed off locals. Lose-lose.
- How does this square with favoring engagement policy vis-a-vie China and Cuba?
I'm quite willing to work with bad guys. I just don't think we should enforce their rules. Yahoo mail's handing over records that led to the arrest of a dissident clearly crossed the line. Google's censored search is not as clear cut but I still don't approve. My objection isn't to trade with Saudi Arabia, it's to implementing gender segregation.