A strut and a milliseconds-long backwards glance has captured the world’s attention.

The strut and glance in question were made by Khulood Al-Yafie, a beautiful miniskirt and crop top clad Yemeni woman visiting Saudi Arabia’s Ushaiger cultural heritage site. Her tour, recorded on video (which has since gone viral) has not only invoked the wrath of the Kingdom’s religious police and sizable conservative population but indirectly expanded the scope of social and cultural discourse inside the Kingdom.
I have visited Ushaiger. It is a sleepy historical site just outside the Saudi capital, Riyadh; a labyrinth of mudhuts and alleys that speaks to the country’s centuries-old heritage. For generations, the same families have occupied this religiously-conservative part of the country. So, a stunt like this tends to attract a tremendous amount of (possibly unwanted) publicity (despite the potentially positive ramifications for Saudi tourism – but I digress).

Questions as to the rightness or wrongness of Khulood’s actions aside, I want to spotlight the range of responses this incident elicited, rather than the incident itself, to highlight an important point about the role social media is playing in expanding the Kingdom’s public sphere (and the diversity of opinions contained within). After all the only reason we are talking about a beautiful woman’s stroll down a mud-caked alley is because said stroll occurred in a country popularly known in Western culture for autocracy, repression, and austere religious practices.

Historically, the Royal Court, the Council of Ministers, and the Shoura Council—have dominated decision making in the Kingdom. However, over the last ten years, the government has increasingly moved to allow for extended periods of public discourse on social, cultural, economic, and on very rare occasions, political moves. This has occurred for several reasons; most importantly, either to normalize a controversial change through prolonged discussion or to hear the array of opinions that exist as they pertain to potential critical reforms in the hope of building a broader consensus. The key point is that once the public debate plays out it culminates into policy-change.

With this latest event we are witnessing, live and in real time, the expansion of social and cultural discourse in the Kingdom. And as with previous expansions, this incident may also come to impact policy; in this case, by further advancing women’s rights.

The fact that a women was bold enough to walk through Ushaiger, a traditional heritage site in the heart of Najd (the Kingdom’s conservative central region) without an abayah while wearing a mini-skirt and crop top speaks volumes as to where the Kingdom is heading with respect to social and cultural change. For this bold move to be captured and disseminated is one measure of progress but for the public – men and woman, conservatives and progressives – to freely debate this matter on social media is another sign of advancement in and of itself.

Oh, the times they are a’changin’…

I recently published Freedom of Tweet and Freedom to Seat, a report reviewing what the 1st amendment looks like in Saudi Arabia. In it, I discuss how a localized form of freedom of speech has not only been tolerated, but expanded, accommodated, and used to inform policy-decisions. “In June 2013, Saudi Arabia changed from a Thursday–Friday to a Friday– Saturday weekend to align itself with other Middle Eastern economies, this despite pushback from the conservative base arguing that to do so would mimic the Western lifestyle. However, the government publicly floated the idea several years prior to instituting the change. They allowed the Saudi public to openly debate the issue via informal channels such as Twitter, op-eds, and coffee shop conversations. Actual implementation of the transformation was quick—Saudis received one week’s notice— but, because this followed years of frank discussion, opposition to the change was limited.”

Khulood’s action, and the debate surrounding it, may well yield a similar result.

As for Khulood herself, she has been taken in for questioning by police and will likely be asked to sign a pledge not to repeat her actions, in order to placate Saudi’s more conservative elements, before ultimately being released.

As for my personal view, I think the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage (SCTNH) should hire Khulood and use her advertising prowess to bolster domestic interest in the Kingdom’s under-visited historical sites. This stands to be a win-win-win: increasing women’s participation in the labor market, boosting development in a Vision 2030 target industry (domestic tourism), while raising awareness about the Kingdom’s rich heritage and culture.

Who knows? Soon, Khulood could be sauntering down muddy alleyways as the SCTNH’s most famous tour guide.