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A Saudi gay couple finds momentary ‘paradise’ in Istanbul

‘From the moment I open my eyes to the night, I am scared. Fear that no one knows about.’




Men hold hands on a street in Saudi Arabia // Expatica

This article has been translated into English from Arabic.

“In a way, it could be good that Saudi Arabia is so backward that there are more men than women on the streets.” This is how Khalid, a gay man from Saudi Arabia, began his account of life in his home country and continued with a laugh.

“Of course, it was good when others did not know much about the LGBT community. We were cruising safely on the street, in the store, pool, and gym. Now, however, the situation has changed. The government knows that the LGBT community is active, and they are actively watching us.”

I met Khalid and his boyfriend Nabil in Istanbul. Istanbul, which has become more religious these days, still leverages relative freedom in the region. LGBT people from the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, travel to Turkey to enjoy freedom for a few days. Turkey is one of the countries where many other nations around the world have always criticized human rights violations. Although homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey, the government has recently made things more difficult for the LGBT community by imposing restrictions on some LGBT organizations. However, compared to Saudi Arabia, Nabil says Istanbul is a “paradise.”

“Despite the slogans of the new crown prince who took over the country and the changes that have taken place in the situation of women in Saudi Arabia, the situation of LGBT people is still horrible. Police gay-dar is very active in detecting and suppressing LGBT people. Until now, unmarried girls and boys could not socialize on the street or in cafes. At the time,  groups of same-sex friends would not be harassed, but now the situation has changed. If you wear a skinny T-shirt, your eyebrows are trimmed, or you are too feminine, the premise is that you are gay, and you may be arrested. We have low expectations. We do not dare kiss each other on the street here in Turkey, but at least I can wear any clothes I like and walk hand in hand. Or we can book a room in a hotel with a double bed, and no one asks us what’s going on.”

Homosexuality is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Although the exact number of LGBT people who were executed is not available, the government and the state-backed media are reluctant to openly state their position against LGBT people. Saudi Arabia’s close relations with the West have led to the human rights abuses in the country being ignored by the international community. Saudi Arabia’s very hostile attitudes towards the LGBT community has received less international media attention, and international human rights organizations have been less willing to report on what is happening in the country. The Saudi LGBT community has high hopes for the activities of LGBT rights activists in other Middle Eastern countries since there are no active pro LGBT rights organizations in the country. 

Despite all difficulties, the Saudi LGBT community is still trying to have a life. The love story of Khalid and Nabil, two 28 and 29-year-old gay men from Saudi Arabia, paints a picture of LGBT life in the country.

“Although using the Grindr is dangerous and government officials may hunt you on the app, LGBT people still use Grindr and other dating apps,” Nabil said. “Of course, only the free version, because you have to pay with your credit card for the premium version of the app, and you don’t want to have the Grindr’s name among your bank transactions in Saudi Arabia.”

“Khalid and I met through Grindr!” Khalid squeezes Nabil’s arm and continues with a laugh, “Of course we met for something else, and then we started dating each other.” The relationship between Khalid and Nabil is far from the relationship between two gay men in Western countries. They both have female fiancées. Having a girlfriend can still be a problem for single men in Saudi Arabia. As a result, they could not use the old trick of “having a girlfriend” to hide their identities. 

“It’s painful, but what can we do?” Nabil continues. “Of course, we gather with our friends on the weekends and try to forget what happens to us every day and night temporarily. I feel calm when I am with Khalid. We even introduced our fiancées and tried to build family relationships so that we might be more together. But well, my heart is bleeding for the girls. They are victims like us. We have now told them that we have come to Turkey on a business trip.”

Khalid is quieter than Nabil. He sighs constantly. The general perception of Saudi Arabia is different from the image presented by Khalid and Nabil. Many people in the world think that Saudi Arabia is a rich country with prosperous, happy people. Khalid denies the narrative.

“Some gay men travel to countries like the Philippines to find someone to bring with them, under the pretext of hiring a maid or personal assistant, just to be with someone. It’s brutal for both sides.  Of course, if you have power or a lot of money, it is easier to do whatever you like and cover it up. In Saudi Arabia, everything can be solved with money and power. No scandal cannot be solved with money and power.”

“As you can see, Saudi Arabia has managed to solve its human rights violations scandals by paying cash to the Western human rights groups! No one knows what is going on in Riyadh or Jeddah. The rulers of the country pay millions of dollars in bribes so that the real picture of this country does not come out.”

I ask him about the real picture of LGBT life in Saudi Arabia. “From the moment I open my eyes to the night, I am scared. Fear that no one knows about. What happens if my phone calls are tapped, what happens if I get arrested with Nabil, what happens if our fiancées find out, what happens in the future? Do I have to marry this woman and have children? Or should I run away? And there is no solution.”

Nabil and Khalid finished with a shocking statement when I asked them to say whatever they would like to tell the world.  “The world is a friend of the Al-Saud family and an enemy of the Saudi people. Our voice is not getting anywhere.”