Saudi sovereign wealth fund money, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), is reportedly offering Elon Musk the money for Tesla to go private, to the sum of about USD $ 72 million. It supposedly has about USD $250 million in cash.? It is unlikely to be that easy. Nothing in Saudi Arabia, or the Middle East more widely, is as it seems. If a deal is secured could it be subject to a security review in the US?

This is what the Reuters correspondent in Riyadh, Andrew Torchia, wrote a few hours ago.

Saudi Fund may only play minor part in Musk's USD $72 billion Tesla plan- bankers

The fund is estimated to have over USD $250 billion in assets. But it is not that simple.

The Public Investment Fund (PIF) has many claims on its resources, both financial and political.

More than half of its assets are tied up in large Saudi companies whose stocks could be difficult to sell en masse.

The PIF has made substantial commitments to other technology companies or investments, including a $45 billion agreement to invest in a giant tech fund led by Japan’s Softbank.

Then there’s $3.5 billion invested in U.S. ride-sharing firm Uber, the $1 billion pumped into Virgin Group’s space ventures, and another $20 billion tentatively committed to an infrastructure investment fund planned with Blackstone.

There is also pressure to spend money at home, where a slumping economy has driven unemployment among Saudi citizens to record highs.

“They could handle part of taking Tesla private, but not necessarily a large part of it and certainly not all of it,” a banker at a major Gulf firm operating in Saudi Arabia said.

Musk has not put a formal buyout proposal to Tesla’s board, the company said on Tuesday.

The Tesla CEO has said he does not believe he would need to raise the full USD $72 billion value placed on Tesla by his USD  $420-a-share bid because he expects many existing shareholders – including himself with 20 percent of the company – to roll their shares into a private Tesla.

The Saudi PIF already holds about a 5 percent stake in Tesla.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who heads the PIF, is driving to diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil exports by developing new industries. Participation in a Tesla deal could bring Saudi Arabia closer to developing a domestic car industry or playing a role in Musk’s electric battery manufacturing or space activities.

What Prince Salman, PIF managing director Yasir al-Rumayyan and other officials of the fund decide will be crucial to Musk’s take-private effort.

Musk said on Monday that al-Rumayyan had voiced support for Tesla going private and that talks with the PIF, along with other investors, were continuing.

Spokesmen for the fund, as well as Saudi government officials, have so far declined any comment on Musk’s statements. But bankers familiar with the secretive PIF said on Tuesday they had seen no sign yet of it preparing to commit to a Tesla deal.

ILLIQUID ASSETS

Those bankers added that although the fund is huge, many of its assets are not liquid and readily available cash is limited.

The PIF said last October that it had some USD $230 billion of assets under management, and analysts think this figure has now probably swelled to more than USD $250 billion, largely as a result of a rise in the Saudi stock market.

But stock exchange data shows USD $140 billion or more of the PIF’s assets are in big Saudi companies such as Saudi Basic Industries (SABIC) and National Commercial Bank.

These could not be monetized quickly without driving down prices in the local stock market, while selling many of them would conflict with another of the PIF’s declared roles, to helps Saudi firms “grow into regional and global leaders”.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia’s illiquid market, selling real estate to raise money does not look like a near-term option.

“The PIF is not nearly as liquid as people might like to think,” an international banker who deals with the fund said.

However, the PIF may get two infusions of cash in the coming months and is seeking to raise between USD $6 billion and USD $8 billion in its first commercial loan, sources have told Reuters, adding that there was no mention of any acquisition linked to the debt.

And national oil giant Saudi Aramco said last month it was working on a possible purchase of a strategic stake in SABIC from the PIF. A complete purchase of the PIF’s 70 percent holding would give the fund about USD $70 billion.

Bankers expect the Aramco purchase to take at least several months to negotiate, however, and the PIF has already committed itself to large projects planned to stimulate the Saudi economy.

These include a USD $500 billion business zone in the northwest of the country, multi-billion dollar real estate developments in Mecca and Medina, and a huge entertainment area outside Riyadh.

“If it spends tens of billions of dollars overseas and the domestic economy is still slumping, it won’t look good to some Saudis,” the Gulf banker said.

 Taking Tesla private is a pipe dream

By Robert  Pozen-  14 August 2018

This article is from Brookings Brief but first appeared in Marketwatch.

Elon Musk is a brilliant entrepreneur and visionary, but the Tesla CEO’s vague proposal to take Tesla private at $420 a share is a sham.

The electric car company is struggling to service more than USD $10 billion of debt and make forecasted capital investments. Tesla TSLA, +0.39 percent is not likely to have anywhere near the free cash flow needed to support another USD $24 billion in debt to buy out even one-third of its current shareholders.

In 2017, Tesla generated USD $11.8 billion in revenue, but had negative cash flow of roughly USD $3.5 billion. That cash-burn hasn’t abated; during the first half of 2018, the company’s negative cash flow amounted to USD$1.8 billion.

Of course, Musk would argue that Tesla will soon become profitable by stepping up production of its Model 3 cars to 5,000 per week this fall, and to 10,000 per week by the end of 2018. But Musk’s predictions of car production have been frequently wrong.

Pile on top of these funding needs an additional USD $24 billion in debt to buy out one third of its shareholders — if Tesla is valued at USD $72 billion, as suggested by Musk. In theory, such a going-private transaction might be possible: Musk and insiders own 25 percent of the company, In addition, more than 40 percent of its shares could be retained by a relatively small group of institutional investors, if they would be willing to accept a severe reduction in liquidity when Telsa went private.

But in reality, who would loan Tesla another USD $24 billion?

The SEC is now investigating Musk’s assertion in his tweet on Aug. 7 of “Funding secure” for the going-private transaction. This assertion seems dubious since the largest Wall Street banks, such as JPMorgan and Citibank, were not aware of the transaction in advance of Musk’s tweet.

Moreover, Tesla’s junk bonds yielded above 7 percent in July, after being downgraded to Caa1 by Moody’s. If Tesla issued an additional USD $24 billion in bonds, those would have to pay a significantly higher interest rate — perhaps as high as 9 percent given the company’s iffy cash flow and heavy debt service obligations.

Indeed, Tesla’s creditors — banks and bond holders — should be worried about whether Tesla can pay off its current debt, given its shaky production history, negative cash flow, and sizeable cap-ex needs. They should be even more worried if Tesla takes on another USD $24 billion in debt.

At a USD $72 billion valuation, Tesla would be more than twice the size of the next biggest leveraged buyout in history. That leveraged buyout—USD $31.8 billion for TXU, a large Texas utility—resulted in bankruptcy in 2014, seven years after the buyout.

Complicating Musk’s vision is that Congress at the end of 2017 made leveraged buyouts less attractive by setting a new limit on corporate tax deductions for interest — just 30 percent of a company’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

Why is Musk putting forth the idea of a going-private transaction with such dim prospects?

After his tweet, Tesla circulated an email explaining his rationale for the proposed transaction. Musk maintains that, as a public company, Tesla is forced to take a short-term approach; by going private, Tesla will be able to focus on its “long term mission.”

While there are legitimate concerns about the short-term pressures on public companies, Musk’s motivation is disingenuous as applied to Tesla. Despite never having made a penny of profit, Tesla is valued above USD $60 billion — rivaling the market valuation of both Ford Motor Co. F, +1.43 percent and General Motors Co.GM, +0.97 percent. Why? Because many investors are willing to support Musk’s long-term vision for electric cars and overlook its current results.

In his email, Musk also mentions his dislike of short-sellers, who have bet heavily against what they believe is the unrealistically high price of Tesla’s stock. In fact, the total short interest in Tesla is one of the highest of any stock in the world. After Musk’s tweet, the price of Tesla stock jumped 11 percent — imposing huge losses on the shorts.

In my view, Musk’s vague plan for taking Tesla private is a pipe dream. I am deeply skeptical that Tesla will ever go private. Musk’s stated rationale for this proposal seems bogus, but his tweet did succeed in achieving one of his objectives — punishing short-sellers of Tesla stock — at least for now.

Robert Pozen has been a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings since 2010. In 2015, he generously committed to endow the Director’s Chair for the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Until 2010, Pozen was executive chairman of MFS Investment Management and, before 2002, served in various positions at Fidelity Investments. He did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. He is currently not an officer, director, or board member of any organization with an interest in this article.

I read  this article from the Institute of Public Relations (IPR) with interest. What is relevant in the West is not always relevant in the Middle East. Now that I’m living in the West again it is often statedthat it must be difficult being a single woman in the Middle East. It is. But no more but no more difficult than anywhere else. People find that difficult to believe.

In this article this is what companies in the West can do.

 

Driving change in the #METOO ERA

 

Picture this: You’re a Chief Communications Officer of a major Fortune 500 company on business trip to Europe, in a room full of American and European colleagues, and upon making a strategic recommendation an American man turns to you and says: “Good suggestion, especially since your lucky to be here since you don’t have a penis.”

Or maybe you’re a senior executive at a top PR agency, and notice that the ideas and analysis you used to form the strategic approach to your global business plan also appeared in a male colleague’s regional plan — to the high praise of the CEO, who was well aware of what you had originally proposed. Says the executive who experienced this, “Even when I pointed this out, he still got credit for producing such a ‘smart plan.’ Such an infuriating situation, but that was the culture at the firm.”

Another female senior communications executive feels similarly, “I wish I could count the number of times…at work where being friendly is mistaken as a ‘come on’ if you’re a woman, but not a man. The actual circumstances [range from] using business analogies about shopping or shoes because in the individual’s mind I couldn’t possibly understand a business analogy, to having someone explain something in sexual terms —’sometimes you need change; it’s like if you’re married and only have sex in the missionary position…’”

As appalling as they are, these are not one-off examples, but rather something women in all industries deal with on a regular basis. In fact, a study recently published in PRWeek demonstrated quite clearly that sexual and gender-based harassment and bias are indeed an issue in PR and marketing:

  • More than 50 percent of respondents have been sexually harassed
  • Seventy-three percent didn’t report it
  • Of those who did report it, 53 percent said nothing happened to the perpetrator
  • Only 41 percent of companies have clearly communicated guidelines for reporting harassment such as a confidential independent phone line.

None of this is surprising. Truly, who would be so arrogant or ignorant to think that people in any industry — including communications — are immune?  In fact, it may be a little surprising that it has taken the communications industry so long to talk about these issues and challenges.

Thanks to #MeToo and Time’s Up no one can deny that sexual, gender-based harassment and bias are problems. The lingering question is what to do about them. Earlier this year I wrote about the need to change the conversation, which we are seeing in real time, but to really make an impact, you also need to re-examine your internal culture.

For sure, trainings around sexual and gender-based harassment have proliferated in the months since the hashtags emerged — and that’s really important. But mandatory trainings once or twice a year will not move the needle on culture change — that takes a lot of very intentional work.

Frequent and open conversations help create an environment where people feel they can come forward not just with complaints, but when they need advice on handling a situation or to ask questions they know are not “PC” without feeling like they pulled the pin on a hand grenade. In other words, a safe space for discussion (aka, communication).

The ideal workplace operates with a culture of respect for all regardless of gender, title, race, sexual orientation, etc., and has a true open-door policy. A workplace where people feel comfortable reporting abuse and/or speaking up if they see abuse — and know in either case that there will not be retribution.

To achieve this, you need to:

1)     Expand your stakeholder base. Work cross-functionally to engage directly with employees and employee resource groups on these issues, and make sure the company is true to its values and brand promise is a good way to start to achieve this aspirational environment.

2)     Focus on transparency. Talk to teams about what you’re doing to ensure you create a value-based culture. Keep employees informed about what’s being done to build a safe and positive work environment.

3)     Be mindful not to “reward” behavior that demonstrates gender bias. The stories above were less about “sex” and more about the perceived weakness based on being a woman. This is more common than you think and while not explicitly studied by PRWeek, a significant factor in female executives’ experiences.

Tempting as it is to put a strong policy in place, conduct a thorough training and wait for people to come forward, there’s a lot more to combating and preventing sexual and gender-based harassment and bias. The commitment has to be real as Katy Robinson wrote recently for IPR, “Ultimately, employees’ attitudes toward an organization’s reporting system stem from the relationship, culture and conversation the organization has.” I would add that it has to be significant, start at the top, and align with the company’s brand promise and values. If that’s not an option, your efforts will likely be futile.

One of the female senior executives I spoke to said it best: “I think top leadership has to be willing to say that someone was terminated because they did not reflect acceptable behaviors for dealing with men, women or diversity in the workplace. Many of these behaviors are ingrained in people and training is not going to change that. In many instances… people aren’t even aware of their racism or sexism. Only when companies become overtly intolerant of this behavior will things change. For too long the ‘club’ has protected its members … it makes the aggrieved doubt themselves and pushes them further into the background.”

 

Jane Randel, co-founder of Karp Randel LLC, a consultancy designed to help corporations, foundations and individuals achieve their business and personal goals while making a positive impact on society. Follow her on Twitter @JaRandel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 President Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is reportedly pushing to annul the refugee status of millions of Palestinans and shutter the UN agency tasked with their welfare.

Reading the article, which I have posted below, I was reminded of a case study I wrote for a book on refugees- just being published. It is entitled: "Refugee reflections: a study of employment and health in New Zealand".

Here is what I wrote.

UNRWA’s work in Palestine has some lessons for New Zealand.

 The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) working with Palestine refugees has introduced a “family-medicine” approach in its treatment of Palestine refugees. This is because of the high incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) - which includes diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and smoke-related chronic lung diseases. Director of UNRWA’s health programme for Palestine refugees, Akihiro Seita says the new programme was introduced four years ago and is working well. NCDs account for 70 per cent to 80 per cent of deaths of Palestinian refugees, he notes.

He then explains how “family-medicine” works. “This means that any refugees coming to our clinic always see the same doctor and the same nurse; it’s like a family doctor. For example, if there are three doctors at the health centre, we divided the refugee population by three so each doctor had about the same number of people.” It is around 10 to 20,000 people.

 UNRWA has 143 clinics with 3,700 staff including 500 doctors, providing primary health care for 5.2 million Palestine refugees. Before the family-medicine approach was introduced, UNRWA had three delivery points at the health centres: childcare, NCDs and more general issues such as back pain, Akihiro explains. The family-medicine approach has streamlined this.

 This approach ensures each individual gets personal care, which is very important, he says, since an NCD “is a life-long condition”. It’s also necessary for the entire family to be involved in treating NCDs, especially those who do the cooking, he adds.

 It is taking time for the programme to “bed down” in rural Syria, however, because of the conditions there.

 In addition to adopting a family-medicine approach, UNRWA introduced an electronic health record system (or e-health) in clinics. Some clinics have become paperless, and, consequently, more efficient. This will allow UNRWA to monitor people with NCDs over a long period of time, for example.

 Unsurprisingly, UNRWA has difficulty adopting this approach in Syria because of connectivity problems, although one or two clinics have become paperless, Akihiro says.

 Another issue with which UNRWA has had to grabble with is the training of doctors on family medicine. UNRWA has neither the time nor the money to provide specialist training, Akihiro explains.  Therefore, to overcome this hurdle, UNRWA went to a UK institution, called RILA to conduct one-year on-the -job training with the help of partners who provided financial support. 

 Fifteen doctors were trained in Gaza last year and another 40 from Gaza, West Bank and Jordan will complete the one-year diploma in Family Medicine by mid 2018.

The course is webinar-based, with online training. Local family doctors are also facilitators and mentors for the trainees. The course covers about 60 subjects.

 UNRWA is also introducing mental health training in July and August 2017. “What we are trying to do is to train all the staff in the health centres according to the needs [of the patients] ”, says Akihiro. Mental health and psychosocial issues are at the forefront of his concerns.  The aim is to roll out the programme in three to five years to all the clinics, he says.

 UNRWA is also trying to buy medicines in a much more efficient way. “ Many good medicines are now produced in India and its neighbours, which are good quality and they are cheap,” Akihiro says.  This programme was started last year.

 In this region alone, UNRWA spends almost USD 20 million each year on medicines, half of which are for NCDs.

 The other strategy UNRWA is adopting is to support the hospitalisation of refugees because many do not have insurance. “This is a major challenge because it [hospitalisation] continues to be costly all over the world,” he says.

 Apart from medical care, UNRWRA provides education up to Year 9. UNRWA has 700 schools, which includes 100 in Jordan and 200 in Gaza. There are 22,000 teachers, and 0.5 million kids.

 Employment

 UNRWA employs about 32,000 staff including 3,700 health care staff, almost all of whom are Palestine refugees, says Akihiro.  “They grew up here, studied here and then they are trained by us and become doctors,” he says, adding: “Refugees are caring for refugees.” 

 Akihiro also notes: “Finding a job is very important to refugees”, but circumstances can make this very difficult. He notes how tough it is to find a job in Syria; in Lebanon, refugees are marginalised from ordinary Lebanese; and in Gaza the economy has collapsed because there has been the 10-year blockade there. Unemployment stands at about 40%, but at 70% among the young people,” he adds.

 In total, there are about 5.2 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN, who are based in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, Akihiro says. (Akihiro is based in Amman, Jordan). “The Palestinians have the most prolonged refugee status in the 21sttcentury”, he adds, explaining that Palestinians were first granted refugee status in 1948 and have had the same status for nearly 70 years.

 “The situation is not improving; it is getting worse,” he says. “The world should always remember and should never forget that there are Palestinian refugees and it is the single largest refugee population in the world.”

 Funding

 UNRWA spends USD 120 million on health for Palestinian refugees. The running costs for all programs including health, education and others, are almost USD 800 million. When we add the project on shelters, housing, and emergency humanitarian support and all, the total annual expenditure amounts to USD 1.8 billion each year. USD 300 million to USD 400 million are spent on the running costs of the schools with 90 per cent to 95 per cent of expenditure being for teachers.

 UNRWA is 100 per cent funded by donations, the largest donor being the US, followed by the EU, some other European countries, Japan, to some extent Australia and some smaller countries.

And to find out what Trump is thinking go to: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/08/israel-palestinians-us-donald-trump-unrwa-gaza-strip.html?utm_campaign=20180809&utm_source=sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Daily%20Newsletter

The article is entitled:

Why Trump's plan to shut UNRWA is not the solution

Women in Saudi Arabia don’t get it easy. A great deal is made of the fact that they can now drive but how much has really changed?

My short trips to Riyadh haven’t been easy. Strange men knocking at the hotel room door at 10pm; trying to get food at a hotel and walking down the street to buy a kebab with rows of men staring at me.

So how have things changed? Can they change that quickly?

This feature article by Louise Callaghan, Middle East correspondent at The Times, sets about answering this question.

Go to: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/women-in-saudi-arabia-can-work-party-and-now-drive-but-is-their-newfound-freedom-all-it-seems-p97qt7xvp

Women in Saudi Arabia can work, party — and now drive. But is their newfound freedom all it seems?

The relaxation of guardianship laws has brought hope to a new generation of Saudi women. But life in the kingdom is still patriachal and repressive, says Louise Callaghan

 From the time she hit puberty, and quite often before that, men had always told Najlaa what to do. Her brothers, her father and two successive husbands had decided what was best for her. They told her to cover her face with the niqab, a sheet of black chiffon with a headband and two strings to tie it round the back of her head. When she wanted to travel, they told her yes or no, and went with her in case anything happened.

One day this spring, she decided it was going to be different. At 39, she was going to go out and show her face in public.

It began with her daughter Rama. Rama is 14 and on that day she was wearing a T-shirt with Thrasher, the name of a Californian skateboarding magazine, printed on it in orange and red letters. Her hair reached down to her hips in frizzy waves over her cream abaya (a long, baggy coat worn by Saudi women), which hung open. Her glasses were wire-rimmed circles.

Rama had told her mum that she wanted to go to Comic Con, a festival where people dress up as characters from comic books or fantasy novels. It was being held in their city of Jeddah, a gleaming outcrop on the Hejaz, where the Red Sea meets the desert. They would go alone, with no male chaperones. Rama had said that there would be a women-only section. There was, but that’s not where they were standing. They were in the mixed area, queuing patiently for karaoke. Around them, girls wandered about dressed as Harry Potter (“the cloak is the only thing that really works as an abaya, dressing-up-wise,” remarked one) and various aliens. Some had make-up smeared all over their faces, having been asked to remove it by the guards. They were all having a ridiculously good time. Screaming girls rushed through the stalls, clutching each other and laughing at the boys in bloody Halloween masks as music pounded. Men and women walked around together, eating ice cream.

Najlaa was smiling. She was also very nervous. Though she was wearing a long black abaya and a black headscarf, she felt naked without her ni

“She made me come without it,” Najlaa said, nodding at Rama, her hand springing to her mouth again. “Is everyone staring at me? I feel like everyone is staring at me.”

“It’s OK,” smiled Rama. “No one is staring at you.” And Najlaa stepped up to the karaoke booth.

The gulf between Najlaa and Rama is the gulf between the present and the future in Saudi Arabia. Just a few years ago, the idea that a woman could walk around, with men she wasn’t related to, with her hair and face uncovered, dressed as a wizard (magic is illegal), listening to music, long considered haram (forbidden), and especially singing in public in Saudi Arabia would have been risible — on a par with suggesting that the kingdom was about to open a branch of Wetherspoons.

For much of the last century, Saudi has been one of the most isolated countries in the world. Obsessively inward-looking and fabulously rich, its rulers have enforced an extremely strict interpretation of Islam that dictates the repression and segregation of women. Every woman, whether she’s five or 50, a schoolgirl or a doctor, has a male guardian who can stop her travelling abroad or receiving certain types of medical treatment. Every woman wears the abaya, many wear a niqab, and the overwhelming majority — bar a few rebels — cover their hair.

The rules have been loosened in the past few years: under King Abdullah, who died in 2015, women started working in shops selling lingerie, and the guardianship laws began gradually to be relaxed.

Since last summer, however, change has come at a pace never seen before in the kingdom, in a way that nobody predicted.

As the clock struck midnight on June 23 this year, I watched camera lights shine on the faces of a handful of beaming women as they gripped the steering wheels of their 4x4s and rolled gently forwards. Their daughters and friends clapped as they drove off into the balmy Jeddah night. One woman went and demanded free coffee from a drive-thru in a car full of female relatives, giggling at the recklessness of it all. The man behind the counter took a picture of them to send to his wife.

Some conservatives had predicted that lifting the de facto ban on women driving would lead to chaos on the kingdom’s roads. The fact that Saudi highways are already made highly dangerous by incompetent male drivers seemed to pass them by. Instead, like all the other times when conservatives had claimed that modernisation would lead to societal collapse (“It was the same with camera phones,” a friend sighed), it was all fine — and a bit anticlimactic.

The changes are mostly down to one man: Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince, who has launched a project to remake the country. The bearish royal has blasted aside opposition: imprisoning about 200 of Saudi’s most influential people — many of them his relatives — in a luxury hotel in Riyadh before allegedly extracting huge sums in return for their freedom. By 2030, he has promised, he will have revitalised Saudi Arabia’s oil-reliant economy, building hi-tech cities in the desert to attract investment and harnessing the power of the sun to keep the country’s lights on.

Last September, MbS, as he is known, announced that women would be allowed to drive. But in May, just weeks before the ban was to be lifted, the government ordered the arrest of the kingdom’s best-known female activists, some of whom had campaigned for decades for women to have the right to drive. To Saudi watchers, the arrests came as no surprise. MbS has repeatedly made clear he has no desire to liberalise Saudi’s political arena. Quite the opposite: with his rise to prominence, observers say, the kingdom is losing its rule by consensus. Where decisions used to be made by long-winded negotiations with various branches of the family, now MbS picks up a phone and it is done. One man, one decision.

He may have had meetings with Mark Zuckerberg, opened cinemas and said that women don’t have to wear the abaya, but any liberalisation comes on his terms. Entertainment and small freedoms will keep his population happy as oil prices fall, but the arrests of the driving activists sent a very clear message that anyone expecting to get results from opposing government policies will end up behind bars.

By the time his father, King Salman, named MbS crown prince in June 2017, Saudi Arabia was already changing. In recent years, the streets of Jeddah and, to a lesser extent, Riyadh exploded with pinks and blues as women put aside their black abayas in favour of pastel versions. Now, many leave their abayas open, showing long skirts or skinny jeans underneath. A few are taking off their headscarves. But the prince went further. In an interview on American TV this year, he said that women were equal to men.

If Mohammed bin Salman succeeds, he’ll reshape the Middle East. If he fails, the entire region will be destabilised. Over several visits to the kingdom this year, I spoke to dozens of Saudis — young and old, male and female — about what comes next. There were a lot of doubts and criticism of the reforms. But one thing came up more often than not: hope.

The Haifa shopping mall in Jeddah is a strip-lit concourse several hundred feet long, with air so cold it freezes the sweat onto your arms. It has a Marks & Spencer, a New Look and a Starbucks; women queue on one side, men on the other to avoid any immoral behaviour among the frappés. It is the area’s most popular meeting spot, packed with groups of giggling girls in niqabs, trying on flower crowns and taking group selfies, and boys strutting like ostriches.

More than 70% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 30, and almost all of them are bored. For most of the year, it’s too hot to spend long outside. Until this year, there were no cinemas. Cafes and restaurants are segregated by gender. It is, logistically, very difficult to meet members of the opposite sex. In the absence of parks, concerts or clubs, they head to the malls: out of the heat, and easy to find an excuse to visit. As groups of boys and girls pass in the Haifa mall, they smile at each other and sometimes stop — briefly — to exchange phone numbers or Facebook profiles. Others find more creative means.

“I had a friend who became an Uber driver, so he could meet girls,” said a PR consultant in his mid-twenties. “One time he was chatting to a passenger and she said, ‘Do you want to go and make out somewhere outside the city?’ So they did.”

Mostly, though, young Saudis live online. The internet has changed their lives beyond all recognition. On their phones, they chat late into the night, just like any other teenagers. They learn about fashion trends, bands and films at the same time as the rest of the world. And, most important, they can be themselves.

“I don’t know what I did before I got a phone with internet,” said one female 27-year-old master’s student. “Just sat in the air conditioning and ate, pretty much. I didn’t have any male friends, I didn’t know anything. It was so f****** boring.”

Online, some girls who cover their faces in public post pictures wearing shorts and T-shirts. They contour their faces with elaborate make-up learnt from YouTube tutorials and take whole albums of selfies. Their hair is Disney-princess long. Even those who remain covered can’t resist the lure of social media. Some post pictures where their face is completely obscured by an outsize emoji.

For these people, MbS’s changes are a life-saver. They mean, at least, that they can start going to the cinema, where there might be opportunities for furtive gender-mixing in the back row. Most significantly, they can now mingle in public without fearing the religious police, who used to break up gatherings of unmarried men and women — sometimes separating couples walking in the road and quizzing them individually on how they met, when they married and the colour of their bedsheets. Since April 2016, when MbS took away their powers of arrest, the police have been resigned to poking around the cities, occasionally telling women to cover their hair. They’re often ignored. But as strict as the rules remain, young people have always found ways to break them.

As Latino music played over the stereo, Ahmed, 26, took another swig of home-brewed date wine. This room, in his friend’s apartment, was the one he and his mates used for parties. A disco ball dappled the packs of crisps, the flatscreen TV and the lone bottle of alcohol.

“There’s such a craving for parties,” Ahmed said. “People party during the day, so that their families don’t notice. We usually finish around 11. That’s such a short time if you’re trying to meet girls.”

The room is completely soundproof, so the neighbours don’t complain. For Ahmed and his friends, most of whom studied in the US under scholarship programmes provided by the Saudi government, partying is a way to relieve the tedium of being back home. But meeting girls can still be hard. As liberal as many young Saudis are, the old social conventions still grip hard.

“In the US there are rules, you know? Like if you meet a girl, and you like her, then you might sleep with her and you never see each other again, or you might date her,” Ahmed said, vaguely tapping his foot to the music. “Here, there’s so much shame. People don’t know what they want. If you sleep with a girl, she might never talk to you just because she feels ashamed.”

In Saudi Arabia, reputation counts. The way that people talk about girls who have done “shameful” things, such as talking to a boy who isn’t her relative, reminds me a lot of my British grandmother. For her, virtue was something to be kept, and “good girls” were demure and softly spoken.

The niqab is the extreme iteration of this attitude. For many Saudi families, the face-covering is seen as way of avoiding shame and preserving their reputation, rather than a simple sign of religious piety. The same applies to husbands wanting to preserve their family’s “integrity” by asking their wives to cover their faces.

It wasn’t always like this. Some Hejazis, who were ruled by the Ottoman empire until the Arab Revolt during the First World War, like to claim that the niqab is native to the Najd, the central region of Saudi Arabia that is the home and power base of the al-Saud family. But as they have ruled, an article of clothing that was once the preserve of ultra-strict Bedouin culture spread across the Gulf, and over much of the world. I spoke to more than 30 women in Riyadh and Jeddah, in rich and poor areas, about why they wore the niqab. Three said it was because of their religion — though of course the reaction may have been different had I asked women in villages. The vast majority said the same thing: because my brothers (or my father) told me to.

On a humid Jeddah evening this spring, Haifa, 25, and her friends were walking on the corniche. They had come to town for a wedding, and knew the only way their brothers would let them have a look around was if they wore the niqab. In the circumstances, they worked with what little they had. Haifa’s eyes were thick with eyeliner. Her friends all had sequins subtly embroidered into their abayas.

For a few days, in Riyadh and Jeddah, I wore a niqab. It’s not as bad as you would think. When you look at people wearing it, they seem cut off. But if you’re wearing it, you can feel protected. People don’t look at you. You are still there, but you’re withholding something from the rest of the world. In that sense, I can see how it could make you feel powerful. Nora, 34, has used that power to eke out a little more freedom. After living in Canada, where she wore a loose headscarf with her jeans, she moved back to Saudi. She wanted to work, but was worried about people in her community gossiping, or men trying to harass her.

“I only wear the niqab at work,” she said, as she tidied the make-up counter of the shop where she was providing staff training. “No one knows who I am, no one can say anything, no one tries to bother me.”

Another friend told me she only wears a niqab if she goes shopping by herself, just to avoid her husband’s relatives.

“You can just go right past them, they have no idea,” she said, cackling.

With niqabs or without, it is in the shopping malls and office blocks of the kingdom that Saudi women’s best hope for freedom lies. Back when the country was boundlessly rich from its oil wells, there was little reason for women to work. But by 2015, the price of oil had fallen to $50 a barrel, where the Saudis had predicted it would stay at $100. The kingdom’s rulers began to realise that the black gold, which made up 90% of Saudi’s exports, would not sustain them for ever. Now, women are being pushed out of the house and into public life by economic need — hoping the free market will free them.

“Everyone needs to work,” said Lamia Aleisa, 23, one half of Lamb & Lu, a Riyadh-based pop-up space and jewellery store. “The lifestyle that I was brought up with isn’t sustainable unless it’s a two-income household. We were living on cloud nine. It was ridiculous to be living on that kind of government subsidisation. We’re currently not a productive society and that needs to change. We basically got a reality check and it’s sinking in.”

Face value: make-up and lingerie stores began the move towards female employmentIMAN AL-DABBAGH FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE

It has become much more widely accepted in Saudi families that women should work. But although women make up more than half of Saudi’s university graduates, a third of working-age women are unemployed — a rate five times higher than for men. It is an enormous challenge for any government, let alone one that allows men to control women legally.

For all the hopeful rhetoric and all the changes, Saudi Arabia is still not a good place to be a woman. Your life depends on the luck of the draw: if your father or your brother or son is nice, they’ll let you do what you want. You can work, travel and, now, drive. But if they’re not, they can turn your life into a living hell with no repercussions.

Even if the guardianship laws are repealed — and such a move is rumoured to be in the works — Saudi’s ultra-patriarchal culture will remain. A woman’s word will still be worth less than a man’s. Because of the extraordinary power held by families in Saudi, male relatives will still be able to control “their” women.

“If you’re being beaten by your husband and call the police, they will say they can’t do anything,” said one middle-aged Riyadh woman. “Or your husband could say you’re just lying because you’re crazy. Even if, yes, legally you’re allowed to leave home, or marry, your family still in practice has control of your life.

“My guardian is my son. He is 19. If one day he decides he’s angry at me, or I don’t give him money, or anything, he could just stop me travelling. He’s my baby. Isn’t that crazy?”

For a proportion of Saudi society — it’s hard to know how large — this is the natural order of things. Change, they believe, should not come at the expense of their traditional values. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for women to drive,” said Dalal Hazazi, 38, a housewife in a working-class area of Riyadh. “They never used to, and it’ll be hard to start. Maybe for non-Muslims it’s good, but we shouldn’t change.”

The instructions printed on the concert ticket were clear: strictly no dancing or swaying allowed. All along the edges of the stands, female guards dressed in burgundy abayas stood scanning the audience, like a Muslim Handmaid’s Tale, watching for anyone whose claps got a little too rhythmic. But the event-planners hadn’t reckoned with just how excited 6,000 Saudis can get when Tamer Hosny comes on stage. The Egyptian crooner, dressed in a black suit, swept across the stage and pointed at the crowd: “Hello, Saudi Arabia!” he shouted, before launching into one of his — relatively raunchy — pop songs.

While the men in the segregated audience mostly sat silent, filming themselves or Hosny, the women partied as if it was the end of the world. The night air was speckled with lights as they held up their phones and swayed. Sequins glittered on abayas carefully chosen for the rare night out. Eyes were heavy with layers of fake lashes. Plasters from fresh nose jobs were worn with pride. As Hosny paused for a second during a chorus, thousands of women screamed out his lyrics and fell about laughing. One by one, they started clapping, occasionally rising in their seats — sending the guards flying about to sit them down again. They, too, were smiling.

In Saudi Arabia, not much has really changed for women. The government has allowed some entertainment, lifted a few restrictions and let women get behind the wheel, but it has remained autocratic and extraordinarily repressive. For some women, though, everything has changed. For the first time in a long time, there’s hope.

“I don’t know if these changes will be for ever, or if everything is just going to go back to how it was again,” said Noura, 22, as the applause swelled. “But either way, I’ll take it. I’ll take what’s happening right now.”