Inside the Real Saudi Arabia: Halted conversations, blurred faces and controlling fixers

Basma Kahlifa’s personal documentary for BBC starts slowly and ends in a panicked exit

‘I honestly don’t get it,’ Kahlifa says when asked to wear a flowing, form-concealing garment

With Basma Kahlifa's personal documentary Inside the Real Saudi Arabia (BBC One, Tuesday, 11.45pm) we have the strange case of a film that manages to be very revealing almost without trying.

In part, that is a grim accident of timing. Filming began three days after the grisly killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khassoggi, a title card explains in urgent all-caps, which reads like an apology for going ahead with it.

Kahlifa’s documentary is the tale of two subtitles. A working cut went under the strap-line, “Could I move back?”, as though this was the voyage of a musing millennial. By the time of broadcast, it had changed to “Why I had to leave”. That decision, we learn over the course of a turbulent few days, was not of her own making. It was an order.

In other circumstances, Khalifa, an ebullient 29-year-old fashion stylist raised in Belfast and living in London, might have constructed a fonder PR exercise, returning to the land of her birth to see how, according to one relative, "everything has changed".


We hear about Saudi’s progressive advances – or, rather, two ceaselessly repeated examples: that under the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman cinemas have been opened and women have been allowed to drive.

“But is that enough?” wonders Khalifa. Such rhetoric isn’t politically oblivious, but Khalifa’s probing hardly seems like a significant liability for the Kingdom.

Nonetheless, this is how she is treated. You see it in the ever-more brusque commands of “fixers and government minders” about her dress, journeys and conversation. But, more tellingly, you see it among her female Saudi relatives who fret constantly about the same matters.

“I honestly don’t get it,” Kahlifa says about a fuss made over acquiring an abaya, a flowing, form-concealing garment. “But I also get that with the Khassogi case going on everyone seems a bit on edge.”

Nor does she get the countless women who retreat from her camera in public, whose faces are blurred by request, who abruptly halt a conversation if it turns even mildly political, while Instagram and Snapchat abound with more heedless images.

Whether they’re right or wrong, the Saudi public is far more conscious and cautious about who Kahlifa’s audience may be. And when the world’s media report that bin Salman ordered Khassogi’s killing, that audience is not forgiving.

Kahlifa and her director Jessica Kelly push on regardless, as though searching for the Saudi of social media. So Kahlifa scrolls through "Jeddah Tinder", but her relatives make it clear that a date is out of the question. She attends a thronged magazine party, where a Saudi rapper rhymes about open cinemas and female drivers. She retreats to a house party in a compound that no one allows to be filmed.

A trip to Mecca with her relatives, but without her mother, is touching, but such a detour from the thrust of the film as to suggest they ran short of footage. A wildly abrupt finale expains why.

Embarking on a drive in Jeddah, her route dictated by her minders, Kahlifa surreptitiously reveals on her phone the women who campaigned for this right, and who were imprisoned and tortured. One minder overhears. Immediately, permission for filming is withdrawn, her invitation rescinded, and Kahlifa flees overnight in stunned panic.

“I think it was to be expected,” says her aunt. “I think it was inevitable.”

Saudi Arabia hasn't changed, Kahlifa reflects ruefully, within a documentary that has changed utterly.