Barren mountains, parched landscapes, dark clouds, impassable rocks, zombies, soldiers, and giants. Behind this gloomy backdrop emerges a group of women on loud motorcycles – at full speed and with their abayas waving in the wind. Welcome to a post-apocalyptic version of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, surrounded by a world sinking into war over the last natural resources.
“Saudi Girls Revolution” (SGR), a game soon available for smartphones, takes us into a Saudi Arabian “Mad Max”-scenario and it is already making headlines months before the official release. Eight women fight against brutal tyrants. Among them are the women’s rights activist Um Bandar, Leila from the country’s overthrown elite, and Hussa who is gay. The women roar on their motorcycles as they drive through destroyed and corrupted lands.
But it’s not just the plot that gives the virtual revolution of these Saudi girls so much attention: Behind the idea is His Highness Prince Fahad Al-Saud, grandson of the brother of the king of Saudi Arabia, the country which faces some harsh international criticism because of the ban on driving for women, for not being accepting of homosexuals and for its hard punishments.
Studies at Stanford, work in London
So now a Saudi prince creates characters such as a women’s rights activist fighting next to a gay woman against tyrannical rulers in a dystopian Saudi Arabia. “Why not? We wanted the world of SGR to be a diverse one”, says Prince Fahad Al-Saud. A world as diverse as the one the prince lives in.
He studied at Stanford University, worked at Facebook on the launch of the Arabic version, has lived in Los Angeles and London and has founded several companies – including NA3M Games, the company behind “Saudi Girls Revolution” which is now getting its finishing touches. On his Facebook page, the 31-year-old comes across as a modern, cool hipster guy. It is hard to imagine him in the highly regulated and restricted world of his homeland.
Al-Saud has very clear ambitions that go beyond the kingdom. The head of more than 25 game developers from 16 countries thinks beyond borders. “I want to inspire the youth in the Arab world to be more creative. We want the Arab world to become an internationally recognized player in the entertainment industry”. Of course he created a matching hashtag: #NA3MWeCan. The company’s name NA3M stands not only for New Arab Media, but is also the Arabic word for Yes. To what exactly does the prince say Yes? “We have the impression people say no too often. The Yes is to serve as a reminder that we can achieve anything we set our hearts and minds to,” says Al-Saud.
"The women roar on their motorcycles as they drive through destroyed and corrupted lands"
Saudi Arabian women have wanted to drive and been fighting for their right to do so for decades. But in spite of their struggle and numerous campaigns this is still denied. While no law explicitly prohibits women driving in the country, the required license is reserved for men. Driving licenses issued abroad are not accepted. And now the grandson of the king’s brother is working on a game in which Saudi women ride tuned motorcycles boards through a post-apocalyptic Kingdom: Is this a political provocation?
“Saudi Girls Revolution addresses the issue of female inequality in entertainment while inspiring women to believe that they can be the protagonists of their own stories. This is very much about social progression rather than politics”, answers the Prince.
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That underlines a note, which is already present on the NA3M Games-website: Saudi Girls Revolution is aimed to highlight “social, not political issues”. But where is the boundary between political and social issues? The answer sounds diplomatic: “We only mean to entertain and inspire people by creating high quality content. By being bold in our content, we are not letting conventions get in the way of creativity”.
The world in which his motorcycle riding heroines engage in a brave fight, is a world in which women are able to do and achieve the same things as men, he explains. The idea of Saudi Girls Revolution came to him for a very simple reason: “Arab stereotypes, in particular the women portrayed in the entertainment industry, do not represent the Saudi women we grew up with”. Al-Saud is a young, modern entrepreneur, but traditional Arabic heritage is very important to him and plays a key role in most of NA3M’s products.
As a consequence, Islamic history and girl power go hand in hand in the virtual world of the Saudi Arabian rebels. The group of the eight women is called the “Mu’tazilah“. That is also the name of a group of Muslim Scholars of the early days of Islam who fought for the use of reason and human willpower. Translated, this means “those who break away”. To Al-Saud, it is the perfect name for his heroines: “In our fictional world, the girls are called Mu’tazilah because they have separated themselves from mainstream society by rebelling. In this sense, it is a very appropriate name for our group of heroines.”
Rebelling in Saudi Arabia’s reality can cost a high price, such as the case of blogger Raif Badawi shows. Badawi had to face a punishment of 1000 lashes. Last December, two female Saudi activists were detained for rebelling against their right to drive.
Against all conventions
Al-Saud and his team believe in the strength of women, not only in the fictional future scenario, but also in reality: “NA3M wants to demonstrate that women cannot only challenge gaming and social conventions from within the content itself, but also by being behind the making of the actual game itself”. Mobile Games are not only one of the fastest growing sectors of the video game industry, but Arab countries also provide one of the biggest markets, which is growing annually by 29%. Saudi Arabia has a higher smartphone penetration than the United States.
On these smartphone screens, the Saudi Girls Revolution will soon take place and destroy all conventions. The exact release date of the game is not yet set. ”We hope everyone enjoys it when it comes out, and this includes the Saudi audience”. His company embraces what the future may bring. “Always remember: #NA3MWeCan!”
This piece was published in German newspaper Die Welt on June 3, 2015.
Also see this recent interview with Prince Fahad Al-Saud: