The Saudis: Inside The Desert Kingdom

Sheila O’Malley’s review of “The Saudis: Inside The Desert Kingdom” by Sandra Mackey. From a non-Saudi woman’s point of view on how things were back then in Saudi Arabia when oil was first discovered. This seems like a good read for history and cultural anthropology enthusiasts.


And here is my next excerpt of the day from my library…

Next book on the shelf is The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom by Sandra Mackey. Sandra Mackey, a journalist, lived in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s, early 80s – her husband was there in Riyadh, a doctor on staff at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital. Because of the restrictions on her because of her sex, only allowed to be there because she was a dependent of her husband, Mackey was undercover. She wrote under multiple male pseudonyms, and had to hide her true identity. It’s a really interesting story: how she was able to even GET stories – when she wasn’t supposed to be a journalist in the first place. But she was there at a certain point of transition in Saudi Arabia (transition? How about total and utter UPHEAVAL) because of the oil boom – that she was able to see this culture wrenching itself into the 20th century, awkwardly, badly at times. We all are aware of the surface realities of Saudi Arabia. This book didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know, but it did add perspective and historical context to some of those realities. If you want to get a start on understanding how things work, and WHY – this is a very good place to start. Mackey, at times, takes on a perspective similar to that of Elias Canetti’s – she, as a total outsider (and Saudi Arabian social life is pretty much nonexistent – it was nearly impossible for her, as a Westerner, to get close to any of the Saudis she knew on an every day basis – it’s not like there were weekly Happy Hours in Riyadh where Mackey could mingle, and get an idea of what was REALLY going on, and people’s RESPONSES to the oil boom, and the upheaval, and yadda yadda – it is a closed society, so she had quite a struggle) – But anyway, in the same way that Elias Canetti, after all his research into crowds and how crowds behaved throughout history – felt comfortable enough to generalize about certain cultures – based on his observations – so does Mackey. This is not about stereotyping. It is about the expression of a reality we all can point to, and say exists. Canetti looks at German culture (his own culture) and asks questions like: What is important to a German? What does being in a crowd provide a German that is different than, say, a Bushman in the Kalahari Desert? We are NOT all the same … a German sees the world differently than an African Bushman … and WHY?? Mackey not only writes about the history of Saudi Arabia – and all of that is very interesting – but she goes to great lengths to talk about the actual psychology of the kingdom itself, and its residents. How do their minds WORK – it’s not just nature that forms us, it’s nurture – so what is the psychology like there? How is the family structured? And how do they deal with pride, or guilt, or humor, or insecurity? Of course there are things that all human beings have in common, regardless of the culture they were born into – we experience fear, pain, bodily functions, we laugh … But the psychology of a Saudi citizen is going to be different than the psychology of a Chinese person, or a person from Russia. Mackey talks a lot about this.

I’m going to excerpt a bit from her chapter on the Bedouin. Again, probably nothing new here to anyone – still, it’s interesting.

From The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom by Sandra Mackey.

The legendarily tough and fiercely independent nomads of the Arabian Peninsula are called Bedouins, a French derivative of an Arabic word meaning “an inhabitant of the desert.” For centuries the Bedouins alone dominated the vast, empty wasteland of the Arabian Peninsula. Through civilization after civilization, it was the Bedouin with his superhuman ability to survive who not only controlled but characterized the desert.

Nowhere in the world was there such a continuity as in the Arabian desert. Here Semitic nomads … must have herded their flocks before the Pyramids were built or the Flood wiped out all traces of man in the Euphrates valley. Successive civilizations rose and fell around the desert’s edge … Egypt of the Pharaohs; Sumeria; Babylonia; Assyria; the Hebrews; the Phoenicians; Greeks and Romans; the Persians; the Muslim Empire of the Arabs, and finally the Turks. They lasted a few hundred or thousand years and vanished; new races were evolved and later disappeared; religions rose and fell; men changed, adapting themselves to a changin world; but in the desert the nomad tribes lived on, the pattern of their lives but little changed over this enormous span of time.*

The Bedouin lived on almost nothing. What meager cash he did scrape together came from transporting goods across the desert or selling camels to those who did. Camels were the mainstay of the Bedouin. They were transport, commerce, and, when they died, food. Uniquely suited to the desert, a camel could go without water for five days in summer and twenty-five in winter. For its owners, it provided milk for food, dung for fuel, and urine for hair tonic or a bath to keep the flies away from the baby. The Bedouins survived the ravages of nature in tents woven by the women from the odorous hair of family goats. Meat from their sheep was the staple of their diet. To increase their life-sustaining herds, tribe raided tribe under sacred rules that spoke of medieval forms of fidelity and warfare.** They had nothing except a great sneering pride in who they were.

And then it all changed within a few short years. The Bedouins became victims of mechanization. After the First World War, the products of technology — cars, airplanes, and radio — undermined the Bedouins’ advantage in the desert. No longer could a Bedouin tribe stage a raid against those who sought to control it and then disappear unpursued into the desert. No longer were the Bedouin tribes able to blackmail governments for their good behavior, levy tolls on travelers, or extract tributes from villages. But above all, mechanical transport destroyed the Bedouin economy. No longer was there any demand for their only cash crop, camels. Yet the Bedouins still survive. Continuing to live in tightly knit grouips of family and tribe, they drift in and out of Saudi Arabia’s towns and cities, an object of public scorn.

For centuries in hundreds of towns such as al-Hotghat, the mud-walled settlement in Wadi Hanifa, the town Arabs were traders whose only contact with the Bedouins was in pursuit of commerce. In the coffee houses, there was endless ridicule of the Bedouin for everything he did, including the way he prayed. Yet the emotional intensity of the desert nomad irrefutably imposed its ideals on the towns. Urbanized Saudis look back on the Bedouin and endow him with almost superhuman traits that transform him into an idealized giant. But at the same time, Saudis of the city, especially the young and educated, delight in poking fun at the Bedouin, especially in the presence of a Westerner, and calim that they themselves never step foot outside the limits of the city. In the age of petroleum, the Bedouin is both the archetypal hero and comic buffoon of Saudi society. This conflicting set of attitudes, the Bedouin as hero and the Bedouin as fool, is another of the many conflicts within the Saudi psyche. Psychologically, the Bedouin represents to the present-day Saudi what the Western cowboy folk hero represents to an American. And like Americans, the Saudis have created from the Bedouin, idealized as a desert warrior, a powerful prototype that influences their value system and their patterns of behavior. No matter how much the various geographic regions of Saudi Arabia may differ or how far a Saudi is removed from the desert, the Bedouin ethos is the bedrock of the culture.

Just how many Bedouins are left in Saudi Arabia is an open question. A study done in the early 1980s suggested that perhaps 5 percent of the Saudi population remains wholly nomadic. But this figure is grossly misleading. A Bedouin can no longer be defined by a nomadic lifestyle. The demarcation line between the sedentary and the nomadic population is fluid, for the Bedouins themselves can be nomadic, seminomadic, or settled. It is the strength of the Bedouin mentality that is important for the classification of a Saudi as Bedouin or a town Arab rather than the way he lives. Under this critierion, the Bedouin constitute a significant part of the Saudi population.

How well have the Bedouins adjusted to the age of development in Saudi Arabia? There are Bedouins working in the oil fields, in business, and in the bureaucracy, and there are Bedouins still herding camels. There are Bedouins living in the heart of Riyadh and there are Bedouins still living in tents. Most Western academicians claim that the Bedouins have not adapted well to modernization, are trapped between their traditional past and the unknown future, and survive economically on government handouts. On one level all this is true. The Bedouins have been deeply affected by modernization. There is an ongoing struggle to merge the material benefits of modernization with the Bedouins’ traditional lifestyle. Although they travel by plane now, the Bedouins still have a nomadic attitude about the amount and kinds of luggage they carry. When a Bedouin gets on an airplane, he checks battered suitcases, cardboard boxes, and his bedroll. As compartment luggage, he carries a cloth sack filled with food and his portable cooking stove.

For those Bedouins who still choose to live in tents, the clutter of development has moved into their camps. Before the oil boom, a nomadic family’s spartan belongings consisted of coffee pots, cooking utensils, some rugs on which to sleep, and a few articles of extra clothing. The Bedouin family now has sewing machines, radios, insulated coolers, aluminum cots, and garishly painted tin trunks imported from Yemen. Abandoned campsites are no longer marked by the blackened stones of the campfire but are littered with punctured tires, empty oil drums, plastic bags, and rusting tin cans.

But on another level, the Bedouin psyche is less torn by development than that of the town Arabs. The Bedouins are so secure in their perception of themselves that they have an amazing ability to accept the things they choose from development and reject the rest. Every day I saw Bedouins manipulate their environment to suit their desires. A graphic example of this occurred along one of the valleys west of Riyadh. As we crested a rise on the roadless desert, Dan was forced to swerve our NIssan Patrol sharply left to avoid a dump truck creeping up the other side. Below, an army of trucks and heavy earth-moving equipment was loudly chewing at the desert floor between massive steel towers that would carry high power lines to villages throughout the valley. In the midst of all this construction activity, a lone figure stood serenely. It was a Bedouin, his leathery feet stuck in traditional sandals, his ragged gutra dropping down the back of his loose, soiled thobe, his staff clutched in his horny hand. Oblivious to the noise around him, he stood watch over his flock of Nejdi sheep, pulling at the spotty vegetation that had survived the onslaught of progress.

Of all the Saudis, the Bedouins are the least willing to interact with Westerners. There was seldom any banter between Bedouins and Westerners in the souqs, and Bedouin camps in the desert were armed fortresses closed to outsiders. Yet even if the Bedouins refused to accept foreigners, they did accept the most advanced medical treatment as a matter of course. One of the most interest aspects of being associated with the tertiary care center for Saudi Arabia was seeing the cross-section of people who came through the hospital. Every day I could observe the Bedouins interacting with modernization on the most personal level. I often saw veiled women, their hands patterned and painted with henna, abaayas covering their loudly striped polyester dresses, squatting outside the door of the x-ray department, waiting for a CT scan. But it was the time I spent in an isolated Bedouin camp to celebrate a tribal member’s recovery from a kidney transplant that confirmed in my mind that the Bedouins have emotionally survived the oil boom better than is generally acknowledged.

It was seven o’clock in the morning when those of us invited to the camp excitedly gathered at the gate of the hospital. All of us realized that this was special, for few Westerners ever had the opportunity to enter a Bedouin camp. Mohammed, our guide, arrived in a new Chevrolet Caprice, which he probably had purchased with a government grant to dig a well or with a bonus from the National Guard, where he served as a part-time soldier. With him in the lead, our little caravan proceeded north out of Riyadh, through Darma, northwest into the province of Gasim, on through obscure towns and settlements, and out into the high northern desert. After four hours, the Chevrolet abruptly turned off the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and bounced across the rough terrain. As we crested a sandy incline, the camp spread out before us. A long, black goat-hair tent open in the front, through which goats were wandering in and out, stood at the center. In front a campfire burned, warming the traditional coffee pot. Scattered across the camp area was a collection of Toyota and Datsun pickups and a square canvas tent. As we pulled to a stop, old and young men, some with ammunition belts strapped across their chests, veiled women, and a multitude of children tumbled out of the tents to greet us. The men of our party were escorted toward the big tent while we women were separated out and taken to the smaller tent. There we were entertained by the camp women and all the children. In the ritual of hospitality, a small handleless cup of pale green coffee spiced with cardamon was thrust in my hand as soon as I was seated on a machine-made Oriental rug imported from Bulgaria. A boy of about four, thick yellow mucous running from his nose, shly reacahed into an aluminum tin buzzing with flies and pulled out a sticky date, which he thrust at me in his dirty hand. I gingerly took the date, passed its sand-coated skin across my lips, and chewed its sweet meat. I was intensely curious about life in the camp. From where I sat I was able to look out through a slit where the sides of the tent joined. Directly in my life of vision was the men’s tent. Through its open front, I saw the men sitting in a circle while a young man in his late teens moved from one to the other poruing coffee from an obviously new brass pot of the kind the Saudis imported in great quantities from Pakistan. Leaping out of this montage was a roll of paper towels imported directly from the West, which dangled from the side of the tent on a strand of rope.

By midafternoon, the lamb roasting in an oven made from an oil drum buried in the sand was done. The men lifted the meat up on heavy metal skewers and laid it on a metal tray that was at least two feet in diameter. Dining was reserved for the guests. When we were joined by the Western men, the Bedouin women disappeared. With great ceremony, our hosts set down before us a great steaming tray of lamb and rice. Only the choicest pieces of meat were presented. There were tender neck joints and large chunks of the leg, and lying on top of the wrinkled stomach with its fuzzlike villi was the skull with the brain encased. Loaves of flat Arabic bread were handed around, which we used to scoop up the rice and lamb from the communal plate. It was one of the best meals I have ever eaten. When we finished, the tray was removed and taken to the Bedouin men in the main tent. When they finished, their scraps went to the women.

The Bedouin women reentered the guest tent carrying piles of quilts and mattresses made from cotton wadding, which they rolled out on the ground so we could rest. With the goats temporarily shooed away, I reclined on a square bolster pillow and talked to the women hidden behind their veils. I asked the wife of the transplant patient how her husband happened to know about the availability of transplant surgery. obviously puzzled about my lack of knowledge of basic facts, she said, “From his brother. He had a transplant at the Military Hospital last year.” Sitting in that tent, looking out on the patient, his brother who had donated the kidney, and the young, brihgt, highly trained Western surgeon who was comfortably talking with them, I thought that out of the boom decade the Bedouins may have survived the best. Perhaps it is because in the tumultuous days of Saudi Arabia’s awakening to the outside world, the Bedouins never doubted their superiority. When the Westerners came with their machines and their different way of life, the Bedouin was able to gather in a share of the new consumer goods purchased with government money. He could choose to send his sons to school and on into the modern economy, or he could choose, without shame, to remain what he had always been – a Bedouin,

Clustered in family or tribe, the Bedouins refuse to surrender to outside authority. Their support can be bought but their loyalty is achored in the family. In the past, each desert family was alone, separated from the rest of society by the sparseness of the vegetation needed to support the animals on which their very lives depended. From this isolation in family units there developed over many centuries an intense feeling that an individual had no protection beyond that of the family. Of the various values the Bedouins have bestowed on modern Saudi Arabia, the primacy of the family is among the most important.

Saudis live in large extended families. It is one of their significant differences from Western culture that, for the Saudis, the concept of individuality is absent. A Saudi seems himself in the context of his family and, to a lesser degree, the tribe. His duty is never to himself but to the group. Within the family, there is a strong sense of patrilineal descent, for a man is considered to be a descendant only of his father and his paternal grandfather but never his mother or maternal grandfather. He belongs only to his father’s group, which claims his entire, undivided loyalty. This is why the most sought-after marriages are first cousin marriages between children of brothers. By sharing the same grandfather, the all-important group solidarity is ensured.

*Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands
** The system of chivalry is believed by some to have been carried to Europe from the Arabs during the Crusades.


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Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

2 thoughts on “The Saudis: Inside The Desert Kingdom”

  1. >While the book is an interesting read, it fairly glows with the skewed and incomplete scholarship of a writer who, admittedly, does not belong in her realm of interest. Iread the book in the 80s while living and working at KFSH. I know where the author lived, and I know how she lived. Perhaps her historical assessments hold some merit, but her personal experiences and investigations smack of the cultural ingnorance that emits from someone who writes from an agenda.Sorry to disagree with you, but I feel compelled to offer my reaction.


  2. >Marahm-Thanks for commenting on the book. Are you disagreeing with my teeny review of the excerpt or O’Malley’s review of the book?Went to look at your blog, love the blue colors masha’Allah. Mahram is a beautiful name and it is the name of my favorite attar from 3ud Al-3rabia!


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