Update: Yesterday the Saudi government made a landmark decision to make marriages between non-Saudis and Saudi students easier. I posted it today.
This post was inspired by those non-Saudi women who have asked me privately and on FHWS regarding the rules on marrying a Saudi while he is studying abroad.
Aysha Al-Kusayer, screenwriter and blogger of In The Making, gave me permission to quote her on this very subject, “First, the general law in Saudi is strict about non-saudi marriages. Second, such a message is probably intended to give a scare to those who are not serious about marriage. I think it appeals to a certain age group and immature students who are considering such marriage just as a spur of the moment thought, expecting that it would solve their everything, and you fill the blanks. It can easily occur during their culture shock stages, an example I remember is a Saudi forum where a Saudi student who recently resided in the States was saying how newly-convert American women are the best for marriage and keeping a muslim family. This is purely a culture shock, too general and non objective. So the warning is probably good for those who need a nudge to remind them to keep the goal of their scholarship in mind. Such a warning by the Ministry is probably not intended, and would mean nothing, to guys who are mature, serious, and have given their future life and companion a lot of thought.”
The government authorities want to be Islamic and yet they want to open up Saudi society. They want to minimize marriage to non-Saudis, who sometimes bring in complications to our closed society.” [end quote for Abu Ibrahim]
Umm Riyam (American wife of a Saudi) has more questions she provided in her interview here.
If you can get your Saudi to write/type his answers to these questions or even tape record him, go for it. Keep it to cover your tush for down the line if he renegs on anything he’s said or promised. Then you can whip it out and remind him to shape up!
American spouses fall into two broad categories: those who are married to well-off, westernized Saudis, and those who are married to not-well-off and non-westernized Saudis. Both meet their husbands when they are students in the U.S. The former tend to maintain homes in the Kingdom and in the West, they socialize with other dual-national couples, they send their children abroad for college education (sometimes high school), travel frequently, and while in the Kingdom have the luxuries of drivers, servants, and villas separate from where the Saudi in-laws reside. Their husbands permit them to appear before men to whom they are not related, accept—if not encourage—their desire to find employment and generally do not require them to veil fully (i.e., cover the face with one or more layers of cloth) while in public. The women are allowed to travel separately with the dual-national children. The women may or may not have converted to Islam; their conversion may or may not be sincere. These represent the minority of dual-national marriages.
Most American women fall in love with westernized Muslim traditionalists, leery of the West and its corrosive ways, and eager to prove their wives’ conformity to Saudi standards. The husbands are not “Arab princes” of western folklore; rather, they are part of the vast majority of Saudis who “get along” with the help of extended family members and marginal expectations. Their American citizen wives are often from the South/Southwest (where many Saudis prefer to study), they have virtually no knowledge of Saudi Arabia other than what their fiancés have told them, and do not speak Arabic. When they arrive in the Kingdom, they take up residence in the family’s home where family members greet them with varying degrees of enthusiasm and little English. Typically, their only driver will be their husband (or another male family member), their social circle with be the extended family, and they will not be permitted to work or appear uncovered among men to whom their husband is not related. Initially, the American citizen spouse will be almost entirely isolated from the large western community that resides in the Kingdom. Gradually, the spouses who survive form a network with other American citizen women married to Saudis. The majority of American citizen spouses fall into this category.
The Myth of the Westernized Saudi: Inevitably, American citizen spouses characterize their Saudi husbands during their school days in the United States as being completely “westernized”; drinking beer with the best of them, chasing after women and generally celebrating all the diversities and decadence of a secular society. Women married to Saudis who did not fit the stereotype of the partying, or playboy/prince, are careful to point out that their spouses nevertheless displayed a tolerance toward all of these diversions and, particularly, toward them. In other words, the Saudi-American relationship virtually always blossoms in the States, in a climate that allows dating, cohabitation, children out of wedlock, religious diversity, and a multitude of other Islamic sins which go unnoticed by Saudi relatives and religious leaders thousands of miles away.
American citizen wives swear that the transformation in their Saudi husbands occurs during the transatlantic flight to the Kingdom. There is the universal recollection of approaching Riyadh and witnessing the donning of the black abayas and face veils by the fashionably dressed Saudi women. For many women, the Saudi airport is the first time they see their husband in Arab dress (i.e., the thobe and ghutra). For those American women reluctant to wear an abaya (the all-encompassing black cloak) and for those Saudi husbands who did not make an issue of the abaya prior to arriving, the intense public scrutiny that starts at the airport—given to a western woman who is accompanying a Saudi male—is usually the catalyst for the eventual covering up. Since the overwhelming majority of American citizen wives never travel to the Kingdom prior to their marriage, they are abruptly catapulted into Saudi society. When they arrive, their husband’s traditional dress, speech, and responsibilities to his family re-emerge and the American citizen wife is left to cope with a new country, a new language, a new family, and a new husband. Whether a Saudi has spent one year or eight studying in the United States, each must return to the fold—grudgingly or with relief—to get along in Saudi society and within the family hierarchy that structures most social and business relations.
Saudi Arabian Students In The United States
Following World War II, young Saudi men began coming to the United States to obtain higher educations. Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth allowed the government to sponsor these students financially. As of 1999, they were provided with tuition money, funds for room and board, clothing, medical care, one round trip plane ticket to visit Saudi Arabia each year, and other benefits. Bonuses were given to those studying in scientific or technical fields.
Saudi men were encouraged through economic incentives to marry, and to take their families with them, and therefore reduce feelings of isolation and culture shock. One incentive included tuition money for a man’s spouse to study as well. Unmarried Saudi women were required to have a chaperone to travel outside of Saudi Arabia, also as of 1999, although ultimately a woman’s family could choose not to chaperone her. According to editor Richard Nyrop, in his book Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, “[t]he vast majority [of Saudi students] remained deeply committed to the Saudi values surrounding religion as well as family and social life. The one area where there were measurable changes of opinion was in the attitudes toward women and women’s role in society.”
When universities in Saudi Arabia began opening in the 1960s, the number of Saudi students abroad decreased. This pleased conservative groups, who were concerned about sending so many young people out of the country, particularly to non-Muslim nations. In 1984, approximately 10,000 Saudis were studying outside of Saudi Arabia. More than half were women. In 1991-92, this figure dropped to 5,000, with half studying at universities in the United States. In 1999, the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C. estimated that 5,000 Saudis were studying in the United States, and that the majority were male.
The close political and economic relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States led to a number of generous educational grants on behalf of the Saudi government. In April of 1976, Saudi Arabia presented the University of Southern California with an endowment in the amount of one million dollars to establish the King Faisal Chair of Islamic and Arab Studies. At that time, more than 150 Saudi students were matriculating at the University of Southern California.
In 1999, there were 25 Saudi Student Houses, supported by the embassy and the Saudi Cultural Mission, across the United States. In October of 1997, the Saudi Student House at Indiana State University held a “Saudi National Day,” which featured traditional food, dancing, a fashion show, displays, slides and videos. At Michigan State University, a Saudi Student House was established in April of 1996 to provide Islamic, educational, social, and athletic services; in 1999 it reported 70 members. Saudi students also congregated at mosques and Islamic centers, many of which received support from the embassy.
Academically, Saudi students were diverse, researching a wide variety of topics at the masters and doctoral levels. In the late 1970s, a majority were studying the social sciences, and subsequent dissertations on the community of Saudi students constitute a substantial body work about their experiences. Examples of researched topics include Abdullah Ahmed Oweidat’s Ph.D. dissertation entitled “A Study of Changes in Value Orientation of Arab Students in the United States” (University of Southern California, 1981). He studied Saudi and other Arab students and found that those who had resided in the United States for at least three years demonstrated values similar to those held by Americans, which were significantly different Arab students who had recently arrived to the United States. Another Ph.D. dissertation, by Abdullah Muhammad Alfauzan, researched how Saudi Arabian students in the United States viewed women’s participation in the work force in Saudi Arabia. He found that Saudi students in the United States possessed more liberal viewpoints than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia.
Among many other topics, Saudi students have also written dissertations on agriculture, Arabian art, student teaching in Saudi Arabia, advertising dollars in the media in Saudi Arabia, and the relationship between job characteristics and quality of work life in a Saudi Arabian hospital. Much of their work provided academia in the United States with information that was underutilized or not available to American researchers.
Read more: Saudi Arabian Americans – History, Modern era, The First Saudis In America
Probably one of the most frequent and common emails I may receive privately from readers of my blog are about Saudi students. Usually a woman from the host country in which the student is studying has met and become involved with the Saudi student. In many cases the student marries the woman while he is outside of the Kingdom. When it is near time for him to return to the Kingdom he will seek permission and initiate paperwork to return with his new foreign wife…except the majority of the time the permission is denied. The woman will email me asking for advice and information.
What I am going to write in this post may not be what many of these women want to hear but rather what they need to know. Saudi students (male and female) who are studying outside the Kingdom on a government funded scholarship are very clearly advised on the rules and regulations which pertain to their scholarship. When they depart the Kingdom there should be no doubt in their minds on what is or not allowable. On the issue of marriage, Saudi students on government scholarships are prohibited from marrying non-Saudis. Marrying a non-Saudi without the approval of the government can result in the revoking the scholarship and the student unceremoniously returning to the Kingdom.
Many of these young men in these situations do choose to ignore the rules and regulations will likely tell the foreign woman (if she is even aware of the rules) is that “they do not apply to me as I am not a government employee or work for one of the government organizations which prohibits marriage to foreigners.” Or they may so, “don’t worry, I have WASTA or family who will ‘fix it’ for us so we’ll get the approval.”
In many cases the Saudi student may very well have to return to the Kingdom leaving behind his foreign wife and sometimes children as well.
Just to reiterate, Saudi men under the age of 35, Saudi students on government scholarships outside of the Kingdom and Saudi nationals who work for the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Intelligence Services, National Guard and armed services are prohibited from marrying foreigners. Yes; exceptions have and do occur but these are the MINORITY and certainly not a majority.
It pains me to receive the emails from foreign wives who have been left behind. The pain, frustration and sadness in their words come through loud and clear as well as the love they have for their Saudi husband. It bothers me that so few of these Saudi students failed to fully explain (if at all) to their foreign wife about the regulations and restrictions they faced.
So what is my analysis on why I think this is a recurring scenario? I wonder if in part these circumstances are impacted by the cultural beliefs on both sides. The Saudi travels outside of the Kingdom for education and usually to a more open-minded country where there are more freedoms and fewer restrictions on mixing. The women from these countries are accustomed to a culture of dating. A romance develops quickly and passionately between the couple. However with the strong cultural and religious beliefs of the Saudi, he may be more likely to segue to marriage rather than a continuing romance. Naturally the woman is pleased, honored, flattered and believes her dreams have come true. So they do marry. Oftentimes it is an Islamic ceremony and/or a civil ceremony in the courts of the respective country. The Saudi side of the family is probably not present at the wedding. That should also be a BIG CLUE that something may be amiss. Weddings and families are of utmost importance in the Kingdom. A mother, father, brothers, sisters and extended family members take it for granted they will be part of the marriage plans and celebrations.
Does the Saudi student feel any guilt or consciousness by his actions in marrying without the approval? Does he show fear, nervousness or trepidation that he will likely have to leave his wife and maybe children behind? And once he has departed, how regularly does the wife hear from him? How does he continue to support her? Did he even tell the foreign wife that under the customs and culture of the Kingdom and Islam, he should be fully supporting her, providing her with a home, dowry, clothing her, meeting her needs for food, medical care, etc? That she should only work if she chooses to; that it is his duty to care for her?
I’ll close this post with some thoughts for any woman who may find herself in a similar type of situation. Try to learn as much as you can about the Saudi student and his family. What is the status and parameters of his scholarship? If he is on a government sponsored scholarship – be careful! I realize any woman will want to trust the man whom she dreams of marrying but do not rely solely on him to learn about the Kingdom and its customs. And, Saudi men can be very private and are masters at having multiple lives which they can compartment with ease.
Encouraged by an increase in oil revenues in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia launched an ambitious program of sending a large number of its young citizens overseas to get higher education in developed countries. Since then, more than 200,000 Saudi students have lived and studied in the United States alone.
Simultaneously, a large number of Americans found jobs in Saudi Arabia. For many decades, Saudi Arabia has been host to one of the largest American communities living anywhere outside the United States. It is estimated that currently there are more than 35,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia.
Overall the experience of coming together has been a rewarding one on both sides and, by any measure, has contributed positively in developing friendly and mutually beneficial relations between the two societies.
Some Saudi students, while studying in America, married American women and, upon completion of their studies, went back to Saudi Arabia with their wives and children. A small minority chose to live and raise their families here in America. In most cases, their marital experience has been a positive and happy one. The successful stories are often not mentioned in the press.
In some cases, however, the unfamiliarity and the challenge of adjusting to the demands of the two distinct social systems has taken its toll and has resulted not only in divorce but a breakdown of communication between parents in reaching amicable solutions with regard to the guardianship and custody of their children.
Dr. Abdullah Al-Mousa, general supervisor of the general administration for scholarship programs, warned students against marrying non-Saudis, especially non-Arabs, and said that around 20 students, who married abroad, had to cut short their scholarships and returned to the Kingdom. He added that they faced problems, but did not elaborate.
This post was republished on 2Student