Learning About Saudi Culture From Saudis: Culture, Myths And Stereotypes

Part of culture includes the structure of a country’s society, it is described as either homogeneous or heterogeneous.

A homogeneous society is when the country’s majority population dominates culturally, ethnically and linguistically with only a small number of minorities.

Is there a perfect homogeneous society anywhere in the world? Japan and Iceland come close. Non-nationals in Japan comprise only 1.4% of the population whereas in Iceland they number 14.7%

A heterogeneous society refers to a multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic population. The United States is a perfect example of a heterogeneous society on a religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural level. It is a melting pot of cultures and subcultures. Britain is another example of a heterogeneous society.

And what about Saudi Arabia, can it be categorized as a homogeneous or heterogeneous society?

Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal claims that it is homogeneous. He said that, “Saudi Arabia is a traditional monarchy with a rather homogeneous society, both religiously and ethnically.”

Murtadha Al-Mtawaah is also of the opinion that Saudi Arabia on the surface is homogeneous but when you dig deep down, he explicates on what you will find, “If you look at the big picture of Saudi society, you will realize that Saudi society is indeed a homogenous society where everyone wears the same clothes, believes exactly in the same religion, speaks the same language and probably think about life in very similar way. But as you dive into deep detail of the society, you will be shocked to realize that the big picture doesn’t fully reflect the reality on the ground. It is until you walk in the streets of Saudi villages and cities, sit down with average Saudi men and women and talk, that you will realize that within this homogenous society, there are various different understandings of life, religion, liberty and almost everything else. Given the fact that Saudis speak the same language, Arabic, doesn’t mean that they all use the same accents. In fact, Saudis express their thoughts and ideas differently from one person to another. Another example is religion. Even though all Saudi believe in Islam, each one of them has his/her own interpretation of religion. The list goes on. Now I am not trying to prove that Saudi society is or isn’t homogeneous, I am trying to say that looking at the big picture isn’t enough to analyze the whole society.”

Fatina Shaker, a professor of Sociology who received her degree from the University of Purdue and was the first Saudi female to receive a Fulbright scholarship, disputes that Saudi Arabia is homogeneous. She believes that, “It’s really a heterogeneous society. You know, this is… the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it’s really a unification of different regions inside it. So all of us, our reference is Muslims– all of us are Muslims. But we have with that framework within generic Islam, we have different social customs, different family orientations, okay, and also different interpretation of what makes a person a good Muslim.”

Could Saudi Arabia be both homogeneous AND heterogeneous? For example, it can be said that Saudi Arabia is more of a homogeneous society traditionally/conservatively with non-Saudis (expatriates) and contemporary/liberal Saudis forming part of their own heterogeneous subcultures.

Eman Al-Nafjan agrees that Saudi Arabia is both homogeneous and heterogeneous, “I would say that 60% are homogeneous while 40% are heterogeneous. And the majority of those in power belong to the 60% and that’s why from the outside, people can’t see or hear much from those that come from other cultural backgrounds.”

Abu Ibrahim concurs with the majority of Fatina Shaker’s comments as presented above. His perspective although lengthy, is well worth the read, “I think all societies have elements of homogeniety and heterogeneity, even if they are tiny Bahrain or Dubai or Lebanonn. So let’s look at these elements in Saudi Arabia.

Yes, we are an Islamic and Arab country and society. But beneath that generalization, things break down. 10 of 30 million in the country’s population are expatriates. The number of 6 million [that was originally quoted below by Tara Umm Omar] may have been the case in 1980, 1990 and 2000 at certain peaks of economic growth. Today, they include about 2 million Christian Filipinos, Indians, Europeans and North Americans, and a million Indian Hindus and Sikhs. The Muslims are of all schools of jurisprudence and interpretation, including mainstream Wahhabi Sunni fundamentalists, moderate Sunnis, Sufis, Ismailis and other Shia.

The 20 million Saudis all speak Arabic, with some distinct local dialects not similar to other Arab dialects, but closer to classical Arabic than other Arabs. Of the 10 million expatriates, about half are Arabic speakers with their dialects (Egyptians, Yemenis, Sudanese, Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, and others), and half speak other languages (Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Indonesians, Westerners and others).

Social and cultural differences follow, although some Saudis may initially disagree until distinct differences are pointed out. The differences have also changed over the past century. Let’s take four events that are common to all Saudis and expatriates — weddings, birth of children, school graduations, and death. We should trace a matrix of changes among events and over recent history, as Saudi Arabia has changed from being a rural expanse of small communities, into a giant modern state with large urban sprawl and distant towns and villages.

Under the iron fist of the Mutaween, weddings have been turned from mixed family events in many parts of the country into segregated women-only events. I have attended such weddings in public places in Jeddah and Taif and the Eastern Province 50 years ago, where men and women danced and sang. Many Saudis now hold weddings in their homes, or in hotels outside the country in order to mix as families and friends. Weddings have become segregated events. Women sing and dance alone, while men have somber dinners. The joy of a wedding as a family event has been largely destroyed. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back.

The birth of a child has also been diminished in recent decades. As men are not to see women, even the spouse of a brother, a birth has become a theoretical matter. The birth of girls is viewed with disparagement. Only women are allowed to celebrate a birth. There is no family or social joy of both men and women at the birth of any new child. But this generalization reflects an imposed sense of values that is not common to all Saudis nor to all men and women. Birthday celebrations are a matter for another essay.

The achievement of any educational level is not a common event. Fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and friends do not attend graduation ceremonies together, nor are parties planned for such joyous events. I will not describe in great detail the impacts of these abnormal behaviors on Saudi society. Fathers cannot see their daughters in a graduation. Daughters cannot hug their male relatives in public. Mothers must sit in different halls or at the back seats in a stadium at their sons’ graduations. Again, home parties are held to make up for these differences in values between the official Mutaween and human beings in many parts of the country.

Finally, let us look at death. Men condole men, women condole women. Perhaps in half the cases, neither the man nor the woman has ever seen the deceased. This is an absurd evolution of modern times. It is too sad to even dissect. In orthodox manner, condolences are to end after three days. But among many communities traditions are quite different. This is another subject worthy of a dissertation.”

Anyway you choose to look at it, the Saudi culture is the dominant societal culture in the country.

Saudi Arabia is home to 6,144,236 expatriates, accounting for 27.1% of the population. Upon the eventual completion of the country’s 2010 census, that number might rise as the Saudization campaign staggers and the country shows no sign of phasing out foreign laborers and their immigration.

Included in that higher figure could be the newly arrived non-Saudi spouses of Saudis, some who have never set foot in Saudi Arabia before and have had no exposure to Saudi culture as experienced within the country.

These non-Saudi spouses most likely are aware that there is no shortage of stereotypes and myths when it comes to the culture and people of Saudi Arabia. You, the reader, can probably conjure up at least ONE stereotype and/or myth that you’ve heard or read regarding Saudi Arabia.

What is a myth? What is a stereotype? What is the difference between the two? Are the two terms intermingled?

The Office Of Diversity at Santa Fe College refers to stereotyping as “a mental picture developed as a result of a myth. It is a characteristic or series of characteristics that grow out of a myth and are placed on people” and a myth as “An ill-founded belief, usually based on limited experience, given uncritical acceptance by members of a group, especially in support of existing or traditional practices and institutions.”

Ellen557 (an Australian married to a Saudi) discussed Stereotyping Saudi Men which I added my two cents to. Here are a few more stereotypes of Saudis…

“People thought we didn’t have trees, cars or shopping malls, and that we just lived in a desert with camels.” (Yasir Alhumaidi)

“A place where no man has ever seen a woman before, a place where every man has at least 2 wives.” (Hishmaj)

“There is the widely known stereotype of Saudi women being ‘invisible’ members of society, having restricted mobility or dealings with men outside the family.” (Dr. Khayriyya Ibrahim Al-Saqqaf)

“Before 9/11, everyone thought my country was the world’s largest sandbox. Now many people think we are all terrorists.” (Salim al-Sulaiman)

There are a lot of misconceptions about Saudi Arabia – we are a mysterious country, we use camels for transportation – but we want to change all of that.” (Fahad Al-Sogoor)

We are all guilty of harboring stereotypes or believing in a myth at some point in our lives either unconsciously or intentionally. One Saudi blogger, Saudi Jeans, expounds on how this can happen,”The world lacks perfection, except in our dreams and fantasies. The imperfect world confuses people and makes them feel unsafe. People use stereotypes in order to simplify it and feel more safe. But stereotypes are very bad, because they are blinding; they prevent us from seeing the reality of things. For many Westerners, Saudi Arabia is such a big mystery. They don’t understand it. They don’t know much about it. This mysterious picture of Saudi Arabia, along with many stereotypes and misconceptions, in the eyes of Westerners have much to do with the fact that we are a very closed society.”

Nicole Hernandez is one of those non-Saudis who admits she stereotyped Saudi women, “Sara Alaoudah and Muneerah Balghonem were part of the group of Arab and Muslim students we met at a restaurant for dinner Monday. Both are Saudi finance students on vacation in Egypt. Sara said our media is not showing the reality. And just from our conversation, both showed that Saudi families don’t always force daughters to get married and have children instead of an education, which was my ignorant assumption. I had stereotypes about Saudi women without having met or dealt with them before, relying on images and words from articles, TV and books.”

Myths are unsubstantiated, inaccurate and can be misleading.

Not all stereotypes are bad, there can be a sliver of truth to them, however for the most part they can be negative, biased and offensive to the subject(s). Therefore we should not rely on stereotyping or myths to help us get to know a people and their culture, especially not while we are guests in their country. Nor should we utilize them to prejudge or be presumptuous. Instead we should observe their way of life, try to understand it and respect it. We could also educate ourselves by reading up on Saudi culture and getting to know Saudis on a more personal basis by asking them details about their cultural practices and beliefs.

While you are learning about Saudi culture by interacting with them on a personal level, there are some guidelines to follow. Key Considerations for cultural awareness:

1) Be aware of your own cultural influences.

2) Be aware of judging other people’s behaviour and beliefs according to the standards of your own culture.

3) Be aware of making assumptions about cultural influences and applying generalisations to individuals.

4) Understand that the behaviour and beliefs of people within each culture can vary considerably.

5) Understand that the extent to which people adopt practices of their new country and retain those from their cultural background can vary within communities, even within families.

6) Understand that not all people identify with their cultural or religious background.

7) Understand that culture itself is a fluid entity, undergoing transformations as a result of globalisation, migration and the diaspora influence.

8) Increase your knowledge about different cultural practices and issues through cultural background information sessions and/or resources and cultural awareness training.

9) Understand the importance of appropriate communication.

Tara Umm Omar

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Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

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