Learning About Saudi Culture From Saudis: The Discussion

As I have mentioned in the previous post, Learning About Saudi Culture From Saudis: Culture, Myths And Stereotypes, there are non-Saudi spouses of Saudis wanting to live in Saudi Arabia who have never visited the country before. They might not be familiar with some or all of Saudi culture. They may get information by interacting with their spouses, Saudi in-laws/friends abroad and from research. But nothing beats immersion into the social life and culture of a people if you truly want to understand them and their country.

It would be advantageous if a non-Saudi wanting to marry a Saudi could visit Saudi Arabia, see the country and its people to help them decide if marrying a Saudi is truly what they want out of this life. However I realize that some non-Saudis wanting to marry Saudis don’t have the luxury of procuring a visa to visit Saudi Arabia since their marriage permission needs to be approved first. How to rectify that?

I conceived an idea to bring Saudi culture to you through the computer screen. You might be wondering, how is that any different than researching about Saudi culture on the internet or reading a book? The Saudi culture I’m bringing to you is from the viewpoint of Saudis, in their own words and from their hearts.

This is where the Half Saudis group comes in, I queried them about their culture and they readily obliged with enthusiastic replies. There was a total of 13 participants and their names have been deleted to protect their privacy.

So go ahead, throw those stereotypes and myths out of the window and read what they have to say…

Participant #1: Tara has approached us with an idea of a dialogue. You are more than welcome to share your thoughts on this: “I’d like Saudis to participate in this discussion please. I have a blog where I post information/advice to help non-Saudis make an informed decision on marrying a Saudi. What would you like non-Saudis all over the world and especially those marrying Saudis, to know about your culture? Think about all of the myths you’d like to dispel and the stereotypes you’d like to bust. Speak at will and be forthright. I hope to post the resulting dialogue on my blog when we finish and with your help, raise awareness about Saudi culture insha’Allah.” JazakumAllahu khair, Tara Umm Omar

Participant #2: I think a non-Saudi women who was born and raised out of Saudi would have a very hard time to fit in. She might manage a few years, but one day she would POP! Yeah like a balloon. No matter what I would say, the norm here is outrageous to them. Lets start with a list, the bad: Abaya, no driving, segregation of sexes every where, some jobs meant for MEN! The ugly: PVPV [Promotion of Virtue and Propagation of Vice], Human Rights, consumer protection, our society is based on tradition not Islam. The good: The only good thing is home, behind closed doors PERIOD! If you want to marry a Saudi and live in Saudi, you have to deal with it.

Participant #3: I think they should understand that not everything we do in our culture is derived from Islam. Like the Milka and what goes on between that time and the moving in together.

Participant #1: I always find it amusing when Saudi men actually claim they know how bad it is to be a woman in Saudi! Poor thing has to wear an abaya and is not able to drive. (I still think there are other worse things that could happen to a woman besides not being able to drive.) Some women might enjoy wearing the Abaya, especially if she is a mohajiba. I know this sounds shallow but do you know how much money and time I am saving because I go to work wearing a abaya). Thoughts on things a non-Saudi should know about the “Saudi culture and not mine”? (Over generalizing here): 1- Saudis are sentimental…they love to help those in need, especially if it involves a women and children. 2- They like it when people, especially non-Arabs, show interest in their culture rather than showing judgment (but I guess who isn’t that way) 3- They don’t like it when “strangers/ foreigners” try to change the culture or even indicate that the culture is flawed (you know it, I know it, the whole world knows it but its our backyard and we don’t like anyone messing with it) 4- Many Saudi men have a somewhat “different” personality when they are in Saudi, as opposed to being outside Saudi Arabia. This is not hypocrisy but surviving society? 5- Family is very important (it’s almost everything) and they have a strong influence 6- The couple should discuss their religious values especially issues pertaining to religion and children (i.e. will their future daughter be required to veil when she hits puberty or get married when she is 18?) 7- Viewing that the entire world is a man-made world. The Arab world and particularity Saudi Arabia, is the heart of that world.

Participant #4: One of my cousins actually married a French girl not too long ago and she moved with him to Jeddah. She met my family. My cousin got her a driver and a car that she picked out her self and its under her name. She have the right to own things. In Islam, did you know the Islamic law also consist of the man to knocking on the door of his own house before coming in? This provides some privacy for the wife. It depends on the guy, how he want to live his life and how controlling he is in a relationship. Many guys and girls in my family are married to non-Saudis and they are living happy.

Participant #2: Most people here act happy, most people here think they are happy, until they come across the system or something that would be a wake up call to the realty they live in. We manage our lives based on what we can make of it or what we are forced to live with. We have many good things about family values but aside from the home, what is there?

Participant #5: All what non-Arabs or foreigners need to know when they arrive to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the Islamic shareea law, culture and tribal traditions. And how they must respect it as if anybody else from outside their home land would respect their own laws and customs. As for the women not being able to drive, let us look at the facts and remember to keep in mind that it is simple and straightforward! You see the problem is that first of all people are daredevils! They really do not know how to drive and follow the law and also do not even know how to be safe drivers! Then we have the Saudi traffic police who do their jobs very well but they do not enforce it.

Participant #6: My contribution to this discussion is not going to be for or against Saudi Arabia, or any other country for that matter. Those who are blessed with having parents from different cultures, will also face a clash of those cultures. My father is Saudi and my mother is American. It is inevitable that whenever I go to visit either country, I am automatically labeled the other. For example, if I am in Saudi Arabia, I am the “American girl,” and if I am in the US, I am labeled the “Saudi girl.” I always feel like the soar thumb, or disaffiliated with others, even though, technically, I am like them!

Participant #1: I have embraced my “otherness” and I refuse to let anyone label me or stick a race to my forehead …I simply belong to the ocean. Saudi Arabia is a flawed country simply because it is not a utopia. The only flawless place is heaven but there is a lot of room for improvement in the Saudi society.

Participant #7: These are some of the things that flash on my mind whenever I think of Saudi Arabia: 1. Double Standards is probably one of the prominent characteristics of the normal Saudi psyche 2. A major social stigma between what’s cultural and what’s religious 3. Women are actually torn between 3 directions: Those who oppose their situation in this country, those who accept it and hate those who oppose it, and those who use the benefit by actually feeding off of it 4. It’s a common trait that society is family oriented, in either it’s obedience or rebellion, and it’s kind of a good-and-bad feature. 5. Change is slow but inevitable in this country 6. The Saudi government is one of the most distant government in knowing what society wants 7. Sadly, religion is not everything, or at least, it’s understood in a way where actually religious aspects don’t work in relation with what society wants. Tradition has a big hand in affecting decisions more than relating those decisions to religion.

Participant #6: I am a single young Saudi/American girl who would like to work in Saudi Arabia. However, unless I have some male figure standing next to me, standing as a sponsor for me, I am worthless and I basically have no worth. Again, Saudi society has the tendency to make a woman feel like she has no self-worth, no matter how high of an education she has, or work experience for that matter. I am oppressed at all, in fact, I am blessed. Saudi Arabia has granted me the opportunity to study in the United States on scholarship. Going back to the original question, I would actually like it if a non-Saudi read this discussion, because from my experience, many non-Saudi people believe that Saudis are brainwashed and have a one track mind. They assume we do not argue and that we abide by the rules our great government and religious hierarchy establish for us laypersons. It is quite comical. I have discussions in some classes, where some colleagues assume they have the upper hand when it comes to intelligence and that their land and country is like no other. If one thinks about it, we are all stuck. We are all the same. We all are in dire need of some sort of improvement whether it be in human rights, health care, education, employment, or security.

Participant #8: I am a Saudi, never lived here [Saudi Arabia] before October 2009. Of course I visited Saudi Arabia many times but I never spent more than a week here so I had an idea of society here. First and foremost, I think this topic is definitely a positive one and I think its a great one to have in this group. Saudi Arabia is definitely not the perfect society but I don’t think the perfect society even exists. My biggest problem about Saudi Arabia here is the double standard. I think the double standard affects everyone in Saudi Arabia and this is unfortunate. Many people outside Saudi Arabia seem to think that there are no people here that share the same type of open-mindedness that is shared in other countries abroad. This was my biggest surprise, I found many people that have the same type of mentality as me, they get by here by making their own society” within the Saudi society. This is also true when it come to foreigners here. My main problem with that is simply that foreigners here have more freedom than the Saudis here. They have their parties and gathering in compounds where Saudis cannot enter even if they are invited my someone living in the compound. There are some exceptions but I think this is unfair. I see the womens’ rights issue was already brought up and I agree that it is a difficult place to be if you’re a single woman. I don’t encourage my sister to come work in Saudi Arabia as I still feel there is a type of discrimination here. When confronted about this people always give you the “we protect the woman here because she is a jewel”. This might have been true in the past but things are changing. The world is changing and both [Saudi] women and men of the current generation are confronted with the realities of life abroad which makes it difficult to adhere to the Saudi culture. I think the [Saudi] culture should be more open to this issue because by suppressing them you make them go to extremes and this is where the problems arise. The lack of facilities and activities in Saudi Arabia is also a problem. I feel the young do not have easy access to social clubs (and I don’t mean clubbing) or sports clubs. There are some but they are expensive and not everyone can afford to send their children there. This pushes the young to go out on the streets and you see them every weekend doing the most ridiculous things. I don’t blame them, I blame the education system and the lack of facilities.

Saudi Arabia is taking steps in the right direction, I do believe that these steps were taken too late and or too slow. The culture is not flexible. People are more educated and asking questions like “where is all the oil money”? These are constructive questions and they lead to change. Corruption is a big issue here and there is a huge gap in [social] classes in Saudi. This is hard to swallow and this has always been difficult to explain to foreigners who have misconceptions that all Saudis are showered in money because these are the Saudis they see abroad. Religion here is very extreme. I know this is a sensitive issue for many people and sometimes people take what I say as if I don’t believe in God, this is not true. I think religion here should not be enforced, this is too much. Religion is compassion and understanding and it is a [personal] relationship between you and God. The religious police are counter-productive and they send out the wrong message about Islam to the foreigners that live in Saudi Arabia.

Participant #9: My real advice to whoever is getting into such a situation [non-Saudi marrying a Saudi] is: Forget everything you know and heard. Well not exactly forget, just box it away for a bit, and consider if you’re willing to enter a challenge. After all, it all depends on YOUR specific situation: the person you’re getting involved with and the society he/she moves in. Its not something you can simply generalize or categorize and answer straight forward. I personally think living in Saudi Arabia is really not as bad as everyone pictures it to be. That’s why I suggest a visit to SA [Saudi Arabia] and judge for yourself before taking the step of becoming part of the society.

Participant #10: There’s nothing special about being Saudi, I’m not proud of it. What is there to be proud of? Just because we get to be treated as royals with services making us more blinded to what is more important in life? I would leave first chance I get because no matter what I do, I’m treated as different although I’m part Saudi. I will always be different and unaccepted. It’d be good to marry a Saudi if that means the person would convert to Islam otherwise there’s nothing else. We need to improve and I partly blame the schooling here.

Participant #11: Here are my advises to get to know Saudis better: First, Saudis are also humans. Saudi Arabia is not a small country and not of one background but a lot. Due to being the Islamic hub in the world, all Muslims come to it from all around the world. Added to this, the different regions, cities, tribes, and mentalities of people based on other factors such as: location, proximity to water/sea, education, education major, bedwin vs. urban, job field and a lot more. To explain the first point: as humans, we relate to water because it is the major part of our bodies. Whenever we are close to water/sea/lake/gulf, we feel more comfortable, thus this effects our mood and on a longer period, effects our personality. So people living on the coast would be alot more relaxed than people living in the desert. The main thing to know is to get to know the person you like as much as possible and feel comfortable with him/her, then do what u feel is right.

Participant #1: 1- I would suggest that the non-Arab learn the Arabic language. I know this is a given but in reality this is not always the case…. and it happens all over the world. 2- Have a plan B: what would you do if your marriage fails? Ask your husband to write a will stating that if something happens to him, the mother gets full custody [of children].
3- Lay a plan for the old age (especially if you are a housewife), who will support you in your old age?

Participant #12: Participant #3 made a good point that not everything Saudi goes by is Islamic. I always say that anyway, example: driving.

Participant #13: Most people try to classify and categorize the Saudi society, its different, just like any other society is. It has its pluses and downs, again like any other country. I find it a rather simple equation, do not stereotype. The more you try to identify the Saudi culture the more you can get confused, its a mix of different people. The problem is we don’t notice this else where, simply because we don’t tend to care to do so. Why is saudi any different? Marrying a Saudi or non-Saudi, same thing, you judge the person. Most people will argue that others will continue to judge, who doesn’t? My recent trip to my beloved land has taught me one simple conclusion, to enjoy the beauty of Saudi. All you need to do is not to impose your views on others and respect that those around you are different. Don’t hate them for it but love them for it, because these very same differences are what will help the society to develop just like we have seen in the West in the past centuries. Those differences are the strength we actually need. The problem is that most people, including so-called liberal and open-minded people in Saudi, just want to turn the country into something its not. More Western, more bla bla bla. Remember that doing so will mean that we will loose what we now find as ”good culture”. I believe that God has given us the choice to live where we want, so make that choice, balance your pros and cons, and see which country suits you. Saudi may be the place to be, or it may not, the answer will vary from one person to the other. Of course some of my dear friends have already mentioned what to consider, for instance: cultural importance, clothing and tribal issues. And of course from one city to the other, and one village to the next , this will most certainly change. My advice to any non-Saudi marrying a Saudi, go visit [the country], mix with the people and have an open mind to change. You may like it, you may hate it and you may just love it. Change is not always a bad thing. Salam

I think everyone had a fun and productive time. I actually learned some new things. Yes me! Just because I’m married to a Saudi and maintain FHWS doesn’t mean I’m an expert on Saudi culture. The things that I already know about Saudis were reinforced; they are dignified, intelligent, passionate and defensive about their country despite its imperfections (what country isn’t imperfect?), hospitable, generous and eager to explain their culture to a non-Saudi.

I thank everyone for participating, especially the admins, for helping me initiate the discussion. I hope this dialogue will serve to enlighten non-Saudis in general, those who are thinking to marry Saudis in particular, and those who are already married to Saudis and want to relocate to Saudi Arabia in the future.

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Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

2 thoughts on “Learning About Saudi Culture From Saudis: The Discussion”

  1. >This is a great post! I have to say that getting to know some Saudis here has been a very enriching process for me and I'm still a bit awestruck by them. I've honestly met some of the most generous and sophisticated people here. Their views are very much in tune with #8 and it is interesting to listen to them critique their country as devoted citizens. I think a misconception that many of the participants touched on is a widely held belief that Saudis all fall into this mysterious bedoin religious pot of child brides and polygamy, but the truth is there is most certainly a quiet close-knit community of educated, progressive, upper-middle class here that is not wildly rich with oil money or filled with entitlement. The worst parts of Saudi culture are always magnified in the international press. All that being said, as a non-muslim Western women, I find it frustrating to live here and could not do it long term, even for love, but my feelings are all intertwined with my personality and my cultural views of what I feel I can be satisfied with. I think a non-Saudi muslim woman marrying into this country should weigh their decision very carefully, and they are lucky to have this site as a resource. On the one hand, as a woman you are indisputably more restricted here than you would be at home – BUT, should you find friends here with common views as you, life could actually pleasantly surprise you here. Ok, I know I was not asked to become Participant #14 but I am too lazy to edit what I wrote just now!

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  2. >Orchidthief- Thank you for volunteering to be participant #14 and I'm glad that you liked the post! It is amazing how some Saudis can be critical of their country and love it in the same vein, true patriotism.

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