Saudi Mixed Marriages: What Category Do They Fall In?

By American Bedu
March 20, 2010

Let’s face it, when there is a marriage between a Saudi and a non-Saudi there is automatically a gray category, kind of like a burkha or a shroud surrounding the marriage. It truly seems that neither side (Saudi or other nationality) know how to handle such situation. The dilemma is further perpetuated when it is a marriage between a Saudi and a Westerner, regardless of which nationality is the wife or the husband, but in most cases much more difficult for the Saudi wife who takes a non-Saudi Western husband. I’m aware of very few (less than five) cases myself where a Saudi wife is living in the Kingdom with a non-Saudi Western husband. There could be more but due to the challenges and restrictions few are likely willing to talk about their situation and challenges.

Even in my own case of being an American woman who married a Saudi man, we had to face our own challenges too. And ironically most of those challenges seemed to stem from the government just like the case which I highlighted above in the Arab News article. Neither government seemed to know how to accept a union between a Saudi and an American who had each worked for their respective governments. We became “uncatorizeable” and the lengthy approval process just went on and on.

I believe that mixed marriages between Saudis can actually be pivotal towards building bridges and understanding. And again, there is nothing in the Quran preventing a mixed marriage with a Saudi. The stipulation is that for a muslim woman is she marry a fellow muslim. It is the Saudi government and culture, and perhaps families, which are levying their own restrictions upon who one can marry.

What are the long term effects of what I will refer to as the “Marriage Dictation Process?” It takes strong couples and families to override the tradition. For most couples it is probably easier for them to live outside of Saudi but even then, depending which country and even positions held, there can still be resistance and prejudice.

What I will share is what one should NOT do as it can only create larger risks and harm. My husband and I ultimately received our marriage approval from the King himself but it was not an easy or a short process. However when it was time for my own beloved to return to his home country we made a pact between us to have no more separations in our marriage. Marriage is meant for couples to be together and build and share a life together, not to be thousands of miles and oceans apart. Life is way too short for that and I am speaking from solid experience.

My husband and I had both an Islamic ceremony with individuals from the Saudi embassy as witnesses and a civil ceremony with my own family as witnesses. In spite of these ceremonies our marriage was not approved or recognized in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, against the regulations of traveling to Saudi as a married couple whose marriage was not recognized, my husband and I went to Saudi Arabia together in September 2006. He traveled on his diplomatic passport and I traveled on an umrah visa. And yes, the first thing we did upon arrival was to perform our one and only umrah together.

However an umrah visa is only good for 30 days and in spite of intensified efforts from within Saudi Arabia on the part of my husband, our marriage was not approved within 30 days. As a result, I not only became an illegal alien in a country which would likely deported me if found out and could also have imprisoned my husband, so for a period of time I felt similar to that of a fugitive.

We could not have our own place to live as that was too risky since our marriage was not recognized. Instead we spent the first four months at the home of one of my husband’s relatives. It was not an easy adjustment to Saudi Arabia to start out life in a new country and having limited space and privacy and worry about day-to-day future. My husband understood my own desires for feeling “cooped up” all day while he was at work and needing to receive fresh air and activity. Because of my lack of a residency visa or iqama, I could only go out with him totally covered like the most traditional of Saudi women to avoid attracting attention. Our outings usually included more remote places where there were fewer people who may take notice of us. We spent much time with family for those were considered “safe places” and less likely to have visits by the Muttawa such as the shopping malls. So for the first four months a lot of what I saw of Saudi Arabia was at dark and from the sidelines. My husband felt more at ease taking me out when we were in Makkah or Jeddah than the heart of conservative Riyadh.

The toll though of not having our privacy and own space was beginning to wear on us. Thankfully my husband had a good friend who had an apartment which he did not use at Imam University. Now during this whole time my husband continued his appeals for our marriage to get approved. The primary resistance was his active position as a senior Saudi official. The secondary resistance was the fact that he had chosen to marry a former American official. While the background actions of seeking approval moved ever so steadily, we shifted into a furnished and equipped apartment at Imam University. On one hand it gave me freedom to have a bigger place which did not have to be shared and allow my husband and I much needed privacy. On another hand it could also be compared to a bigger cell. Imam University is among the most conservative of places in Riyadh. As a result, I had to be even more careful to conceal my Americanism. Each floor of the apartment buildings housed four apartments. On the floor we lived on, two of the occupants had been deported from the United States. As a typically outgoing and friendly individual, I had to ensure that I was at my most conservative and rebuff any overtures from the women who lived in our building.

Although I was isolated due to the expired visa, I did have the internet. I used the internet to make friends within Saudi through various newsgroups which eventually led to some carefully planned get-togethers. The friends I made understood the need for caution to come in and out of the carefully guarded Imam University. With these dear friends, life started to become more normalized. Eventually one friend was also able to identify a job for me where an employer was willing to sponsor a work visa for me. This changed my status where I became a legal resident in the Kingdom but it still did not change the fact that my husband and I by choosing to live together without approval remained at risk.

We remained careful and conservative. We had no choice. Our marriage approval would seem to go forward and as quickly as progress was made it would take two steps back. Our approval was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ office. HRH Prince Saud al Faisal rather than give an outright approval stated that he would honor whatever decision the Ministry of Interior took in deciding to approve our marriage. The approval then took several more months to reach the office of HRH Prince Naif. Prince Naif approved our request and the file was returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However this time, HRH Prince Saud al Faisal went back to the original rules that Saudi officials were prohibited from marrying non-Saudis and therefore our approval must come from the King himself. Again it took months but thanks to God and some special people, we finally got our approval.

Our approval coincided as well with the opportunity to finally shift from Imam University to our villa within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Housing Compound. Just because we finally obtained official approval for our marriage does not mean though that there was the immediate acceptance from Saudis and/or expats around us. There was still a stigma of not knowing how to accept Abdullah and I as a mixed couple and particularly in professional or semi-professional circles.

Our love for each other persevered and we made a comfortable life for ourselves. I’ve written this post more to serve as an introduction to the bigger story on the implications of mixed Saudi marriages. For Abdullah and I, the initial move to Saudi Arabia was not only fraught with risk and danger but we also were going through our own feelings of adaptation and adjustment. He had been outside of his country for ten years and as an eldest son and head of the extended family returned to immense responsibilities. I was going through my own adjustments of being in a country where I had little control over what I could do or where I could go after having been accustomed to being an active career-oriented professional.

I would not recommend Abdullah and my actions for anyone but at the same time, yes I would do these same actions again if that it was it took to have my short life with Abdullah. And I realize that the risks he took with his career, his job and his family only highlight the love that he also felt in turn for me. May God Bless him as he rests in peace.

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Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

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