Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Twisted Reality that is Saudi Arabia


I’ve written many times about the confusing contradictions about living here in Saudi Arabia.  Things really haven’t gotten any better - except that women are now employed in sales positions around the country and we women are no longer required to purchase bras and panties from strange perverted men! - and life continues to be as confusing as ever. 

For example, right now, at least one young Saudi man, Bandar Al Swaid, has just spent his 4th night sitting in a jail cell.  His crime?  Following the worldwide feel-good peace and love craze of offering “Free Hugs” to total strangers.  Twenty-one year old Abdulrahman al-Khayyal was also arrested in the conspiracy.  The young men had the audacity to post a video of themselves holding a sign saying “Free Hug” and hugging three men in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh.  They were charged with “violating local laws and engaging in exotic practices.   In another incident, seven young men ranging in age from 16 to 20 were also arrested in Dhahran for carrying a sign that offered "Free Kisses."

While these cases might be considered by many to be the crimes of the century in Saudi Arabia, another Saudi man who posted a video of himself threatening the lives of women who might dare to drive in Saudi Arabia still walks free as a bird here.  Apparently threatening the lives of women here is of no concern to the authorities while giving out free hugs is taken much more seriously. 

Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia have come under attack for “taking jobs away from Saudis” in recent months, and many illegal workers have been deported back to their homelands.  Some of these foreign workers have lived and worked in KSA for decades, doing lowly jobs that most Saudis would never do that are considered beneath them.  Many workers from poorer countries are treated inhumanely, tolerate horrid living conditions, are not paid fair wages, and are even considered slaves in the eyes of many Saudi employers.  Very few are ever granted Saudi citizenship.  Workers’ rights in this country are pretty much non-existent.  Most labor disputes and issues go largely unreported because the outcomes are almost always settled in favor of the Saudi employer. 

However, a Saudi writer, Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan, wrote a controversial opinion piece published in the Arab News a few days ago called “Say No to Expats Calling for Saudi Citizenship.”  The 225 comments garnered by the article overwhelmingly disagreed with Al-Zuhayyan’s racist and degrading position.  While Al-Zuhayyan criticizes expat workers for failing to assimilate into Saudi society, the truth is that there is a barrier put up by Saudis preventing assimilation. He also failed to mention that many Saudis have a superiority attitude toward foreign laborers. 

Meanwhile, the women’s driving campaign continues to gain momentum with many women posting videos of themselves behind the wheel.  The campaign has attracted worldwide attention.  Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive and must depend on male drivers to take them places - this in a country with all male drivers and ranking among the highest traffic fatality records in the world.  

So what are the available options for women's transportation here?  Many affluent families have been able to bring in and hire foreign men as drivers for their women.  But now that many drivers have been deported, there is a shortage of drivers.  Other families frequently rely on underaged and unlicensed males in the family to drive the women around.  Some women must rely on taking taxis driven by strangers, but gender mixing is also disallowed in this country, so this is something that is allowed that I just don't get.  Many of the "drivers" brought into the country do not know how to drive, yet women like myself, who have driven safely in other countries for many years, are not permitted to get behind the wheel.  Somehow it is considered safer for a woman to get into a car driven by a little boy or an unrelated man who doesn’t know how to drive than to allow a woman to drive herself.   

At least I don't have to buy my panties from perverted men any more here…

23 comments:

  1. as someone who teaches mostly Saudi students in Canada, I love your blog. Thanks for the perspective!

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    1. Hi LostGirl9 - Thanks so much for your comment. It's an interesting culture, but one that is very difficult to rationalize as a Westerner.

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  2. Oh My! I think it would be a really hard place to live unless you were fabulously wealthy and could come and go as you pleased..............
    I've always loved reading your blog,Susie and I often thought how cool it would be to visit KSA.........as in a short sweet touristy visit. Living there would be really difficult. I admire your courage!

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    1. Thank you, Always in the Kitchen. It is true that many of those who do not have much money at their disposal here can live pretty miserable lives. I don't feel courageous being here, just doing my duty by following my husband and being by his side. Great to hear from you.

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    2. I think your husband need to stop being so selfish and should return you to the U.S. I have never come across a female expat who ever loved living in S.A. The men have so much freedom and find it 'interesting' while the women tend to find in nothing less than a nightmare.
      Mind you also that wives of foreign workers often complain that the longer their husband live and work in S.A. the more they start to turn into a Saudi. Not with positive consequences.

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    3. Hi Anonymous - My husband isn't keeping me here against my will. I am here by choice, although I would not choose Saudi Arabia as the place I most want to live. I am able to travel back home to visit my family every year for several months. I know many wives who actually are quite happy here, despite the fact that they also probably wouldn't choose Saudi Arabia as their ideal place to live. There is no denying that it is a man's world here, but my life is not miserable here either. I am trying to effect change with the things I think are unfair to women. My husband and I have been together since 1977 - he wants to be here in KSA until his mom passes, and then we will see about moving elsewhere. If you don't understand that I feel a woman's place is with her husband, no matter where on earth that might be, then there is not much more I can say.

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  3. i don't call it a country, it's a jungle. everything is twisted and everything is "haram" while the law makers are outside of the country acting upon all the "haram" laws they enforced on us. it is certainly a jungle, one without trees.

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    1. Hi Saudi Citizen - In many ways, Saudi Arabia is like a jungle. I get tired of the twisted way of thinking that everything is haram or somehow sexual. The minds who think up these things are perverted. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. All this is SO twisted indeed, it completely infuriates me! Statistics in most countries show that men cause many more road accidents than women and as a woman who has been driving almost every day for the past 20 years without a single accident, I feel much safer driving myself around rather than sitting in a car with a male driver!
    And that poor guy in jail because he was giving Free Hugs?! He was engaging in 'exotic practices'?! A very dangerous exotic practice indeed! Ugh!

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    1. Hi Anonymous - Sometimes I feel that policies are made here just to make day to day life more difficult for the people here. For example, the roads in Jeddah. From one day to the next, major roads are blocked, causing traffic to become more congested because cars must stay on the roads much longer than necessary to get to their destination. Right now, Malek Road is totally blocked at the Sari and at Sultan intersections. Traffic is no longer able to cross at these intersections! I don't get it. If it made any sense at all, okay - but it doesn't. Unless their whole point is to justify keeping women from driving.

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  5. "At least I don't have to buy my panties from perverted men any more here…" It's not enough. I don't understand. So much contradiction.

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    1. Hi Gaelyn - You are right. It is not enough. But it is a start...

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  6. There was a Marxist phrase 2 steps forward and one step back. In Saudi Arabia it probably is 2 steps forward and 2 steps back.

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    1. Hi Jerrry - I've heard that phrase before but never realized it was Marxist!n Interesting.

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  7. I am glad to hear that the campaign for women at the wheel is gaining momentum. I do hope it doesn't take much longer before they are allowed to drive.

    As for immigrants being deported back, it's an interesting stance when you consider the jobs that they were doing.

    I feel very sorry to hear taht the young men who volunteered for Free Hugs in KSA were arrested - it's such a world-wide and wonderful practice, no one in their right mind would beliieve they were engaging in some dirty activity. There's only to look at videos everywhere on the Internet to understand what a healthy project it is. We have people offering Free Hugs here regularly and it's lovely.

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    1. Ni Nathalie - Unfortunately many perfectly harmless activities are viewed upon as sexual or immoral in some way or another here. It's twisted thinking by the religious faction here.

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  8. Its funny that although many describe saudi as being extreme Islamically, many of these cultural practises are against Islam anyways i.e.:women not driving/extreme nationalism/discrimination.... If saudi became more knowledgeable of Islam and put there religion above their cultural/tribal beliefs it would benefit all.
    It blows my mind that the royal family are hardly ever in saudi to begin with, yet they create all these backward laws which they demand their people to follow.. Can't wait for an uprising in Saudi against the evil monarchy.

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    1. Hi Anonymous - Here it seems that tribal mentality trumps Islam - and it shouldn't but that is the reality here.

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  9. Saudi is the NRA of the middle east. The world tiptoes around it because of its oil, and because it throws obsequious tokens at the United States. WIthout the oil, the US would drop out of the picture, and every else would see through the self assigned "Saudi is the true Islam" bit, through to the antediluvian moron that it actually is.

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    1. Hi Helene - Good analogy - "Saudi is the NRA of the Middle East." I don't know that there are many people in the world, even in Saudi, who believe that Saudi is where true Islam is practiced. No one is fooling anyone any more with that.

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  10. Thanks Susie, I didn't think you were going to let my comment go through because it was so nasty. But one gets one's fill of so called Imams and Sheiks basing their defense of the the no-driving policy on the Quran, and statements that float out over the ethernet like "all the Africans have to go home." I read stuff like that, and I think to myself "why is this seen as anything other than moronic, and why does their sh*t smell so sweet."

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  11. Hi Susie, I love your blog. I lived in Jeddah between 1977-1981 in an apartment opposite the Bakhsh Hospital and really enjoyed my life. I have many happy memories of all the expats, Lebanese and and Saudis who were my friends. I was probably one of the first women drivers in the Kingdom being forced by the heat to move my husband's car from one side of the street to the other to get my young daughter out of the midday sun. I can still remember the looks on the faces of the men who were idling on the corner of the street opposite where my husband had parked while he went into his office! One of my fondest memories is of a drive we made from Jeddah to Najran. I was astonished at the difference in culture once we got into the mountains. The men outlined their eyes with kohl and I remember seeing a woman breast feed her baby by the side of the road. Of course this was a long time ago and I'm sure there are many changes. I also remember buying my face cream in possibly the first large department store opened in the old souq area. My local store was Mukhtars where my daughter loved to look at the monkeys before we bought our groceries! I was just in my twenties and KSA was an exciting place to be for a young girl from Belfast, Northern Ireland. I would love to go back again some day. Best wishes, Joni

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  12. Hi Susie, I have tried a few times to comment but struggle to get past Word Verification, here goes again. I love your blog, it brings KSA to life for me once more. I lived in Jeddah between 1977-1981 and enjoyed my life there very much. I had wonderful friends made up of British and American expats, Saudis, Lebanese, Indonesian and Indian - to name a few. We lived in an apartment opposite the Bakhsh Hospital and my local store was al Mukhtars where my daughter loved to go look at the monkeys and parrots for sale before we did our grocery shopping! I was interested in your blog about woman drivers - I may be able to claim to be one of the first woman drivers in Jeddah - only for a very short period, just long enough to move my husband's car to the other side of the street in order to get my young daughter out of the sun. I can still picture the faces of the men who were idling by the side of the road - and my husband's face when he came out of his office! One of my happiest memories is a weekend trip we took to Najran, we drove from Jeddah through the mountains. I was fascinated by the difference in culture - men wearing what looked like sarongs with their eyes outlined in kohl, women with no head covering. I clearly remember seeing a mother breast feed her baby by the side of the road. These were exciting times for a young girl in her twenties from Belfast, Northern Ireland. I smiled at your comment about buying your underwear - I wouldn't have dared then - but I do remember buying face cream in possibly the first large department store that was built in the area of the old souq - I wish I could remember it's name. The assistants were mostly beautifully groomed Filipino men, their hair worn quite long and so shiny, perfect make up applied. It wasn't always good times, we had a few scary moments. We were there during the siege of Mecca, I remember there were American ships anchored in the Red Sea ready to rescue American expats if it became necessary, however I don't remember any British ships lol. Of course we didn't realise that at the time as we couldn't get the BBC World Service and there was a newspaper ban. The first we discovered what was happening was when one of my husband's colleagues returned to the Kingdom after R&R - we then realised why we were seeing Saudi Military on every corner and understood the presence of the American ships. I was sad to leave Jeddah and would love to return some day. Enjoy your time there and keep blogging, So enjoyable reading about KSA today. Joni

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