Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Safety in Saudi Arabia Scores Low

O ne thing that I have noticed here in Saudi Arabia is the seeming lack of concern for safety and well being of the citizens, children and workers. It has actually been a little shocking to me because I come from the US, where at times it can seem that safety rules and regulations almost go overboard. Saudi Arabia’s safety awareness seems to be at the polar opposite of the US on the scale.
Hardly anybody in this country secures their babies into car seats, except maybe the ex-pat wives, who aren't originally from this country. Honestly I haven't seen one baby in a car seat yet in the whole year that I have been here. Children as well as adults rarely buckle up in cars. It’s not uncommon to see infants sitting on their mothers’ laps in the front seat or for toddlers and older children to be bouncing around the inside of the car having a jolly good time.
As you know, women are not allowed to drive in this country. “For their safety” is the reason I’ve been given. So women have to rely on their husbands, or they might have a driver who is a foreign national, or they must resort to taking taxi cabs, also driven by foreign nationals. In a society so concerned with women being alone with other men where improper behavior might occur, this forbidden driving policy and its solutions, to me, are extremely contradictory. The men drivers here are inconsiderate, constantly honking, rarely courteous, and always on edge because there are no rules and traffic is usually horrendous. They drive the wrong direction on one way streets (and honk at you even though THEY'RE the ones on the wrong side of the street!), park their cars in the middle of the road, and commonly ignore marked lanes, turning two lane streets into excruciatingly tight three or even four lane streets!

And I can't forget to mention many of the younger men drivers in Saudi Arabia who are extremely reckless and endanger themselves, their passengers, and everyone else with their stunts. A big rage here now is something called "drifting" where these crazy drivers get their car going as fast as they possibly can only to swerve the steering wheel, causing the car to start sliding and spinning (imagine an out of control car on an icy road!). Another dangerous but popular practise among the youth here is "sandal racing" which involves the vehicle's passengers holding onto the open doors, skating along on their sandals on the pavement while the vehicle is moving. These guys even have their friends videotape them while performing these stunts and then post them on YouTube!

I like to ask my nieces and nephews about school. A nephew of mine, who is a really smart kid in a public boys middle school here in Jeddah, tells me that he really dislikes (he actually uses the word "hate") his school. Why? Because he attends an older school and he says it is disgustingly filthy, especially in the area where they pray in the school. His stomach turns and his face scrunches up at the thought of kneeling down and putting his hands and his face down on the filthy carpets there. I think one of the reasons for a problem like this existing in some of the schools here is that women (mothers) are not allowed into the boys' schools. My sister-in-law has NEVER set foot inside my nephew's school. If it is as filthy as my nephew says, I'll bet the presence of women in the school would undoubtedly turn this problem around. Every time I ask him about school, it's always the same answer. I'm getting to where I avoid the subject with him now. None of my other nieces and nephews ever complain about this issue, but none of them go to this same school that he goes to either. Fortunately my son's school here welcomes parents as volunteers and so did his school back in Florida. I think this type of policy can make a huge difference in the cleanliness of a school.
As far as laborers go, many workers generally dress in traditional Pakistani style clothing, which consists of lightweight cotton, very loose fitting long pants and a loose fitting long shirt that reaches to the knees or longer. Most workers who are more likely to wear an actual uniform generally work indoors in shops. I’ve seen welders with no safety goggles and heavy equipment operators wearing open toed sandals.

Many outdoor workers do not even wear hats to protect themselves from the sun, although some do wear baseball caps or the large traditional scarf which could easily get caught or tangled up in equipment. You never see hard hats, or gloves, or safety shoes on the laborers, and employers don't provide safety equipment or insurance for the workers. During Ramadan, many hard laborers, like in construction for example, work at night in very poorly lit construction sites.
Women must wear abayas here, which are floor length black cloaks. I find that I have to be extra careful when I am pushing the cart when we are grocery shopping because the hem of my abaya constantly gets caught in the wheels of the shopping cart. This happens so frequently to me while shopping that I try not to push the cart around anymore, if I can help it. The vast majority of women here also wear veils which can obstruct vision and cause them to trip or lose their footing.
A very controversial news item that occurred several years ago within the kingdom involved the religious police preventing teenage girls from escaping a fire at their middle school because they weren’t properly attired in full Islamic dress with their hair covered. About fifteen girls perished in the blaze because their hair wasn’t covered! We have religious police here in Saudi Arabia who are more concerned with a girl’s hair showing than for her life. What about their safety, their lives? Covered hair is more important? I just cannot relate to this type of thinking at all. Ok, getting a little off topic here, but a religious leader here also recently called for the deaths of TV satellite station owners who air immoral programs that might corrupt this society. The religious leaders here are quick to condemn, but they would be out of a job if only people here could actually be trusted to act responsibly themselves without being constantly reminded and goaded into leading such “moral” lives. It seems to me that there are much more pressing problems and issues that they should be concerned with rather than jamming desired, proper, and acceptable moral conduct down the throats of the citizenry here.
 Many products sold here are of poor quality and would be banned for not meeting safety regulations in the states. A prime example of this is electrical extension cords. I was vacuuming today and the extension cord I was using literally melted. Luckily it melted on the tile floor and not on the carpet! This was about the fourth one in one year that has done this. I think it’s great that we have both 110 and 220 electricity, but I for one would be willing to pay more for a well made higher quality product that would last and be safe at the same time. By the way, my vacuum cleaner was plugged in to 110, so plugging it in to the wrong voltage wasn't the problem! The wires inside the melted plastic cord were hot to the touch for a good fifteen minutes after I unplugged the darn thing!

Prescription medications can be purchased over the counter without a doctor’s prescription or supervision. In many ways I like this – it certainly is much cheaper than paying for a doctor’s visit, not to mention paying for insurance, which most people do not have here. However, I do realize the dangers that could arise in people taking medicine on their own or taking multiple medications without consulting a doctor first or being monitored afterward. There is no regulation going on here that I can see.
During the month of Ramadan, in old downtown Jeddah, there is an empty lot where someone sets up a free carnival ride for the children. It is built of mainly old metal pipes and it has sandbags in place anchoring the legs from rising into the air while the ride is operating. The ride’s seats are like small open benches facing each other and of course there are not seat belts, yet it operates like a small Ferris wheel. When I look at it, I think it is an accident waiting to happen. It appears dangerous and unsafe and there is no way I would let my child ride on it, free or not!
 Smoking is another area of safety and concern for me here. There are so many men who smoke. Not only do they smoke the strong tobacco in the hookah water pipes, but most of them also have a very bad cigarette habit as well. Certainly they MUST have heard about the dangerous effects smoking has on their health. Yet they continue to smoke and they just don't seem to care who gets their second hand smoke either. Their children see them smoking and of course, they will grow up to be smokers too. There seems to be a total lack of concern about this. I have no idea about the rate of lung cancer here, but I would not be surprised if it is much higher than countries where smoking is discouraged.

I shudder to imagine the many health code violations that some restaurants and street vendors would be cited for if they were located in the states. Now I’m not saying the US is perfect, because I don’t think it is, but there are safety rules and health regulations in place for good reasons, and here in Saudi Arabia, there just don’t seem to be any at all. Don't get me wrong - many restaurants look so clean that you could eat off the floor, but there are others that we have just walked right out of or have had our meal and said we will never go back there again. Of course, this has happened in the states to us too, but at least there was an agency we could call to report the violations and get a little satisfaction that way.

On a much larger scale, I’ve read some scary articles about the dangers of pollution in the Red Sea. The beautiful coral reefs and bountiful sea life are in danger because of oil industry pollutants. Because the Red Sea is a fairly small body of water, it is especially at risk for contamination, which threatens the wildlife and decreases the ecosystem’s ability to sustain itself. In addition to oil pollution, these problems are also compounded due to unregulated commerce, fishing, and tourism, and out of control and unregulated industrial growth and development.
 I’ve also read articles concerned about the safety of the drinking water in Jeddah. Currently Jeddah is the world’s largest producer of desalinized water. Rapid growth in population has caused major problems because the city has no modern sewage system. Many septic tanks and many water supply tanks are suffering from hazardous leakage and this is just not good. A tainted water supply would most certainly spell disaster in this city on the Red Sea.

There are many other little safety issues which I see here every day, but I guess that's enough to chew on for now. I wish the people here seemed to care about it, and then maybe the government would take some action. But things are status quo here and the people are resistant to change, even if it might make their lives better and safer. So, I’ll just keep my eyes and ears open and hope I stay safe here in Saudi Arabia!


  1. Ive never seen such wholesale utter disregard for personal safety or the safety of others until I came to the middle east. Its as if people that are fairly smart and generally use common sense in all other areas of life...completely drop the ball when it comes to taking steps to be safe. The worst offences are against children. Children in cars without seatbelts...hanging out windows...sunroofs...and worse yet...sitting on mom or dads (usually dads) lap while driving. Children playing outside at all hours...even very small children will be outside...completely alone...children left alone at home...even very small children...squeezes my heart to think of the potential harm that will be a most likely result...if not now...then eventually.

    Usually in the states if a momentary lapse of attention results in an accident with your child...usually you will "defend" yourself and was only moment...he was right here...I turned away for a sec....something to indicate that this careless attitude isnt normal practice...over here though...when I ask mothers about seatbelts...or playing outside alone...or anything similiar, the most likely answer..."well he doesnt like to wear seatbelts...he doesnt like to stay inside...he doesnt like to go out with me so I leave him alone in the house." excuses at all...just point blank stating that the child is basically in charge of his or her own life and is quite capable of making these life and death is just a helpless bystander.

    In the 21 years ive been here...nothing has changed...and I suspect it never will...its been pretty much the same for 1400 years or more....sigh.

  2. Reminds me of what I've read of the 1900's here with an overlay of a muslim version of puritanism.Sometimes human behavior is so strange!

  3. I think one problem with electricity is that quite often we have power surges here in KSA so I guess investing in circuit breakers is a very good idea for home safety.

    Health and safety in KSA though... what a topic. :/ Breaks my heart when I see the lack of safety provisions for the low paid workers - no mouth covers, no goggles etc.

  4. What an interesting post about the lack of safety regulations. It sounds like a really scary place to drive!

    I was appalled thinking of those 15 young women who died in a fire because they were unable to leave the blaze because their hair was uncovered! Now THAT is taking your religious beliefs to an unholy extreme! How tragic! :-(

  5. Hi Susie,
    what a perfect place to send McCain, our Republican presidential candidate. He could work on regulating some of the problems for you and, we wouldn't have to worry about him being here in the USA anymore :)
    Love, Sabine

  6. Hi CoolRed!
    You brought up some other great points too. I know that children are very precious here, but many parents seem so lackadaisical about their children's welfare. It's such a contradiction.
    Thanks for your comment.

    Hi Always!
    Strange indeed.

    Hi Stranger!
    Yes, I feel badly for the conditions some of the workers endure too. I'll ask my hubby about the circuit breakers - thanks.

    Hi Susanne!
    Yes, it's tragic what happened to those schoolgirls. I actually have a link to a story about it down the left column of my blog under the "In the News" Section about halfway down the page.

    Hi Sabine!
    That's a great idea, but I don't think too many Saudis are crazy about McCain either!!!!

  7. I am one of those ex-pat mothers, my daughter is in the middle back seat of our SUV in her car-seat, and she knows we go no where without her in it. What I can not believe is boys who can barely see over the steering wheel so that they can drive. We have almost been hit a few times by one of these 'male' drivers on our way home from school.
    I have had the expereince with the shopping cart too, but I had my abaya shortened to just the top of my feet and it is much better this year, I can walk again!

  8. So true...everything shocked me when I first started visiting the Middle East. Scary thing is, now I am almost used to it! Not to say I still don't shake my head and worry over things...but you get used to the crazy driving, the kids hanging out of cars, etc. Lebanon has taken to airing messages about keeping your children safe from various things (balconies, cars, cigarette smoke) on the TV channels, but no one seems to change their behavior.

    We notice the lack of handicapped access more now that my sister-in-law who suffers from MS is confined to a wheelchair. Thank goodness she is financially able to hire a driver, maid, etc., because I cannot imagine how she would get around or get things done otherwise. As it is, she can only shop at specific places which don't have stairs (which leaves out most shopping in Beirut) and God help her if she is upstairs and the electricity goes out (which is often!)

  9. Contradictions .....

    A woman's hair and face must be covered to protect her, yet her child rides in the drivers' lap hanging and waving from the window !!!

    These were sights I frequently saw while visiting North Africa.

    The lack of accountability is so frustrating! From littering to driving recklessly to the constant disrespect of foreign woman....

    LOVE your Blog, keep writing
    I have been to North Africa twice and can relate to ALL of your posts

    Have a great day

  10. Hi Anonymous Ex-Pat Mom!
    I am the same way about buckling up and kids in car seats as you are. And yeah, allowing boys to drive who can't see over the steering wheel is preferable in this country to allowing women to drive!!! How I wish I could understand the logic here, but to me, it's just not logical at all. Thanks for your insight!

    Hi Ajnabiya!
    Yes, I have noticed that most places here do not accommodate the handicapped. A bit behind the times here... I guess it is not an important issue to them either.

    Hi Anonymous!
    Welcome to my blog and I'm so glad to hear you are enjoying it and can relate to a lot of what I write about. Thanks for your comment.

  11. When I got married, I moved into a nice apartment complex in Riyadh(not an ex-pat compound).

    I had an electrical fire in my kitchen wall from a fan that never worked properly. I also had a stove fire. In both instances, we had to deal with it ourselves because there was no emergency phone number such as the American 911.

    I also had an ungrounded stove. My appliances, counter tops and kitchen sink were all stainless steel, and one day, while washing dishes, I got a shock that hit my heart.

    Lack of true safety awareness permeated the entire society.

  12. Hi Susie,

    I really like the new look of your blog (I liked the old look, too.) And I really like the new tone you've adopted (and I liked the old one, too!)

    Someone commented that the bloom seemed to be wearing off, and I don't know if that's what's happening; I think you're being very balanced in finding the pros and cons of this new experience, and I think you're being honest and fair. I find your observations really interesting.

    I see similar safety issues here in Istanbul -- it's very different from the type of awareness I'm used to in the U.S. And since leaving the U.S., I've very much come to appreciate the infrastructure there (though I have no qualmds about criticising its wrongs.) It has its problems, and people are certainly marginalized and poor, but in some respects, I think our leaders have done a good job in terms of municipal and federal order over the last century.

    'Course, that seems to be changing in disturbing ways.

    Anyhow, I do enjoy reading your work! Keep it up!

  13. Hi Marahm!
    Your stories about the fire and the shock sound really scarey! Wow! Thanks for your comment.

    Hi Jess!
    I'm so glad to hear you like the new header on my blog. I have several ready more ready to go, so I'll probably be changing the header more frequently now.
    Thanks so much for your comment. I am not trying to criticize - I am just voicing my concerns about the safety issues I have noticed here. I actually feel very safe here, except maybe when I'm out in traffic! It sounds as though many of the Middle Eastern countries have these same problems.
    Thanks again!

  14. HI,

    Well US and Europe follow highest safety standards. I am from India now at muscat. well safety has a cost. many prefer low cost products and in the process you dont find many takers for safety products. This is my Indian Experience. Saudi is supposedly a rich country. i dont find no reason why they should allow inferior products.

    As far as seat belts or child seat goes, i fail to understand how our brains work. With so many accidents and public outrage , many people leave thier kids freely in the vehicle. May be they think accidents are not for them.

    As far as pollution , quality of food goes...well we get immune by taking those from early age...for outsiders yes it is difficult....

    Oh GOD, the fire incident..heights of these so called religious police could sleep that nite?

    we hear lot of dreadful stories like these about even they split on expats who are professionals like doctors.. ( def not ghoras ie whites) i am not sure why so many Indians still flock to saudi..may be Vitamin - M ( money)...

    In Middle east , Oman is the best country to Live ( specially for expats) ...may be not wealthly ....

    Do visit this splendid country if u get a chance...

  15. Hi Jupiter!
    Thanks for your insightful comments and the tip about Oman. Hopefully I will make it there one day. Luckily I have been treated really well here and haven't been spit on (how rude!).
    Thanks again.

  16. Hi Jupiter!
    Thanks for your insightful comments and the tip about Oman. Hopefully I will make it there one day. Luckily I have been treated really well here and haven't been spit on (how rude!).
    Thanks again.

  17. Heck, it's all God's will right? If God wants your child to die, she is going to die, so why buy the baby seat for your car?

    Sad mentality.

  18. Wow...what an insight into the practices (or lack of!) of safety there.... it broke my heart about the young women who died in the fire due to their attire.... that seems beyond comprehension. Susie, I was just saying to Sheila today that I find you to be a brave woman... I double that feeling now!! Please continue to be safe and careful... and thank you again, for another insight into life over there.

  19. Hi أبو سنان -
    Gee, you sound frightfully like Sarah Palin!!! lol...
    I just don't get the mentality - it is indeed sad.

    Hi VB!
    Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate what you said very much.

  20. Abu Sinan In Islam it says that you have to take care of the reasons, causes and precautions and then if anything happens you can say it was "God's Will".
    Hi Susie,
    did you ask your husband about his family name?

  21. Hey suzie, Keep up the good journalistic adventure. Sorry it is so hot and in some ways miserable. Love you, and the pictues made it but not the frames.

  22. Yes, I can see that you are over the initial culture shock of living in Saudi and the high of everything being new and exciting. I would just remind you that what people do in the name of Islam has nothing to do with the religion itself. As it has been said over and over, the religion of Islam is perfect, but Muslims are not. Not everything you see and hear and experience has to do with the laws of Islam. There is a big difference. InshAllah your experiences will improve.

  23. Subhan Allah... When I read about the girls who died in that school-fire and were locked in because they weren't covered properly, it made me cry!!

    ANYONE with an ounce of knowledge can tell you that what happened that day goes AGAINST Shari`a (Islamic law).

    For example, if my bedroom lamp starts on fire (Allah forbid) and the only way to escape is through the window but without my hijab, IT'S OKAY! Immediate danger or risk of health are two situations where it's not a sin to break the rules.

    Islam is a religion of ease, not hardship :-D

    As for the girls, insha'Allah they died as martyrs since they were killed in a fiery death. Allahu `alam!

  24. Yes, I’m amazed that foreign countries don’t have safety standards either. One thing I noticed when I go to Europe is that they don’t do anything for the disabled. I haven’t seen where curbs are fixed for wheelchair access, ramps for wheelchairs, restrooms for disabled, etc. So I guess the disabled aren’t taken outside of their homes? And if so, it must be very difficult to maneuver around. They don’t seem to have a law for people with disabilities that they are entitled to have public access to things. I figure the disabled are very fortunate to live in the U.S. How about Saudi Arabia?

    After living in the U.S. for so long, how is your husband adjusting to Saudi Arabia? The traffic, the rules – regarding women, safety issues, etc. He has to get tired of driving you around.

  25. Wow, Susie, you are doing a great service documenting this. I hope the Saudi government sits up and takes notice. So many of these things are preventable!!

  26. Susie, why don't you come home? I am sorry if I am offending you. I am just worried about you.

  27. Hi SaudiWoman!
    I did ask my hubby about the family name and if we belonged to any tribe in particular. He just simply said that we don't believe in tribes or some being better than others, that everyone in Islam is equal, even the King. So I guess that settles it!

    Hi Anonymous!
    Thanks - and sorry the frames didn't make it!

    Hi Nicole!
    Thanks for your comment. I find it very difficult to separate people's actions from the religion here, since the religion is so dominant and seems to permeate every aspect of life. I will try to remember your words the next time I see something amiss. Thanks so much.

    Hi Aalia!
    I like what you said about Islam being a religion of ease not hardship. It's just so difficult to understand how the Muttawa could have made the decision that what they were doing was right in the eyes of Islam. I really don't get it.

    Hi Anonymous!
    Honestly, I have not seen many handicapped people getting around here at all, so most of them probably don't venture out. On occasion my MIL has come with us to the big outdoor fruit and vegetable market, and we take a wheelchair for her. I also saw a teenaged girl in a wheelchair at a house party. But I have not seen any handicapped people in the malls or anywhere else.
    My husband is very happy to be back in his homeland and he wants to stay here permanently. He complains about driving and the traffic, but other than that, he loves everything else about Jeddah, warts and all!!!

    Hi Maryam!
    Unfortunately it appears as though nobody seems to care about improving these things here. I'm sure the gov't is well aware of these issues, but any kind of change here is very slow in coming.

    Hi Yoli!
    Please don't worry about me - I am fine here, really. If I felt that I was in danger or not safe, I would leave. But honestly I feel very safe here. Crime is practically non-existent here. This is my home now and I realize that no place is perfect. My main problem really is having to wear a black cloak out in the heat! Thanks for your concern, but I am okay.

  28. I agree completely about the seat belts and car seats. My children were always in car seats as babies, then booster seats as toddlers, and now seat belts. They never had a problem with it because they were used to it.

    But just to put things in perspective...

    I see it as a matter of education; it's not as if we Americans are innately superior. I grew up in the 1960s, when no one wore seat belts (I don't think there was such a thing in the average American car then), and we had never heard of car seats. We rode in the open backs of pickup trucks and stood up in convertibles (cars with no tops). When they started putting seat belts in cars, people didn't automatically start using them. There was a big public relations campaign with TV ads showing dummies crashing, and the "Buckle up for Safety" song. I just checked and found that the first law in the U.S. requiring passengers to wear seat belts was in New York state, and not until 1984! So it wasn't a matter of my parents not caring about us. Parents in the Middle East are in the same position as my parents were then; they haven't seen those films of dummies crashing, and they don't have easy access to information about how to use car seats, etc. It's definitely something that should be done - by the government, nonprofit organizations and even the religious leaders.

    Another factor is that families in the Middle East are typically much bigger than in the West today. I have four children, and until recently, one of our cars was a Honda Accord. We couldn't fit the whole family safely in that car - and four children is considered a small family here! So when you have many children, and often are also driving with one or more
    maids, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, etc., it's often simply not possible to have everyone in the appropriate car seats and/or seat belts, even if you want to.

  29. Hi Ann - Thanks for your comment and explanations. I know that there is a lack of safety education here and that is a big part of the problem. Thanks for pointing that out.

  30. Its the result of lack of accountability, no systematic rules put in place and disregard of the law because lack of consequences. No amount of money is gonna sort it. We muslims are backward in every field.

  31. I am working in a construction company that also has construction sites in Jeddah as well as other countries such as Russia, Algeria, Djibouti, Albania etc., and this lack of regaulations regarding health and safety in KSA are a real pain, considering I am the Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) Supervisor of the company. I am wondering as to if there really is a regulation regarding these issues or is it just a lack of their implementation? If there is such regulations (I havent been able to find any, yet -pointers would be welcome-), I am more than willing to make our workers adhere to them within site borders. Even if people dont think of their own safety, I have a responsibility to do so.

    By the way, I lived in KSA for 8 years when I was between the ages of 3 and 11 (the last 5 years being specifically in Jeddah), so I can relate to almost everything you write. I also sometimes make visits to Jeddah to the construction site to oversee the proceedings, and its just heartbraking, appalling, nauseating and all other similiar words I cant think of.

    I just found your blog, and have read it for I-dont-know-how-many-hours straight... just great :)

  32. What you worte about the girls fire just sick and twisted!

    I cannot imagine not ever going to see who and where my sons are being educated. That is like sending lambs to slaughter no?

    I think poor quality products are universal all over MENA. Seconds are sent here where I live that would not pass in the US or Europe. Ignorant ppl buy for expensive (thou much cheaper then the prices in US or Europe) they are toxic, dangers and at the min break easily.

  33. I am also in Saudi Arabia, and I love it. I love the heat, the different culture, the traffic, the food. Sure, the women are not treated well, and you may feel differently, but why hold another culture to your standards? Take joy in the differences! Do you feel it is right for the USA to force their political and moral system onto other countries ? First of all that is wrong, unless you feel that the USA is truly a superior country, which is just plain rude. Revel in the differences, even though you may not agree.

  34. Hey, I stopped reading your blog once my summer class started, but its over now! I had come across an article about the girls that died in the burning building in Mecca. I was wondering, have you ever talked about this with Saudis? I'm curious as to what they have to say... Do Saudis ever complain about the religious police?