Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Educational Day

I   was recently invited to be a guest at a medical conference that was held here in Jeddah at the Intercontinental Hotel which is located on the Corniche – the long and winding boardwalk running along the Red Sea coastline. I know, I know - I am not, nor have I ever been, in the medical field. So what was I doing there? 
My friend "Amber," another American woman who is married to a Saudi and who has lived in this country for nearly forty years, asked me to come to take photos for her. She was a moderator of the event and her daughter was one of the speakers. I was happy to oblige and excited at the prospect of seeing the hotel and actually attending an event that wasn’t a family get together!
The medical profession is one of the very few fields in Saudi Arabia where men and women are allowed to work side by side with one another. There are not many Saudi women who work outside the home, even though many of them may have attained university degrees. Saudi men still largely feel that a woman’s place is in the home, taking care of the family and running the household. Another problem with Saudi women working is transportation since women are not allowed to drive here and must rely on their husbands or hire a driver. There is no public mass transit, and even if there were, women would probably be restricted from using it.
The annual conference is organized by a female Saudi pediatrician. Over 800 were registered to attend, but those attending numbered in the 600s. There were speakers lined up from all over the world. The session of the conference that Amber and her daughter were involved in dealt with problem solving and encouraging the breastfeeding of premature infants, which can be a dilemma when the babies are kept in an incubator, may not learn how to suckle, and are not taken home for the first couple of months to bond with the mothers. The main speakers events were set up in a huge meeting room with hundreds of chairs facing the stage at one end of the room.
Running right down the center of the room were several large screens serving as a room divider to separate the women’s seating area from the men’s section. There were spaces in between the screens so one could actually see members of the opposite sex over into the other section if one dared! So even though men and women are allowed to work side by side in hospitals and clinics throughout the country, they are separated from sitting beside one another at this medical conference. After all, there's no telling what lurid behaviors might happen if men and women are close enough to sniff at each other when the topic being discussed is something so overtly sexual as breastfeeding!

The Intercontinental Hotel is lovely. It has a beautiful lobby and more than adequate meeting facilities. The lobby’s focal point is a beautiful tiled fountain surrounded by wide columns topped with fanned palm fronds. There are many gift shops offering everything from toiletry necessities to traditional Arabic art. The restaurant was very elegant and well-staffed. There were separate dining rooms for men and women and there were even separate buffet lines. But since we were with the conference speakers, we were allowed to sit at a mixed table in a corner of the men’s dining room. The center of the table was overflowing with dozens of dishes filled with yummy items like hummus, shrimp, and potato salad. Waiters continually came around offering shish kebab, fish, chicken, tabouleh, and many other mouth watering foods. It was a delicious luncheon.

At the end of the day as the sun was setting over the Red Sea, we exited the Intercontinental Hotel and from the parking lot we could see the King Fahd Fountain which rises from the sea in a spray to a height of over 1000 feet. You can see a night-time photo and learn more about this remarkable fountain by reading a recent post I did about it on my other blog, Jeddah Daily Photo Journal. JUST CLICK HERE.


  1. I learn so much about the culture and differences in Saudi Arabia when I read your blog. So interesting to hear. Thanks for your informative post.

  2. Oh my gosh the feast looks delicious. Do you talk to the members of the opposite sex while you are there and share food from the same table.

  3. Hi Gutsy - Thanks so much for your positive feedback. It's nice knowing that others are as interested in this culture as I am.

    Hi Suzanne - Our luncheon table was half men and half women. The men were from places like the USA and Switzerland, so sitting together for a meal and chatting felt normal. Navigating the social arena in a place like Saudi Arabia can be very tricky since many "normal" Western behaviors are considered taboo.

  4. Hi Susie,
    I like the way you write about your life in SA. The description of this event was very enlightning.
    I wonder how the poster showing a female breast could escape the keen eyes of the muttawa.

  5. Hi Cheela - Aw shucks!

    Hi Anonymous - Since all the displays and posters are for a medical conference relating to health, I believe that it would be off-limits and out of line for the Muttawa to try to interfere.

  6. I am really enjoying seeing what it's like in your part of world. Thanks so much for visiting my site. I hope you don't mind but I've added you to my sidebar of places I visit. You may be getting some visits from "members" of my blogging family. If it's not OK... please do let me know.

  7. Thank you for the insight about professional medical life in Saudi Arabia, and congratulations on the recognition of our photography talents!

    In the interest of sharing about comparative conservative Muslim cultures, I was a speaker at a medical conference in Iran, and while men and women were seated in separate sections of the amphitheatre there was no divider going down the middle. We mingled (but didn't shake hands at the "nutrition breaks" and formal meals, except for the very formal conference banquet, when women were in one room and men in another adjoining one. We were invited in to receive individually onstage our lovely gifts of appreciation, and then returned to dine in the women's room. To make sure we didn't shake hands as would be customary the host presented the gift with both of his hands on one end and we took the other end with both hands.
    The conference was an interesting and unique experience.

  8. Hi Kay - Mind? Are you kidding? I'd be honored - thank you!

    Hi Chiara - Thanks so much for your input about your experiences in Iran. It's so interesting being exposed to other cultures like this. Proper etiquette can vary so much from one place to another, and it's fascinating. Thanks for your comment, Chiara.

  9. Marvelous post. So glad you got out of the house. Very hard to understand the strick gender codes. Food sure looks good.

    Maybe you need a vacation back to the US. Come for a visit.

    Life is good!

  10. Hello Susie,

    I just recently discovered your blog and I must say that as a Saudi I find it very enlightning for me. As you know the world of males and females hardly mix. It is very interesting to see your perspective.

    I guess living in Saudi for so long has made this type of life seem normal for me. But I know that we have flaws to overcome.

    One thing i'm happy about is that we are changing (hopefully for the better). Saudi today is very diffrent than 20 years ago and all the reforms instigated by the current king seem promising.

    Just wanted to say I really appreciate your blog. I also admire your patience and your ability to look at the good things.
    I also Love the humor and well placed witty sarcasim :).

    Finally, I only wish Islam was better presented to you :( I'm ashamed of how Saudi's have represented themselves and thier religion.

    I wish you all the best and that your life be filled with happiness and good things.

  11. So fascinating - yet it does seem odd that you can work with the person of the other sex but not sit near them...

    That buffet looks delicious.

  12. Hi Susie!

    The music section is a great addition to your blog. I love Corinne Bailey Rae :)

  13. HI Susie,

    A very good read and I still find it amazing the lifestyle there. Good job!

  14. Thanks for your comment Susie. I hope to participate in a medical conference in Saudi one day--especially if the food is that great! :D

  15. Do you know sis, that i come by your blog, and always leave with something to think about, or discuss with my husband...


    come and choose an award! http://o0ummhasan0o.blogspot.com/2009/02/companions-award-tag-check-in-here.html

    please do pick one up okay...i would really like you too..

  16. Another SO interesting post. I am always amazed. I really think most Americans have NO idea of their freedoms.

  17. My sweet Susie, I am glad you got to attend such a lovely event. Are you allowed to drive? I know you know how to drive but is it permitted? Also, did not know you had another blog. Must add it to my blog roll!

  18. A really interesting post,Suzie!It´s great to learn more about other cultures!

  19. Hi Susie,

    Thank you for coming by my blog today. It means a world to me to read your comment. I left you a great big reply. Please stop by again when you have time, as I am very interested in learning what you think about it.

  20. very nice write with amazing photography - i liked the last pic of fountain and sunset :)

  21. Dear Susie, I always love to read your stories. I give you the award of I heart your blog in my blog! =)

  22. Another interesting experience. The wealth of these places. I wish I could go to conferences where the chairs look so comfortable. And the room offered so many visuals. Not to mention that really good looking food. Such extreme experiences. Going to this amazinging medical conference with a female medical doctor who gets to work just how exactly? Does the hospital-practice send a driver along to get her to work? A medical doctor who is dependent on others to drive her around a vast country of huge open spaces where no public transportation exists. It boggles the mind. So much intellectual independence with physical dependence. Ilse.

  23. Hello Susie! As always I love reading your blog! It's very interesting and I enjoy learning about that part of the world and interesting culture!

  24. Hello Susie! As always I love reading your blog! It's very interesting and I enjoy learning about that part of the world and interesting culture!

  25. Wow, that hotel looks wildly elaborate! How strange are the different standards that apply to the separation of men & women and how they change depending on circumstance. I had no idea it was that severe.

  26. Thanks for your comments on my little, infant blog. I enjoyed exploring yours, and i hope to build up more comprehensive content and larger readership, like yourself. Keep it up! Hope to see you back on my humble blog from time to time. ;)

  27. Hi All! Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments! I do appreciate it.

    For Simple Saudi - Thank you so much for letting me know how you feel. I wish you the best too.

    For Sabaa - Glad to hear you like the music - me too!

    For UmmHasan & MariaMellie - Wow - Thanks so much! What a nice surprise.

    For Yoli - Women cannot drive here - it is not allowed and is one of my biggest obstacles in living here. The freedom to just grab my keys and go whenever I want to doesn't exist. Many women here have drivers, but I don't. Making plans to go somewhere requires making sure I can get a ride, and my husband hates driving here, so it's a problem.

    Hi Sonia - My pleasure, and thanks!

    For Ilse/Anon - I know that the woman doctor who organizes this conference chose her career over marriage. I would guess that she has her own driver that she employs. Some larger employers probably provide transportation for employees - but more than likely it would be for those ex-pat workers living in compounds, as most Saudi women do not work and Saudi men can drive their own cars. It is mind boggling, isn't it? I really liked hearing your thoughts on this.

    For HalfBreed - I love your blog and I wish you much success. I have no doubts about it!