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Saudi Arabia: Glimpses Through the Myths

October 16, 2011

I visit Saudi Arabia often.

When you’re familiar with a country, you sometimes forget to view it afresh, free of preconceptions. You get used to the pollution and the crowds in some Asian cities. In the cities of the Gulf, you take for granted that you can rarely travel a hundred yards without passing a building site crawling with labourers who work under conditions that would horrify your average health and safety official in a Western country.

People who view the Kingdom from afar – and even those who make short visits – tend to observe the usual stereotypes through the lens of their preconceptions. What they expect to see, they see, and they filter out the contrary.

Foreign women often see Saudi women – from a Western viewpoint – as an oppressed class. Unable to drive a car, unable to start a business without having a man to front it up, unable to travel without a male guardian. Good, they say, giving women the vote in municipal elections and letting them serve on the Shura Council – the Kingdom’s advisory body – is a step forward. But hey, there’s helluva long way to go, right?

Foreign men and women will be primed to see a highly regimented society. The Saudi men they encounter for the first time might be reserved, slightly grim, and obsessed with the minutiae of their religion while around them are blatant abuses of central tenets of Islam. Arrogance, corruption, contempt for the lower orders in society – the Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis and North Africans who make their lives comfortable by doing all the dirty jobs that they would not stoop to carry out.

All the while, the story goes, they expect the government to provide – jobs, education, loans, housing, healthcare and other public services – with minimal contribution from themselves save an acceptance of the political and social status quo.

Those foreign men rarely get to meet Saudi women. Those they do meet are often veiled, and almost always kept at arm’s length by social convention. It’s difficult to engage in a meaningful conversation with a woman when the only part of her body you can see are is her eyes, right?

These are the stereotypes you will find in countless books, newspaper articles and TV documentaries. Very few people outside the Middle East have the chance to get under the surface of the Kingdom and its people. Students at Western Universities have that opportunity – there are over a hundred thousand Saudis currently studying abroad – but I wonder what impression the natives get of fellow students who are trying hard to fit into the foreign environments in which they find themselves.

Outside the campus, the average person on the street in Leicester, England or Akron, Ohio may never meet a Saudi in their lifetime – even though they may never forget that Osama Bin Laden was a Saudi, and that fifteen Saudis cut the throats of airline pilots and crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania wood.

Some – perhaps on their way to a winter break in Dubai, the Middle East’s Arabia Lite – might pick up a paperback full of lurid tales of pampered Princesses, illicit relationships and expatriates in desperate scrapes. A minority might buy Robert Lacey’s incisive books on the Kingdom, and an even smaller minority might sample the vibrant Middle East blogosphere, examples of which you will see on the blog roll to the right of this post.

But for the majority, the stereotypes endure. A received wisdom that portrays a backward, oppressive society, dominated by religious extremists and a monarchy whose main mission is self-preservation. A society that funds and produces terrorists who inflict unspeakable violence on us peace-loving Westerners. A plutocracy that is ostentatious and wasteful. And, unfortunately, a country whose resources we can’t live without.

As the Arab spring erupted, some in the West fervently wished for an uprising in the Kingdom, bringing democracy, human rights and a secular society. Of course, they might think, it would have been worth the price of a few thousand dead, as in Syria, or the wholesale destruction of the country’s infrastructure, as in Iraq, or the razing of cities, as in Libya, wouldn’t it?

Before we make those judgements, perhaps we should look back 40 years to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev banging his shoe at the UN General Assembly, threatening to bury us. Russians, we thought,  were slaves of communist tyranny. Aggressive proselytes of a system that sought to control the thoughts and actions of its citizens. Grim, regimented and dominated by a pampered pyramid of privileged bureaucrats.

Of course we never met a Russian from one life to the next. By and large, we couldn’t visit their country and we couldn’t visit ours. Those who did make it to the West were diplomats, spies and the occasional defector seduced by the plenty they did not enjoy at home.

The Russian bear threatened us with nuclear winter, dispatched its dissidents into gulags in the Siberian wasteland and slowly let any infrastructure not dedicated to the arms race decline into wasteful, inefficient mediocrity.

Our knowledge of life in the communist system was confined to what we read in books, newspapers and TV documentaries. Occasionally we would sample Communism Lite by taking a cheap holiday on the Adriatic beaches of Yugoslavia. Brave visitors to Russia would endure the privations of Intourist hotels, where every room was bugged and our movements were controlled by minders spouting the party line in robotic fashion, afraid to step out of line by revealing their real feelings.

The tiny minority of Westerners who read the works of Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, who listened to the music of Shostakovich and the concerts of Richter and Rostropovich, or watched the dancing of Nureyev would glimpse through the monolith. They saw that Russians loved, dreamed, hated and hoped like the rest of us – that their humanity was the same as ours, even if their values reflected the society built by Lenin, Stalin and their successors. And when Reagan and Gorbachev – products of vastly different cultures, social and political philosophies – started engaging on an emotional level, they found common interests that broke down the barriers and paved the way for the end of the Cold War.

Today, even if the political structures of the Russian state are still some way away from those of Western countries, we in the West are engaging with ordinary and extraordinary Russians in a manner unthinkable forty years ago. St Petersburg is an established stop-off on the tourist trail. Ordinary Russians work in the bars and restaurants of London. New York teams with Russian taxi drivers. Two of London’s Premier League football clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal, are owed or part-owned by Russians. And the more we engage, the less threatened we feel.

The parallel between Saudi Arabia today and the Soviet Union of my youth is not exact. But In both cases, our perception is and was coloured by broad stereotypes. Big pictures – many born of ignorance – which we are unwilling or unable to explore beyond.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the big picture endures because of its pivotal place in the world’s political and economic order. As the birthplace of Islam, its influence over the Islamic world, which includes almost every Western country with a significant Muslim minority, is huge. And as the possessor of the world’s largest reserves of oil, decisions emanating from Riyadh about the price and supply of oil affect markets worldwide, and through those markets, ourselves. It is a country to be reckoned with.

The more important the country, the more we tend to mythologise it, especially when there is some aspect of that country of which we disapprove or fear. So we make statements from afar about China, Russia, the US and Saudi Arabia even if we have never visited those countries. When we do visit Beijing, New York, Moscow and Jeddah, we tend to stop talking about countries, and start describing people, customs, culture and diversity. Suddenly another dimension opens up. We have long realised the absurdity of generalising about the US, because we can easily visit, and see at first hand that it is a nation of so many different facets – faith, ethnicity, political belief, geography, climate and social customs. And as China and Russia open up to tourism, those of us who saw them as monoliths start seeing the same diversity that we have always seen in countries with developed tourist industries.

Saudi Arabia does not welcome Western tourists, despite having much to interest a curious traveller. Muslims come in their millions for what the Kingdom calls religious tourism – the pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah. Yet anyone else wishing to explore the country can only do so if they are there for another reason – business or employment.

So the demolition of myths through travel and personal experience tends not to touch Western perceptions of Saudi Arabia. By its inaccessibility, its myths and mysteries remain largely intact in the eyes of the majority, while most Western personal interaction with Arabs and the Arab world takes place in neighbouring countries – most notably Egypt and Dubai.

When I occasionally write about the Kingdom, I try to act as a window into a world relatively few Western non-Muslims experience. In my own small way I try to puncture the sweeping generalities that inform Western opinion. I fully accept that my perception – as a middle-aged Western professional – will be different from that of an Egyptian office worker or an Indonesian housemaid. I try to be neither an advocate nor a critic of the Saudi way of life. But I do try to share experiences that go some way towards enabling Westerners to see the country in something approaching the third dimension of personal experience.

One of those experiences came last week when I visited a city in the Eastern Province of the country. I was there to deliver a workshop on empowerment and personal development to an eclectic group of individuals from an organisation that was unusual in that men and women worked side by side. Even more unusual was that those who attended the workshop were Saudis and expatriates of both genders in the same training room. The usual cultural proprieties remained, though. The men were in one half of the room, the women on the other. There was a separate presentation screen for each half of the room, but the room itself was not partitioned.

All but one of the Saudi women wore the full face veil – the niqab. This was the first time I had done a workshop with a mixed-gender group in Saudi Arabia where I was unable to judge the interest and engagement of a significant number of the participants through their facial expressions. So I had to rely on eye contact and body language – as well, of course, on what they were saying. I also found myself charging from one side of the room to the other like a hyperactive rhino in an attempt to engage with all attendees equally.

When I carry out a workshop, I tend to use the training materials as a framework. I do not slavishly adhere to them. Instead I try to discover as much as possible about the interests, drivers and motivation of the attendees, and I adapt the course as I go along in a desire to meet their needs as closely as possible.

In this case, I knew only a top-line concern that the management of the organisation was seeking to address. So I used a technique that worked well in a previous programme that I organised in Bahrain over the summer. It’s called “Fear in a Hat”. I asked each participant to write down on a piece of paper their most important and prevalent fear – either in their personal or professional lives – anonymously. They then put the piece of paper in an envelope – no hat being available. And I then read out their fears.

Here are some examples:

“Being unjust in taking a specific decision

Losing what I have

Being unemployed

No development – being in the same work area for a long time




Being alone

Unfulfilled in terms of career development

My future job is not qualified with my major

End of life/death

Competition for training in (specific field)

My kids will not be fine if I am away from them next year.”

These are fears with which we can surely all identify, regardless of what culture we come from. Just as in any other part of the world, people are afraid for their careers, their job security, their financial future and their families.

This exercise brought two benefits. First, it established common ground, and second, it gave us specific issues to address in the workshop. But for me it was a telling reminder that even in one of the most wealthy nations in the world, humans remain humans, and their hopes and fears are not so different wherever you look.

And for those who criticise the slow pace of change in Saudi Arabia, it’s worthwhile considering the potential effect on these people of radical change that could produce fissures in Saudi society. The Arab Spring was exciting for many observers, but they were not the ones who had to hide in burnt-out buildings in Misrata, or who were dragged away to be tortured in Homs, imprisoned in Cairo or shot in Sana’a.

I’m not suggesting that such events are likely to take place in the Kingdom, but I would make a plea for understanding of its leaders when they appear to be addressing urgent social issues at a snail’s place. They rule a country with many shades of opinion, some dramatically opposite. Self-preservation is clearly a motive, but I also respect their desire to avoid subjecting their people to the traumas other countries have suffered by introducing change gradually.

My recent visit reminded me of another stereotype – the downtrodden woman in a face veil. My client was a young, unmarried Saudi woman. She is bright, enthusiastic and ambitious, with a great sense of humour. And she wore a face veil. We Westerners are used to dealing with women in a business context. Even though there are no connotations other than doing business, we instinctively judge a person not only by what they say, but by how they look, how they dress, their facial expression and their tone of voice. Just as we judge our fellow men.

For me – a person with eyesight and hearing – the removal of many of the sources of visual information I would instinctively use to form an opinion about a person forced me to focus on eye contact, tone of voice and the vibrant personality of the person in front of me. For a young and eligible Saudi man, who is to say that being obliged to focus on personality before looks is a bad way of assessing a future partner? After all, some would consider that looks are for youth, but personality is for life.

I am no advocate of face veils, but I offer this anecdote to show that underneath the broad brush there are complexities that would not immediately occur to those who judge Saudi society from afar.

Saudi Arabia is no paradise. It faces many problems, both social and political. But neither is it the evil empire often portrayed in the media. Sometimes it is its own worst enemy, especially when projecting its image to the world. Giving women the vote one day and sentencing a woman to lashes for driving a car the day after is a good example of this.

But leaders are human, and so are ordinary Saudis. And I’m happy to have the opportunity to visit the country often enough to see that the country is full of people with talent and goodwill. Many do not share our Western values, and some I’m proud to call friends.

So when we criticise this complex society, perhaps we should remember the imperfections of our own societies, and remember the words of a predecessor of the Prophet Mohammed:

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

  1. Robert Lacey permalink

    Thank you for the kind mention — I greatly enjoy your blog. Robert

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