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Saudi Arabia: Accepting Point Seven Five in Love and Labour

June 2, 2015


One of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting Saudi Arabia is the conversations I have with people about the problems of everyday life.

Here’s one about kids relying on housemaids:

“One evening, I heard my seven-year-old ask the housemaid for a glass of water. Now in our house the housemaid’s job is to take care of domestic chores. She’s definitely not there to wait on my kids, and they know it.

I asked my daughter why she asked for the water instead of fetching it for herself. She replied that when she was at her friend’s house the housemaid did everything for her. I didn’t want to criticise her friend’s family, but I made it clear that we didn’t allow this in our house.”

And another on the problem of growing up as a solitary son:

“When I was a young girl, I was allowed out of the house to play. Nowadays that’s not so easy. My nine-year-old son gets very frustrated in the evenings. Once he’s done his homework he has nothing to do until bed time. So he spends most of his time playing computer games. I worry about how he will relate to other people as he grows up. The isolation from other kids outside school hours isn’t good for him.

Older boys don’t go to the malls because they’re afraid of being harassed by the religious police. So they go to smaller shops where they don’t get into trouble.”

And finally pushy Dads who don’t trust their kids to find jobs of their own accord:

“It drives me mad when fathers call me on behalf of their sons to apply for jobs. I say to the fathers “Please don’t do this. Get your son to talk to me himself. He has to learn to stand on his own feet.” I suspect that what’s happening is that the fathers are pushing their sons to apply. The kids themselves don’t care whether they work or not. Life’s too soft for them, and having over-indulgent dads doesn’t help.”

“A lot of kids don’t accept a job unless they see it as absolutely the right one for them. How will they know this? So instead of taking a job that may not be absolutely right and getting some useful work experience, they sit at home waiting for the perfect job that might never come.”

What I find interesting about all this is that – against the pervasive backdrop of religious belief – there are two fundamentals of Saudi life, and such different attitudes towards them.

The first is marriage. Most marriages are arranged. The son or daughter is introduced to an appropriate partner by their families. In most cases they are given the right to say no. But the general philosophy is that suitability – in terms of age, social status and sometimes tribe – comes first. Love is something that hopefully will grow with time.  In other words, “The One” that so many people search for in the West rarely comes into the equation.

A recent article in the Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s English language daily, shows one aspect of the dilemma:

Women have contrived several reasons to reject a man’s proposal. Being in a ‘wrong’ profession could well be one such reason that can shatter men’s dream of marrying their loved ones.

Despite some women’s preference for good financial and social status, the husband-to-be’s choice of profession can be a deal-breaker.

Saudi women put some jobs on a black list because of economic, social and cultural reasons. The reasons given by Saudi women involved the husband’s absence from home or simply the nature of his job.

Medical professionals, airline stewards, plastic surgeons, plumbers, mechanics and workers in the military topped the list of rejected professions in favor of businessmen, teachers, engineers and government employees.

One of the big problems, according to the article, is that women fear that their men might stray if their job brings them in contact with other women. On that basis anyone working in the West would be virtually precluded from any kind of work. But in Saudi Arabia, what is delicately known as “mixing” is a big no-no, especially among the more conservative elements of society.

Very few young Saudis, except possibly for those who have studied abroad, have the opportunity to discover what it’s like to be in a relationship before getting married. If they are inexperienced in matters of the heart the danger is that they go into marriage with false expectations. The result, unfortunately, can be disappointment, estrangement and ultimately divorce.

Having said that, arranged marriages often succeed because the couple do grow to love each other. Failing that, they feel bound by the financial implications of divorce to stick together.

So why, in a society in which The One in marriage is mostly a lucky accident, and in which most people start with what you could call a “Point Seven Five” relationship, do so many young people sit around waiting for the career equivalent of The One? Would it not be better for them to do what kids in the West often do – to get a job, any job, that starts them on the road to independence even if it’s not where they see their long-term future?

It would be a gross generalisation to suggest that kids who have been waited on all their lives have grown up with a sense of entitlement, and so are reluctant to accept that as adults not everything will be delivered to them on a plate. That could be part of the problem, but the main driver would seem to be fear.

For the boys, as we have seen, the kind of job they do has a direct effect on their marriage prospects. A job that provides security and status is at a premium. And even perfectly secure, respectable and well-paid careers often don’t pass the suitability test, especially if the potential husband is likely to have frequent contact with women in his job.

So if a career as a plastic surgeon makes you ineligible for the best marriage, flipping burgers definitely doesn’t make the grade. Some families look down on any job in the private sector except with banks and big companies like Saudi Aramco, the national oil company. This makes it hard for young companies to recruit talent, because their businesses are seen as insecure.

For many, the ultimate job is in government. The pay isn’t great, but there are plenty of fringe benefits. What’s more, continual employment is virtually guaranteed. Nice and secure.

But not all kids have families that can subsidise them while they hang around the house hoping for The One Job to come around. For some government jobs there is a long waiting list. So they take jobs that may not be their heart’s desire, but often the motive is money and little else. I hear frequent complaints from employers who take on young Saudis. They stay on for a few months, and then disappear to any company willing to offer them a few hundred extra riyals a month, much to the frustration of the first employer who has started to invest in their training.

However money is not the only issue. Many companies don’t do much to instil loyalty in their young employees. Government regulations compel them to take on sufficient numbers of Saudis to meet employment quotas. Those that don’t meet the quotas suffer damaging sanctions that affect their ability to trade. So some employers take on youngsters and sit them down in a corner. They give them little to do and minimal training. Although it’s illegal to do so, there are even employers who put people on the payroll to make up the mandated numbers, and don’t insist that the staff show up for work. Small wonder that the youngsters get bored and frustrated, and jump ship at the first available opportunity.

As for the girls, there are also concerns that make them very choosy about the kind of jobs they take. The taboo against mixing is one of them. Even female doctors and nurses find that their marriage opportunities diminish because they inevitably work with or around men. There’s also pressure from families for the same reason. Another problem is that many jobs deemed suitable for women are badly paid – teaching in private schools for example. Since they can’t drive to work, a large proportion of their salaries are gobbled up by the cost of hiring drivers to take them back and forth.

The connecting strand in all my conversations would seem to be fear. In a country so well endowed with natural resources, wealth and infrastructure, there seems to be quite a lot of it about.

Parents fear that their kids will end up as unproductive layabouts. Or that if they’re allowed out on the streets they’ll get into trouble. They fear that their kids will fall under the influence of other kids whose families have different standards from their own. Above all they fear that their offspring – through lifestyle or the wrong choice of career – will bring dishonour upon the extended family.

Kids fear that without the requisite status they won’t be able to find a husband or wife. They fear that they won’t be able to provide for their families, that they’ll be stuck in a dead-end job. They worry that they won’t be able to keep up with their wealthier friends.

Some of these fears might seem strange to people in the West – the concern over family honour and marriage prospects for example. But the rest are all too familiar in our societies.

Which goes to show that under the surface we have more in common with this distant and inaccessible country than we think. Except that in Saudi Arabia people often hold out for the perfect job but accept a potentially imperfect marriage, whereas in the West it tends to be the other way round.

Wouldn’t we all be a bit less fearful both in love and labour if we accepted the Point Seven Five when The One seems out of reach?

For who knows – the seemingly imperfect could be perfection in disguise.

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