Photo by Cody Austin, staff photographer
I never imagined celebrating New Year’s Eve at the Ritz Carlton in Saudi Arabia, but I, along with seven other students from across the U.S. and our new Saudi friends, spent the evening chatting, drinking (non-alcoholic) Saudi champagne and banging out Coldplay tunes on the piano. We were invited for a visit, sponsored by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education and the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, to learn more about the Kingdom’s culture, politics and education system. We saw a little of everything during the trip. It gave us a rare chance to actually see life in Saudi Arabia rather than read or listen to other people’s experiences.
One of the most astounding things we saw was the incredible pace and scale of development. Fueled by the petroleum industry, construction sites and cranes fill the skylines of Riyadh while new universities and colossal industrial cities continue to appear despite the global economic slowdown. There is even targeted investment in solar energy; the Saudis understand the importance of diversification and the finite nature of their oil reserves.
The Kingdom is also investing heavily in human capital through the construction of local universities as well as King Abdullah’s generous (and for an American, enviable) scholarship program, which pays the bills for around 70,000 students pursuing their degrees in the U.S. alone. I knew Saudi Arabia had a strong economy, but I was amazed at the extent to which it has avoided the resource curse that has plagued other countries with abundant and valuable natural reserves.
I also began to understand the value system of Saudi culture, which I found to be rooted in religion, the family and community. The infamous laws regarding women are the manifestation of these values. This includes the requirement to wear the abaya in public. Many women, though certainly not all, also wore the niqab — a veil that covers the entire face or only exposes the eyes. Women are also not allowed to drive or travel by themselves, malls are sometimes reserved for married couples and families and almost all universities are segregated.
However, many people view the abaya and other restrictions as cultural and based on tradition rather than required by Islam. For those who saw it as a religious obligation, wearing these garments was also a personal choice. There are certainly Saudis that desire to wear whatever they like in public, but there are many who would continue to dress the same even if the laws were repealed tomorrow. The female members of our group also felt they could appreciate some of the benefits of wearing the abaya, including making it easier to get ready in the morning and forcing people to focus less on their appearance. While they were by no means won over, one student found the abaya made her less obtrusive as a foreigner and replaced self-consciousness with a sense of “femininity, mystery and power.”
That being said, Saudis are finding it more impractical, and sometimes undesirable, to maintain this stringent segregation. With increasing globalization and a growing population of highly educated women, it is increasingly difficult to have male or female dominated public places, universities or businesses. Co-ed campuses like the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology have emerged. Yet, most campuses, along with businesses and other public spaces are still segregated and are not looking to change. Because of the segregation, there were only a few women the male members of the delegation got to meet and spend time with. The women I did get to know, such as Dr. Selwa al-Hazzaa and her daughter Hala, were inspiring and charming.
To generalize and say that Saudis are forced to wear repressive clothing against their will and are brainwashed into accepting a society based on misogynist religious principles is completely misguided. The idea that all Saudis or Muslims believe in one monochrome, monolithic conception of “Islam” is completely ridiculous. Like anyone else, Saudis are capable of independent thought and making their own decisions. They disagree and debate with each other and don’t like to be told what to do by foreigners (one of their many similarities with Americans). And while there are many other similarities, it seems that regardless of pressure from King Abdullah or globalization, most Saudis generally have a different, more conservative attitude towards gender relations and other social issues.
Likewise, we were often reminded that the modern Saudi state is relatively young and that forming a national identity, accepted norms and attitudes towards gender relations and the outside world take time, providing numerous examples of similar restrictions and laws across the world at different times in history.
Personally, I was also fascinated by the strict punishments for crime in Saudi Arabia, especially drug trafficking. While I felt squeamish about cutting off a thief’s hand (which only happens rarely) and executions, the fact is that Saudi Arabia has a low rate of violent crime and almost none of America’s social ills related to drug use.
I was also impressed by the fact that there are few nursing homes in the Kingdom; families believe they have a responsibility to take care of their parents despite the cost, difficulties or what many Americans would consider intrusions on their own adult lives. As a Christian, I was envious of the continual reminders Saudi Muslims have to remember God in the call to prayer that penetrates malls and schools and reverberates around the entire city.
A different mindset was also visible in the system of government and Saudi perspectives on political participation. Many argue that the monarchy oppresses its people and denies their rights. The Saudis we met, however, believe the government encourages active participation of its citizens. A reasonably free press and open forums, like the Center for National Dialogue, allow Saudis from all walks of life (including women) to discuss important issues and submit concerns and recommendations to the government. Yet while we were in the country, newspapers publicized the manhunt for “troublemakers” in the Eastern province who may have only been peaceful protestors. It seems unfair to say that Saudis have no voice in how the country is governed. However, their voice is limited to advising and criticizing within limits acceptable to the monarchy.
Unlike many citizens in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the Saudis we met felt that the monarchy’s authoritarianism protected their dignity. By providing an outlet for frustration, comprehensive social services and strong economic development, the government has addressed many of the concerns that provoked protests across the region last year. While most (including myself) champion the democratic system, Saudi Arabia, despite its faults, has provided prosperity and peace.
Additionally, many Saudis we spoke with valued consensus and dialogue in the political process. They would rather seek change gradually and as a community than demand immediate results. We were again given the argument that Saudi Arabia is a young country and that social and political changes occur slowly. This argument certainly has some merit, but the frequency with which we heard it further illuminates how many Saudis think about change in their country. I must stress our visit was by no means completely representative of Saudi society. In fact, many Saudis I’ve met while in the United Arab Emirates would completely disagree.
Nevertheless, I did find a genuine trust in King Abdullah and his leadership everywhere we went. I heard from most of the people we visited during the trip that King Abdullah is seen as gently guiding the society towards a relatively liberal future. He frequently intervenes in controversial court cases, personally commissioned the mixed gender KAUST, and has stated he is ready to allow women to drive when the people accept it. It seems that those opposing more moves towards liberalism are other members of the monarchy and the religious establishment. For example, the Grand Mufti recently issued an opinion that all churches on the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed. Regardless of the status of democracy or Western liberalism in the Kingdom, King Abdullah and his predecessors have provided Saudis a continually increasing standard of life.
While there were always more questions to be explored, experiencing Saudi Arabia first-hand was truly a brilliant chance to learn more about the Kingdom and meet countless wonderful, funny, smart and kind people. If they’ll have us back, I’m sure everyone in our delegation wouldn’t mind making New Year’s in Riyadh an annual tradition.