Student spends break in Saudi Arabia

Student spends break in Saudi Arabia

Several days after Christmas, I boarded a Saudi Arabian Airlines plane with a black abaya and hijab in my carryon.  I left behind a handful of worried, but curious relatives and friends, and one can hardly blame them. In America, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is often portrayed as a backwards, authoritarian, conservative, religiously radical country, and here I was, a student among a group of 13 American women invited to spend two weeks there. What I found when we got there was a very different Saudi Arabia than most Americans imagine. 

Because of Mercer’s involvement in the Model Arab League program, I was among 10 students from around the U.S. chosen for the Saudi Arabia fellowship. The trip was arranged by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education in an attempt to increase cultural understanding and linkages between Americans and Saudis, since so few Americans visit or have interaction with Saudi Arabia or the Middle East. 

We began our journey in Riyadh, the capital of KSA, then spent time in the Eastern Provinces, and finished in the coastal city of Jeddah. We met with several princes (and one princess), advisers, top businessmen and women, and many university students. We visited hospitals, an oil company, markets, and historical sites in an attempt to soak in as much Saudi history, culture, and political and economic information as was possible. I spoke with many Saudi women, got a taste of an Islam society, and experienced Arab hospitality and attitudes toward Americans.

Many Mercer students go abroad but few visit the Middle East. This is a pity, because understanding this region and its relationship with America is increasingly relevant and critical to our national and cultural interests. Below are common misconceptions/generalizations that American society has about Saudi Arabia, followed by my experiences relating to these topics. I may seem overly positive, but rest assured that our group was careful not to take what we heard at face value. We did our best to discern between rosy pictures and reality. 

Please keep in mind that these are opinions formed after spending a few weeks in the country, with much of that time spent in urban areas. While I am no expert, I am in a minority—an American student who brought her Western background with her as she saw, met with, tasted, and heard a bit of Saudi Arabia.  

Misconception #1: Saudis live in tents, ride camels, and have oil in their back yards. 

My experience: We’re starting with the most basic. These things may have been true about 100 years ago. Do America a favor and don’t insult Saudis (or anyone else from the Middle East) by asking these questions. 

Misconception (but really more of a generalization) #2: Saudi culture is highly religious and restrictive.

My experience: One of the most successful businessmen in Saudi Arabia described his country to us in this way; “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world where politics, society, and religion melt into one pot. In the 21st century, people’s habits, rules, and lives are centered on the divine…the basics of rules, governance, politics, and society is also Islam. If you understand this fact, it is easy to understand why we behave this way.” 

Saudis make up a very discreet, private, family-oriented society. It is a society in which your level of respectability is measured by your family’s piety and closeness. Five times a day, everything in Saudi Arabia shuts down for prayer. There were spaces for prayer in the airplanes, malls, hotels, and schools. Public mixing of genders is discouraged and monitored, with separate spaces for singles and families in restaurants.  

One of my misconceptions before going was that this conservatism was created or reinforced by the Saudi monarchy and Islamic clerics. But Saudi culture has been this way far before becoming a country in 1932. 

Perhaps the most important clue to understanding the religiosity of Saudi society is that the country is home to the two most holy sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. 

Every year, millions of Muslims from around the world travel to Saudi Arabia for hajj, the 1-3 week, once-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are instructed to take, or for umrah, smaller one- or two-day trips to Mecca for prayer and reflection. 

Saudi culture developed and is maintained by a sense of closeness to these holy sites; because it houses such holy places, there is a sense that Saudi Arabia must be truly different from Muslim countries or cities such as Dubai, where strip clubs, bars, and dancing attract tourism but violate Islam.  

At the same time, the KSA is a modern, oil-rich country with an unbelievable rate of growth in education (at all levels), medical and engineering technology, and the private business sector. As I heard many times while there, King Abdullah is “building a knowledge-based society in Saudi Arabia.” However, the country’s struggle seems to lie in building this modern, knowledge-based society without losing its Islamic identity.