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I was in Saudi Arabia on a business trip for a week in 2011. Here are my brief impressions about Saudi Arabia and the people.
(Update 2018: Saudi Arabia has changed quite a bit in the last few years. What I wrote below is what I saw in 2011.)
I went from NYC to Riyadh (13 hour flight) by Saudi Airlines. At the back of the plane, there is a prayer room, which is carpeted and has a compass to indicate the direction to Mecca. There's a "green line" in the sky; the captain notifies everyone that the plane has crossed the green line and is now in Muslim space. The women cover up. The moment we land, everyone jumps up and starts collecting their bags from the overhead storage. Nobody waits for the plane to stop.
Saudi Arabia is a highly industrialized and technical society. There are computers, laptops, internet, Blackberrys, iPhone, iPad, lots of skyscrapers, 3-lane and 4-lane freeways, and lots of malls. There is heavy traffic, especially at rush hour. It looks pretty much like Phoenix or Los Angeles. People drive mostly new cars and many SUVs or similar, which is easy when gasoline is only 24 cents per gallon ($0.06 per liter).
Supermarkets carry practically everything that you see in supermarkets in Germany, the USA, or China. Practically every Western chain restaurant or store is in Saudi: Burger King, Applebee, Pizza Uno, McDonalds, Radio Shack, Ruby Tuesdays, Krispy Kreme, Toys-R-Us, and so on.
There is no beer, wine, or liquor in restaurants. There are no bars. We went to a very good French restaurant, but the menu had no wine. Instead, they offered juice blends, which were delicious, but I would have preferred wine for such a dinner.
The web is censored. Playboy and many news sites are blocked. There is no Craigslist. A number of news sites in English are blocked, but not Danish news. I suppose Saudi censors can't read Danish. If you want to know something, look for it in another language. Censorship is easily bypassed. Saudis can order books and videos from Amazon. There are large bookstores in Saudi Arabia. While I was there, I bought books online via Amazon Kindle. Nothing is blocked on Amazon Kindle. There are also unexpected things, such as Terri Gross on NPR, who is on the radio in Saudi Arabia.
The food is quite good. We ate at al Baik, which is a wildly popular chicken fast food chain. Other places had meat flavored with cumin, cinnamon, and other spices. Arab coffee is heavily flavored with cardamon and saffron, which is delicious. Incense and perfumes include sandalwood and jasmine. I bought a bit of ouhd, which is a scented wood, which is more valuable than gold. In general, they use more spices and scents in their food than California.
A number of Saudi are extremely rich. We have stores that sell light bulbs. They have stores that sell chandeliers, but not just little chandeliers: these are giant chandeliers for a palace. There are some 25,000 princes in the royal family (each king has had over 400 wives) and many of those princes live in $30-40 million palaces. One prince has a gold Ferrari, another has a gold Lamborghini Gallardo. They don't just have personal jets; they have personal jet fleets. Some have military cargo planes to carry supplies for their hunting parties. Saudi Arabia is a kingdom, which means the country is the personal property of the royal family. Saudi Arabia has 25% of the world's oil so the royal family earns perhaps $700 billion per year in oil revenues, which has been going on since the 1950s. Saudi wealth is measured in trillions so you see wealth everywhere, such as spectacular shopping malls with every luxury brand. The oil wealth turned a country of nomads into a land where 75% live in cities.
Saudi are lunatics behind the wheel. The lines on the street are decoration; stop signs and traffic lights add a bit of color. A driver can be in the far left lane and suddenly make a right turn by careening across all lanes. People do this in front of police. For some reason, the streets in Riyadh are paved with smooth concrete, which allows you to skid the car. This has become the national sport, called "drifting", in which you see how much you can skid. In Riyadh we had to run to avoid a car that was drifting towards us.
Here is a good video of Saudi drifting. You often see this in Riyadh. If that's not crazy enough, watch Saudi Street Skating. Because the street is so smooth, you can hop out of the car and slide along. By the way, they're doing that in sandals.
I read in Saudi newspapers that only 10% of the workforce is Saudi. 90% of workers are foreigners, which include Indians, Pakistani, Africans, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese, and Americas. Foreigners are called "expats" (which stands for "expatriates", although some think it means "expatriots".) An "expatriate" is someone without a country, such as a stateless person. But in Saudi, it means "foreign worker". I suppose the illegal Mexican workers in the US are expats?
Saudi isn't easy for tourists. There is little to see; there aren't tourist shops or areas; there aren't maps for tourists; there are practically no tourist guide books for Saudi Arabia. Hotels are for business people. 12-15 million people come yearly as pilgrims to Jeddah on the way to Mecca, which is 30 minutes by bus. However, there's a roadblock on the way and only Muslims are allowed in Mecca. It's difficult to get a visa to Saudi Arabia. Only business people get visas. No backpackers. The very strict Islamic laws (no alcohol, no bars, no nightclubs, the severe public restrictions for women, etc.) also discourage tourism. Which is odd, because Saudi people are very friendly. I felt quite safe and welcomed wherever I went. It's a nice country. Just no tourists.
In general, Saudi are very friendly and easy going. They love pranks, so there's lots of Youtube videos where Saudi do totally crazy things.
- Here, a guy just wants to take a nap. A kid decides to drive him crazy.
- Prayer is very serious, which of course is a good moment for a joke.
- Before prayer, you wash your hands and face. Yep, another situation for a joke. Watch how nonchalantly the other fellow tosses that firecracker.
- In this video, someone decides to liven up a get-together by bringing a lion to a party.
- And they can have just crazy fun.
In the above photo, men are praying. Islam calls to prayer five times a day, so many, if not most, drop everything and go to prayer. Stores and restaurants close for 15 minutes. The Saudi whom I met are highly educated, well aware of the world, and read extensively. They can discuss complex issues and look at all sides.
The Women of Saudi Arabia
The unique thing about Saudi Arabia is the way women are treated. Men and women live in almost completely separated social worlds.
Women in public must be completely covered in a black dress with only a small opening for their eyes. Perhaps 30% of women are completely covered; their eyes are covered by a mesh so you can't see their eyes. Many wear black long gloves so you can't see their hands. Foreign women must also be covered. In the large luxury hotels, they can let their hood down and expose their hair, but that's only within the hotel. When they go out, they must cover their heads. (Single foreign women can't enter Saudia Arabia. If a foreign man enters Saudia Arabia with a woman, he must prove she is part of his family.)
There is no space for interaction between men and women in public. There are no movie houses, nightclubs, concerts, discos, nor public swimming pools. Cafes and restaurants are men-only. Women can't drive, ride a bicycle, vote, own a cell phone, jump in a pool, vote in elections, get a hotel room, jog in a park, or go to a sports bar to follow their favorite team. There are no waitresses. Movies are censored; either they are blocked or the actress's body is covered up with a large fuzzy dot. There are no women in billboards or ads. A woman needs a male guardian's permission to travel, marry, divorce, get education, get a job, get a bank account, or get surgery.
In the malls, all the clerks are men. I was told there are malls for women only. The schools are separated. Even the universities are separated. Many places have separate entrances for women. Large restaurants have a family section, which is a separate room for women and children. The main dining area is for men.
It's odd to realize in traffic that every car is driven by men. No women drivers. This also proves something: it's not women who cause crazy traffic :-)
The separation of men and women is enforced by the religious police. They walk around in groups and arrest or use long sticks to beat anyone who violates public morals. Couples in restaurants or cafes must prove they are related or they can be beaten. Women must be completely covered at all times. This can reach absurd extremes; a girls' school had a fire in 2002. The religious police blocked firemen from entering the school because the school girls weren't properly covered, so twenty girls died.
In the workplace, women are separated from men. Saudi are convinced that society will collapse if women and men interact. This means a company must maintain two offices, separate but equal, one for men and another for women. Of course, many companies won't take on that additional expense, so there are few jobs for women. 70% of Saudi university students are women, however, with the severe job restrictions or opportunities, only 5% of women have jobs. Their education is wasted, which creates frustration and depression.
We forget the West only recently came out of the dark ages. Up to the 1500s, women were chattel and were always covered up. Women were allowed to vote in the USA only in the 1920s. The Virgin Mary is always shown in a robe and veil in paintings.
A woman in a black cloak is a shapeless form. After a while, you forget about women. It's as if someone set off a neutron sex bomb and all women disappeared. The black cloak erases the sexuality of a woman and leaves only a shadow. However, since they can't interact with men, the spirit of a woman is also removed. Beneath a sexual identity, men and women are humans. Saudi women are suppressed both as females and humans. This means Saudi isn't a country of sixteen million; it's only eight million. Half of the country doesn't exist in a meaningful way.
The USA, especially California, seems to be the opposite of Saudi Arabia in the sexualization of women. Where Saudi women are shapeless black ghosts, Los Angeles women have boob jobs to look like Barbie. In the US, women as sexual objects are used to advertise nearly everything, from chewing gum to cars. Many ads don't even bother with the woman's face; the advertising just shows their cleavage. A recent study of 5,700 clothing articles for girls five-to-twelve years old found 30% of the clothes was sexualized, such as padded strapless gowns for ten-year old girls, which turns children into sex objects. As a result of sexualization, only 5% of US women think of themselves as beautiful; many of the otherws feel insecure or insufficient. Dove carried out an ad campaign "for the rest of us" that says women don't have to be sex dolls; they can look good just as they are. Studies show sexualization lowers a woman's abilities; for example, girls in bikini perform poorly on math exams while girls in sweaters did better.
Saudi men are also desexualized. There are no Calvin Klein ads with men in cutoff shirts or muscle T-shirts. Saudi men wear plain white robes without ornament. At most, there may be a silver pen in the shirt breast pocket (Saudi men wear silver; gold is for women).
With black robes for women and white robes for men, Saudi Arabia is like being in a monastery of monks and nuns. There is little visible difference between people.
Conservative Saudi say this is their traditional culture and outsiders should respect it. But culture isn't enforced by beatings. A cultural tradition is something a society naturally does on its own, without reminders, fines, or violence. French have coffee without threats of beatings by the culture police. The simple fact that a religious police enforces the rules with violence is proof the rules are not a natural part of their culture.
Of course, when Saudi women are outside Saudi Arabia, they behave like anyone else: they drive cars, they study, they have jobs, and they are part of society.
Two weeks after Saudi Arabia, I was in China, where young women manage practically all the stores, restaurants, hotels, malls, and many offices. Mainland China is proof that women are perfectly competent and capable of managing a complex technical society and interacting with men.
Before 1950, the large majority of the Saudi lived as nomads on the land, tending flocks of sheep and camels. Today, more than 75% of Saudi live in cities. This means there is no traditional Saudi society. Ironically, women had more freedom back then as nomads because they had to work alongside men. Today in the small villages in Saudi Arabia, women drive cars and do much of the work, quite simply because they must.
With access to the world via travel, TV, movie, books, and the web, it's only a matter of time for these rules to go away.
Saudi Arabia is a fascinating place. The Saudi are very friendly and decent people. I would go there again. If you ever have the opportunity, go.
My Travel Notes: Places I've Been
Read more of my travel notes.