Ahmad and Fatima Abdallah (not their real names) are an Arab professional couple who worked in Saudi Arabia for four years in the 1980s. They discussed their impressions with a Middle East Report editor in September 1993.
Coming from elsewhere in the Arab world, what were your first impressions of Saudi Arabia?
Ahmad We spent most of our time in Jidda. The first thing that strikes you is the level of urbanization and development — the model cities, streets, hospitals and so on. It is a surprise to a non-Saudi Arab that they have achieved so much in such a short time. If you have money, you can have anything. But soon you realize this is partly an illusion. The main Saudi cities have modern centers, with long boulevards and skyscrapers. But if you go a few hundred yards to either side, you start to see people — mainly non-Saudi, but there are poor Saudis as well — who live in small, mud houses.
Are there many poor Saudis?
Ahmad If you get out of the big cities and travel through the villages, you see a lot of poverty. The houses are made of mud, the kids are dirty and trachoma seems prevalent.
Did you get a sense of people wanting change?
Ahmad People want change, but there is great variety in what they say they want. This is an oppressive and highly controlled society — not in the way that it is in, say, Syria or Iraq, but the royal family controls everything. There is very little to do except make and spend money. Saudis are aware of what’s going on in the outside world. Many, probably most, have been abroad, and wish to see changes at home. Traders, merchants, businessmen want to get rid of the patron-client relationships through which a lot of their business activities are mortgaged to the whim of this or that prince, this or that bureaucrat. They feel that the success they have achieved, often through their international contacts, is appropriated by the state. Educated young people are extremely frustrated. They know about democracy and personal freedom, but when it comes to getting a job they are limited in what they can do. Many end up as bureaucrats in some ministry, or teaching, in the army or elsewhere. Their official salaries are quite low by Saudi standards, and they supplement their income by becoming involved in trade or running a shop.
Fatima As a woman, I was able to visit Saudi homes and mix with women in a way no non-Arab woman or Arab man could. My neighbor was the wife of a mutawwa‘, a religious policeman: When he went to work he locked her in the house without a TV or radio. All she had was a telephone. So she would ring me up — we had never met — and talk for hours on end. It was only when I had a baby that she felt able to visit me. I was shocked to see what a lively, well-dressed person she was. It was incredible to think she was locked up all the time. There are husbands who let their women go out — they have cars with chauffeurs at their disposal, and they can go out to expensive department stores. For such people, travel abroad is an important safety valve.
What exactly did you feel they wanted?
Ahmad Educated people would like to see changes in the administrative and bureaucratic structure, which links an old-fashioned tribal relationship to the royal family through a system of agents. Beyond that, it is often unclear what they want. Some intellectuals want a republic. Others would like to keep a monarchy, but not this Saudi family. There is also an element of regional sentiment in Hijaz and especially in Jidda. The thing to remember about Jidda is that it is a cosmopolitan city: You get people living there not only from all over Saudi Arabia but from abroad. Three quarters of the business community originates from outside Saudi Arabia — from Egypt, Yemen, Indonesia, Iran or wherever, from families that came two or three generations ago. There are hardly any Saudi names among the hundred most prominent business families. A lot of these people have external contacts and this affects the younger generation too. Many of them are well educated, and this also affects their attitudes toward reform.
Can one talk of a Saudi “patriotism”?
Ahmad I think you can. In my experience, many Saudis regards anything non-Saudi with suspicion. People have been indoctrinated politically and religiously all their life, and one of the main forms this takes is suspicion about foreign influence — first “communism” and then Arab nationalism in general, and related to that, terrorism.
You convey powerful impressions of a Saudi attitude of superiority to other Arabs.
Ahmad Saudis have been brought up to consider themselves to be superior, not like other Arabs, and they certainly let you know it. As a non-Saudi Arab, you very soon come up against their arrogance. One striking example is at weddings: Things are well done, and everyone is cheerful, but when it comes to eating, the non-Saudis have to wait for the Saudis to eat first. It is the same in the Gulf states: first the muwatin — the citizen — and then the wafid, the newcomer. If you are driving along in a smaller car, they come along in their big cars and you are supposed to get out of the way. If you don’t, they start insulting you: On the streets, if you are an Arab they call you ibn kalb (son of a bitch). If you are a non-Arab — a Filipino or an Indian — and get in the way they may kick and beat you up.
You do get the sense of a hierarchy of prejudice. Some Arabs get treated with some respect, but not Yemenis. Indians are often the worst treated. Filipinos, particularly women, are treated badly, but they are also feared somewhat, as they have organized themselves, and their government protests.
Fatima I had to be accompanied by a man — my husband — whenever I went out to shop. Even then, when I went into a shop, and it was evident from my dress that I was not Saudi, men would start this game of trying to shove their business cards at me. They would often think that because I was not a Saudi woman they could come up and start touching me. Going out on the streets of Jidda was a very uncomfortable experience. Saudi men seem to think that non-Saudi women are freely available. Even when I was eight months pregnant, and very obviously so, men would proposition me in the streets. Once when my husband was driving the car, and I was in the back seat with my son, some men in a large car drove up beside us and started propositioning me, with those business cards, through the window.
But what about your relations with Saudi women?
Fatima I used to go to afternoon classes with Saudi women, and I felt they did not accept me as an equal. First of all, they were all made up, sporting expensive jewelry, and I was not. They were quick to insult me, saying that we non-Saudi women had come to take their men and that I was not a good Muslim. I was therefore surprised that when we were being transported from and to our homes in a bus, and men in cars came up with their business cards, many of the Saudi women accepted them. One other thing that surprised me very much was the way Saudi women smoked: Once we went to a wedding and there was a big table with cigarettes of different kinds. The Saudi women, particularly the older ones, helped themselves and puffed away: In my country women do not smoke openly.
Ahmad Many Saudis share an attitude of blaming all the ills of the country on foreigners, whom they see as having come only to get their money. The papers are full of stories of crimes committed by foreigners. When something is done by a Yemeni or a Filipino, the press highlights this, but nationality is not mentioned if something is done by a Saudi. You know, and every foreigner knows, that Saudis get away with things. Saudi laws are, on paper, good, and in many cases humane, but when it comes to practice they are not applied.
I was swindled by my employer, but there was nothing I could do about it. The employment system is very rigid. Every non-Saudi has to have a kafil, a guarantor or employer, who is responsible for your behavior. He is in effect your jailer. You cannot enter or leave the country without his permission: He has your passport. To go from one city to another you need the written permission of the kafil. You can only transfer jobs with the permission of the kafil, but one employer can transfer you to another without your permission. When you leave the country, the kafil has to hand you over to the immigration authorities, and receive a written confirmation that this has occurred. Many people live for months in limbo, having finished their jobs but being unable to leave because the kafil does not want them to do so. The state in an insidious way hands part of the surveillance of people over to individuals.
Did you find it easy to get alcohol?
Ahmad In our experience, Saudis of all ages and all classes, at least three quarters of them, drank alcohol. Some is smuggled in from the Gulf and, at least in the past, from Iraq. Much of it comes through networks that are universally believed to originate with members of the royal family, who do very well from it. In every district there is a known supplier, from the best malt whiskeys to the local brew, which is made in a traditional way and can be dangerous. If you go to parties you will always find drink. The locals produce a kind of ‘araq,, the expatriates produce a bathtub concoction known as “Jidda gin.” Everyone involved gets protection through some Saudi connection, and it is very rare that anyone gets caught.
This issue of alcohol goes to the heart of the society. I have been to parties at which people are knocking back whiskey and behaving in ways that, for a Muslim, are despicable. Then when the time for prayer comes, and if there are members of the family around they have to impress, they go off and pray. The involvement of members of the royal family is part of the broader corruption of society. I know of one case where a Sudanese guy came back to the country with two boxes. They were searched, and turned out to be full of whiskey. Some amir was supposed to meet him and get him through customs: He was just a courier. He was beaten up and a crowd gathered. The amir then showed up, took a bottle of whiskey, broke the neck of it and went round threatening the customs officers, making them say it was vinegar. So it was.
The rot in Saudi society comes from the top downward, and it permeates the whole society. That is what shocks you most, as an Arab and as a Muslim. On the one hand, you have this outward religiosity, in terms of law and behavior. Everyone locks up at prayer time, and goes off to pray. Underneath it all, many men and women — on their own, to be sure — are very corrupt. And there are many Saudis who are good people and good Muslims. Let’s hope they can get some of the changes that they want.