Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

culture shock in Zurich

I’ve had the chance to travel a bit over the past month, and every time I return to Riyadh, I experience what only can be described as the “back-to-Riyadh-reality”. This last trip was a particularly interesting study in contrasts because I went to Switzerland and Germany, landing first in Zurich after leaving Riyadh. I am not sure there could be two more different cities in the world as Riyadh and Zurich. Coming from Riyadh, with its chaotic, construction-laden, everyone-for-himself traffic and where the lines on the road are more like suggestions – to landing in Zurich, possibly the most organized and orderly city in the Western world where cars, trams, and buses share narrow city roads and no one is ever late … well, it was one of the more disorienting experiences I ever had during traveling. (Not to mention that I felt almost naked without my abaya when I first got off the plane.)

This got me to thinking about why there can be such differences in human society across the world. Obviously some differences can be attributed to differences in culture and traditions, but I think a lot also has to do with externally-applied rules and regulations. What if we transplanted some Swiss to Riyadh, or some Saudis to Zurich while keeping the same systems and regulations in place in each of those cities – how will the behaviour of the people change? I know from my own experience how much the surrounding system (or lack of one) can affect your behaviour. When I visited China a few years ago, for example, I found myself transformed from a nice, polite Canadian who stands in line with arms-length distance from the person next to me, to a person who is wary, aggressive, and stands with her elbows-out to prevent someone cutting in front. I like to think that I am generally well-behaved and courteous, but those characteristics didn’t get me very far in Shanghai. But does this mean that Chinese people are pushy and aggressive by nature, or is it the system that makes them this way? And are all the Swiss really so orderly and structured inherently? (Well, maybe they are.) But by the same token, is Riyadh chaotic because Saudis don’t know how to drive between the lines or wait their turn at the stop light? Or is it the lack of properly enforced traffic rules and regulations and systematic planning?

please leave your prejudices at the gate

As I was boarding a Lufthansa flight this morning back to Riyadh, there was a young Saudi couple, probably in their early 20s, ahead of me in line. For those of you who have flown out of Frankfurt before, you’ll know that you have to scan your boarding pass through an automated gate before you can board the plane. The young man of the couple was holding both of their boarding passes. He first scanned the woman’s boarding pass and had her go through before scanning his own boarding pass to proceed through the gate. I thought that he was a very nice, courteous young man, and then didn’t think anymore of the situation. But then a female Lufthansa agent who was standing nearby saw this, and she said to the young woman, “You are very capable, you know. You could have done that yourself!” and then addressing the young man, said, “Women are very capable of doing many things. They take care of the house, take care of the children. They are very capable! You should value her. Make sure that you treat her nicely!” Her friendly, jolly tone of voice belied her condescending and disdainful attitude towards Saudis.

Would she have said the same thing if it had been a young European couple? I highly doubt it. Why does she assume that this young Saudi man doesn’t already treat the woman nicely? If it had been a European couple, would she have labeled the man’s actions as indicative of a domineering, controlling husband, or a thoughtful, considerate husband?

Also, had this woman even been to Saudi Arabia before or bothered to learn anything else about the country besides what mainstream media would have us understand? Probably not, because if she had, she also would not have defined Saudi women’s capabilities only be their apparent ability to take of the house and children. She would have seen that Saudi women are physicians, professors, scientists, writers, teachers, businesswomen, and yes, some are homemakers – just like in many other parts of the world. Also, she obviously assumed that this young couple was married. Maybe they were brother and sister, which would have made her remarks even more inappropriate!

I think that this Lufthansa agent should stick to her job – getting people on the plane so it can leave in time – and forgo the obtuse social commentary!

gents now welcome

If you remember from an earlier post, there used to be certain hours where singles (males) could and could not enter the mall. Some relief for the shabaabs (شباب, i.e. the youth) now, since last month, the governor of Riyadh announced that single males would “not be prevented” from going to shopping malls during peak hours.

Now, the mall is probably the last place most guys I know would want to hang out, but in Saudi Arabia, where there’s not much to do, it’s the place to be. Isn’t that kind of sad? When one wants to “go out” in Saudi Arabia, you’re pretty much relegated to restaurants and coffee shops … and shawarma places  … and you could always go for a walk somewhere … or go for a drive. So it’s pretty slim pickings in terms of entertainment. Plus, in most public places, there’s segregation (e.g. separate ‘singles’ and ‘family’ sections in restaurants). So the mall is pretty much the only place where you could go just to hang out and be around other people. Plus, it’s air-conditioned.

The original reason for having the separate “bachelor” hours and “family” hours was to restrict mixing of the sexes and stem the “harrassment” of females. This, unfortunately, makes it sound like young Saudi men are only up to no good. Granted, there well may have been many incidences of a woman or group of women feeling intimidated by the antics and behavior of a group of guys, which is certainly reprehensible. But Vancouver has lots of young male Saudi students, as do many other North American cities, and as far as I know, there’s no concerns about allowing them to enter our malls! I am not trying to make excuses for anyone here, but in a way, I can’t completely blame the guys, especially if we’re talking about teenagers and especially given the context of this country. Everyone, especially young people, needs an outlet for their energy and self-expression. We’ve all been through adolescence and can understand this. But when there are such rigid restrictions (even in something as simple as going shopping), and especially as you’re growing up, reckless and inappropriate behavior is bound to come bursting out at the seams where you least expect it – including at the mall.

a free and open society in the Arabian peninsula … mirage or reality?

We took a road trip to Doha last week for a short holiday. Doha is the capital of Qatar, which is a small Gulf state whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. It has a population of 1.8 million, of which only 300,000 are Qatari citizens. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is also a petroleum-rich state and is ruled by a monarchy. Qatar and Saudi Arabia also follow the same version of Islam (Wahhabism). In addition, many Qataris are actually descendents from tribes originating from regions in Saudi Arabia, including the Najd region (central Saudi). For example, the Tamim tribe, to which Camelman belongs, gave rise to the Al-Thani family, which rules Qatar.

Same tribal roots, same religion, both petroleum-rich, both ruled by a monarchy .. but Qatar is no Saudi Arabia. The contrast between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was apparent as soon as we crossed the border. For example, when we passed the road sign saying “Welcome to the State of Qatar”, the car ride suddenly got much smoother as the pavement evened out. Even when we arrived at the actual border crossing, we were all a bit tongue-tied at first – because we were greeted by a female Qatari border guard! It might sound strange that this was noteworthy to us, but contrast it to Saudi Arabia where you would never encounter Saudi women working in situations where they need to interact with the general public. But pictures might be the most telling of all – here is the Qatar side of the border crossing:

And here is the Saudi side of the border:

Beyond just the border crossing, Qatar has significant differences from Saudi Arabia in several ways, both politically and socially. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy with a 45-seat parliament (currently appointed but will have two-thirds elected seats by 2013). Qatar is also playing a leading supporting role for the Arab Spring. Qatar has a free and open media – indeed, Al-Jazeera is broadcast from Qatar. Qatar allows for non-Muslims to practice their religion. For example, there are already two Catholic churches and soon a third one for Maronite Christians will open. Men and women can mix freely in society, like in the West. Qatari women are not required to wear an abaya or cover their face in Qatar. They can if they want to, but they don’t have to. Indeed, there is no dress code for any women (Qatari or expats). Also, women can drive in Qatar and they can hold jobs where they might have to deal with the public. In fact, the president of Qatar University (which is co-ed) is a woman.

So it IS possible to have a free, open, and progressive society in the Arabian peninsula!

on the road again: Riyadh to Doha

This week, we took a short road trip from Riyadh to Doha, which is the capital city of Qatar. Doha may not be as ‘famous’ as Dubai among the cities of the Gulf region, but it is notable for being the broadcast home of Al Jazeera and if you watch BBC, you might have seen the Doha Debates. Qatar will also host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and is bidding to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The drive to Doha took us on highways across the Saudi desert straight east/southeast towards the Qatari border.

The drive was smooth, with little traffic and wide open landscapes all around us:

Near Hofuf, a city about mid-way through the journey, we saw these interesting rock formations rising out of the desert. They beckon us for another visit to Hofuf, which is famous for its “Ali Baba Caves” and rock formations.

Road trips in Saudi are pretty much the same as everywhere else. You spend your time enjoying the scenery, making sure you have enough gas to get you to your next destination, and ensuring that you heed the warnings of highway signs. Whereas in North America, you might come across signs like this, warning of slippery road conditions …

… or crossing deer or moose …

… here are some examples of road signs we saw here, warning of drifting sand …

… and camels …

(Most of the time, there are safety fences along the side of the highway preventing camels from crossing the road, but there was one stretch of road where we saw a camel coming dangerously close to the side of the road – more nerve-wracking than anything, especially in my line of work where I come across articles like this).

I always get a kick out of the gas stations, which are usually like small plazas manned by guys in jumpsuits (no one pumps their own gas here) …

… and include a mosque …

… and a shop that sells anything one might need for a family excursion to the desert (from BBQ equipment to camel-hair lined robes for the chilly desert night, to toys to keep the kids amused):

By the way, gas is currently selling at the equivalent of ~$0.15/liter here – less than $10 to fill up our tank. No doubt about it: gas is cheaper than water out here in the Desert Kingdom!

dining out in Riyadh

If you haven’t already guessed by some of my previous posts (and certainly those who know me know this well) – I love food and eating out. Dining out in Riyadh is certainly a unique experience:

1. Take Away: The ubiquitous take away places typically serve sandwiches and other quick snacks, like shawarma, ‘subba’ (which literally means ‘cement’ – it’s a wrap sandwich stuffed with falafel and a boiled egg, and sits like cement in your stomach – but it’s oh so good!), hummus, ‘fool’ (mashed beans), and the like. I’ve already hailed Mama Noura, which is a local favorite. Most of these places are not strictly take-away – many actually have some seating for people (i.e. males) to eat, but I have never seen one with a family section. This means that when we get a hankering for some Saudi fast food, I get to sit in the car while camelman goes in to fetch our orders. It’s not much fun for me as I am stuck in the car and miss out on all the hustle and bustle of these places. But the food is definitely worth the wait!

2. ‘Traditional’ Restaurants: By ‘traditional’, I mean that they serve Middle Eastern cuisine (most popular seem to be Saudi, Lebanese, and Turkish restaurants). Of course, there are separate family and bachelor sections. Here’s an example of the spread you can get (and before you get too excited – no, that is not a real beer on the left, just non-alcoholic beer, i.e. wheat and barley juice):

But the unique experience of going to these sorts of restaurants is that when you sit in the family section, you actually get your own room. (Yep, your own private dining room, or at least an enclosed booth, so that you’re protected from the prying eyes of male strangers.) When you need service, there’s a buzzer in the room to call for the waiter. Speaking of service, try ordering a beer. Chances are, it’ll come a bit warm, or at least room temperature. So when you complain that it is not cold enough, they come back with a glass of ice. (Iced barley juice! I know … why do we even bother?) There’s usually no music and you don’t get the usual restaurant background noise of the waiters bustling about and the din from other diners, so there’s not much ambience. As camelman says, you might as well just eat at home.

I haven’t taken many photos of the inside of these sort of restaurants, but here’s a shot of a restaurant we once stopped at when we took a pit stop at a highway gas station.

You can see some of the tables curtained off for the family section. This place was obviously a bit of a dive.

One of our favorite ‘traditional’ restaurants in Riyadh is a Turkish restaurant called Al Saraya (although it’s been iffy lately). But the hilarious thing about this restaurant is the interior decor. It’s filled with stuffed animals – but not the type you had as a kid. Imagine sitting in a family section booth, with a giraffe looking over your table. And imagine eating your dinner with these guys gleefully grinning at you:

3. Trendy, western-style dining. And finally, there are more upscale, western-like restaurants popping up more and more. From my experience, most of these places are more about presenting a trendy facade rather than providing quality food and service. The decor is very fancy and actually looks kind of lounge-y, with dark booths, moody lighting, and sometimes even a bar.

We have a hypothesis that the owners are betting on the fact that one day, alcohol will be allowed in the country and when (if) that happens, they will be very well positioned to open the first nightclubs. In the meantime, these are the venues that tend to be more popular with the twenty-something crowd. There are still the nominal bachelor and family sections, but the family sections have few booths and certainly no private rooms. Most of the tables are set up in the open and we have observed in the past several years that groups and families with young Saudi women are more willing to sit there and even remove their niqabs. Sitting at an open table in a restaurant may seem like no big deal to us, but to me, it represents another sign of change in Saudi society.

untapped talent

You have to admire the Saudis for their humor and resourcefulness in surviving the harsh reality of the desert and the society. This is what you get when you have a group of young men with no other outlets to release their energy – no dating (at least in the open), no nightclubs or pubs, no movie theaters. Just shopping malls (and I’ve explained what those are like for the bachelors), stay at home, or hang out in the desert.

Seriously, Hollywood stunt drivers have nothing over these guys. Imagine if these kids had the opportunities to fully express their creativity and imagination.