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Writing about Saudi Arabia

My articles will seek to present the Saudi Arabian context as a historical, societal and political landscape full of distinct norms, customs, ideologies and, indeed, shocks, about which some foreigners may have no clue. These articles will hopefully take the non-Saudi reader ‘backstage’, to places within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where foreign cameras and eyes have not been (nor can they ever go). 

First I would like to point out that, although my articles are concerned with Saudi culture, I will intentionally avoid discussing any of the Saudi issues that have been already and commonly discussed in the media, such as gender-mixing, women driving, women voting, religion, terrorism, oil, wealth and the like. That said, it is rather hard to avoid talking about such issues when they are so socially and politically dominant. The effect is that not talking about these issues seems to suggest the writer is politically unsophisticated, backwards and out of date. It seems that Saudis and non-Saudis who concern themselves with Saudi culture are stuck in a loop, rehashing the same issues over and over again.

Having lived in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades, I, like others, can easily now complete any sentence being said, predict the answer to any question being asked, and anticipate the societal response to any issue emerging. I had actually been away from Saudi Arabia for around seven years, but when I came back I found people still discussing the same issues they were discussing before I went away. Hence, I hope through openDemocracy to drag the discourse out of this rut by drawing attention to other issues and therefore showing that Saudi society is actually more than just the above issues. 

My articles, moreover, are intended to overcome the challenge that non-academic publications written by Saudis and directed to the outside world tend to be either written in self-protective and politically oriented ways or written by people who may not understand the way the mentalities of non-Saudis function. For example, despite the considerable effort, money and time the authors dedicated to their book Letter to the West: A Saudi View, this book has serious limitations. To begin with, the authors capitalise the w-letter when using the term ‘west,’ a pointed action which, some might argue, suggests a lack of understanding of who the target is. The gesture is towards some kind of homogenisation, but what is this ‘West’ of which they speak, where are its borders and who lives in it, believing one thing and one thing alone?

Another limitation of the book is that it seems to be driven by underlying political agendas and written defensively, with the authors apparently trying very hard to show the outside world that Saudi Arabia is still a good society and that its reputation has been merely distorted. Indeed, it is true that some readers about Saudi society can be politically naive, lacking the ability to understand the complexity of other societies and forgetting that any society naturally has its advantages and disadvantages even if the media draws attention only to the negatives. That said, the book seems unable to communicate with the mentalities of the target audience for various reasons. One is that the book seems to be originally written in Arabic and then translated into English, whereas if this book were truly directed to English-speaking countries then it should in the first place have been written in English. Similarly, it has been written by people some of whom neither speak English nor have lived in the countries of the intended audience.

Nevertheless, the authors of this book, one may acknowledge, should be praised for taking the initiative and trying to communicate with the outside world and to open Saudi culture up to the international community. Although some might argue that Saudi culture is none of the other cultures’ business, others, however, might believe that such a publication helps with mutual understanding between Saudi culture and other cultures. To achieve more of such understanding, more such publications are needed.

However, more importantly, these works need to analyse Saudi society honestly and sincerely, being written from a critical perspective and showing the negatives as much as other publications by Saudis have shown mainly positives. These publications need to prove to the international community their sophistication by, for example, taking a critically informed and analytical approach to Saudi society. Yet any critical approach to Saudi society is likely to prove problematic. After all, Saudi society tends to be sensitive towards any attempt to examine its issues from a critical perspective, and some Saudis do not like the critical investigation of their internal societal, cultural and political matters.

I could not help but wonder why some Saudis are so protective of their culture. One might hold the belief that Saudi Arabian culture has been politically protected not only from above by the authorities, but also from below by many citizens – and moreover from outside by international Arab and Muslim communities. So, the question is why Saudis show such deep loyalty to their culture. There are a variety of possible reasons. One is that they truly believe in their culture, having their own justifications and rationales. Another reason is that it is likely to be difficult and embarrassing to go against a monolith so highly structured as Saudi Arabian culture. Similarly, it is dangerous to destabilise a culture that is politically so protected and sheltered. The media and literature refer to many events where Saudi society has resisted firmly any socially deviant trend in behaviour or belief, making it very strong and so heavily protected that even those campaigning for change from within do not challenge existing configurations but rather attempt to work within them. Moreover, some Saudi people are undoubtedly protective of their culture because they feel this culture has been subject to ongoing, harsh and, most of the time, unfair criticisms by the outside world. In response, the role of Saudis has naturally become defensive, attempting to protect their values against such an attack even if they know these values might not be of the essence, or even valid any longer.

More fundamentally, one might believe that some Saudis are sensitive when it comes to their culture because they see themselves as the main protectors of Islam given that the land of Saudi Arabia is the place where Islam began and where the two holy mosques are located. They, it seems, will thus examine carefully any emerging issue to ensure its compatibility with the existing ideological system and will stand against any values thought to bring damage to this system, even if this damage seems relatively minor. This, some might argue, explains why Saudis seem to over-analyse any emerging cultural and societal issues and exaggerate and shed light mainly on any negatives involved. This is perhaps why some Saudis hold the belief that preventing negatives has priority over bringing positives. Another reason why some Saudis uncritically follow their history is that they believe that history is hierarchical, with the values of previous generations necessarily being superior to those of subsequent generations, meaning descendants may not challenge and depart from what their ancestors did. The Saudis, perhaps like most others, have grown up within an ideological context that has taught them societal and cultural values as an integral, intensive and sacred part of their education, in a patriarchal and authoritarian way. For this reason, they can never be independent of these values and, rather, are likely to become protective of them. Numerous school courses, if not most of them, are culture-oriented and culture-promoting.

One might further hold the belief that some Saudis are resistant to any fundamental change in their culture because change can be scary and the status quo comforting, because the consequences of transformation can hardly be predicted and because gains cannot be guaranteed. One might even contend that some Saudis are protective of the culture because it enables them to achieve vested interests and because any change may result in them losing some of (or even all) their power and privilege. For instance, if Saudi Arabia becomes a secular county, then many Saudis might lose their jobs given that many Saudis are qualified in religious studies and many existing jobs are religion-oriented.

One, however, might add that this hardly seems to be the crux of the matter; if Saudi Arabia becomes a secular country, it will be through such seismic changes that the unemployment of some people will be a trifling concern in the aftermath of what it would take for the change to have happened. One, however, might respond that, if these seismic changes started to take effect, there would be robust and decisive reactions from those who truly believe in the culture. Within Saudi Arabia, one might notice, it is difficult to figure out who sustains (and saps) the culture and to work out the range of reasons for this sustaining and sapping. Some might make the case that the Saudi authorities grant social figures a great deal of prestige, privilege and funding, such that, if the system becomes secular, these people may therefore lose all this. Thus, these people will, politically speaking, naturally do their best to refuse to give in to any attempt to secularise the national system, not for the good of society, culture and progress, but for the good of themselves.

What can be seen here is that some Saudis, like other human beings, are not naive but rather are politically sophisticated, having the ability to examine what the society experiences, attempting to shape it in their interests and for their benefits and advantage. This ability, however, some might claim, is exercised within an ideologically oriented ‘black box.’ That is, Saudis have brought a culture from previous times to the modern age and have attempted to implement it and politically and defensively maintain its parameters. Because of this, therefore, some hold that while the world is going forwards the Saudis are ‘stuck’ in their past and, therefore, are relatively going backwards.

I was wondering who had analysed Saudi culture in the past. It seems that there are two kinds of critics in this respect: insiders and outsiders. Inside critics (i.e. Saudi ones) appear to understand well the configuration of the culture yet avoid truly critically analysing it, because they are either frightened of censorship and punishment, fear being accused of national treason, become subject to vilification and harsh criticism by Saudi society, and/or lack critical skills. It seems that outside critics (i.e. non-Saudi ones), on the other hand, are critical of Saudi culture yet lack understanding of its configuration.

It appears that writing about Saudi Arabia is, for a Saudi, an unpleasant experience and remains a dilemma, partly because, if one writes praise, one is thus accused of hypocrisy and toadying and if one writes critically one is accused of deliberate provocation. Investigating Saudi society as an outsider (whether male or female) remains challenging. Some foreigners have come to the conclusion that Saudi Arabia is one of the most unwelcoming countries on the planet. Another challenge facing foreign enquiers is that deciphering the internal organisational, cultural and political structure of Saudi Arabia has proved to be a difficult task for outsiders. This difficulty may arise partly because of the complexity of its culture, and party because the country is treading an unusual path, having the manifestations of a developed country but retaining the problems of a developing one.

Moreover, although Saudi culture is a huge consumer of modern technologies, these technologies are then exploited to sustain traditional values. Indeed, Saudis, one might believe, deserve no little credit for their exceptional capacity to preserve and protect their culture despite enormous and intolerant external (and internal) pressures and despite modern values leaving untouched almost no country on earth. Some commentators have pronounced themselves amazed at how the Saudi social authorities have handled various influential factors, at times diplomatically and at other times in an authoritarian manner, whether to great or slight effect. One might comment that the coordination of such factors, whether in authoritarian or democratic ways, constitute ‘the art of politics.’

The Saudi context is certainly an interesting arena, where politically protected traditions grapple with liberal values that have entered this context from the outside world through various channels, including information and communications technologies. It seems pertinent therefore to unpack the political dynamics of Saudi culture. Atypical interpretations and perhaps even transgressive discussions of Saudi society, by Saudis themselves, are needed in an attempt to loosen the shackles authors tend to wear when they seek to write only in ways consistent with the country’s cultural and societal systems. What are more specifically needed are more critically self-reflective books and blogs. Saudis should dedicate time to writing, whether academically or non-academically, critically or descriptively, about their own current or previous experiences as citizens, students, teachers, employees, parents, business people, etc. They would be well advised to write down their social-educational experiences and stories, lest their own narratives be forever taken out of their hands.

My articles will seek to present the Saudi Arabian context as a historical, societal and political landscape full of distinct norms, customs, ideologies and, indeed, shocks, about which some foreigners may have no clue. These articles will hopefully take the non-Saudi reader ‘backstage’, to places within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where foreign cameras and eyes have not been (nor can they ever go). These articles will be supported by the voices of Saudis themselves, with the essential aim of accessing as many different perspectives and experiences as possible, problematising and revealing hidden realities, uncovering implicit contradictions, giving voice to the marginal and excluded and kicking off discussions. In doing so, this will hopefully allow the reader to explore rival visions of the Saudi Arabian context.

These articles will be informed by my background and experience as both an insider and ‘outsider’ in relation to Saudi society. Taken as a whole, they address what it means to be a Saudi child, a Saudi student, a Saudi professor, a single Saudi, a Saudi in a couple, a Saudi womaniser, a Saudi journalist, a Saudi journal editor, a Saudi liberal, a Saudi atheist, a Saudi social figure, a Saudi father, a Saudi mother, a Saudi grandfather, a Saudi grandmother, a Saudi son, a Saudi daughter, a Saudi manager, a Saudi inferior, a Saudi employer, a homeless Saudi, a foreigner in Saudi, a Saudi studying abroad – and many more Saudis you never imagined.

About the author

Abdulrahman Al-Lily is a Doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford and a faculty member at King Faisal University. His interests lie at the intersection of society, organisational politics, education and technology.

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