Saudi Arabia is a young country, being a little bit less than eighty years old. The ruling family (tribe – tribal affiliations are still reflected in the family names of Saudis), in the person of the first king, Abdulaziz Al-Saud, consolidated its power only in 1932. Oil was discovered soon after that and the accumulation of wealth which continues until today began, but as recently as 1960 most of Saudis were desert nomads. That heritage remains part of the identity of many of my students. They harken back to those days and proudly call themselves Bedouins, much as young men who grow up in the western states of America sometimes consider themselves to be cowboys. The grandparents of many of my students actually lived that life.
The consolidation of power by the Saud family was accomplished in consort with religious leadership which espoused the strict theology that remains in force here today. That theology already had been the religion of Saud society for 300 years when Saudi Arabia came into existence. Meaning, that relationship predates the existence of our own crumbling nation by more than 50 years.
Today, there are about 20 million Saudis. In addition to that population, about 5 million people are here as workers, including 100 thousand westerners. It is reported that 6.5 million live in Riyadh.
There is clear stratification in this society. Needless to say, Saudi men are at the top. Saudi women constitute the second layer. Next, come the westerners, Indians, Koreans and Chinese, who provide some relatively valuable service such as education or services associated with defense and oil extraction or offer business opportunities. Then, come non-native Arabs. Last, is all the service workers from other eastern countries, principally Pilipinos, Indonesians, Pakistanis, but also including Afghanis and Nepalis. These people work in construction, food service, sanitation, drive taxis, work as domestics, and do other unattractive and low paying jobs. Economically, construction workers are at the top of that group; they earn 1000 rials a month, or about $250.
To illustrate the sort of advantage given to Saudis by the state, beyond straight forward payouts, other financial opportunities, free medical care and educational assistance we can only envy, a recent taxi ride may suffice.
Upon my return from vacation at the end of July it was necessary for me to go to my company’s offices in order to pick up my salary. I took a cab. On the way back to my accommodations, the driver was a young Saudi, perhaps 20. It is uncommon to find Saudis driving cabs. He was also unique in that his schmag (head scarf) was green and black checked rather than the red and white I’m familiar with. He said it was Saudi. He spoke English minimally, but that was not a problem because I have learned enough Arabic and enough about the geography of Riyadh to get around town.
The problem was, he didn’t know enough about Riyadh to find even well known landmarks. He drove very fast, faster than any other driver I’ve had yet, and that was fun, but not very productive. Quite soon it became evident to me that he was unsure of where to go. He ignored the directions I gave him. He called someone for help, but didn’t get it. He tried to solicit help from another driver when we were stopped at a red light, and I’m sure he’d have gotten it, except the light changed, everyone began honking, and the other driver sped away.
At length, he pulled up along side another cab and, sat in the roadway, and began to ask for directions. The driver, a Pakistani, was willing to help, but before he could do that a police car arrived and pulled both drivers to the side of the road. This was the only time I’ve seen the police enforce a traffic law. After a bit, the Pakistani was given a ticket and went on his way, probably thinking how unfair life can be. My driver didn’t get a ticket, but he did get directions from the police. Of the two policemen, one spoke English rather well. He came to my window to return my passport and for a short chat, welcoming me to Saudi Arabia and Riyadh, and sent us on our way. Unfortunately, not every one who comes to work in Saudi Arabia is treated as well as I have been.
If you have read my other submissions, you may recall a young man named Mohammed whom I have been helping to learn English. Though he offered several times to pay me for this, I have never been willing to allow him to do so. I’m not certain why. I guess, I wanted to create a friendship rather than a business relationship. In any event, it has paid off fairly well for me. When we are together, he will not allow me to pay for anything and last Christmas he gave me a new MacBook.
Additionally, as I was leaving for vacation this year I spoke to the desk clerk of the hotel where I have stayed exclusively during my time here, Epusaleh, about returning to the hotel at the end of vacation. He told me that a similar room would cost 6000 rials instead of the 4500 my room mate and I had been paying. As I discovered, in fact, all the two bedroom apartments except ours had been rented for that amount for almost a year. Mohammed had spoken to his older brother who agreed to keep my rent at the old rate.
Mohammed and I still see each other. He calls often and we go out for coffee and conversation. He’s in the Saudi National Guard and is currently a 1st Lieutenant. He’s completed an English course on base here in Riyadh given by the American Defense Language Institute and will go to the U.S. at the end of the month for further study.
Photo credit, Susie of Arabia