Riyadh Calling: Sharing some not always serious observations about the pressure to conform in contemporary Saudi Arabian society

by on October 31, 2011 · 14 comments

in Culture, Popular, Riyadh Calling, World News

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – I think most Americans have little idea of the climatic conditions here in Saudi Arabia. We, with the exception of those who have experience in small desert towns, have nothing with which to compare this environment in Riyadh. It is stark, barren, bright, superheated, and dry to the nth degree. It is unforgiving, mean, murderous, virtually without plants, animals, water or shade. Somehow, Saudi Arabs have managed to adapt to and survive in this ultra-difficult setting for, I’m guessing, 5,000 years. It seems fair to say that’s worth a tip of the hat.

Until 1960, most Saudis did not live in cities; they lived in the desert. Camels, tents, horses, goats, oases, that kind of thing. Now, only fifty years later, the sons of the city are driving Yukons, Toyotas and BMWs down freeways in bumper to bumper stop and go traffic jams toward upscale malls where they will buy the latest tools of the digital age and the most modern international and regional fashions, and they will pay with credit cards. Many will go home to substantial, walled, custom-built, three-story homes with significant floor space, big screens, intercoms, freezers, possibly, a pool or a pool table or table tennis table, sometimes, even an elevator, washers and dryers, fridges, maids and drivers. In fact, the number of years varies depending on to whom one is speaking, but it is generally accepted that slavery was legal only 40 years ago. These are big changes for any culture, any society.

It is said by local statisticians that 20% of Riyadh’s population is “poor.” By that, it is meant that they are restricted to driving Kias and Hyundais, living in small residences, and shopping at off-brand stores. Poor babies! Still, it does go to show two things: 1) poor is a relative term, and 2) seemingly, everyone wants to have someone to look down on.

However, there are truly poor people in Riyadh. For instance, one evening last week I walked to a restaurant. Almost at the outset, a non-Saudi, an older man who looked plump enough, but whose clothes gave evidence of not having been laundered for quite some time, began a conversation with me on the dark street. He spoke no English. At length, it became evident that he was asking for money. I gave him ten rials, about $2.50, plenty to get a meal. He took the bill, then gestured with his hand the number five. I decided could be telling me that I gave him too much and that he would be satisfied with five rials or that the wanted five ten rial bills. I told him, “Maffi mushkala.” That means, no problem, and left him to his own resources. Two blocks later, a skinny guy, even dirtier, and with a crutch put the bite on me. I passed him by. Another anecdote on the expressions of poverty in Riyadh is this, formerly, it was often necessary for me to go the company office for various reasons. My route there was defined as soon as I understood it and it never varied: Ring Road to Exit 11, turn left at the top of the off ramp, turn right at the Nokia sign and go past two purple crescents on store fronts, the office is on the right. Waiting at the Exit 11 stoplight, the sight of an older women begging was not uncommon. And lastly on this topic, when I lived in the Al-Markan Hotel, I ate most of my evening meals at a Turkish place nearby. Several times during dinner at The Green Olive, I was solicited by males ranging from 11 to 65, some Saudi, some not.

None of the cab drivers or students I have talked to about this has offered insight.

Only today did it dawn on me that the prophet Mohammed established a time scheme which still sets the clocks of Saudis and other Muslims to this day, 1432 years later according to the Islamic calendar. That’s one thing. The calendar begins with Mohammed’s death. So, if we can count, we can always know how long it has been since he died. As a non-Muslim, I’m not sure why we need to know that, but I do have to admit that no one has a patent on how time is marked on this planet. So, good for them.

Also, Friday is the Sunday of the West. Special day at the mosque, the weekly Friday noon loudspeaker presentation, no work, whole family get togethers as much as possible, often including the extended clan. So, I work Saturday through Wednesday, and have Thursday and Friday off.

There are only four other special days or times during the year. There is a one-day event called Saudi National Day which was established by the current monarchy. It is kind of their take on our 4th, except that virtually no one celebrates the day in any unusual way other than by not going to work.

The other three special times of the year are religious. There are two week-long events called Eid. They share the first name, but have different last names, sort of like step brothers and sisters. I’m not quite sure what the point of these two events is, but during the earlier Eid this year, one area of focus was charity. As with charity events and organizations everywhere, the expression I saw was more about PR than practicality.

As an example of what I mean: a colleague was driving us away from my place late one afternoon when we were stopped by the light turning red. As we sat in very light traffic I watched the movements of a Saudi in spotless attire. He was hustling back and forth between some pristine looking large cardboard boxes which were stacked at the corner and the cars waiting for the green light. The boxes were filled with small boxes. He was giving away sort-of box lunches. It was part of the charity emphasis of the Eid. Honestly, I think someone overbought and wanted to get rid of the excess in some half-way suitable fashion and they hit upon this scheme. We got one each, Carl and I.

So did the kid in the Escalade in front of us, the old man in the Mercedes, the two guys in the Honda, the young guy in the pickup truck, in fact, everyone to whom the spotless Saudi could manage to give them, given the time constraints – a cycle at a time. Clearly, none of the recipients needed the nourishment.

The remaining annual event is the biggest event of the year; the month long daylight fast called Ramadan. It might be an excuse to take August off. One thing is certain, August is no time to get anything accomplished.

There are no birthdays or wedding anniversaries here. There’s no Thanksgiving or Christmas, or anything like either of them. No Labor Day. No Memorial Day. No Halloween. No Kwanza. No President’s Day. No MLK Day. No New Year’s Eve or Day (Yeah, individuals pay attention to both, but there is no national recognition per se and nothing goes on downtown, no crowds, no ball dropping and fireworks.). No Mother’s Day. No Father’s Day. No Groundhog Day. What have I forgotten? Nothing but those three religious holidays and Saudi National Day.

Prayer call is broadcast five times a day, beginning at sunrise. There are a couple thousand mosques in Riyadh and each one is a broadcasting station for the call to prayer. This is one notification you can only miss by being unconscious or in a very deep sleep. On Friday at noon there is also a loudspeaker presentation for a half hour or so (Haven’t timed one yet.) by the mosque’s resident Imam. His speech is sort of a week-in-review (the Crown Prince died) or hot topic (kids shouldn’t drift) deal and not necessarily a religion-themed sermon such as one might find at the local Southern Baptist church, no text-based morality-laced parable.

One interesting thing about Islam, there’s no church hierarchy. No pope, cardinals or bishops. No home office, no central committee, no association handing down rules, regulations, interpretations, or directives regarding the practice or actions of any given mosque. There is no one with overall control of an organization of Islam. There isn’t an organization. Sort of refreshing for me.

Yet, the act of praying is quite organized. Guys stand, kneel, and bow from both positions in unison. One guy (who could be anyone) stands as a sort of single man first rank and all the others are arranged in shoulder to shoulder rows behind him. He says a line and they repeat. They all take off their shoes to pray.

Then there’s the religious police. There’s an actual official enforcement authority wholly separate from the local catch criminals and write ticket city cops. They bust or at least roust individuals observed not praying during the expected times, they close businesses that try to stay open during prayer times, and arrest the boy when youngsters are discovered kissing or holding hands. After the official religious police department, there’s a wannabe junior group of extra devout young men who at the worst can complain to someone else about inappropriate behavior, and they’re eager. These guys are always a concern in class.

The last bit of information which bears on the general topic of the pressures to conform in Saudi society is an obvious one: attire. Outside the home, this whole place is like one big school in which you can tell the males from the females simply by their attire, their uniforms. This is one area in which expat men fare better than expat women, guys are not required to wear a thobe (not even Saudis – though almost all of them do), whereas a woman may not appear in public unless she is wearing an abaya.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

annagrace October 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Fascinating article John!


Ameen November 1, 2011 at 1:02 am

Hi John, as you stated in the beginning of this article “I think most Americans have little idea of the climatic conditions here in Saudi Arabia” I would like to say you are one among them – an ignorant of the facts of this great country, its culture and religion. It would have been better for John to either to have contacted a local person or any expatriate who was living in this great country for a considerable time. Had he done so he would not have been so ignorant of prevailing facts in Saudi Arabia. For your information John and alike please note that Islamic calender year starts not on the death of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) but it starts on the first day of Hijrath that is when Prophet Muhammed (PUBH) migrated from Makkah Al Mukarama to Madina Al Munawara as such Islamic calender is called Hijra Calender. Also, note that the practice of fasting dawn to dusk in the month of Holy Ramadan is not confined to Saudis but it is observed by all Muslims of the world ( and not as stated by you “It might be an excuse to take August off”). In this holy month the spotless Saudi who was distributing some food is to break fast at the end of the day. I am thankful to you for giving Saudi Riyal 10.00 to a stranger. My purpose of commenting on this article is just to request people like John first to learn and understand the culture, religion of any peoples or country before putting the thoughts or imaginations on the paper. Thanks for the understanding.


azhar November 1, 2011 at 3:20 am

A typical article with inadvertent maligning of islam and its followers. Let me correct you on a few things
1. “The calendar begins with Mohammed’s death” – The calendar begins withe the year of migration from makkah to medina. Got it !!
2. “There are no birthdays or wedding anniversaries here” – There is definitely not a show off with particular days marked for Mom, dad, brother and sister. everyday is a family day and any day is there to tell one another. We meet everyday and not just once in a year on thanksgiving. We don’t have old homes – we care for our elderly
because its virtuous to do so.
3. “The remaining annual event is the biggest event of the year; the month long daylight fast called Ramadan. It might be an excuse to take August off”. Ramadan is not always in August. It shifts days days up in calendar every year. SO you will find Ramadan fall in all months of the year as the years goby.

There are many other highly ignorant facts Mr. Williams. The pity is – even the emotions are screwed up under the influence of islamophobia spreading in USA.
God Bless You !!


mohammed November 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm

azhar why you being an ass..
Mr. williams is not stating ignorance .. he is just talking about his experiance in Riyadh.. please learn how to talk to people .. not everyone knows erey fact of islam nor do you know every fact about Islam or any other religion.. plus he was more talking about how things are their…

Thank you Mr. williams for your writings .. please keep up the good work .. much love to you from Riyadh
PS: long live Saudi Arabia and the U.S.A


JEC November 1, 2011 at 8:55 am

Ameen and Azhar – this great country? I take it you are there and, because of the total lack of freedom, I’ll be most cautious. But consider this. John is open minded, tolerant and forgiving. If, after living and working for years in Saudi he remains ignorant, as you feel he is, such ignorance must be the result of the Saudi society. It must be a most difficult place to know, filled with secrets and nuances. He has made an effort. Have you?


Paraj Shukla November 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Hello JEC – Am neither a Muslim nor a Christian so am a third person to the article, however, my countrymen comprise world’s second highest followers of Islam, closely after Indonesia. The points you have raised in your comment may be invalid. Had John been living in Saudi Arabia for years, he must have noticed the shift in Ramadan months with respect to Gregorian calendar. If he speaks only August, he is obviously new in Saudi Arabia and new to Islam. Also, I insist, it is better not to state the facts when we are not sure about it. You may agree, it is not very difficult to know about start of Hijri Calendar. Also, as far as I know, Ethiopians officially follow their own unique calendar. Thirdly, being from ‘west’, the article is presented in a biased tone. Also, using expression like ‘poor babies’ could be avoided. You may agree, the article should have been moderated. Finally, it is obvious after reading the article that the author, John, has come in contact with followers and practitioners of Islam for the first time. Islam is THE religion of Saudi Arabia, but not limited to. Followers of Islam are found all over the world. And, for that matter, method of prayer (‘act of praying’) is necessarily same for Muslim in Saudi Arabia as it is for Muslim in USA or anywhere in the world. The world is full of diverse cultures. Saudi Arabia is one of those cultures. Being the seat of Islam, adds to her uniqueness. I see the Author shifting the focus from Riyadh to entire country. In that case, I would have loved to read more about geography of Saudi Arabia rather than just Riyadh. Subtle diversities exist in Saudi Arabia behind the veil of Islam, Islamic laws and their enforcements.


mr.rick November 1, 2011 at 4:57 pm

John gave it a shot, at least. Not being totally seeped in others culture is dangerous for those of us who are trying to understand and come to grips with the complexities of living in a totally open society. I realize Americans can seem sort of ignorant of other peoples religions, but you must consider that we are exposed to so much religously, we cant help but be confused. I know Islam is big but we’ve got a whole bunch of other faiths to try and understand. China, India and our own hodge podge of stuff we in America believe in. I think that is why it’s so hard for us to get the finer points down. But at least we are trying. It might be enough but at least give the guy credit for trying. P.S. Ignorance is bliss.


Jessica Williams-Holt November 2, 2011 at 7:33 am

Another fascinating glimpse at daily life in KSA.

(Somebody else already said fascinating, but I couldn’t think of a better word.)


JEC November 2, 2011 at 9:53 am

Paraj – hello – continuing the discussion – do you believe you have no bias? We all do – it’s our culture. Some cultures are open and as such change and the people are (usually) flexible in their attitudes (out of necessity); other cultures are closed and resist change (but never the less will change with time). I’m a product of Los Angeles, a stew pot of cultures and points of view. In my world view I learned to not only accept but expect differences. You identify yourself as a Saudi (my countryman), but not a Muslim (or Christian) which makes you fairly unique in Saudi – the heart of Islam – almost like a non-Catholic living in the Vatican. I think you are knowledgable enough to agree every society has it’s cultural nuances – those sutle unwritten norms and values children usually pick up in grade school. Are you not taking non-Saudi’s to task for not knowing the details of Saudi society? But from the three comments I’ve seen hear I’ll note that none disputed “the lack of freedom” comment nor argued that Saudi society is open. It is good to have the facts together before drawing a conclusion – as you “insisted”. Facts though are like shifting sands – today we know all the facts, until we learn something new tomorrow. I have talked with and known many people who have spent time in Saudi – I’ve worked side by side with Saudi immigrants. My information tells me Saudi is a closed society – westerners as a rule are isolated by policy; social gatherings common here such as dances and concerts are rare in Saudi. Women, well we know how they are treated and yes, I do find the attitude oppressive and well, dumb. Why hobble half the population? Anyway Paraj, it’s been fun. Let’s do it again.


Paraj Shukla November 2, 2011 at 1:36 pm

ha ha ha….me a Saudi…..you gotta be joking JEC, aren’t you? You have no idea about Saudi Arabia. Till now, it is simply not possible for someone to be a Saudi and not a Muslim. Come on JEC. I repeat what I said earlier, my countrymen comprise world’s second highest followers of Islam, closely after Indonesia. Well that means India and not Saudi Arabia. Yes, if that surprises you, let it. Indians will soon take over Indonesia or already has, I am not sure, to boast highest number of followers of Islam. And to put your comments about your LA background in perspective, allow me to proudly inform you that my countrymen present the greatest diversity this planet has ever seen within a national boundary. Regarding your comments about ‘open’ and ‘closed’, please let me align myself with the author of the article, John. He insists, poor is a relative term. Let me bring the analogy here. Open and closed are relative terms. Often people debate, Saudis have a very closed society. Do you think they are dumb people who live like rest of the world used to live in 14th century? Do you really think they have not seen how the rest of the world lives? Well I think on the contrary. Saudi Arabia has one of the best electronic and telecommunication facilities in the world today. So I don’t want to speak on their behalf. It is for them to decide how they want to carry on. I agree that change is imminent but I don’t agree that facts are like shifting sands. No they are not. Facts are for forever. The dates, July 4th for your country and August 15 for my country will never shift to July 5th or August 16, can they? Yeah, of course, a new fact may get added up to the old ones, all the time. But the fact remains ;~))) Finally, there is no harm in accepting your ignorance. ;~))))
I too had a nice time reading your views and replying to them.


JEC November 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm

I admit, I’m not good at game shows, though it appears you feel we are in a contest. My country is more diverse than yours! Does it matter? And Yes your country (India correct?) is also older, with a longer history. In many ways America is the child of the older nations. A product of the global. And still a teenager. The adolescent among nations. People as individuals are often quite smart; of the other hand as a group we often do the dumbest things. Because humans are imperfect and we create imperfect systems. And yes, Saudi Arabia has great wealth and state of the art technologies. In fact the U.S. is behind many nations in the use of technology, and falling further behind each year. Sadly the U.S. does not produce a single laptop computer or tablet that’s sold in the U.S. But then, neither does India, or Saudi Arabia. And of course, like the number 9 is always the number 9, July 4th will always be July 4th. But it’s significance has changed; will change. And I agree, it is for the Saudi’s to decide; to be a monarchy or allow women to drive, that’s up to them. As it is my right to support democracy and women’s rights and to expect my community and nation to be on my side, most of the time – realistically. After all, nothing’s perfect. It’s been argued that democracy can not be imposed. that it’s roots must be nurtured by the masses. I’ve also heard it said that the British imposed democracy on India. And today India is considered the world’s largest democracy (another first). Is India a democracy because of the British or inspite of them? Enjoy…


JMW November 4, 2011 at 12:33 am

To all commenters,
It was not my intention to generate anger in any reader, but merely to share personal observations (inevitably unlike those of a Muslim, Arab, or Saudi – I’m an American) of my experience in Riyadh. Nor did I purposely include known falsehoods about Islam, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or Arabs. For the errors I did include, I’m asking for some slack. I didn’t make the stuff up. It is what I understood based on many conversations with people here in Riyadh.
Gently phrased correction is always welcome; insult and accusation are not.
It isn’t geopolitics or a struggle between ideologies that interests me. What does interest me, though, are two things: 1) why people do what they do, and 2) all things which tend to gather, correlate and share understanding. The purpose of which would be to the end up with a better world, in the belief that understanding minimizes failure and enhances happiness.
Our differences are paint jobs, beneath which we are all very much the same.
Is it better to war or share?


JK November 8, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Dear JMW,

I do get where you are coming from and people around you should explain their religion and culture better. I would just like to elaborate on the person distributing food boxes on the traffic light. Basically in the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast for 30 days from dawn to sunset and during the fast we do not drink or eat among other things. It is customary to break fast at sunset at the time of evening prayers and recommended to do it ASAP once permitted. People tend to do extra good deeds during this month to earn extra credit of sorts. And some of them distribute small food items to motorists who are late in reaching their destinations (home or another family member’s place) where they intend to break fast so that they can comply with the recommended instruction to break fast ASAP.


JMW November 9, 2011 at 10:23 am

JK, hi and thank you for reading and for your comment. I had no idea this had been done before; it seemed like a one-off kind of thing to me. Also, I think I may be a bit cynical in regard to charity based on a general attitude developed by previous experience.


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