Expatriate musings on Saudi Arabia: the "shrug factor"
Expatriates in Saudi Arabia generally keep to themselves and are often tight-lipped about their hosts and their traits and behaviour. Saudis, on the other hand, often hold themselves and each other in high esteem. They indulge in this self-flattery often to the point of perceived arrogance. But is it really so? Are they truly deserving of the praises that are seemingly heaped upon them by their peers?
To find such answers, one would have to seek them in those who are not Saudis ... the expatriates! They for one could be a measure of Saudi successes or failures. Not the only measure, mind you, yet still one that could be a barnyard yardstick by which they could gauge themselves.
Now most expatriates in Saudi Arabia are those under the 'guest worker' status. They are there for a purpose and operate on a schedule. Once that is over, they head to other destinations. But while they are here, they do see and observe. And in the interest of continuing their employment status without interruptions, they tend to keep their observations to themselves.
But what if Saudis were to learn of some of their genuine thoughts about them, their culture, or just about anything else to do with Saudis? Thoughts spoken without fear of recrimination or deportation through an exit-only visa? In this context, I have gathered a few contributions by some of our resident expatriates after much assurance that their identities would not be revealed in any incriminatory form.
I begin with one who wonders about the Saudi perception of time. She says: "Why does time mean something different here then anywhere else? Having been raised to be punctual I pride myself on being on time. Since moving to Saudi Arabia I've realised that time is handled completely differently. First of all, time is read by prayer call and not an actual clock. 'See you after Maghreb!' you catch yourself saying.
"There is no such thing as inviting Saudis to dinner at 8pm and expecting anyone to arrive before 9pm. After arriving for a 10am meeting [five minutes early] I was extremely discouraged to note that only one of the 20 attendees arrived on time. The meeting began at 10.20am. Is there no consideration for the value of time? Although I have learned to tell time by their clocks now, I still miss knowing what to expect!"
Another expatriate refers to the 'shrug of helplessness' I brought up in a recent article, adding, "... I've come to hate that shrug, a mute response to any query requiring an intelligent answer. I get the 'shrug' frequently, from bored and disinterested salesmen, clerks or staffers. It is a spreading phen-omenon, on the verge of becoming an epidemic.
"I see the 'shrug' constantly from housemaids who have absolutely no control over their young charges. I have witnessed near anarchy at a local McDonalds, not a single parent in sight, children running everywhere, food being tossed around like so many pizzas. The scene was disturbing — the toga party in the film Animal House was tame by comparison.
"Because of the 'shrug', behaviour that should never be tolerated goes unchecked. Children are packed into automobiles, riding with limbs hanging from open windows, or even worse, standing with heads protruding from the sun-roof. Are seat-belts simply a nuisance? Drivers so small [young] they still need several years to see over the steering wheel should never be permitted on the roads, and yet I see it all the time.
"The public here is dominated by a lack of professionalism, a disregard for the rules, and permissiveness for the inappropriate."
Another expatriate writes about her gourmet experiences at several Saudi weddings. "When approaching the buffet table at a beautiful Saudi wedding, please note. First, do not bother to use the cutlery, hands are more appropriate. Second, never stand in line. Pushing your way through will guarantee you more of the shrimp (whole, no bits).
"And last but not least, always remember that the napkins on the table are only for decoration purposes! Use your sleeve instead."
Another adds, "You ask a Saudi colleague to come to your house for dinner. His response is 'Inshaallah'. What does this mean? Inshaallah — God willing? Inshaallah — Yes? Inshaallah — No? Inshaallah — Maybe? Inshaallah — Yes, if nothing better comes up? Inshaallah — No way man? Inshaallah — No, but I'm too polite to tell you?"
Now lest anyone accuses me of Saudi bashing, let me assure you I am one and rather content with it. Not for the reasons mentioned above, but for the prudence and wisdom that allows me to view any existing follies through the eyes of strangers, and to change if and where it may be needed.
- Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.