October 3, 2013
By Ozma Siddiqui
‘To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.’ (Aldous Huxley)
Pulitzer-winning reporter and journalist Karen Elliot House’s latest novel with the impossibly long title ‘On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines –and Future’ depicts a country which in the 21st century, remains an enigma for the world at large.
The rave reviews that she is getting on her latest novel simply go to show the rampant ignorance about this great country, her people, their way of life, religion and customs. People seem to be baffled at this last stronghold of absolute monarchy booming away to prosperity while economies all around it flail and flounder.
Saudi Arabia is essentially in a state of transition. It has never been colonized so the concept of being ruled by foreign peoples is alien to them. The Bedouin lifestyle and the desert are inherent in every Saudi. You can take a Saudi from the desert but cannot take the desert out of a Saudi. That said, beautiful cities have risen up in this very desert and it is God’s grace that the country has gained its riches from the treacherous sands.
Jeddah, Makkah, Madinah and other cities have sprung around the oases and can compete with the most modern cities in the world today. More prophets have sprung from the heartland of Makkah and Madinah and its surrounding areas than in any part of the globe.
Every year, pilgrims from around the world come to this great country for their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage, the Haj, and with every succeeding year, they go back even more awed at the tremendous infrastructural development everywhere. The network of underpasses and flyovers; the uninterrupted miles of smooth metal roads — every driver’s dream — state of the art train stations and metros which are just emerging and the glass and chromium plated buildings dramatically rising like a sphinx, as it were, from the desert. And it is not just the infrastructure.
Although it may seem hard to believe, this absolute monarchy actually cares about its people. A large chunk of the budget goes into the education and health sectors. Hundreds of vocational colleges and institutes, government and private universities, hospitals, clinics and health centers are opening up not only in the major cities but also in small towns.
There is a major drive for women’s education with the aim of getting more women to join the job market. Job-based skills-enhancement courses have become the order of the day. Excellent packages with tax-free perks ensure that the best of educators are willing to live and work in this safe and secure society. The new generation of Saudis are intelligent and well aware of their place on the global map. Trained in leadership skills, they are encouraged to head companies and departments. Having been exposed to western influences, they try to adapt what they can without compromising their cultural identity.
What’s more, for House’s information, the women in shrouds are coming into their own. Just today, the papers announced that four female engineers had joined various companies to design their projects. Now this is no mean achievement from the land of camels and dates.
So women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. What’s the big deal? It is not as if freedom of movement is restricted; women go wherever they want to either with private drivers or then in the ubiquitous limousines. The malls are crowded with single women and now even restaurants have women’s only sections. What is so wrong about segregation anyway? The rising incidence of rapes and violence against women is a testimony to the fact that there is something very wrong with the kind of societies we have decided to build.
If women are shrouded, their minds are not. The abaya or the shroud ensures both modesty and privacy. The West was modest, too at one point in time. God knows what happened to have women first reveal their ankles, then their knees and now whatever they can. It is no different with the men either. In Saudi Arabia, women wear the shroud while the official dress for men is the ‘thobe’ a shirt which comes down all the way to the ankles. Worn gracefully, Saudi men can look very smart. It is a matter of getting used to them, just like we have gotten used to seeing Prince Charles in his kilt!
Saudi Arabia must be the most misunderstood country on the planet. Not only does it have a lot of bad press, but people don’t want to believe otherwise. At present there are over 25,000 Saudi families in the USA on the King Abdullah Scholarship program, but it is rare that we get to hear of anything they have excelled at. However, the media goes to town, if there is a case of maid abuse as the one recently in the news of Mishael Al-Bayan. Some years ago, a royal family who went to Spain was scandalized for ordering 50,000 pounds worth of satin sheets. And the saga continues..
That said, House has succeeded in painting a more complex picture of Saudi society than the stereotype of oil wells and untold wealth. There is poverty here, too, and a lot of it. This is why the Saudi culture of giving alms which is also a religious obligation is so highly valued.
I sincerely hope that House has shown up Saudi Arabia for what it is and not pandered to the fantasies of an ignorant public who would love to lap up a negative portrayal of this beautiful people. She has been privileged to travel to a part of the world few of her compatriots will ever chance to visit. Therefore, as an ambassador of Saudi Arabia (by default) to the rest of the world, it is morally binding upon her to do justice to the people of this great country.