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Guide to Cultural Traits for Expats in Saudi Arabia

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: November 2015

Whereas most countries with a large proportion of expats are cosmopolitan and welcoming of other cultural influences, this is not the case in Saudi Arabia. Sunni Islam is the state religion and adherence to its credo is legally enforced. The extremist Wahhabi branch of Islam is greatly preferred Muslims, and the country is run according to literalist, mean-spirited Hanbali interpretations of the Koran.

Laws have become even more stricter over the last three decades. Practices deemed sinful that were previously frowned upon or lightly punished have been criminalised. Hence current ‘crimes’ include blasphemy, sorcery and apostasy (converting away from Islam, or even Sunni Islam in some cases).

Muslims and non-Muslims alike are expected to follow the hidebound, outdated laws that regulate their social behaviour. Even non-Muslims are expected to follow fasting during Ramadan - they may not eat or drink in daylight hours in public. Those who are caught disobeying these laws can expect a flogging, time in jail or deportation in the case of expats.

Non-Muslim culture is largely underground. For example, as all other forms of religious worship are illegal, ceremonies tend to happen in people’s houses or other enclosed spaces away from the prying eyes of the Mutaween (the prying, sinister religious police). Things are much easier for Western expats who live in gated compounds, as they have the freedom to ignore most of the rules (the Mutaween are not allowed to enter.)

There is a variety of Muslim cultures, as there are many people from other Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Bangladesh and Indonesia. The culture is particulalry vibrant in Mecca and Jeddah, as a result of the large numbers of hajjis settling in these cities.

How do people cope with living in such an oppressive country? It is remarkable what people can endure. Virtual prisoners in their own country, Saudi women get on with their lives, their strength and dignity sustaining them. They carry on without protesting (because they’re not allowed to.)

The stoicism or fatalism that is a part of living in such a society is summed up in the well-known phrase inshallah (‘if God wills it’). When they have to, such as when the Mutaween are lurking nearby, people resignedly carry about their business. But they do try to gain small victories by thwarting or ignoring the rules whenever they can. And they are getting increasingly fed up with the oppression and are showing discreet signs of this.

This dissatisfaction is slowly bearing fruit, as there have been some reforms. In the London Olympics in 2012, Sarah Attar competed as a lone female Saudi athlete. Some women were allowed to vote in the 2015 municipal elections. In addition, women have recently been permitted to ride bicycles, for example – but, perversely, only for recreational purposes.

One of the most important customs of Saudi Arabia, as with other Arab countries, is that of unstinting hospitality. Saudis are excellent hosts and are always pleased to welcome house guests and treat them with generosity, courtesy and respect. With this in mind, you should never refuse food or drinks offered as this is considered an insult to your host’s hospitality.

As would be expected, hierarchy in Saudi Arabia is quite rigid. As most residents accept this as the way things are, it is important to make allowances for this, for example in a business situation. Furthermore, you are expected to show respect, for example, by spelling Arabic names correctly. Showing anger or impatience is likely to backfire. It is important to remain calm, patient and flexible when faced with difficult situations.

When greeting, men usually shake hands, though locals may rub their noses together or kiss each other on the cheeks. Women also kiss each other on the cheeks. By contrast, there is not normally any physical contact between men and women when they meet. A man should not shake a woman’s hand unless the woman offers her hand to shake first.

As is well known, consumption or use of all intoxicating substances except tobacco is strictly illegal in Saudi Arabia. Not that this stops either locals or expats from possessing alcohol, or making home brews behind closed doors. Or, indeed, going to Bahrain for the weekend to escape the Kingdom’s strictures for a while.

There are some cultural differences across the country. Jeddah, being a seaport and the entrepôt for hajjis, is more cosmopolitan and progressive – relative to the resy of the country. Riyadh and its hinterland are very conservative and you run the risk of imprisonment or flogging for any violations of the country’s absurdly hidebound laws.




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