Saudi Arabia, Land of Contrasts: Some Keys to (Understanding) the Kingdom

By Wiley, James | Focus, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Saudi Arabia, Land of Contrasts: Some Keys to (Understanding) the Kingdom


Wiley, James, Focus


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in southwestern Asia lies off the tourism path of the world's non-Muslim travelers and, for most, is a country shrouded in mystery and widely misunderstood. Though well known globally as the primary exporter of petroleum and as the home of Islam s most holy cities, these two facts have tended to dominate the country's international image, to the virtual exclusion of most other aspects of its existence. Guilty of this limited vision as are most North Americans, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in the National Council of U.S.-Arab Relations' Joseph J. Malone Fellowship in Arab and Islamic Studies program in the Kingdom when this was offered during the Fall of 1997. This program, whose goals are the enhancement and dissemination of knowledge about the Arab world to the U.S. public, seemed tailor-made to fulfill a longstanding desire to improve my ability to teach about the Middle East generically and about Saudi Arabia specifically. In addition to securing the sponsorship necessary to enter the Kingdom, the study program affords participants, nearly all of whom are faculty from a variety of U.S. colleges and universities, the opportunity to meet with Saudis representing the country's academic, business, and government sectors. Other meetings and social gatherings offer exposure to members of the expatriate international community and the diplomatic corps. Such contacts would be virtually impossible to establish on one's own; thus, one of the strengths of the program is its ability to open doors that normally remain closed to independent visitors.

Contrasts and contradictions

The Kingdom is a nation of many contrasts and contradictions: large and small, rich yet lacking, closed but open, public vs. private space, the old and the new, traditional alongside high-tech. It covers a vast territory, nearly equal to that of the United States east of the Mississippi River, but is occupied by a very small population, just now approaching 18 million people. Of that total, approximately one-third are foreign nationals who live and work there but are not - and will never become - Saudi citizens. The country has the world's largest reserves of petroleum and natural gas, but lacks ample water as it lies over a fossil aquifer that contains a finite amount of water which, in most years, is not recharged at a rate anywhere near a replacement level. Proper care of water resources is even more critical to the country's future well-being than its petroleum. This fact makes Saudi Arabia's brief flirtation with grain self-sufficiency and wheat exports so difficult to understand, in a situation where virtually all cultivation involves irrigation.

Saudi Arabia is widely described as a "closed society," and it is very difficult to enter, primarily accessible to business travelers and Islamic pilgrims but not to tourists of other varieties. Once inside the country, however, the visitor is struck by the openness, friendliness, generosity, and hospitality of the Saudi people. These characteristics are, unfortunately, not portrayed by the international media that shapes many of our images of countries around the world. Many Saudis attribute their true nature to their desert origins and Islamic culture. When thinking of Saudi Arabia, many westerners focus upon gender issues, conjuring up images of heavily veiled, oppressed women. There are, certainly, numerous limitations placed upon women, particularly involving their mobility in what Saudis describe as public space, meaning outside of the home. Within private space, women exercise much greater authority, though this remains invisible to nearly all outsiders. Saudi women do have the right to initiate divorce, to own and inherit property, and, more recently, to get an education through university level. Less recognition is given to the fact that the restrictions on women's mobility also limit the movement of many Saudi men, who must often accompany their female relatives outside of their homes. …

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