Whenever people hear that I’ve come back from Saudi, I’m usually greeted with a raised eyebrow, an uncomfortable side glance or a “really? Saudi?” I thought I’d shed some light on my experience there, culturally, not just spiritually.
Firstly, the strictness people associate with Saudi Arabia is relatively accurate, but this is fundamentally due to a strictness in cultural lifestyle. Additionally, what we in the West may consider to be “strict” is the norm for them. More and more often, I find myself talking to people who condemn the lack of freedom in their dress code; it’s conflicting, because on the one hand, it’s completely irrational to dispute another country’s cultural values when you don’t live there yourself. However, the lack of freedom for women is a growing concern within the East, especially in Saudi Arabia with more women desperately seeking freedom, independence and the desire to become something greater than a daughter, wife and mother. While it’s not exactly desirable being covered from head to toe in black garments in 35 degree heat, it respects the religious values of the kingdom, especially with it being an Islamic country.
Furthermore, it’s also imperative to understand the differentiation between orthodox Muslims and liberal Muslims: the latter of which is increasingly growing in the East. Once girls get their first period, they’re required to ‘veil’ – wear a burqa and niqab (face veil). As this necessity doesn’t extend to all Muslim countries and is not obligatory within Islam, it therefore becomes a cultural aspect of living in Saudi Arabia for the orthodox. Whilst some see the burqa as oppressive, other see it as liberating. This conflict is also very evident with Saudi women. Hearing stories of women’s experiences in Saudi, I’ve come to understand that women breaking the moulds set to confine them to their gender. The age of stay-at-home wives and daughters is slowly coming to an end as young members of the Saudi royal family are seen to be wearing jeans and dresses instead of the traditional burqa. Maybe we’ll see a drastic increase in western clothing becoming a prominent part of Saudi culture in a few years.
Finally, whilst on my travels I noticed the undeniable amount of wealth Arabs are born into. From families of seven travelling in first class on flights around the world to hands and necks adorned with gold, it’s clear that the rich, have a good life out there. Yet, when you pass a shopping centre and turn onto a side road, slums slowly come into view with children sitting outside, begging for money whilst the elders take refuge in the shade. They’re not wealthy enough to afford a fan, or pay electricity bills. This paradox of extreme wealth juxtaposed with extreme deprivation within metres of each other brings to light just how little is being done for the people of Saudi, 15% of which live in poverty. Since the assassination of King Faisal, a King who had great ideas for Saudi in his plans to liberate the country and introduce more freedom and independence as well as financial reform designed to help the people, the country has digressed. The royal family live with an abundance of wealth at their fingertips: the people’s money. Instead of projecting this wealth onto poorer parts of the country, helping eradicate poverty and poor living standards for those who can afford very little, the royal family are seen to be travelling across the world, to their villas in Spain and Cannes or apartments in central London.
My love for Makkah and Medina stems from a spiritual enlightening I gained whilst on my pilgrimage. My love cannot extend to Saudi Arabia as a whole, simply because of the explicit inequality which is grossly overlooked by the country’s wealth as a whole. The people’s money is not being used effectively. Women are awfully restricted in that they still cannot drive; if they don’t hold a valid driving license, they cannot vote. They’re required to travel with a chaperone. They cannot take part in criminal proceedings as they’re considered forgetful and too emotional. Saudi has a long way to go to achieve gender equality and freedom; something which may never be achieved, predominately due to Wahhabi sects exercising their beliefs on how one should live their lives as a true Muslim. It’s the 21st century, but it appears Saudi are still centuries behind.