Saudi Arabia would easily top the list of countries most hostile to a freethinker. I can’t imagine living in a country that has a ban on theatres. Many expats justify living in Saudi, saying it is a good place to work for a few years and save money. After all, there are not many distractions. It’s pretty much Eat, Work, Sleep. But the damages on a person’s self-development are, in my opinion, not worth it. It is not a good place for children to experience life. In the ten years I lived there I never made any Saudi friends. There was very little interaction between the expats and Saudis. In a country like India where children are exposed to a variety of life changing experiences, Saudi Arabia offered very little. For instance, as my father once pointed out, in the time I lived there, I had never seen a death. Never seen a family grieve. This might seem like a small matter, but I feel experiences such as these are important. Reading about death is one thing, but seeing a dead body at a funeral is something else. It puts somethings in perspective and makes you aware of death as very real, rather than an idea.
Now I may not be the best person to write about life in today’s Saudi Arabia. I left Saudi in 2001 and I can only give you my version of the Saudi life until that point.
I think expat Muslims have a much better social life than non-Muslims. Being a Muslim country, they get to regularly meet in the mosque and fully and openly participate in Islamic social get-togethers. People of other religions are forbidden to practice their religion in public. Our beliefs or lack thereof are wrong, illegal, disgraceful…
We used to live in a company compound called SWCC (Saline Water Conversion Corporation). The main source of water in Saudi Arabia was and probably still is from large desalination plants that convert sea water to drinkable water. The saying in Jubail (our city) was that the water we made is used by the king himself (probably not true). There was a sizable Malayali Christian community in Jubail. As a child my parents were just like most regular expats, living easy lives and earning money so that one day we could all go back to India and build a big house, buy a big car and do all such big-big things being “gelf returnees”.
Being a Christian was fun in some ways. We used to have “underground” prayer meetings, evade capture by the religious police, secret phone calls to transmit information about future clandestine “meetings”, keeping quiet when we saw a patrol car approach our “hideout”. Oh yeah, I felt like a real renegade. 007, minus the gadgets. My parents were moderately religious. They just did the regular nightly prayer before bed and I used to repeat the prayer in Malayalam, not really knowing what it all meant.
I did my schooling from grade 1 to 10 in an Indian school in Jubail. The school had a girls section and boys section, like almost all schools (there were one or two “American” schools that allowed co-education). Even though we were in a strict Islamic country, for the most part we were left alone. So at school, while the Muslim students had Islamic studies, non-Muslims had “moral science” classes. Looking back I realize that, as kids our development was somewhat arrested by the separation of the sexes. I remember reading somewhere that co-ed students have a healthier opinion of the other sex and are generally more emotionally mature. I feel this is very true. In a society dominated by male thinking it was easy to fall into thinking that females were just for serving the whims of men.
I remember everyone in general being friendly regardless of skin colour or religion. Of course during the initial years Muslims would never even wish “Merry Christmas” or “Happy new year” in my father’s office, but that changed during the 2000s. Among Saudis, it seems many were genuinely good people who were following an Islam that encouraged charity, brotherhood and sometimes extreme kindness. Skin colour, social position and other things didn’t matter. A fair skinned wealthy Saudi “manager” would hug and “cheek kiss” a black Sudanese plumber without the slightest hesitation, especially on Islamic festivals. In India, many people would be disgusted by this. Our Saudi neighbor, although being somewhat of a recluse, would knock on our door and share some Kafsa, dates etc. during Eid. There was a good air of “Muslim-brotherhood” and “non-Muslim tolerance” among the educated Saudis, at least in my compound. I do not know for sure, but I felt some of this kindness and tolerance was a way to “advertise” Islam to non-muslims, for some Saudis. The moment anyone expressed dislike of Islam, a sudden change in behavior could be seen.
On a personal level, I felt robbed of many experiences. The eat-study-sleep culture for kids in Saudi did not allow me to explore the arts or science in any way outside the school system. There was no interaction and open discussion about social issues that I am glad to have in India. Everything was “taken care of” by the monarchy. Life was good if you conformed. Any “divergent thinking” was quashed. A Freethinkers group would be unimaginable in Saudi. Intellectually and culturally, Saudi Arabia is very restrictive.
I also feel the sexual repression and lack of democratic values affect the Saudi youth significantly. Unable to properly channel their sexual desires, leads to offensive behavior and unneeded aggression. I am also sure the kind of guilt they place on sexuality and openness, affects the mind too. Sometimes Saudis seem uncultured and rowdy. As kids, we were afraid to approach a football ground where Saudis were playing or would be tense about whether they would steal our bicycles if we left them unlocked. Although the “educated” Saudis were mostly nice, I still feel there are many Saudis who never take education, discipline or civilized behavior seriously. Like every country, it’s hard to generalize, but this has been my experience.
As for the dress code, generally everyone is required to wear extremely modest dress. Women should wear the burqa that completely covers the body. Non-Muslims are allowed to show their face but the hair must be covered. I remember the moral police yelling at my mom because a strand of hair was showing. Some of the “religious police” or “muttawah” could be a little crazy.
Things like strikes or certain problems that come with democratic politics were not an issue in Saudi. If a road needed to be built, it got built. No discussion, no protests, no court cases. The government razes your house and in most cases relocates you to an even better location. I must admit I am guilty of sometimes wishing that infrastructure development in India resembles the “dictatorial” style of the Saudis. The road in front of my house in Cochin has been in efforts to widen for the last 30 years (mostly because of a few shop keepers refusal against the Indian government, and of course the infamous Indian “court cases”!! ). In Saudi, the same would hardly take 3 weeks (courtesy of the Bin-Laden construction company). But a part of me knows that I would wait for a 30 years, if in return I have my freedom and human rights. Some people may never understand, but for a freethinker it is the chains on our mind that screw with us more that physical or infrastructural inconveniences.
I wonder sometimes how my life would have turned out, if I had the freedom to explore life to the fullest, to not fear if my next word or action would go against the strict rigid culture or worse, would offend the King in some mundane way. Stories of people who expressed disdain for the kingdom “disappearing” overnight, women who dared to talk against the system being locked in jails for being “mentally ill” were daily reminders to conform to the system.
When I was in grade 9 and 10 I briefly became religious after I got my hands on a Bible (obviously smuggled inside). It was a period of soul searching for me, to know where all “this” came from, to know God and how the world worked. Luckily internet was available in Saudi. Even though it was heavily censored, it did get me access to many sites that had religious discussions. This was also when I came across sites that had articles on skepticism.
And that’s when 9/11 happened. I remember watching it live on BBC and it probably affected me significantly. To me, it was the direct evidence of how a religion could “poison everything”. To read about it was one thing, but to actually see it happening was something else. It was not much of a surprise the next day, when most people seemed ambivalent about it. There was also an atmosphere of “America deserved it” among some Muslim students in the class. I would say this was about the time I was becoming increasingly skeptical of religion. Yes, I do miss the food. I miss the clean roads. I miss the peace and quiet. I miss my well-ordered and easy life. I even miss the desert. But I would give it all up, for just an intellectually stimulating discussion over coffee without having to worry that at any moment a slip of tongue could insult the king or if the girl I am with, would be arrested for talking to a man and being alone without a male relative.
Being an NRI, people in India expect us to speak good English, be more “cool”. But I would say this isn’t true for Saudi NRIs. Yes, in other Arab countries like Dubai you have piano lessons, drama clubs and pretty much everything a western country offers that allows the development of the mind. But Saudi Arabia is a whole world apart.
So my final verdict: Saudi Arabia better avoided. Rating- 3/10.