Saudi Arabia is terribly misunderstood, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Many Muslims look up to Saudi Arabia and consider it the model Islamic state which represents religion in its purest form. Many non-Muslims, especially in the West, view Saudi Arabia as this mysterious land of desert and camels, oil and Usama Bin Laden. However, both parties are mistaken. There is much, much more about this country, and unfortunately it is one of the most stereotyped places on this planet.
The world lacks perfection, except in our dreams and fantasies. The imperfect world confuses people and makes them feel unsafe. People use stereotypes in order to simplify it and feel more safe. But stereotypes are very bad, because they are blinding; they prevent us from seeing the reality of things. Sadly, we, Saudis, have contributed to and promoted the stereotypes.
In the hope of a better understanding, I will try to take a closer look into some of the stereotypes surrounding Saudi Arabia. There is two parts of this post: the first is going to deal with the view from the West, and the second will talk about the view of some Muslims regarding this country:
From the West
For many Westerners, Saudi Arabia is such a big mystery. They don’t understand it. They don’t know much about it. They know we have oil, much of it, and they think we charge them a lot of money for that, which is not true because we don’t really control prices. They associate it with Usama Bin Laden, who left the country about 20 years ago and was later divested of his Saudi citizenship.
This mysterious picture of Saudi Arabia, along with many stereotypes and misconceptions, in the eyes of Westerners have much to do with the fact that we are a very closed society. It is astonishing how multiple tides of foreigners who flooded our country after and during the oil boom have failed to understand and/or open up our society.
I don’t know whose idea was to build residential compounds for foreigners where they can live behind high walls and closed gates. It was a cleaver idea in the past probably, but it had some very negative implications. These compounds that we made have isolated them in their own little world, minimizing contact with locals as much as possible. We have chosen to put them in a shell so we can enjoy the warmness of our shell too, and this is, imho, unhealthy. I have never been to such compounds, but the idea that some of them go as far as to ban wearing thobes and abayas inside them is disturbing.
It is said this can’t go forever, and I believe it is already changing. A landmark in this course was the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and what followed, including attacks in our homeland. 9/11 has made more people in the West look suspiciously to Saudi Arabia, a behavior that we have used with outsiders for a very long time, but this suspicion soon resulted into more interest and effort to understand this country.
It is not just politicians and journalists who seek a better understanding. You won’t expect what kind of email I receive from people coming from different parts of the world and from all walks of life who express their genuine interest in Saudi Arabia and ask all kinds of questions. Here is some examples: a tourist looking forward to experience the unexplored natural scenes in this land; an investor who want to put large sums of money in this country but not sure if he is making the right decision; a film director who wonders about the possibility to shoot parts of her new work here.
What can we do when we have people curious about our country? In the end of this post I will offer some suggestions that might help to decrease the misunderstanding and change the view, but now let’s move to the second part.
From the East
Muslims see Saudi Arabia in the light that it is the birthplace of Islam and its Prophet (pbuh), from where he started his eternal message that shone over the whole world. When they think of this country they think about Mecca, the land of the Ka’aba which they face its direction whenever and wherever they pray five times a day. They think of Medina, the city of the Prophet (pbuh) where he founded for a civilization that spread out its light for centuries and contributed significantly to knowledge and humanity. They have this picture in their hearts, and they are afraid if this country ever changed the picture will diminish and be lost forever.
Reforms, no matter how trivial they seem, are hard to implement, because as the old Arabic saying goes: humans are slaves of their habits. And reforms become even harder when others expect you to resist these reforms and remain standstill.
The way many Muslims view this country as the model Islamic state has given the wrong impression to some Saudis that, considering the place of their country, they are better Muslims than the rest of Muslims in the world. It is hard, of course, for these Saudis to make such claim publicly, but I think it can be clearly seen in the way they try to impose their beliefs on others. This a case where a stereotype has led to more stereotyping: the way many Muslims stereotype this country has made some Saudis start to stereotype themselves and the others as well.
With all this stereotyping, many of us find it very difficult to accept criticism, not even from ourselves, let alone from others. If many Muslims in the world think that our country is the “almost” perfect Islamic state, how can anyone, including us, say there is something wrong about it? Heck, we are even better than what they think, we are actually much better than them!
To make matters even worse, some currents in Saudi Arabia use this stereotyping as a weapon against those who disagree with them. “See, all Muslims think we are such a great country,” they say, “and now you want to come and ruin this beautiful picture.” Something else these people tend to use is calling those who call for reforms as “unoriginal Saudis,” forgetting that those they call unoriginals have inhibited and been living in this land for so long probably even before this country has come into existence less than 100 years ago. It is pathetic how some of those who claim to be the guardians of religion would use such tactics to strengthen their position.
What should be realized is that perfection, or anything near it for that matter, does not exist in this world. Saudi Arabia is neither total good nor total evil, and Saudis are neither angels nor demons. It is a country that has some uniqueness, but such thing should never make us overlook the fact that no matter how “unique” or “different” we think we are, in the end of the day we are a part of something much, much bigger. Saudi Arabia is a part of this larger world, whether we like it or not, and it cannot be simply isolated and it cannot be easily melted.
As much as it is easy and tempting to do that, we cannot and should not blame others for this situation. Probably they need to go out and look for the truth, but there is a good chance that they might never find it if we kept on closing doors and windows. Then, it is our duty to make the most out of everything in order to get rid of the stereotypes and get over the misunderstanding. I would like to finish with two examples of what can be done:
- Two years ago, Saudi Arabia started an ambitious project to send thousands of its students to receive their higher education in different parts of the world: Europe and America, East and Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The project is expected to last for more 8-10 years. These students are supposed to contribute to the development of our nation when they comeback, but while there they should think seriously about what service they can offer to their country. Get involved, don’t isolate yourself, and don’t miss a chance to teach others about the culture you belong to.
- Blogging for the past two-and-a-half years, I have come to learn that “bridge-blogging” is such a powerful tool to communicate, reach out, and deconstruct the stereotypes. I think Saudi blogs can play a role in that because they show the real face of Saudi Arabia: males and females, liberals and conservatives. We have a good opportunity to show the world our true colors, and we should not miss out on it.