After Hamza Kashgari was forced to flee Saudi Arabia for his comments on the Prophet (peace be upon him) last week, two strands of thought occurred to me.

The first was purely selfish.  Is anything I’m saying controversial?  Unlikely in cyberspace – not sure anyone really cares.  But in the classroom?  We do have to be careful about what we say.  Obviously calling-a-teddy-bear-Mohammed levels of stupidity aren’t likely, but my colleagues to tell me about some of the things they do in the classroom and therefore my second worry their futures (the turnover rate at our college is extremely high, and we often don’t find out why…more on this later).  You never really know who you are teaching.  Rumours abound that X is the son of a Prince or the Y is a member of the muttawa.  Often this is unlikely, but the chances are there will be a couple of students with Wasta.  One prime suspect is a student who should be getting straight As, but due to his attitude (superior, disinterested, disruptive) he often gets kicked out of class.  Combined with some cheating, this got so bad that our co-ordinator and his teachers decided to make him resit the Elementary level.   Miraculously, with no discussion, he re-appeared this term in the level above this.

What you say in front of such students is an issue, but it becomes a problem if a connected student is a hard line Salafi.  Some teachers will play music (introducing students to the unheard-of Beatles), some will discuss what they do on their holidays (meet girls, drink alcohol).  I have been guilty of discussing similar topics, but not talking about my own actions.  The danger lies in how you talk about such subjects.

One of my colleagues (the one who was surprised that his students – many of whom consider music to be haram – hadn’t heard of the Beatles) recently had his room raided by the Muttawa and had his laptop confiscated and thoroughly searched.  A call to the Canadian embassy was met with a sigh and he was told that unless he had been arrested there was nothing they could do.  The colleague in question has publications on Islam, and is a well known academic, but is extremely careful about his behaviour in Saudi Arabia.  I’m not even sure I am as careful as him, which makes me worry again.

(On a side note, my flatmate recently left his wallet and passport in a taxi.  The following day it was miraculously returned to him by the Sri Lankan taxi driver who scoured the area where he picked my flatmate up asking people for clues as to his whereabouts.  Upon returning the walled the driver said he had taken it to the British Embassy and was told that there was nothing they could do…they refused to even hang on to it.)

I also realised this week that questions are possibly more likely to get me into trouble than answers.  If I answer a question about my girlfriend or my religion honestly then there’s not much the Saudis can do, or would want to do, unless I’m flaunting my beliefs.  After all, I have the right passport.  If I start going around asking questions about the political, religious, social or economic situation then I am more likely to arouse suspicions.  A new exhibition “Edge of Arabia” opened last week in Jeddah, and I went along.  In my opinion it was the most controversial of any exhibition I have been to in Saudi Arabia, and so – after a brief chat – I asked one of the curators how easy it is to get something like this shown in the Kingdom.  His demeanor suddenly changed and he practically denied there was anything revolutionary about the work on show.  Eventually he admitted that all work which goes on public display is vetted by the authorities, a process which often takes about 2 months.  I’m not entirely sure how some of the work passed the test.  But, Jeddah is a bastion of Saudi liberalism, and I am constantly surprised and pleased with the baby steps to reform which are occurring in the Kingdom – and I increasingly think King Abdullah deserves some credit for this.  If you’re in Jeddah, I’d urge you to go along.  I have enclosed one (unrepresentative) photo below, (if you know the artist, please comment) which sums up my experience of the Saudi postal service), but the other work on show is highly diverse and often more shocking.
In other news, I’m currently reading “Journey into America” by Akbar Ahmed.  Aside from containing some terrible anthropological methods, some arrogant views and some downright offensive views the book is quite informative and entertaining.  Then again, it’s probably nigh-on impossible to go to America, speak to a bunch of random people and not come away with something full of spice.  However, another problem I have with the book is the way it looks down it’s nose at Salafis.  The “literalist” interpretation of Islam, as Ahmed terms it, which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia is often cited as the root cause of troublesome relations between the West and Islam.  He is very much of the opinion that Salafis (in America) fail to integrate and foster cross-faith initiatives, and this view undoubtedly influences, and is influenced by what he sees or hears about Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.  Everyday experience in Saudi Arabia teaches me differently, and Muslims here are very open to discussing religion, very welcoming, and do not fit the picture painted by Ahmed at all.  This may not be the case amongst Salafis in America, but perhaps this suggests the problem is not the literalism, but the context.
So there.



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There is a sense that King Abdulaziz might be concerned about his legacy, his image, or might just be getting soft in his old age.  Previous posts have alluded to this.  Today he replaced the head of the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice due, some claim, to them becoming too aggressive.  The new head is, reportedly, a reformer and a liberal (by Saudi standards).

I saw the Muttawa in action for the first time last week, seemingly arresting a gentleman who was attempting to recreate Speaker’s Corner near the Corniche.  They had the police to back them up and seemed to be doing everything in a civilised manner, just asking him to move on and go home.

This week, I also expressed to a friend of mine that I didn’t want to buy an electric guitar in case I got Muttawa’d.  Obviously this was slightly tongue in cheek, but he pointed out that even if I was engaged in some extremely provocative behaviour the Muttawa wouldn’t care because I have “the right passport” (i.e a White Man’s passport).  I’m aware that I am treated differently and less likely to get into trouble, but amongst the expat community you hear stories of westerners being deliberately targeted.  Often this is for downright stupid behaviour, for instance alcohol-related crimes or (in one example) advertising a rooftop Christmas party with a poster in the lobby of your hotel.  The recent case of a westerner being arrested for displaying New Year’s balloons is less-obviously idiotic, but most people I know managed to avoid celebrating New Year…it’s really not that difficult.

Lots of the moaning by Westerners about how they are treated in Saudi Arabia is the kind you would read in the Daily Mail.  Ok, I’m sure things are different in Riyadh, but here in Jeddah it only takes a small adjustment (mainly alcohol-related) to avoid getting into any kind of trouble.  For women it’s a less minor adjustment, but most of the encounters with the religious police described on blogs seem to be due to attire.  Now, the clothing I see Western women wearing compared to their Saudi counterparts is positively scandalous!

My point here isn’t that Saudi Arabia is some bastion of liberal values, or that life here is easy (especially for women).  It’s that  westerners should look around them before complaining.  Try living as a Bangladeshi in Saudi for a few weeks, or as a Filipina cleaner.  Or even as a Saudi.  Most Westerners have a choice about coming here, they know what to expect, they know the rules.  It’s not hard to play by them, especially when you’re earning mega-bucks and probably propping up the people that make those rules.

We should also question the sources of our stories.  Many horror stories I hear of how the Muttawa treat westerners (NB: undoubtedly their treatment of Saudis is, at times, terrible) are second or third hand…and often just read somewhere on the internet.  In England, I wouldn’t listen to anyone quoting the Daily Mail.  Should I listen to those who quote unverified internet sources?

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I think I’ll spend my money on……,0

It’s the end of the year, and on a different note, one of the saddest news stories of the year for me was the splitting up of REM.

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We got 60 billion dollars!

What do you do with $60 billion?  This is the budget surplus for Saudi Arabia in 2011.  Will there be more “redistribution” as there was in the spring?  Certainly this is what those I have spoken to are hoping for…with a hint of  mockery in their voices.  Of course, the danger of last year’s pay out is that, if it is not repeated, discontentment may spread.

However, this doesn’t seem likely in 2012, as the Guardian points out:   F.Gregory Gause also recently concurred, saying that in the short term the Saudis will have plenty of money to deflect social and political pressures.  But one day, the well will run dry.  What then?

Well, as Gause goes on to demonstrate, the security and patronage networks – which are intertwined – are two of the key reasons why opposition is not forthcoming.   In Jeddah, so far, I have been slightly disappointed that I have not seen national security in action, although perhaps this demonstrates it’s strength.  I can’t personally comment on patronage or the “use” of the religious establishment in quelling discontent, but it’s worth reading Gause here:

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Evidently chickentown

the fucking view is fucking vile

for fucking miles and fucking miles

As we sped down the coast at 160 km/h in our freshly dented Mazda3, I realised that the song on the mixtape was chosen to mirror an opinion of Saudi Arabia.  What fucking gets me fucking down isn’t the city, but the attitude of the expats within it.
The driver hates Saudi Arabia with a passion.  He likes to drink, smoke, take drugs, sleep with (and sometimes pay for) women, and eat unhealthy food.  These were actually amongst the things that John Cooper Clarke was berating as symptoms of industrial decline in Britain.  Apart from eating and smoking, most of the things the driver likes do to cannot be done where we are.  He finds this difficult to accept, and isn’t alone amongst expats in moaning about this.  None seem to recognise this as a strength.  I’m not going to judge those who need to drink all the time, or those who pay for women (actually, maybe I should judge these people)…but to have a go at a country and it’s religion when you are it’s guest and earning money from it is beyond the pale.  Some of my Saudi friends have also expressed similar views to mine, and many find it unusual to be hanging around a westerner such as myself when most just stay in their compounds or even in their hotel rooms.

My new office mate described all Arab students as “the same” the other day.    He thinks they are dirty so he doesn’t shake hands with them, and refuses to eat food outside shiny restaurants.   He has expressed opinions that they are rude and would not adapt to western life so he doesn’t understand why they’re learning English.  Westerners are clearly much more polite.

I realise this view isn’t unusual, nor am I the first person to be writing about it, but it’s so extreme here.  Moaning about everything…the restaurants closing at prayer time, the lack of women, the lack of freedom, the lack of alcohol, the lack of pork, too many cars, too much litter, too smelly, too much homoeroticism.  The most annoying thing is, I’ve started to moan myself about the lack of entertainment.   Our trip at the weekend was a let down in terms of what we wanted to see.   We tried to track down the rock carvings in Taif, only to be shown a two year old sign advertising camel racing.  The national park was a building site and the museum in Taif was closed.  But we entertained ourselves in other ways which were equally enjoyable, and there’s beauty in even the worst looking building site.  But the day after, as we drove down 80km of litter-covered beach I began to despair.  We eventually, miraculously, stumbled across an ice-cream truck.  Some light at the end of the tunnel!

‘Ureed Wahed……Ice cream min fadlak’

‘No Ice cream’

I should have known.  But still, I was pissed off.  Why would you not have ice cream in a baking hot country, on a beach, in an ice cream truck!?  Undoubtedly I was influence by my colleagues’ constant moaning.  I probably shouldn’t hang around with such people, but firstly I don’t have much choice.  Secondly, they aren’t all bad people, and sometimes it’s just “banter”…but when it permeates every conversation it stops being banter.  One shouldn’t expect the sort of entertainment we are used to in Britain.  We shouldn’t expect to drive around the corner and find a fishing village with slot machines, a fish and chip shop and a pub.   We should appreciate Saudi Arabia for what it is, and realise that – despite it’s wealth- it is still a developing country.

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I’ve been away for a couple of weeks, and unfortunately missed out on all the Hajj fun.  Although my students have been taking great pleasure in telling me how many sheep they sacrificed.  My arrival back to SA was massively easier than last time when I had to wait 5 hours.   However, it’s taking me a while to get back into the swing of things here.  If you fail to do so, it can feel like you’re imprisoned sometimes.  But I’m getting there again…it just takes a while to learn to enjoy yourself in different ways to what we’re accustomed to in the west.

Anyway, here’s a link which is interesting (if you’re interested in SA)

I’m not entirely convinced by some of the interviewing.  Firstly, the article says marriage is being delayed by financial constraints.  Not only is this something which would be nigh on impossible to ascertain by interviewing people, but in the west the opposite is generally accepted as being logical:  as people get more comfortable they marry later.   Amongst the even more unscientific sample of my students there is still an eagerness to get married.  They are very confused about how someone my age (28-35) can be unmarried.  The article also later links the higher education of women to the higher marriage age, implying a different causation.  This is not to say that education and wealth are the same thing though.  As the article makes clear this is one of the main problems in SA (and much of the developing world) – education with no opportunities (40% of 20-24 year olds are unemployed).

The article also anticipates the proposed limits on foreign workers (who currently make up over 80% of the private sector) which will come into play next year and should lead to more chances for Saudis to progress within the private sector (although will, according to Citi bankers hurt the economy)

The idea that limited opportunites and changing social ideas are a recipe for protest is perhaps overstating the case though.  My students and some of my fellow teachers believe this is unlikely because of the complacency of much of the younger generation.  Even without great jobs, many of them will live a reasonably comfortable life.  Or is this a biased opinion of those who wish to excuse students’ behaviour or paint a particular picture of Saudis?

Incidentally, the other point which made me question some of the research methods was the interview question to which 84% of women and 65% of men responded affirmatively: 
“I feel that I have the courage and the strength to overcome all the challenges that might be
associated with the working life of women."

I’ve had some training in research methods, and though I’m no expert, I know that this isn’t the best way to gauge whether people feel happy with the progress of women’s rights.
My limited experience concurs with the idea that young Saudis are different and have got differing views about the state, their lives, and the world to the previous generation.  However, I also get the feeling the article is expecting something that might not be forthcoming.  It also seems to want something that may not be desired by many Saudis.  Witness, for instance, the way it talks about Saudi society valuing conformity.  This is a generalisation in my mind, and one which implies conformity is a bad thing.  Could it not just be that individuals desire similar things?  Or that people put society before themselves?  It’s desire for “bold, independent thinking” which (it says) can be driven by international actors seems to stem more from wanting societal change than helping the workforce (precisely how many people who work for large private firms engage in any bold, independent thinking?).  Paradoxically, helping the workforce get jobs may impede any such desire.  Although it would also change the social contract which may affect society’s demands (both areas the article neglects).

I’ve already gone off on a massive tangent so I’ll cut my ramblings short here.


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