Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is where the Saudi Royal Family resides. It’s the seat of national government, and also the place where Muslim piety is very strong, maybe the strongest in the world.
When I arrived there for the first time last week to consult Siemens Saudi Arabia LTD., I expected to see a less than vibrant city. Not so. Let me share a few experiences I had and let you make up your own mind.
Reading a Saudi Newspaper
The first morning I was in Riyadh, I was in the lobby of my hotel reading the English edition of a Saudi morning newspaper. I was surprised when I read the results of a study which found that Saudi women suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. Because of this, the study reported a higher than normal rate of diabetes, rickets, obesity, liver and kidney disorders among Saudi women.
The study concluded that the causes of this condition were due to a lack of sun from staying inside too much, and when outside, not exposing their bodies to enough sun due to covering the entire body in black clothing.
The article went on to say that dark skin is a liability under such circumstances. Dark skin evolved to protect the body from absorbing too much sun light, which if happened would interfere with the body’s ability to reproduce.
In this case, however, dark skin combines with excessive indoor living and dress practices to seriously reduce the amount of sun exposure needed to produce amounts of Vitamin D necessary to keep the body healthy.
Why did reading this article in the Saudi newspaper surprise me? I guess I didn’t believe there was so much self-reflection going on in Saudi society. I was wrong.
Obviously, if Saudi women become sick and unhealthy, that negatively affects their personal wellbeing, as well as society’s, over the long run. Once the cause of the problem is fully realized, I would assume that the solution will be straight forward. Saudi women will demand that the abayas and sheilas (black robes and head coverings) be discarded, or modified, and that they engage in more outside activities that allow their legs, arms, and head to be exposed to greater amounts of sun light.
Will this happen? Probably. After all, this isn’t an issue of morality, but of health. People do what they have to do to improve their odds of survival. I don’t think the Saudis are any different than the rest of us in this regard, that is, unless they are self-destructive, which they aren’t. After all, they have existed as a culture for well over four thousand years.
But, what did I know? I had only been in Saudi Arabia for a matter of hours.
Voting and Driving
Before I went to Riyadh, I remember reading where King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia ruled that women in the Kingdom will have the right to vote in the future. When I reached Riyadh, young business executives from Siemens elaborated on the King’s decision. “Before you know it,” said one young executive to me in a tone of excitement, “not only will Saudi women vote, but drive as well.”
To reinforce the point, he said that “there are places where women already drive.” He cited the Red Sea coastal city of Thuwal that houses the new campus of King Abdullah University of Science And Technology (KAUST).
He told me Thuwal was located just north of Jeddah, the main city where Muslims from throughout the world pass through on their pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca (Mekkah), the holiest city in Islam. I found the contrast fascinating: the most progressive university city in Saudi Arabia in close proximity to the holiest city in Saudi Arabia.
In the future, these two cities can’t help but cross paths and collide. That often happens in areas of the world where interesting contradictions exist side by side.
I would assume that Thuwal and Mecca will engage in tensions that might set the tone for a culturally modern Saudi Arabia to emerge.
World Class Museum
In showing us around Riyadh, our corporate host chose to take us to Riyadh’s Museum of Natural History.
I was surprised how good the museum’s displays were. In fact they were world class. There was a forthright effort to show the evolution of life on the Arabian Peninsula. Pre- historic fossils upon fossils were displayed.
I asked if this kind of information showed up in school curriculum. “Yes”, was our host’s initial reply, but he continued, “we have challenges with ultra conservative Muslims (mutaween) who always want more religion taught.”
“So do we,” I said.
“With Muslims?” he asked.
“No, with ultra conservative Christians,” I responded.
The day we were at the museum was “girls’ day.” The sexes are strictly segregated. There were dozens upon dozens of high school girls running around, talking, taking pictures of one another, laughing, and all wearing abayas and sheilas. It was yet another example of the contradictions that exist in Saudi Arabia: the very modern approach of exposing young Saudi women to the evolution of life on their land, running up against the very traditional control of separating the sexes and covering women up.
It’s evident from the examples I have shared that I was particularly sensitive to picking up on issues relating to women. Maybe this was the case because my wife was required to wear the abaya (robe that covers the body) upon our entry into Saudi Arabia. That was a psychological adjustment for both of us.
However, as a foreigner Cheri was not required to wear the sheila (scarf that covers the head.) Thus, for the time we were in Riyadh, she was the only woman whose face I saw. All the others were like shadows appearing and disappearing from and to no where.
And that’s why I think I picked up on these interesting contradictions. I couldn’t see women, but there were signs that they will literally be emerging from the shadows into the light. Their public personness is starting to be recognized by their newly found freedom to vote. In one place, at least, they are on equal footing with men in every way. At a minimum they drive, and are exposed to and participate in the blessings of science, math, and technology.
However, progress is slow, for the opposing tensions of tradition are stubborn and powerful.
These tribal Bedouins may have been happy to have been left alone in the Arabian Desert, but the fortunes of history changed that, and keep changing that. Oil forced them onto the world stage, and its eventual end now forces them to ready themselves to participate globally as a thoroughly trained, educated, and transparent culture.
Saudi Arabia did not become a nation until 1932. So, reconciling a desert tradition with modern reality, is no small undertaking. But, the necessity to do so is great, especially for women.
So, it seems to me that Saudi women will no longer be shadows on the sand.