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Projecting Saudi Arabia's image: A few suggestions
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 25 - 04 - 2014

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After reading Khaled Almaeena's article “Why don't Saudis project a better image of their country?” (Apr. 20), I wanted to respond, giving the point of view of a British/Kenyan expatriate couple who have lived in Jeddah for 30 years.
Whenever we are out of the Kingdom on vacation, meeting new people as well as talking to family and old friends, I am always amazed at how hungry they are to hear about what life is like in this country that keeps its doors firmly closed to non-Muslim visitors. Other conversations at dinner tables will stop to hear what we have to say. Questions vary from: “What's it like living there?” to “How can you stand it?”, and after hearing our responses, comments range from: “Gosh, it sounds fascinating! You are lucky to have had all those interesting experiences!” to “I couldn't live there!”.
When my husband was first offered a job with Saudia in January 1984, we knew very little about Saudi Arabia. What I had heard was enough to convince me that it was the one country in the world where I didn't want to live. Nonetheless, for financial reasons, I was prepared to give it a go; we were living in Kenya and had two small children who would need educating and the prospects in Kenya weren't good.
Coming to Saudi Arabia meant the usual sacrifices made by expatriates: saying goodbye to family and friends and everything familiar, as well as sacrificing my independence to live in an environment where I couldn't drive and where limousines were not yet readily available. I was also told that I wouldn't be allowed to work.
However, apart from the women driving issue, there were three distinct things that made coming to Saudi Arabia very different to moving to any other country that I can think of.
The first was that once we had entered the country, we would not be allowed to leave it without first obtaining an Exit Visa. In effect, we would be prisoners until we had that visa. I don't know of any other country in the world that demands that their expatriates can only leave if they have an Exit Visa.
The second was that, apart from our parents, no one would be allowed to visit us; we would not be able to invite any of our friends to come and share our new experiences.
The third was having to live on a compound, isolating us from the Saudi community and the Saudi community from us.
We settled into our new expatriate life relatively quickly. My husband enjoyed his job as a Saudia captain and, with my photography skills, I soon found work photographing children and Saudi weddings. It was very exciting to so quickly have work that took me directly into Saudi society, where I could meet Saudi ladies and observe first hand about local wedding traditions. When my mother and my mother-in-law came to visit us, they were thrilled to be taken with me when I had a wedding commission, and loved the opportunity to attend Saudi weddings and see how women looked and dressed when they were out of their abayas and niqabs. Other jobs came my way that involved taking portraits of Saudi men in Jeddah and Riyadh for banking and insurance brochures. I was always impressed at the courtesy and manners of the men that I met. With the gender segregation in Saudi society, I was pleasantly surprised at how relaxed and humorous they were with a female photographer.
Among our earliest memories are going to the Corniche in the days when very few Saudis used it. We loved to go there in the evenings during Ramadan and see groups of Saudis, sitting on rugs on the pavement, sometimes with a portable TV with them, breaking their fast. They were very friendly and would always invite us to join them.
In 1986, I began to write for the Saudi Gazette as a freelancer and continued to do this until very recently. As a journalist, I could approach all sorts of people to interview for the newspaper, ranging from Western and Asian expatriates to Arab expatriates from various parts of the Middle East, and many Saudis. I particularly enjoyed this work because it gave me an insight into the different lives people were leading in Jeddah. It was an unexpected bonus to write reviews on the art exhibitions at the Athr Gallery and observe the development of a stimulating contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia. I also had a café review column, and my time spent in these increasingly smart establishments, some of them in Jeddah's impressive shopping malls, gave me an awareness of how the public social scene for women had changed over the years.
We also made sure that we bought a 4x4 vehicle so that we could explore the country, and I am sure we have seen more of it than most Saudis. Either alone or with friends, we went camping frequently, sometimes to favorite spots not far from Jeddah, at other times traveling as far as Najran and the Empty Quarter, and crossing the Nafud desert before there was a road there. We particularly enjoyed the opportunity to explore the defunct Hejaz Railway on two occasions, as well as Madain Saleh, and Waba Crater and the ruins of the King's Hunting Palace at Muwaya.
Having “done” Saudi Arabia in a vehicle, we then bought ourselves a Harley-Davidson and this opened up a whole new world for us. It was one that we especially appreciated because for the first time we had the opportunity to enjoy the company of Saudis on adventurous journeys around their country and the Middle East. With other Harley bikers from Jeddah and Riyadh, we explored local mountainous areas of Al Baha and Abha, and also rode all the way to Muscat in Oman on two occasions. In 2009, we had the thrilling experience of riding all the way to Lebanon, going through Jordan and Syria.
Very recently, a young Saudi girl asked me if I would help her with a photography project that she was working on for her graduation from high school. I was delighted to do so, and she then invited me to her graduation presentation. It was not the first time I had been to a Saudi girls' school, although before it was to either photograph or write about an event. Once again, I was very impressed with the high standard of the presentations and the confidence of these young women. They all spoke fluent English and the entire program was conducted in English. They were all going on to university. Saudi Arabia is producing a new generation of motivated young women with ambitious career goals. I don't think I am alone in thinking that they have an invaluable contribution to make to this country.
Our lives here continue to evolve, and altogether, we have had a rewarding, diverse and productive 30 years in Saudi Arabia. We will take wonderful memories with us when we leave next year.
So back to Khaled Almaeena's question: Why don't Saudis project a better image of the country when it is as wonderful as I have described?
To begin with, the media loves nothing more than bad news: if there is something bad to write about Saudi Arabia, someone is sure to write it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of this bad news that Saudi Arabia just can't deny: the Al-Qaeda link; the exporting of an extreme version of Islam; human rights abuses; the horror stories of abused domestic staff, be they drivers or housemaids; workers not being paid; little freedom of expression; women's rights; the crass manner of immigration officials; no freedom of religion and the public executions. With the Internet, all this information, along with videos on YouTube, is now published for the world to see.
Secondly, while most countries grant visas to Saudis who want to travel (as thousands of them will this summer), Saudi Arabia does not reciprocate this – except to Muslim pilgrims coming for Umrah and Haj. However, I wonder how Saudis would feel if, once they were in that foreign country, they couldn't leave until they had been granted an Exit Visa, or if mosques were banned, as are churches and other religious establishments here.
If they happen to be born in one of those foreign places, there is a strong possibility that they will also be able to claim the nationality of that country. They will also be able to study and work in most countries and, if they live there long enough, they will be able to apply for the nationality of that country.
It is only the rare exception that manages to get a Visitor's Visa to Saudi Arabia. We have friends who have tried to get visas for their adult children to join them for Christmas, but these visas have been refused. In one case, the visa for one child was granted, the visa for the other refused. These families had no alternative but to all meet up in a foreigner-friendly Arab country like Dubai. The sad thing as well is that even if you have lived in the Kingdom for a very long time, when you leave, it is also highly unlikely that you will ever be allowed to visit again. We have friends who have recently tried to get Visit Visas to return here and failed.
There are hundreds of expatriates who have been born here, and their children have been born here as well. Saudi Arabia is the only home they know. But it is virtually impossible for them to obtain Saudi nationality, even if they are Muslims. I don't know if Saudis can appreciate how attached many expatriates are to Saudi Arabia and how much they have given to the country. People often ask us: “Will you retire in Saudi Arabia?” They are quite shocked to learn than this would not be possible without a highly influential sponsor.
Expatriates are not allowed to buy property in Saudi Arabia, but Saudis can buy property in our countries, and spend their holidays in their overseas homes, and enjoy the financial capital gain from owning property in cities like London, Geneva and New York.
In Oxford University (and many others) there is a Centre for Islamic Studies. It has received millions of pounds in funding from Saudi Arabia, in 1997 alone £20m. There is no reciprocal study program at a Saudi university. All of these issues breed resentment against Saudi Arabia. There is a sense that the Kingdom wants everyone to understand it, its culture and religion, but it doesn't appear to want to understand outsiders and their various faiths. Interfaith dialogue comes across as a one-way conversation.
Towards the end of his article, Almaeena says that “in order for the world to learn more about us, I am all for international journalists coming here and writing about our culture and our way of life”. Why just invite the journalists in? Before 9/11, Saudi Arabia sent an exhibition entitled “Riyadh Yesterday & Today” to Europe and America. I went to see this in London with some friends who had lived in Jeddah for 24 years. It was held in the summer and was a huge outdoor event and a huge success. The crowds that came to see it loved it, although there was a conspicuous lack of Saudi women taking part in the event. We asked one of the representatives if we could visit Saudi Arabia, and he cheerfully said: “Oh yes, all you need to do is apply for a visa at the Embassy.” We knew otherwise. Nonetheless, it is this sort of publicity that will help to improve the image of Saudi Arabia abroad: take Saudi Arabia to the world and then invite tourists in to see for themselves – and have journalists follow the progress.
The visitors will also write about their experiences on the Internet and hopefully improve Saudi Arabia's image. There are already some good local tourist companies in Saudi Arabia and I have experienced first hand the efficiency and great hospitality of one of them when I visited Najran with Jeddah's Natural History Society. Saudi Arabia needs to market itself as a friendly country that invites outsiders to see what it has to offer, rather like Jordan does. Right now, it doesn't come across as such.
It is also expatriates like ourselves, who have lived here for many years, who can be ambassadors for the Kingdom. I was once invited to Farnham Castle in Surrey, UK, where seminars are held for people coming to work in Saudi Arabia. My task was to speak to couples about what life would be like once they came here. One couple had been about to turn down the job, but after listening to what I had to say, they decided to come after all.
If foreign journalists are allowed into Saudi Arabia, what will be achieved? The country doesn't like to be criticized so, after treating the journalists to the best of Saudi hospitality, it will expect to see flattering articles written about it and its culture. However, what good will that do if visitors aren't welcomed to experience this great culture and hospitality first hand?
Our departure from Jeddah is looming next year, and friends frequently ask us: “Will you miss it?” The answer is undoubtedly “Yes, we will.” It will have been our home for 31 years. Nonetheless, we will leave with an “Exit Only” stamp in our passports. Fortunately for us, we have a Harley friend who has already offered to sponsor us if we wish to come back for a visit.

Bizzie Frost, Jeddah


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