Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: Saudi Women Enjoy Privileged Status

Arab News Staff, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

One very real problem about moving to Saudi Arabia is overcoming what has been heard or read about the Kingdom from irresponsible sources in other countries. The vest advice to anyone planning to move here is to come with an open mind, ignore just about everything you have read or heard, and be prepared to adjust to your own individual circumstances. Saudi Arabia represents many things to many people and it is impossible to judge life here until you, as an individual, actually experience it.

Some people find it is a harrowing experience to complete a move across town in their own country; therefore, it is impossible to predict how anyone will react to a new country in a totally different part of the world.

A large part of whether people love or hate Saudi Arabia depends upon their outlook on life in general. There are a certain number of people in the world who can NEVER be satisfied wherever they live, even in a very familiar and unchanging environment; while the opposite type relishes every experience, no matter how revolting, as an exciting adventure in moving to Saudi Arabia the best advice is to consider everything you hear, both before and after your arrival, with a grain of salt.

One discouraging fact of life seems to be that the person who complains a lot is heard widely, even if he is only 1 percent of the silent and satisfied majority. Detrimental stories, therefore, are often passed on and on by people who encountered only bad aspects of life in Saudi Arabia (as they would anywhere new they went), by someone who came here for only a short period of time and was unable to cope with a new lifestyle, of, if kept in the Kingdom due to obligations, continually sends home gruesome accounts of life here to family, friends and anyone who will listen.

One common horror envisioned by women who are driving in other countries, is how horrible it will be to live in Saudi Arabia, where they will not have this privilege. They envision all types of problems due to this ‘loss.’ After living in Saudi Arabia for a while they adjust and many find that not only is it not a problem, there are a number of privileges that come with it which they would not want to give up for the opportunity to drive.

In Saudi Arabia, not being able to drive often brings women a privileged status which they do not enjoy in most other countries. In the United States, for instance, very few women have private drivers who are at their beck and call. This status is one not enjoyed by many expatriate men who for a variety of reasons cannot drive. True, they could obtain a license to drive if they went through a number of steps to do so, but most soon decide that the procedures are not worth the effort.

Women, in the meantime, have special sections of buses reserved for them, which are rarely crowded. Families that live on compounds or work for large companies have private bus services to take them on sightseeing trips and shopping, and other families hire drivers who are on call to take the wife and family wherever they want to go.

Such privileges are not available to women in other parts of the world, and in fact, in Saudi Arabia, it is often the husband who is discomforted when he finishes work and finds it necessary to wait for his ride home, or take a taxi, because his wife and children have the car and forgot the time. Somehow, wives find that having a driver encourages them to shop more often because they can hop out of the car downtown and let the driver fight traffic and search for a parking place.

The same thing is true about many other aspects of a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia. Many wives are shocked to move to the Kingdom and discover that services which exist in Saudi Arabia are went out of existence in other more liberalized parts of the world years ago.

Here, for instance, even the owner of a small corner store, when asked for an item he does not stock, will be glad to drive to another store where he knows he can get it, and bring it back for the customer. If a woman is alone and buys enough items that she can not easily carry, it is common for the store owner to send an employee with the groceries or deliver them himself to the customer’s door. Many stores even offer shopping and delivery services in which a woman can call the store, give the owner a list of items she needs and have them delivered to her door within a half hour or so. This sort of service disappeared in most U.S. and British communities long ago.

In addition, many compounds, down to the smallest apartment block, usually have a resident houseboy who will do a wide variety of shopping chores and even cleaning, cooking, laundry and all for a pittance.

Other families find they cannot do without a full time, live-in maid to do routine chores and usually find that such workers are readily available here, again at a fee of around $100 a month, which would be considered impossible in the U.S. or Britain.

Every aspect of a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia is very different than in their home country. Some families, for instance, who have lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, and returned to the United States, have found that they were living much better in the Kingdom than they ever could at home.

Some expatriate women who return home on leave, have real problems, just in attempting to cross the street. Here in Jeddah (in the 1980s) when a woman steps down from the curb into the street, all traffic comes to an instant halt, even buses and taxis. In other parts of the world, even those renowned for their driving courtesy, women who have returned from Saudi Arabia have just about been hit because they forgot that they were back where the traffic would not yield to them.

Of course another aspect of family life in Saudi Arabia is the fact that crime is so low, compared to life just about anywhere else it could be called non-existent. Take any town in just about any Western community and there are places where even a couple would not dare to walk down the street alone without fearing for their possessions, virtue and perhaps even their life.

Life in Saudi Arabia, in comparison, is comfortable. While no one should be lax and encourage theft or crime, when the opportunity for crime occurs, due to the strong moral sense existing here, the chance that it will occur is minimal.

As a case in point, one expatriate who had been in Saudi Arabia for only a few weeks, was surprised to discover that while preparing to take out the SR1 (24 cent) bus fare, that his wallet, containing both money and important papers, had been caught in the door and fallen to the ground outside the closed door.

While the expatriate watched, the walled was scooped up and disappeared into a crowd waiting for the next bus. Within seconds, the walled was passed from hand-to-hand between 10 or 15 people, it was passed through the window of the bus and again from person to person until it was returned to its rightful owner. Imagine the chances of having a similar experience in downtown Paris, London or New York.

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