An American Woman in Saudi Arabia
Michele La Morte-Shbat
“I was gratified by the deferential response I received from the Saudi men I met on that trip, treatment which flew in the face of all that I had heard before about the Kingdom.”
Interestingly enough, it was my idea to live and work in Saudi Arabia. It was late 1999, and although I had a wonderful life as an economist in Washington, DC, where I lived with my husband and two miniature poodles, much of my daily routine had become stale and rather ordinary. I had greatly enjoyed and appreciated 17 years in the nation’s capital, which included a dream home complete with white picket fence, bike rides along the Potomac River, and weekend drives through the picturesque Virginia countryside, but these aspects of Washington life were being overshadowed by what had become tiresome two hour long workday commutes into the city where I worked in a nondescript building as a government employee. I hungered to expand my perspective and worldview. Although my husband was originally from Lebanon, a beautiful and vibrant country that I had the good fortune to visit in 1996, the place I longed to experience was Saudi Arabia.
Friends and family, including my husband, were surprised by my peculiar hankering. It was not uncommon for friends to make comments, or send me dubious magazine clippings, about the religious police smacking western women on the ankles for showing too much leg, or worse yet, tales of incarceration. The fairly limited media reports, at the time, only served to add to the level of intrigue surrounding the Kingdom. None of these stories and reports would dissuade me, however, but rather strengthened my resolve to see this mysterious place and form my own opinions and judgments. Fascinated by, yet somewhat wary, myself, of, the images of long black abayas, white thobes, and bustling marketplaces in this distant land, I was determined to find out why my western compatriots and I were so puzzled by, and, circumspect about, this Gulf nation.
Serendipitously, around this time I had the opportunity to accompany my husband, his firm, and the U.S.-Saudi Business Council on a trip to Saudi Arabia to explore joint venture activities between Saudi and northern Virginia companies. Actually, not an easy undertaking as my husband was told by U.S. officials from the organization before the trip was underway that there was no way that I, a woman, would be able to go on the trip. The long and short of it – women were not allowed! I wondered if this was a harbinger of things to come, and whether I would ever make it to Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, my husband, undaunted, was able to exercise sufficiently persuasive measures, (indicating he wouldn’t go without me), allowing me to join the group in mid-February 2000 as an auxiliary member.
Shortly after arriving in Saudi Arabia, and when attending a Riyadh Chamber of Commerce meeting, not only was I, the lone woman in the room, swiftly guided to a seat by a Saudi official alongside the American contingency of businessmen, but I was encouraged by another Saudi representative to launch the session by disclosing my initial impressions of Saudi Arabia. After divulging my views, which were direct, from the heart, and included an acknowledgement of several gracious Saudi gentlemen who in the early days of our trip aided my efforts in trying to find a job in the Kingdom, I received an ovation by the Saudi delegates. I was similarly treated when we met with Saudi officials in the east coast city of Dhahran, and Jeddah on the shores of the Red Sea.
I was gratified by the deferential response I received from the Saudi men I met on that trip, treatment which flew in the face of all that I had heard before about the Kingdom. The media and others had led me to believe that women were second-class citizens, suppressed by men, discouraged to express their views. What I found, instead, from the first few days of our time in Saudi Arabia in February 2000, through to visits of other Gulf countries and my eventual relocation to Qatar in 2004, where I presently reside, is that men of the Gulf region are predisposed to view, and treat, women, particularly in professional and business settings, as “sisters.”
This is not to say that restrictions for women are not a reality particularly in Saudi Arabia. For example, when I lived in Riyadh from 2000 to 2004, women were limited to work in academia, women’s banks, and hospitals and were not allowed to drive. (Women are allowed to drive in other Gulf countries.) But within the existing confines, Saudi women were given opportunities to prosper and advance. A Saudi member of the U.S. Saudi Business Council and higher level management at the esteemed King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh were responsible for placing me in the position of Supervisor of Financial & Management Reporting, a newly formed unit within the Finance Department, at KFSH. There were several Saudi, and other Arab women, as well, in midlevel management positions at KFSH.
Being employed at the massive 800-bed hospital, (served by 8,000 employees), allowed me the unique opportunity to work with, and come to know, Saudi men and women from a professional and more personal standpoint. The Saudi women, especially, were well-informed, dedicated to a high level work effort, and very appreciative of, and determined to use, their advanced degrees to better themselves in the work world and their lives outside the hospital. It was of utmost importance, however, to balance work life with family life, and women who had small children at home were given the opportunity to work part-time.
The importance of family, and more generally, fellowship, regularly impacted work life at the hospital. Impromptu offers of cardamom coffee or mint tea during the workday, and Wednesday morning “women only” functions that included feasts of mezzah and freshly baked pita bread in locked conference rooms, where women were able to let their scarves, and their guard, down, were as important an element of the workday as was completing that critical financial report. While my “American mindset” had me focused on the deadline, I would come to find that this emphasis on “people time” allowed for greater camaraderie and enhanced teamwork among the staff.
Far from censoring themselves or being timid when communing with workmates, as I presumed would be the case before arriving in the Kingdom, it was not unusual for my female Saudi colleagues to come to my office and inform me of marital or other personal issues, fishing for seasoned advice from an older female colleague. I would always indulge them, but would be far more uncomfortable in talking about these intimate matters than my younger Saudi colleagues. And instead of being aloof or somber as suggested by their ebony cloaks and reserved behavior, the sense of humor amongst my Saudi female cohorts was enchanting. On one very dusty day in Riyadh, a colleague and I were in the women’s restroom, and my female coworker remarked with a slight grin, “You know, Michele, it’s a ‘Dusty’ Hoffman day today,” referring to the American actor, Dustin Hoffman.
Although I had an open mind about Saudi Arabia, the abayas, mystified me, both before and after first arriving in Saudi Arabia. However, it quickly became clear, style of clothing aside, that the women behind the abayes were very much like me and my western friends in simply wanting a satisfying and healthy life for themselves and their families. Saudi women were quite vocal about issues regarding their children’s schooling, where they could buy the freshest food, and how best to maintain happy and flourishing households. These were, and are, the central matters in the daily lives of Saudi, Qatari, and other Gulf women; geopolitical, regional, and global issues are all secondary. And worries over how they are perceived (in their abayas) half way around the world are even less important.
With culture and tradition dictating that women wear the abaya in public, an exquisite sense of fashion is often manifested underneath. At gatherings of women, and particularly women-only weddings, ladies forego the abaya and revel in their femininity with displays of haute couture gowns and immaculately coiffed hair and makeup. While feeling thankful for being invited to these momentous events, and despite being clad in my finest ball gowns, I always feel underdressed at these occasions. Rather than being sedate, these types of celebrations see Gulf women on raised platforms dancing uninhibitedly to the rhythmical strains of Khaleeji music.
Gatherings, and a broader sense of community, are inherently important in the larger Gulf region, with hospitality being an overarching tenet in Gulf Arab life. As a guest in Arab homes on many occasions, I have always been greeted like a long lost family member with my happiness and that of other guests being paramount. These events, often lasting until the wee hours of the morning, usually include spreads of mezzah, lamb and rice, Arabic sweets, from which you must partake, hungry or not, and protracted conversation ranging from the everyday, to regional and world economic and political issues.
The tragic day of 9/11, and its aftermath, certainly tested my relationships with my Saudi friends and colleagues. I stayed at home the following day, glued to CNN to find out as much as I could about what happened, and fearing for the safety of friends in Washington, DC, our “home base” in the U.S. The next day when I went into work I was grateful to have my Saudi boss come to my office to inquire if I was alright and to say he hoped no one I knew was hurt in the incidents. It was only in the following days and weeks that we heard that Saudis were involved in 9/11, and I began to question the wisdom of my presence and safety, and that of my husband, in the Kingdom. Around this time I was meeting with one of the KFSH financial managers, and felt compelled to tell him of my concerns and fears. I was quite flabbergasted when he straightforwardly told me that if anyone tried to hurt me, he would step between the perpetrator and me to thwart the attack, and he was certain my other colleagues would do the same. My faith in humanity was strengthened that day.
In the spring of 2003, approximately a year before the end of my tenure at KFSH, I experienced another heart rendering blow. My dear husband had been diagnosed with a life threatening condition, and would need to be hospitalized for an extended period of time. I needed to go to my Saudi boss, one of the hardest working men I’ve ever met, and someone who had expressed initial concerns about my skill set and ability to lead the financial unit that had been entrusted to me. My boss had since come to see me as a team player and a valued member of his department, but I was still concerned about trading on his good graces as I entered his office to inform him that I might miss substantial amounts of work due to my husband’s medical challenge. The words had barely left my mouth before my boss told me, “Michele, while your husband is in the hospital I am not your boss, your husband is. When he tells you to take off, take off, and I’m not going to charge you any leave time.” Once, again, I felt myself disconcerted by the graciousness of a Saudi gentleman; this time, my beneficent boss.
My husband and I were admittedly fearful about having major surgery, three in fact, so far from home. After inquiring with a family member who works as a physician at a prestigious hospital in the U.S., however, we found out that the course of action and techniques that would be used by my husband’s surgeon, a Saudi, and team of doctors and medical support staff would be the same as what would be followed at the renowned hospital in the States. Our qualms dissipating to some degree, we could not shake the fact that my husband would be receiving life-saving medical care. We had many expat and Saudi friends, including my boss, visit us during the month-long hospital stay, providing us with words of encouragement and prayers, and even had a Saudi friend pray a verse from the Quran Kareem over my husband, a Lebanese Maronite Christian, the night before the initial surgery. The morning of the first major surgery, the doctor conversed with my husband prior to the anesthesia being administered, trying to allay his concerns about the surgery. My husband mentioned that he would really appreciate it if the doctor could recite Ayat al-Kursi over him before the surgery began, and the doctor cordially agreed. Thankfully, after an arduous year, my husband was on the mend, and is now healthy and leading a productive and happy life, due to the care and expertise of the KFSH medical team.
My time in the Gulf region continues to be a treasured gift, an “eye opening” and humbling experience; one that has allowed me to see that we are all part of a larger global community with the same everyday challenges and desires for a meaningful and contented life.
You can read more of Michele’s work on her blog, Musings on Arab Culture: Reflections of A Western Woman.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.