Teaching English in Saudi Arabia: Part III

This is the final part of the conversation I had in February with my friend Fil. Fil has been living and teaching in Jubail, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) since September 2012. He has almost completed his nine month contract teaching oil industry trainees in one of the world’s most industrial cities. In this final part he explains what he had learnt about Saudi culture; from the role of women in Saudi society to the political changes which are taking place within KSA.

When Fil arrived in KSA he wasn’t given any form of cultural training and had to learn the hard way. Luckily he met many people willing to help such as his colleagues and a few of his students. There are many forbidden subjects in KSA such as asking men about their female relatives; to ask for a student’s mother’s name is almost as bad as telling him you want to sleep with her. Generally Fil’s students would tell him what was acceptable to ask and what was not. They understood he was from a different culture and were sympathetic.

Fil tried to explain that it’s not logic that rules in KSA but influence; generally logic is out of the window. You have to exercise your influence and control over a situation to get things done. A favor system exists, somewhat like a bartering system; you must conform to the system to get anything done.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and has Sharia Law; derived from the teachings of the Qu’ran and the Prophet Sunnah. Sharia Law isn’t so strictly followed in other Middle Eastern countries as it is in KSA and the reason is historical. Countries such as Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and UAE are former British colonies so Sharia Law never really took hold in those countries like it did in KSA; they practice a more liberal form of Islam. Fil gives the example of Oman and that at least there you can go to a bar, drink a beer and talk to local people. Oman is still conservative from a Western perspective but liberal compared to KSA.

There are rules and, as Fil puts it “you don’t f*** around”, it’s one of those countries.


Public flogging in Pakistan, also practiced in KSA

To illustrate here are a few points when considering Saudi law and human rights in Saudi Arabia. Many people think that if you steal in KSA the punishment is the amputation of your right hand but this opinion is a little outdated; there’s only been one instance of judicial amputation since 2006. Gay rights are not recognized in KSA and homosexual acts are punishable by flogging or death. Lashings are a favorite form of punishment and are imposed for offenses against religion and public morality such as drinking alcohol or the neglect of prayer. The death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offenses including rape, armed robbery, repeated drug use, witchcraft and adultery. The death penalty is carried out by beheading by sword, stoning or firing squad, followed by crucifixion. 345 cases of public beheading were carried out between 2007 and 2010; that was at least one every five days.

beheadingVery common punishment: Beheading by sword

Unsurprisingly, Fil never sees any trouble in Jubail. He generally only ever sees migrant workers from Third World countries; around 65% of the city’s residents come from countries such as Bangladesh, The Philippines and Pakistan. He rarely sees any police. Fil explains that no one dares break any laws and the Third World migrant workers are extremely law-abiding. The reason is simple; if they were incarcerated for some reason no one would ever come to help them, unlike a US or European citizen who would likely make world news.

Fil feels much safer in Jubail than his hometown of Huston, Texas although there is an air of slight animosity at times. The local Saudis are either friendly or simply ignore you but sometimes the Third World migrant workers give the Western teachers the ‘evil eye’. Teachers are paid much more; migrant workers make no more than $200(US) a month, so it is natural animosity exists. Although Fil feels safe he doesn’t really enjoy going out in the city.

Saudi women live very different lives to women in the West. Fil very rarely sees women in Jubail and when he does they’re usually in the shopping mall, possibly due to the industrial nature of the city. Most are Filipino nurses. All women, regardless of nationality, follow a strict dress code; generally wearing an abaya (a loose-fitting, full length black cloak), a hijab (a head covering to conceal their hair) and a niqab (a face veil). You only see their eyes. The strictness varies by region, for example in Jeddah many women don’t wear a niqab whereas in Riyadh the dress code is more conservative. However things are changing and there now exists designer abayas coming in colors other than black and decorated with patterns and glitter; to reflect a woman’s taste and personality.


Every adult woman has to have a guardian, be it their husband or a close male relative. Women require their guardian’s permission to leave their homes. Women are therefore generally always indoors. Many Human Rights organizations describe the position of Saudi women as like that of a minor; with little authority over their own lives.

Surprisingly, it is illegal to talk to women in public, apart from immediate family members. This, like the dress code, applies to all women of all nationalities. It highlights the sex segregation in KSA. According to the law, there should be physically and visually separate sections for the sexes at all meetings, including special occasions such as at weddings. Most homes, offices, banks and universities have separate entrances for men and women.

Change is slowly taking place in Saudi Arabia. The royal family, headed by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud since 2005, understands that change is necessary but not too quickly as to cause civil unrest. Women are gaining more rights, women cannot vote today but King Abdullah has declared that women will be able to in 2015 local elections, and laws are becoming less rigid. There exists a strong feeling of sentimentality and many people fear that if change takes place too quickly they will lose their traditions and way of life. Even many advocates of reform reject foreign critics for failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society.

obama and king

Good Friends: President Obama with King Abdullah

People have strict codes but are not personally strict. Fil’s students crack jokes all the time and have a healthy sense of humor; far more relaxed than his previous students in Taiwan. None of them are married; first they must pass the program, find employment, get some money and then pay the bride’s family a dowry. Some do have secret girlfriends but it is illegal. Many of his students go to Bahrain on the weekends to drink alcohol and meet women. Some even get married in Bahrain to sleep with women and then divorce all in the same weekend; no sin, no guilt. For others who visit Bahrain there are many prostitutes. Many Saudis also smoke hashish, a cannabis product, although the law considers it as illegal as alcohol.

Where there is poverty and a lack of freedom, there is instability and Bahrain is such a place Fil has visited many times. Big things are happening in Bahrain but it is not covered by the world press because of US support for the government. KSA also is a strong supporter of the Bahrain government.

I wanted to ask Fil about the little things that Saudis do that might surprise. Fil mentioned two; firstly that Saudis have no concept of trash cans. They throw everything on the ground, whilst walking in the streets and even inside the classroom. You see piles of trash everywhere, something Fil finds disgusting. There’s no government cleaning system or any form of public campaigning about the issue. Secondly, Saudis love the rain. People will have picnics in the rain; it’s a special occasion. When you don’t have something you appreciate it; they take advantage of the change in weather.

Saudis also love WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) and action movies. There is a little censorship but not exactly the type you’d expect. All movies are shown, even movies which may be seen as critical of religion or promoting Western ideology. What is censored is anything beyond on-screen kissing and any verbal reference to pork, the consumption of pork is strictly forbidden in Islam; they bleep out the word pork or bacon from all movies.

I hope you have learnt a little about a not so discussed country whilst reading this and the two previous posts. I am eternally grateful to Wikipedia for providing most of the background data mentioned in this post.

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