Skip to content

4 Things A South African Immediately Learns In Saudi Arabia

I’ve not been in the Kingdom for long, and it has been a harsh introduction into the country. Quite a few things are different here. Too different most would argue.  However being in a foreign country, there are a few reflections one tends to make – almost immediately.

1. South Africa is a little piece of heaven

South Africans complain a lot. A LOT. It’s an incredible bitch-fest down there.

…someone there is complaining how beautiful that area is

South Africa has a very high crime rate. So people complain about that. South Africa has been experiencing power cuts in the form of “load shedding” since 2008. So people complain about that. Traffic, health care, gated communities, the police force, education system, politicians, you name it – everything is on the complain list.

This is not to say that these are not real issues being faced by South Africa. The problem is that South Africans often do not see the value of their country.

Have you tried living in a scorching desert? That is what most of Saudi Arabia is. Want to take a drink of water from the tap? Do it – as long as you are prepared for higher than recommended sulphur levels to destroy your insides over time. Here, bottled water is not just a fashion statement, it’s a must. Want Chicken Licken, or those blueberry muffins from Woolworths? Well tough.

And driving? Here that’s an extreme sport. South African taxi drivers are nothing compared to most drivers in Saudi Arabia. These guys are crazy on the roads. It’s the little things you miss. And you miss those a lot. A mobile network that actually has an excellent coverage – and a properly tested automated menu (DTMF). And a call centre that will at least give you an option to wait on the line if the call centre is really busy …. and not just drop the call on you.

Seriously, come on Zain.

It only takes the first few minutes of landing in the Kingdom to recognize just how developed South Africa is … and how much cooler it is. Even so, nothing one experiences in Saudi Arabia is a showstopper. The customs are very different, and the culture shock will be real in the first few days – but nothing that cannot be overcome by an open mind. The problem with South Africans is that we don’t travel much – especially the black community. This is despite there being 97 countries a South African can visit right now without a visa. This leads to a very narrow view of the world, and a very casual disrespect for one’s own country. Society is a technical invention. And keeping it running is extremely difficult. Governments don’t always get it right. They mess up quite regularly, to be honest. Even so, South Africa is a treasure which its citizens would do well to recognise it as so and protect it. South Africa being a very diverse society, faces more complex variables than most other countries have to care for. It will never be perfect, but it’s a lot better than what comments on News24 would have you believe.

And on one of those variables…

2. Being a woman is really complicated

The last weekend before leaving South Africa, I had an assignment to do in Centurion Mall. There I saw a girl who could not be more than 10 years old, walking behind her mother and wearing these…


There is nothing that short-circuits my mind more than the sight of those shoes. What sense of style are those things suppose to convey? How the hell do women walk in those things? The child was struggling to keep up with her own mother … who was on the heavy side. Outrageously short pants and a top which I also did not understand, that child looked more like a prostitute than a child. The whole sight was nauseating and rather sad.

It is a fact that there are more debates about a women’s place in society and what her conduct “should” be than there are about men. It is an opinion that for the mere fact that we still have these debates shows just how young a species we still are. South Africa is (legally) a very open society. Something I completely support. But it does not take a lot of scratching on the surface to find deep-rooted cultural and traditional value systems that still hold true. For example, at some point in an Afrikaners women’s life, she should know how to make jam. These social pressures that any woman faces, their rights for self-determination and the relationship they have with their own society, probably in any society, is the direct source of why we have women’s campaigners or feminists. Now should the child have the right to wear as mentioned above? Absolutely. Regardless of how undignified I deem it to be. And there is no better place where this conundrum is more visible than in Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia, as in other Muslim societies, women wear a hijab as part of modest clothing – predominantly when in the presence of males who are not part of the immediate family. If you have been anywhere in the Middle East before, the reasons for this become very obvious. In general, Arabian women are very stunning (see Lebanon).

Sadly, there is often an over-emphasis in attacking this one aspect of Muslim society by pro-western assimilationists – which oversimplifies the entire discussion. Very few times do we actually get to hear about what do women in these societies feel about being part of that kind of society (Vice News – YouTube). In Saudi Arabia, there are women who are pro-civil liberties such as being allowed to drive, without being accompanied by a male companion. While there is also a very vocal side that is quite happy about how things are right now. The side that is happy with how things are often cited security as being a concern thus preferring the company of a male relative. A valid concern which any women in South Africa can relate with.

That is only a single part of a huge discussion concerning the lives of women in Saudi Arabia. Women in Saudi Arabia make up just 19% of the country’s workforce. I only see Saudi woman in shopping malls, hospitals or as street beggars, which apparently means that they have been thrown out of the house by their husbands. Are women being underutilized in the economy? My ethnocentrism says yes. But that is just my perspective. A perspective that should not be imposed on a local population. Though the resonating theme of why a women’s place in society is even a topic at all is what concerns me. There are ideologies at play here which are competing for the most market share. The example most relevant here involves Muslim women – women who are part of a religion that has unjustly received bad publicity over a handful of radicals. Part of a religion that has had to defend and justify its belief. Compounded with the tribalism that is still in human nature, it is easy to see why mainly this example serves as a rallying point for opponents of the “subjugation of women” around the world.

Oddly, this tribal way of thinking seems to have filtered down as some form of sexism. It is a wonder that when human society evolved, how much did women get to say about the customs that they would have to practice? Have modern societies created a place where women can feel human first then women second without giving thought to their women-hood?

It does not seem so. Yet…

3. Hard-line customs do make sense (sometimes)

Let’s imagine the following conversation.

Bill: Hey Tyson. How you doing man?

Tyson: I’m good dude, and yourself?

Bill: Cant complain .. you know how it is. So how’s your wife’s vagina?


Aside from being the centre of the global Muslim community, Saudi Arabia is an extremity family-oriented society. “The Family” is the cornerstone of the entire country.

For example, Saudi people prefer to do business with their immediate family than an outsider … with a person from another clan or foreigner receiving the least amount of consideration. Aside from the Quran which is very explicit about the importance of how keeping good family values is crucial to one’s own health and the health of a society, one has to remember that Saudi Arabia, which is the birthplace of Islam, was one of the poorest countries in the world.

Of the approximately US$900 billion the country makes today in GDP, 90% of that comes directly or indirectly from the country’s petroleum industry. Before those years of oil, what most people had was their religion and their family ties (and way too many tribal wars). And as human history has shown in many examples, poverty has a way of making one understand the importance of keeping close family ties. And the society has evolved such that anything that may be perceived to interfere or tear that family structure is explicitly not tolerated – such as asking about the well-being of another’s wife … let alone asking about her vagina.

Many other customs in Saudi Arabia involve defined roles between men and women. Although many of these are subject to the controversy by a person not familiar with those customs – they do serve to create a society that knows its identity.

South Africa on the other end of the spectrum has eleven official languages to start with – with two percent of the country speaking a first language that is not even official. The Bantu languages spoken in the country are divided into three different subgroups. If we were to take the eleven languages as eleven different cultures – you start to see the problem. None of these cultures has the exact same customs. This also extends to religious practices. This can have ugly consequences – especially when there is leadership that actively divides the country into those ethnic lines as it has happened before, coupled with unreasonably high levels of modern poverty. That is why national identity in South Africa revolves typically around the national sports teams, something that is entirely unimportant.

The customs, whether hard-line or not, have given Saudi Arabia a very unique and evident identity. And Saudi society expects those customs to be respected – whether you like them or not. I appreciate that. I suggest that South Africa follow suit … by making it known that spitting, urinating or farting in public will get you jail time at the least.

Countries like Saudi Arabia work very hard through their ministries to make sure that those customs which make up a country’s identity are protected. And that’s why…

4. Security and stability are everything

Just last week, not far from where I am staying, machine gun fire rang out for about ten minutes in the city of Riyadh. Details unknown.

On an apparently, ISIS affiliated Twitter account – ISIS said that they will kill those who worship stones. “Stones” is a reference to the Kaaba, a cube in the centre of the Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram. If you have ever seen any Muslim praying, anywhere in the world, the direction they were facing was towards the Kaaba. That is how important that place is to Muslims.

ISIS wants to destroy that cube and that is no idle threat.

“National Security” is a phrase that is thrown around loosely by many politicians these days in many countries. Often, for entirely wrong, misleading and unjustifiable reasons. In Saudi Arabia (and Russia actually), fighting terrorism within the country is a genuine problem.

Currently, 1 in 4 barrels of oil comes out of Saudi Arabia. That’s why the thought of a sequel to the Arab spring or any of its ripples affecting the Kingdom is something that nobody even wants to think about. The price of oil would shoot up so high and so quickly that there would be some societies who would not be able to afford oil … compounded by real shortages in the actual oil supply (AlJazeera Special – The Secrets of the Seven Sisters Documentary).

To the south, Saudi Arabia is fighting an actual war in Yemen. To the east, a diplomatic war with Iran. To the north, they border a country that is mostly run by the Taliban, Iraq. To the north-westerly, they face the old enemy of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.

Should anything happen here the ramifications would be beyond immense in the Arab world. But at least the Kingdom seems to have the means to deal with all the problems around them. And these issues cannot be ignored.

South Africa is a country where once in it, you do not give a thought to the enormous catastrophic event that can change a society. What you give a thought to is your daily life. Lock the doors at night, house alarms, hijacking, armed robbery, rape, murder, etc. Crime. Violent crime. Saudi Arabia does not burden you with those. What does occupy your mind is when is this whole region going to ignite in war?

I’m not quite sure which is better.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: