The Saudi Arabia that I returned to after nearly eight years is very different to the one I left. It is safe to say that society has restructured itself to appeal to the youth of the country, who no longer blindly agree with the conservative laws enforced by the government. With the global phenomenon of demanding personal rights and change, it seems that Saudis too have found their voice.
The ruling royal family is highly revered amongst its citizens, be it out of respect or fear. Nonetheless, as a child I would wonder why Saudi princesses were never referred to, almost as if they did not exist. Today there is at least one well known female member of the royal family: the glamorous Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, wife of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the well known business tycoon and nephew of the ruling King Abdullah. To explain the change sweeping the region and this country, the current Saudi generation according to Princess Ameerah is “impatient”, and will no longer wait for change.
Amongst the notable changes I experienced was the growing number of women taking up employment in sectors where their presence was previously unfathomable. In the past the most popular jobs (and also the only legal ones) for women were in either teaching, healthcare or administration. I was recently astonished when while browsing through electrical appliances at a department store, a young Saudi lady confidently walked up to me to assist me with my purchase. There were also several checkout counters with female cashiers, again something previously unheard of. I also met cheerful Saudi saleswomen in the local Toys R Us. A new law now requires female only staff in cosmetics and lingerie shops. As strange as it may sound, to those of us who were accustomed to seeing men serving these positions simply because it was the law, seeing them being replaced by women is surprisingly stranger.
Another pleasing yet startling advancement is the recent royal decree stating that women would soon be allowed to vote. In the backdrop of the ‘women jailed for driving’ fiasco, this was a widely appreciated move in promoting women’s contribution to Saudi society. To the outside observer, these changes may seem small, but they are important steps and may well signal the advent of more significant changes. In this highly conservative and segregated society, such minor shifts are definitely steering Saudi Arabia towards a more open minded outlook.
However, as praiseworthy and necessary these changes are, I remain skeptical towards what the future holds. Working at the King Abdul Aziz university teaching hospital, I gained first hand experience in not only working with but also training Saudis. I immediately noticed the stark disregard for work ethics. Nowhere else in the world have I seen people firmly believe that it is they, and not their employer who make the rules at the workplace. In contrast to the expatriate employees, the Saudi staff would (and were apparently allowed to) walk in whenever they pleased and leave their station of duty as and when they pleased. It was baffling to see that everyone else would appear to not even notice, clearly considering it acceptable. Students were often absent during rounds which they were meant to be at.
One particularly displeasing observation was with the nursing work force in my department. Most of the nurses were either from India or the Philippines, employed on work visas and working strict 12 hour shifts. I cannot point out a single one of these foreign nurses who did not exhibit exceptional skills and offer superior patient care. Out of the 3 Saudi nurses in my department, only 1 of them was able to match their standard. The other 2 were somehow unofficially allowed to work 8 hour shifts, with their stations being unmanned for the remainder of the 4 hours. When I questioned one of the Indian nurses about the reason for this difference, she simply smiled and remarked: ”they are Saudi.”
The same phenomenon occurred amongst the doctors, the majority of whom were highly qualified and very well experienced specialists from countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and India. Yet it was not uncommon to see young Saudi doctors, most of them fresh graduates, occupying positions of authority, commanding and controlling in a rather comical way their more qualified and better experienced subordinates. It made little sense to me as to why an individual who lacked the proper skills should be placed in such a position, but once again, I received the same answer: “they are Saudi.” As much as I tried to seek another explanation, based on the opinions of my foreign colleagues and my own experience, I ultimately had to accept the fact that this was the norm with regards to the Saudi work ethic.
Another area I have found disturbing is the case of domestic help in this country. Every local family in my experience has a housekeeper or nanny flown in to be employed to do the housework and look after the children. Many of the employers are women who do not work outside the home, yet still find it difficult to manage the housework on their own. As a result many Saudis are accustomed to having someone do their cooking and cleaning for them from a very early age, and consider such basic personal chores to be beneath them. Even in hospitals, offices, schools and restaurants, menial jobs of this nature are always occupied by cheaply employed foreign labour rather than locals. Such narcissistic dependence on others surely interferes with the growth of any nation.
Previously it seemed as if the Saudi people accepted the rules dictated to them by their government, but as the newer generations seek to change those standards and take matters into their own hands, I wonder what they will advocate for their country.
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