Sunday, September 23, 2012


So I just spent the five days last week in Saudi Arabia. I think that in the United States we often have decidedly mixed feelings about the Kingdom. On one hand, it is the ultimate boogieman. Wealthy beyond compare but home to mindblowingly restrictive religious laws, birthplace of Osama binLadin and the 9-11 hijackers, one of the last true unapologetic monarchies… But on the other hand, when push comes to shove in a rough neighborhood, they always seem to have our back. They could choke off the American economy in a heartbeat if they stopped the oil from flowing. When we wanted to sanction Iran, they increased production to make it possible. They hosted us for Iraq I. And they have the wealth to purchase enough weapons to reduce our regional best friend forever Israel to a bug smear on the Mediterranean Sea, but never have. So when you peak under the gutra, who are we really dealing with you here?

And after five days, largely confined to the Riyadh Intercontinental and various sterile office blocks, I have no idea. This is what I can report. As a female I am required to wear an abayah in public (which is basically a flowing black polyester choir robe), and cover my hair (more black polyester). Saudi men traditionally wear a white robe and head covering as well – though it is not mandated by law and foreign men can get away with suits. No long hair though. (As an illustration, I included these cute little clip art icons that I ripped off one of our powerpoints.)

 As a woman, I am not allowed to drive. I am not allowed to enter government buildings. (This made for an awkward moment in one meeting when we realized that I was the only one in the room with the technical skills to work on the computer portal with the necessary data – but culturally that wasn’t going to work. They made robot jokes. I smiled and silently swallowed a drone joke.) Office buildings – public or private – do not contain female rest rooms. In order to use the bathroom, we have to get a male colleague to “sweep” one for us then stand guard. I am not allowed to use the hotel gym or swimming pools (though when I asked, they did install an exercise bike in my cavernous hotel room). And these are just the restrictions on foreign women. Saudi women face much stricter limitations.

All of which would lead one to believe this would be a pretty chauvinist place to work right? But oddly once you are sitting across the table in a board room, despite the fact that I am just a little face peering out of a giant mass of black fabric, my government counterparts took as seriously, if not more so, than some of my Western hyper-liberal male World Bank colleagues in DC. In addition, all the meetings were conducted in English which our Saudi counterparts spoke flawlessly. They were intelligent, engaged, motivated, and completely open to discussing innovation. There wasn’t even one time where I even felt like slamming my head into the table – almost unheard of on my standard business trips. But on the other hand, all week I encountered only one Saudi woman at any of these conference tables, and she was nearly silent.

And professional interactions are really all I have for you. On the afternoon of my last day I was able to sneak out to one of the markets. It was allegedly the oldest covered market in Riyadh and in a distinctly different part of town than the gleaming skyscrapers. The market had a local section, where all the vendors were men but some of the shoppers were small groups of women. (One of the upsides of the abayah and hijab rules are that once I am covered up and wearing sunglasses, while no one is going to mistake me for a Saudi woman, I could be any number of respectable Balkan or Central Asian nationalities.) There was a tourist section that was basically filled with Pakistanis and Afghans selling crap from Pakistan and Afghanistan. I found a rug that would go great in my new living room – but the starting price was 23,000 euros. But I guess if I were ever going to find a prince to buy it for me, I was probably in the right spot. Alas…

So in the end, I don't have any definitive conclusions for you.  Further study is warranted.  But right now - I am just happy to be sitting in the United States of America on a Sunday afternoon - full of Salvadorean food and watching football.

1 comment:

Tara Dairman said...

Fascinating, Kristen! I saw the picture you posted on Facebook and wondered what you were up to in the RSA. So glad that you keep this blog going as you travel to new places. =)