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My two days in Saudi Arabia

I came back yesterday from a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t blog about it beforehand because I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the chances of my getting a visa, which arrived on the morning of the day I left.

Now I’m back and I’m suffering from a type of cognitive dissonance — something more like cultural dissonance. I’m having so much difficulty making sense of it that I’ve found myself anxious about trying to describe the two days to my family. Blogging about it is yet more difficult.

First, there are so many reasons I distrust my own impressions: I was there for two days. I hung out with Saudis studying the Internet and with Netty foreigners. I saw only the inside of the Marriott, King Saud University, and a coffee shop. I was one of two Americans (as far as I could tell) at the event I went for. I was the sole Jew (as far as I could tell). I am a Jew with deeply mixed feelings about Israel. (No, I won’t elaborate.) I’ve never been to the Middle East before. I speak no Arabic. I am liberal democrat (small “d”). I am a vegetarian who keeps incidentally kosher. I am male. In short, Saudi Arabia — The Kingdom — not only is so foreign to me that I have no reliable framework for understanding it, it challenges more aspects of my identity than anywhere I’ve been.

And yet, while the dissonance can be jarring, I know yet more of dissonance is hidden behind the normalcy of the Saudi world. The fact that the entire audience of the conference at which I spoke was male is simply normal for the Saudis. When the voice of a woman is piped in over a loudspeaker — the women students were watching over a fiber optic connection — to ask a question, the Saudis think they’re being progressive by allowing women to be heard, but the Westerner wants to walk out and enter a different century. Then there are the dissonances that are invisible to the tourist’s experience: death for homosexuals, an economy built on carbon, an all-powerful monarchy.

I went because I understood the day was intended to advance the cause of integrating Saudi Arabia into the rest of the world through a (relatively) open Internet. I’m in favor of that. The Internet track was part of the traditional Al Janadriyah festival; the festival’s theme this year was “One World — Multiple cultures,” which shows admirable intent. I was part of a morning panel, and gave a 10-minute talk that summarized a 10-page article I’d written for the event. Having given it, I now think that the talk wasn’t particularly useful, but I think and hope my being there helped in some tiny way to reinforce the belief that the Net is an opportunity for Saudis to engage with the rest of the world. (Disclosure: In addition to paying all expenses, the festival has promised to pay me a relatively modest speakers fee. [Update: They reneged on the promise to pay me.])

I was treated very hospitably by every man I met, no matter what his station. Every man was generous, seemed delighted to be talking with an American, was open-minded or at least willing to have a frank conversation. I did not talk with a single woman. I would have loved to have talked with one of the women’s classes, but in fact I didn’t meet with any classes, and I would not have been allowed to be in the same room as women students. The Saudis I did talk with (a non-representative sample) think that this segregation respects women and simultaneously were slightly apologetic, pointing to the progress women have made: The woman’s campus is being moved to be a mere half kilometer from the men’s, women “participate” on campus via fiber optic cable, more women have been sent abroad for study this year than men (which I found quite surprising), the King says women will eventually have full rights.

Of course this is outrageously unacceptable. And yet, you fly out of The Kingdom, stop at Frankfort, and are confronted by a newspaper that has a fully naked woman on the front page for no reason except to excite men, and the truth of your own culture’s outrageousness hits you right where your cultural dissonance lives. The structural oppression of women, the whipping of women for being the female participant in adultery, the removal of women’s voice from the public sphere, the systematic deprivation of power over their own fates, all of this goes far beyond whether the culture strips women naked or clothes them in sacks with eyeholes. Nevertheless, seeing that naked woman on the front page of a Western newspaper extended the cultural dissonance into my own culture.


I am going to continue my act of ridiculous generalization by telling you about the state of the Internet in Saudi Arabia. Please re-read the part above where I go through all the reasons I am not qualified to have an opinion about such things. It is especially important to remember that I only spoke with educated, Netty men, mainly people studying new media as faculty and students. I’m leaving them anonymous because I don’t want to get them in trouble, especially by misrepresenting them because of the language differences.

So, we know from the Open Net Initiative that the Saudi government filters porn, Jihadist sites, and some Israeli sites. I encountered little desire to undo that: Why would a devout Moslem want to see such sites? They are not looking for more liberty. Far more at the forefront of the
concerns of the men I met was the opposite issue: How can the Saudis not only maintain their traditional values on the Net but present themselves as they are so the world will understand them?

I asked one of my interlocutors whether the Saudis see the Net as transformative or as way of further accomplishing traditional goals. The answer: Mainly the latter. Saudis have traditionally taken new media as a way to route around traditional taboos, he said. When phones were first introduced, men would hold up signs with their numbers on them when stopped at lights so that women could call them if they wanted; phones were for forbidden flirting. Likewise, the Net is providing a new medium for flirting, and for meeting with women within the same (virtual) space. He said the Net is also for expressing risky political ideas, although that seemed secondary in his explanation.

The same man drew an appropriate distinction between the Net as an extension of old media — e.g., news organizations send out mass SMS news alerts — and as a transformative medium that allows new uses and new social forms. But just as I asked whether he thought the bottom-up nature of the Net might allow for a new configuration of power in The Kingdom, we got interrupted. Probably just as well. My guess is that he would have said no; Saudi Arabia works pretty well, if you’re a man.


I saw four places and stretches of road in between them. In order:

1. The Riyadh airport is large and modern, but empty of shops aside from some coffee-and-pastry stands, at least as far as I saw. While I was waiting for Customs clearance, I was taken to a hall in which I was served a small cup of cardamon-scented tea. Because of the total power of the government, the airport remains a somewhat scary experience, even while you are being served from a gold tray.

2. The Marriott is a fine hotel with friendly service and excellent buffet meals, slightly run down by US standards. The lobby, which circles around the central elevators, is a more social place than American lobbies. People hung out there — mainly men, but occasionally local women, as well as women from outside Riyadh in various stages of modest not-entirely-coveredness. (Riyadh is the most conservative city in Saudi Arabia.) Security is heavy at the hotel.

3. King Saud University is large and modern. It’s home to 70,000 male students. 75% of the faculty got their degrees abroad. (It might actually be that 75% got degrees in the U.S.) The Mass Media Department, which was the host of the Internet Day of the festival, is well-equipped. They are building more new media facilities. The head of the department seems to have warm and friendly relations with his staff, the students, and the service staff of the university.

The Kingdom is engaged in a massive school building program, creating new universities at an impressive pace. I don’t know the mix of male and female schools, although the NYT reported that at least one of the universities was going to have gender-mixed classes. As it is, only female teachers can be in the classroom with women students; the classrooms are connected by fiber optic cable so male teachers can beam in. For the first time, more women are being sent to study abroad than men. The government picks up all expenses for foreign study, as well as paying all students a stipend for attending university; university is free. (A couple of Saudis I spoke with complained about the grade schools, which, they say, are fine facilities but very weak on the elements of education other than Koranic studies.)

4. Three of us got taken through Riyadh by a graduate student, who drove us to a coffee shop about 20km from the Marriott (see #5). So, this was far from a comprehensive tour of the city, but the student said that what we saw was typical. And what we saw was a vast city, almost entirely newly built, with few buildings higher than four or five stories. The streets were straight, flat, wide, and choked with traffic. But, there were virtually no pedestrians, perhaps because the distances between places to go is so vast, and certainly because for months of the year, the sidewalks would melt your sandals. The sidewalks are so empty that when we passed a couple of blocks bordering a park, our host pointed out that there were people walking.

By the way, when I asked at the hotel desk for a pamphlet with tourist attractions, the clerk said that they didn’t have any such list. He sent me to the gift shop, which also did not. I’m not saying there aren’t interesting places to visit (e.g., there’s an old part of the city, a museum, a market); I’m saying that this is not a town geared up for the tourist trade. For example, there is no such thing as a tourist visa.

5. The coffee shop the student took us to was nothing like a coffee shop. Forget I even called it that. It was a walled area with some grassy spots and some covered areas for smoking hookahs and drinking tea or coffee. (As the entry form you get on the airplane tells you, drug dealers are executed, so you need not doubt me when I tell you it was tobacco in the hookahs. Given the Saudis’ barbaric penal system, you don’t f*ck around in The Kingdom.) We sat in one of the semi-enclosed areas. It consisted of eight stalls separated by low walls. You sit on cushions on the floor. The attendant brings a TV unasked and puts it on your front wall. Everyone else has his TV blaring. You order a flavor of tobacco — I mimicked our host and chose orange — and tea or coffee. You smoke and talk about the Internet. I don’t smoke, so I didn’t inhale (insofar as I could avoid it). Our host tells us that this is where his classmates and friends hang out at night. Later, when we were telling another Festival speaker about the oddness of the TV, he pointed out that in English pubs, there’s always a TV on. Good point.

Of course the coffee shop is for men only.


So, I am deep in cultural dissonance. The men I met were warm, hospitable, eager to connect to the rest of the world. Once I was identified as an American, several of them volunteered to me how upset they were by 9/11, how much they hate the Jihadists, and how they have squashed the terrorists within their own country. (There was news today about an additional assault on terrorists within The Kingdom.) When I identified myself as a Jew, they would offer that Islam is not the only path and that Judaism is among the great religions; more than once, this included a passing denunciation of Israel, by way of separating Judaism and Zionism. The hospitality they offered to a Western Jew would have put to shame the reception they would have received, dressed in their traditional clothes, in most places in America. I had conversations that were warm and frank. I only had conversations with men. I made genuine friendships. The Kingdom is brutal to offenders. People were open to differing ideas. The Kingdom represses half its population. German tabloids have naked women on their covers. The Kingdom executes homosexuals. The Kingdom pays its young people to go to college.

Cultural dissonance is, I am afraid, a type of truth.

24 Responses to “My two days in Saudi Arabia”

  1. Wow, fascinating.

  2. I wonder if we saw each other – I spent most of the last month in the lobby of The Marriott before returning to Toronto this week. My opinion and experience was extremely close to yours. The only other addition I have to your observations is the massive exploitation of labor from South Asia and the Philippines that goes on. Time and time again, I heard the same story – from the limo drivers of the company the Marriott hires, the ‘tea boys’ in government offices – they all talk of being promised a certain wage and being made me sign documents in Arabic that resulted in far less salaries once in the Kingdom with no way to get out of their contracts. They also consistently spoke of tough living conditions, work hours, and ill treatment by their ‘sponsors’. I came back with serious questions about whether we were doing the right thing by doing business with a country and organizations that have little to no respect for human rights and basic treatment of fellow human beings. Like you, the people I met – or rather the men I met – were progressive, extremely hospitable, and open to (from their perspective) unorthodox ideas but its like a kingdom of one-eyed people who ignore what is not convenient – especially what lies at the core of the way the country functions.

  3. An amazing experience and an informative and candid piece of writing. I just heard a talk last night by Jon Turk after reading his most recent book, The Raven’s Gift, and I am struck by a similarity between your experience and his experiences with the Koryak people of Siberia. Reading the book I felt as if I knew his Russian friends as my friends. They related to Jon as if he were a member of their family. Despite all of the cultural differences, they expressed a deep regard for each other’s humanity.

    Face to face with the peoples of the world we relate as common human beings. We relate as the members of a reindeer herd relate to each other. We offer each other tea and share food and shelter together. But each of us is also a member of a culture, and our conditionings predispose us to think and act toward members of other cultures in divergent and unfathomable ways. Our humanity brings us together while our cultures are pulling us apart. What a fascinating trip.

  4. A fascinating experience – thank you for sharing your observations. I’m left to wonder if the civility and relative openness of minds and conversation were authentic, or a result of the individuals with whom you interacted politely honouring an honoured guest.

  5. Amazing post …

  6. A wonderful piece-thanks.

  7. So my previous post about the Mahdi was not off-topic. You were in Saudi Arabia when I made that post. Are you are the Mahdi?

  8. David,
    Thanks a lot for your post. Its a lovely literary piece. If I were a publisher I would publish a book with your short stories. Congratulations!!

  9. Speaking of cognitive dissonance, the irony is that this brutal Saudi dictatorship, with its oppression of women and men alike, wouldn’t have survived (this long) the pressure from freedom forces without the continuous support from the very democratic and free America and its allies. Speaking of cognitive dissonance, what an irony!

  10. Wow, I am jealous of your trip and I also admire your ability to equally observe our culture and theirs. I would love to spend time there and learn. What was the best thing about the conference? It sounds like such a growing experience.

  11. Your travel writing is excellent, David. I have read a fair amount about Saudi Arabia, and have friends who have lived there and speak about it, but this piece contributes something significant.

  12. David; Great, honest, intriguing and heartfelt post.

  13. Thank you for writing this and sharing your experiences with the men in Saudi Arabia, their gracious politesse, their comfort in their own skins. How was the food? Was there much on the vegetarian side of the menu?

  14. I ate mainly in the hotel buffet, which had plenty of veggies, salads, hummus, etc. It also had western cheese, which was comforting. Delicious fruit and vegetables, at least in the hotel. On the other hand, on fish night in the hotel, the eggplant salad had tentacles.

  15. That’s funny. I thought it was celeriac!

  16. This was a wonderful read, David. It reminded me of my visit two years ago to my daughter, son-in-law and four grandkids in Jordan. Waseem is Palestinian, and his view of the world is very different than ours. He often works in Saudi Arabia, and he and my daughter lived there for a period once. My daughter, while living in a house with several maids, dreaded the religious police with their whips. She was forbidden to drive a car. It is a culture within a culture, and so it goes.

  17. David, I’m so glad you went. Thank you for this extremely candid and thoughtful post.

  18. This is a brilliant and moving piece

  19. Here’s a quote from a Lorrie Moore story about another trip abroad:
    “Abby began to think that all the beauty and ugliness and turbulence one found scattered through nature, one could also find in people themselves, all collected there, all together in a single place. No matter what terror or loveliness the earth could produce – winds, seas – a person could produce the same, lived with the same, lived with all that mixed-up nature swirling inside, every bit. There was nothing as complex in the world – no flower or stone – as a single hello from a human being.
    (‘Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People’)”

  20. […] My two days in Saudi Arabia- Joho the Blog, March 25, 2010 […]

  21. […] David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Havard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society — read more here. […]

  22. I had dinner at that very same hotel buffet – about twenty years ago. In so many ways, very little there has changed.

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  24. That’s a smart answer to a diifcfult question.

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