Saudi Arabia: Reverse Culture Shock

I have written in the past many articles about the culture shock expatriates feel when coming to Saudi Arabia for the first time and experiencing a culture totally unlike their own.  Reverse culture shock is also very real.  When an individual has been away from their home country for multiple years after living in a different environment, it can be equally challenging to face reverse culture shock on coming home.  I’ve experienced reverse culture shock and find myself even now still grappling at times with the changes between life in USA and life in KSA.

Life in the States is faster paced and direct.  Unlike Saudi where one will usually exchange pleasantries over aromatic kawa (Arabic coffee) while munching on tasty biscuits (cookies) and exchanging pleasantries before getting down to business, in the US a meeting will be scheduled for a specified time and no one wants a second wasted on getting to the point  of the discussion.  Apart from the business world and ways that business is conducted, I think in the States one from an opposite culture may have their senses assailed from the wide variety of choices.  For example, there may be a small section in a Saudi supermarket with perhaps 10 differing kinds of salad dressings from which to choose yet by comparison in the US a complete aisle can be dedicated to salad dressings alone!

Perhaps though the greatest difference where culture shock and reverse culture shock is felt is in the freedoms and openness of the two countries.  When I have spoken to Saudis who have been outside of the Kingdom for a period of time it is usually this aspect of reverse culture shock which is the toughest to re-adapt to.  Outside of the Kingdom a Saudi mom can take her children in her car to a local park where they can enjoy an afternoon of play.  The mom is not hampered by an abaya and can easily chase her children in play.  The Saudi family can go to movies at local theatres whether an afternoon matinee or an evening show.  They can sit together as a family and enjoy the movie while munching on popcorn.  Mom and Dad’s can go together to their child’s school and watch their child participate in school programs and sports activities.  It is natural to interact with all the other parents too.  The Saudi mom can go out at any time with or without her husband and feel the fresh air and sunshine shining down on her face.  If she wants too, she can take her children out for an outing of mini-golf or some other enjoyable activity on her own.  There are also numerous play groups and day care centers for the children to interact with others and mom’s to make new friends easily.

However on return to Saudi Arabia the Saudi family must revert back to conformity of segregation, abide by cultural expectations of dress code and fewer choices or opportunities for open social interaction.  Even my own late husband remarked on the challenges he faced after having been outside of the Kingdom for 10 years.  He was never disloyal to his country but missed many of the freedoms and choices that were available outside.  We both felt that Saudis and individuals outside of the Kingdom were in general more relaxed and at ease whereas many Saudis were always tense and had a fear of being watched and judged.

What can a Saudi who has been away from the Kingdom do if they would like to retain aspects of when they lived outside of the Kingdom?  Where can they go?  How can they have greater interaction with the expatriate community if they wish to do so?  A Saudi can start by having contact with the local embassy of whichever country they had come from.  Identify themselves as former expatriates of that country and state the desire to participate in any social activities offered by the embassy.  Attend many of the lectures and functions that take place in the local community by expatriates which can provide opportunities to network and get to know the expatriates.  This is turn can lead to invitations to family activities similar to those experienced outside of the Kingdom.  Most expatriate women would welcome the opportunity to get to know Saudi women.  Don’t be hesitant to say ‘Hello’ to an expatriate woman which is another way of leading to possible friendships.

There are activities which can take place in the Diplomatic areas, expatriate compounds or Saudi schools where Saudi nationals can also participate.  However in many cases a Saudi usually needs to know an expatriate to receive an invitation or be informed of such activities.

These are suggestions which can help adapt to the reverse culture shock.  I encourage American Bedu readers to share their own experiences of both culture and reverse culture shock and how they worked through the shock.


25 Responses

  1. I enjoyed this post. Interesting topic. One of my Syrian friends recently returned to Damascus after living two years in London and he has had a tough time readjusting. He notes the difference in work ethic and even simple things like legally getting on Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and Blogger which are blocked in Syria.

    My mom lived much of her formative years in West Africa and she’s mentioned having reverse culture shock when returning to the States. And this was over forty years ago!

  2. You make it sound like Saudi Arabia is a prison! My mom used to takes everywhere in Saudi , to the waterfront to play to beaches and resorts in mid and late 90s . She has her own driver to take her wherever she wants , and I guess if she drove she would do the same. My mom did every possible thing a Saudi women would if she easy abroad ! Even , she and my would took us to movie theaters in Bahrain which is 40 minutes from my parents house ! So I think what you have said don’t apply to the general picture in Saudi Arabia. you even make it sound like we don;t have day-cares in Saudi Arabia ! my sister takes her young little boy there and meet other moms there 2

    As a young Saudi studying abroad in Canada, I will answer your questions.

    ( What can a Saudi who has been away from the Kingdom do if they would like to retain aspects of when they lived outside of the Kingdom? )

    I don’t know what aspects of what I do here I am not able to it in Saudi Arabia? drinking ? I don’t drink , In fact I used to drink when I was a teenager before I came to Canada and I have quit drinking in my second month in Canada ! ( this is an example to show that I become more attached to my national traditional and religious identity when I came to Canada ). I can do in Saudi Arabia mostly everything I do in Canada and I have noticed that when I went back last summer for more than 2 months for the first time in 3 years . In fact, I enjoyed the company of my sisters and hang out a lot with them and with my cousins. Also my friends , did everything I do here in Canada.
    Few problems that don’t bother me were , (1) some of the drivers in the street. (2) NO Tim Hortons lol (3) I stay in line in some places while some people don’t (4) discrimination from some non-Saudis in the company I worked in for the summer

    Maybe when I go back home for good within the next year or so , issues will come up but I don’t think much will appear because I am highly adaptable and I enjoy life and understand cultural differences very well and know how to deal with them.


  3. Hamad,

    Much I think depends on ones gender and where in Saudi one lives. For a woman, the mahrem she has plays a significant role too. It sounds like you grew up in or around Damman or maybe Al Khobar, perhaps an Aramco compound?

    I do thank you for sharing your views and perspectives!

  4. It is very true about reverse culture shock. My husband upon his first return to India after living in the USA for awhile was astounded at how much India had changed while he was gone *wink wink*. In actuality India hadn’t changed, he had…He was amazed how bad the traffic had become, how crowded and busy it was…I reminded him that it wasn’t India that had changed but his perception of it had changed. He literally saw India with a new set of eyes…When he came to the USA he said one of the toughest things was to decide which toothpaste to buy because they had something like 30 choices!!! He learned to weed out all the choices and pick his favorites, but he never got over that feeling of intimidation when we entered a store!

  5. Bedu,

    My family is form Alkhobar but I didn’t grow up in Aramco’s compounds ! I played soccer sometimes over there , but never lived there, neither any member of my family even my brother in law who works as an engineer in Aramco.

    I really don’t see that my life will change much when I go back home. The weather will be a big change and the lack of using my French and English on daily basis ( well maybe I will be using English in work and listening to Mos Def and watching the Chris Rock lol )

    My sister lived in the States for some years when she first married and she does mostly same things she used to in the sates. She has her own driver and her own car. she takes her kids everywhere , to my parents’ and do stuff my mom used to do for us when we were kids like going to the water front and resorts and places she wants to go. I will tell you this 2 . She is the one who goes to check on the kids’s school since my nephew goes to school where women teach the first 4 grades !

    I think , as you said, it depends on where you live in Saudi Arabia and on your personal attitude to.

  6. Regardless of one’s social, political, religious and economic status (including the royals), there is absolutely no comparison between the individual liberty, freedom of choice, movement, religious freedom and independence in Saudi Arabia and Canada.

    Yes Hamad, Saudi Arabia is a dark prison of the worst kind for the rulers and the ruled. Ask Saudi princesses when you see them in London, Paris, San Francisco, Washington DC or Beverly Hills.

    Only people who live their entire lives intoxicated or in a coma can say with straight or twisted face that the Saudis have the same liberties as the Canadians.

    To accuse American Bedu of depicting Saudi Arabia negatively is like saying the Saudis enjoy the same liberties as the Canadians.

  7. Culture shock can be an issue for many people. I’m currently experiencing it myself. Sometimes, I have to somehow manage to “float” through different cultures all in the same day depending on who I am with. It’s not easy to balance the expectations of each group of people whilst still maintaining one’s own culture. This is without even leaving the same city!

    When there are differences in food, shopping, transportation methods (especially when one must become reliant on others again), it can be much more difficult. I can only imagine what it must be like to also have to deal with large differences in language and main culture, too!

    I would love to hear how people deal with culture shock because having to adapt to different cultures is something I’m currently working on. I think in order to successfully adapt to another culture one must be open-minded and not afraid to make the occasional “mistake”. One must also be strong enough to stand up for any personal beliefs, ideas, and/or ways of living that go against mainstream culture for the area. I think it’s important to focus on the good things that the culture has while still being aware of the not-so-good things in order to maintain a positive yet realistic outlook on life and fully enjoy the experience of the culture, wherever one happens to be.

  8. @ Ali alyami

    who are you to say that? you are a sellout person who claim to know better. It enough for me to see your interview here and how you figured out the you living in a wrong way when your family didn’t answer you about Fajar payer ! Man you are the last one to talk about our life , an old loser who traveled for a village to city and had a culture shock and thinks all Saudis live in your Najran!! Sriously, do you think that there’s any significant number of people in Saudi or in the GCC countries who think like you ? You have been to Israel and and this is by itself makes in the eyes of many people a disgrace.

    Anyhow, I learned very early , that people who leave their country and start talking about reforms from outside the country are just big mouths ! you have no respect for your own religion or culture and I have no respect for you.

    Countries don’t have to be the same and cultures don’t have to have the dame guidelines. You fit the description of the ” house Negro” , you went to the states and ejyoed it and become more loyal to the western culture superiority than supremacist themselves!

    old man telling me I don’t know about my city and life!! you probably live in your own old world where your still in the 80s or something

  9. Ali,
    If you are going to argue with someone on a personal and it doesn’t relate to the topic, please take it to the debate page. Also, personally insulting someone else on here is usually frowned upon on this website as it is hurtful and does not contribute to the discussion.

  10. *argue with someone on a personal level and it doesn’t relate to the topic

  11. علي اليامي
    Ali Alyami

    “Only people who live their entire lives intoxicated or in a coma can say with straight or twisted face that the Saudis have the same liberties as the Canadians.”

    who said anything about the same liberties ? she asked about cultures shock and I answered simple and plain. In my home-town in Saudi I can do mostly everything I am used to in Canada. Futhermore, In my hometown we have resorts and beaches while I have snow or rain in Canada and little sun lol

    I don’t need the same libraries because its different and I understand that. I am a practicing orthodox Muslim and proud of my local and religious culture as well as my traditions from the poems to music and food. I value my Canadian experience and I have enjoyed it and If I have a problem with my homeland’s society or government I will go back home and face it like man and do what I believe from within. I still think anyone can adjust in any society if the person wants to.

    I don’t want to go off the topic , I answered the post uestions about culture shock and I don’t want to start a debate with you because I think it is not worth it and it has no point.

    لا يحق لك ان تتكلم كأنك تعيش بالسعودية او عشت فيها مؤخرا لان حسب سيرتك الذاتية ابنك يخدم بالجيش الامريكي ف انت اخترت انك ماتكون ابن للجزيرة .. ف هذا شأنك لكن لا تفرغ عقدك النفسية التي عانيت منها في صغرك علينا .. والله يشفيك ويرحم حالك ان شاء الله

  12. Thanks for posting this AB.
    I know once I go back, I can leave my house, but unfortunately I don’t have a driver. A small family of parent and three young kids living in small apartment, how can I possibly afford a driver? Even if I did eventually hire a driver where would he stay!! It is not easy dealing with drivers on a daily basis.

    As for my kids, where I live I certainly can’t play with them in public. It would attract unnecessary attention. I tried that once. I will also miss being involved in my son’s schooling.
    Just going out for a walk becomes a huge issue; who will come with me, who will drop me off, who will pick me up….endless arrangements for such a simple activity.
    The funny thing is even my husband changes when we go back for a visit. While I’m more independent abroad and use public transportation and go anywhere I want almost any time of the day. He would not let me do the same things in SA; using a taxi is out of the question. According to him it’s not safe. He has to be with me. It is really frustrating!!
    I really like your suggestion of establishing some ties with expatriates. I will keep that in mind once I return. I think the internet and online communities can help a lot in that matter. As for my two cents on dealing with reverse culture shock is (as StrangeOne said) to be open-minded, flexible to change, communicate with others and try to avoid judging people. I definitely do not want turn into an angry person criticising everything and everyone and raving about life in the west. It takes balancing and persevering.

  13. and I may add , no Saudi I know ( male or female ) from any part consider His country as prison, some have serious problems ,some don’t and have an enjoyable life there but they will never disrespect their home-land and and turn their back to her ( the land )

  14. @Hamad/Ali,

    Save yourself the trouble. All that switching of names is just too much work 😉

  15. I agree that this would be a way for a Saudi to continue enjoying some of the freedoms they had in other countries. However, I think it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to be included or welcomed. Most of us are afraid that a Saudi national might be there to “spy” on us for having activities that are not haram and then report back to the authorities.
    Don’t get me wrong, I know that many Saudis are wonderful people who would add a lot to many gatherings. It’s just that the fear of being arrested or worse is prevalent within the expat community.

  16. “…. and If I have a problem with my homeland’s society or government I will go back home and face it like man and do what I believe from within. I still think anyone can adjust in any society if the person wants to”

    I applaud Hamad for this statement. Face it like a man and not run away to another country and complain!

  17. When you recognize culture shock, you realize you have changed.

  18. Even Indians have to face similar problems but to a lesser extent, after living in UAE for 10 years my daughter is quite outgoing and fun loving.
    But the moment she returns back home for a holiday she has to conform to so many restrictions, to wear Indian wear, avoid jeans and T-shirts, almost forget eating out, hang out with friends say in a Mall- except when she is in a Metro. Being a muslim very conservative ways have to be adopted including keeping a distance from male cousins.
    The awnser is to find a way to bring such freedoms into society slowly and it has to be initiated bt the governments and intellectuals and by engaging the scholars who are opposed to it through any platform where views could be shared without fear.
    However if that is like asking for too much, then it is better to live such life which has two unknown facets without bothering any more about it.

  19. Having said that I would like to add that I enjoy the unique segregation and rules in KSA which I found to be surprisingly more of a convinience!!!
    Similarly, I love the chaos of India also.

  20. Sally in Saudi-your attitude is so prejudiced. Do you seriously think a Saudi would spy on you?
    Assuming they were, which is utterly ridiculous, aren’t they on the same compound than you, and would also get into trouble by reporting you?
    Where’s the logic here?
    Why would they feel a need to spy on you in the first place? Are you afraid they will report all the alcohol you brew and drink in your compound, the nightclubs, the mixing or what?
    Believe me the authorities know all this happens in your compounds and if a Saudi reports this, it is exactly him who is the one that gets into trouble by having participated in it.
    Also someone would have had to invited thus personally know the Saudi, its not someone off the street, its somebodys friend! But because of attitudes like yours, Saudis are banned from most compounds.

    It’s so sad that people come here and then have this kind of attitudes toward locals. Fear of Saudis. You will never overcome culture shock and move on to enjoy your time in KSA if you don’t loose your prejudices toward the locals.
    Getting to know and making friends with the locals is the key.
    Keeping in your closed compound circles won’t help in dealing with culture shock.
    Yet 90% of expats here have this negative attitude that you have and I think its their own loss.

    An open mind, overcoming ones prejudices and fears and positive thinking will get you a long way!

  21. I, personally do not have these prejudices agains the citizens of my host country. I am very interested in getting to know people of all backgrounds.
    My comment had to do with a general attitude I have experienced with other expats, not my own attitude.
    What I was trying to say was that there is a large amount of distrust on the part of some expats.

  22. I can say that my husband certainly suffered from culture shock visiting Saudi for the first time since he was a child. He suffered from it so much he vowed that he would never live there. As a child he never saw or realized what sexual segregation was and how bad it is for both men and women.

    As for culture shock, I sometimes suffer it when returning from Sudan (and Saudi). When we returned to Canada this spring after two plus months visiting those countries I felt uncomfortable with all the different coloured buildings, non-uniform houses and streets. It all seemed chaotic and it took me about two weeks to settle back into my own country. In fact any time I’m away and in a different country/culture for any length of time I suffer from it a bit.

  23. One should take into consideration that there more than 80,000 students, and there is no Saudi student that live in community without Saudis around him in America or other countries. Saying that, there are small Saudis communities around the world and the establish Saudi social clubs where they hold traditional dinners and celebrate Eids and Ramadan. You see Saudis mostly togather, Families hang out together , and young people do the same etc etc.

    As a result , these communities , clubs and gathering will make a positive effect on Saudis’ attitude when they go back home. It is not like the 80s or the 90s anymore where there were few Saudis abroad where some of them had strong culture shocks and did not know how to adjust again. And the internet keep the current Saudi scholars in touch with sports and family events back home which make them more attached to their country’s culture.

  24. I think it is sad that there are not more opportunities which easily bring Saudis and expats together socially.

    Back when I was in Riyadh a Saudi female friend and I had started the “Woman’s Exchange Experience” where we invited (word of mouth) Saudi and expatriate women to get together once a month where we shared about differing cultures, customs and traditions and became friends. The gatherings were held at homes of participants. This outreach made quite a difference in the lives of many women as they would not have had the opportunity otherwise to easily meet Saudi or expat women and get to know them as friends.

    In the interim about things to do, here is a link to a much earlier post which may now have dated information in regards to some of the contacts but can be a starting point on some activities – although most are oriented for expats.

  25. I’m currently suffering from reverse culture shock and I think it’s the worst feeling ever. I just graduated from a university in USA and came back to Riyadh. Life here for a young woman is completely different than what it is in America. For a guy it might be easier to adjust, but for a girl it’s not. I’m a big fan of outdoor activities and living here, there is 0 things to do outdoor for a girl. We pretty much live in modern houses surrounded by a desert. The traffic, parks, weather and much more deep aspects I’d rather not mention, they’re all horrible.

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