Saudi Arabia: American Bedu Interview with Tariq Al-Maeena

It is with pleasure for American Bedu to interview Tariq Al-Maeena.  Tariq is already well known to many American Bedu readers who follow Arab News and other Arab publications where many of Tariq’s articles have appeared.  In this interview, American Bedu takes the opportunity to ask Tariq a wide barrage of questions on diverse issues.

 


To begin Tariq, please share a little bit about yourself.  Where are you from in Saudi Arabia?  Is that where you currently live now?

I am a native of Jeddah where I currently reside.  My family has historic ties to this city that date to the pre-Al Saud era.  Having said that, most of my school years were spent in a Catholic school in Karachi where I learned my English.  I am married to an American from California who has stuck with me through these long years of massive changes in this country, and am blessed with two daughters and a teen-age son (who incidentally is driving me up the wall)

When did you begin your interest in writing?  What were your earliest articles about?

When I was a kid there was no television, and my Dad would encourage us to read by bringing us books with different subjects.  As I got into my teens, I felt that among my other interests at the time, it would be a challenge to write something.  In my first year of college in Dhahran, I started a newsletter, and my first story that was published in a series of weekly releases was about a cowboy I named Frank Goodnight.  It was a western, a subject that fascinated me then.  At present, a book of sorts is fermenting in the cobwebs of my mind.

Do you feel that your writing or the focus of your writing has changed over the years?  Why or why not?

My writing for newspapers actually was prompted by my sister-in-law who was perhaps fed-up of my constant harping about what was wrong in this country and suggested that I vent it out in newspapers..  My wife and kids were in the States as the girls were in college, and I had enough time on my hands and enough material to bitch about to prompt my gradual dedication to writing on a periodic basis.

Have you felt that you are limited in what you can or cannot say when you write about Saudi Arabia?  Is there a feel of censorship or repercussions?

Since I am not employed by any news organizations here, I do not know all the details of the censorships laws here.  But obviously they are there and quite often in the past I found that I had crossed limits when my story failed to appear after submission.  A decade ago, critical comments about public servants was not encouraged from free-lancers like me, but in recent years I have noticed a dramatic shift towards more fact and less color on issues that concern us.  What surprises me more is that I find that I have more freedom to write here than I would if I was writing in the UAE.  Credit has to go to King Abdullah for making that possible.

Is there a favorite topic you like to write about most?

My favorite topics are issues that concern everyday people and the society they live in.  Occasionally I would rant about political issues, especially when there is a conflict between ideologies or a plain case of injustice.  Israel and George Bush Jr. were great examples of my foray into political commentary.

What have been the most significant changes you have seen in your lifetime that have taken place in Saudi Arabia?  Why are these changes significant?

I find that the generation spawned in the 80’s and 90’s and who are currently employed in various forms of government have sadly carried with them some of the undesirable excesses of their childhood, be it in religion or lack of social ethics.  This has led to massive corruption and widespread extreme ideology which the government is battling today.

What do you see as the critical issues of today that are important to Saudi Arabia and its people?

The flaws in our system of education need to be corrected and very soon.  Our future citizens are being taught by rote and lack critical thinking.  As with other parents, I suffer with my teenage son’s poor preparation into adulthood, most of which should have come from his school.

Is Iran a threat to Saudi Arabia?  Why or why not? 

Iran could be a threat if they believe that we would like to bomb them to smithereens.  Historically however, Iran has never attacked us, and they share the same religion for the most part.  I believe the threat is manufactured very craftily by Israel along with some US neo-cons, just as the Iraqi WMDs were.  I would agree with most people here that the biggest threat to the regional peace is Israel.  Period!

Which is the greater threat to Saudi Arabia – Iran, Yemen or insurgency from within?

Insurgency from within would be my guess.  In a tribal society like ours, the slightest disturbance could have far reaching effects, especially if fundamentalism and extremism is used as a tool to galvanize people.

Do you think Western expatriates really understand Saudi’s culture, customs and traditions?  Why or why not?

The western expats, rightly or wrongly, tend to isolate themselves in seclusion from the masses during off-duty hours.  They live in compounds and gated communities for the most part and thus deprive themselves of real interaction.  There are exceptions, but very limited ones.  At work there is little chance of making correct judgments or understanding us better.

Is the marriage approval process for a Saudi to marry a foreigner justified?  Why or why not?

I agree that the government should have some stringent demands before approving a Saudi’s request for a foreign partner.  In the past, many a foreign partner was at the butt end of a bitter divorce and with no source of income for sustenance.  Many had to part forever with their kids as well.  Courts in general will not side with a foreigner against a Saudi in marital issues.

As a Saudi man, why do you think so many marriages between a Saudi and foreigner fail?

Poor understanding of what the foreigner is getting into, as well as incomplete portrayal of reality by the spouse about their living conditions here.  Many foreigners may still be tempted by the romance of ‘the tent in the desert, and the flying carpet on the side’ to realize that for women this is without exception one of the hardest countries to assimilate in.

Would you endorse a marriage between a Saudi and a foreigner?  Why or why not?

Although love is powerful enough to blur rational thinking, I would not encourage such a union unless the couple were living in the non-Saudi’s home town.

What advice would you give to a male Saudi student who confides he is in love with a foreign woman?

Because of limited exposure to women as they are growing up, I sense that most Saudis fall in love very easily with the first woman who gives them a glance.  And that is not enough to sustain them in this society.  The Saudi man must understand that the price for such a union is very steep in that he is not only a husband, but a father, brother, uncle and protector to his foreign wife.  She has no family of her own here, and that burden can crack many a relationship.

What message do you wish to share with foreign women who are engaged in a relationship with a Saudi man?

I had stated this before, and will repeat it again.  The best advice I can give is: don’t be deluded by the romance of the desert and run as far away as you can.

How do you feel about polygamy?  Is it truly a man’s right under Islam?  Would you be supportive if a man told you of intent to take another wife?

Although Islam approved polygamy, it laid down some very strict conditions, most of which are not being followed in today’s craze by middle-aged Saudi men to marry another.  I have never encouraged the taking of another wife by my associates as their reasons were more often than not very shallow.  It seemed that they were in the market for a new car.  Pathetic.

Can a woman (Saudi or foreign) really protect herself against polygamy if married to a Saudi?

There is no protection whatsoever, unless she specifies a whole list of conditions in the marriage contract before their union is made legal.  While she cannot forbid her partner to remarry, she can lay down enough conditions to make him think otherwise.

What are five of the best things about Saudi Arabia?

A)  The family unit

B)  Personal safety

What are five unique places you’d like every expatriate to see in Saudi Arabia?

I haven’t traveled much in this country with the exception of the major cities.  However the islands of Farasan and the date fields in Qatif/Hasa region seem to hold some promise.

Are there any things you’d like to see changed in Saudi Arabia?  Why?

A)  Transparent public service accountability to weed out corruption

B)  Overhaul our education system to prepare our youth for the realities of the future.

C)  A compulsory form of military service to instill discipline and sense of purpose.

D) A codification of our laws and courts in line with those of the rest of the world.

E)  Full protection for the rights of minorities and guest workers, especially domestics who have had their share of a raw deal.

Are you for or against segregation?  Do you believe that there is a need for segregation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia?  Why or why not?

I am anti-niqab and anti segregation when it is by force.  By choice, it is not my business.  The segregated mentality of the past throughout our society and heavily enforced by men of the cloth has made choices such as women driving a difficult thing to pursue today.  It is unfortunate that most males here lack the very respect that Islam demands from them in the treatment of women, and thus for many women segregation is an easier option.  Only when laws penalizing sexual harassment are promoted, or clerics are stopped from announcing the mingling of the sexes as un-Islamic, would the need for segregation begin to lessen

What is your favorite activity in the Kingdom?

Reading and fishing

In closing, are there any comments you’d like to add?

As an admirer of your blog, and the effort it takes to run it, I feel honored to be a guest interviewee.  I hope that I do not disappoint in any manner.

Thanks Tariq for allowing me the opportunity to interview you and ask you so many different questions.

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33 Responses

  1. great intereview, covered every aspect …..excellent awesome…
    great job, keep it up !!!

  2. glad you enjoyed!!

  3. Tariq is an enlightened and courageous citizens who has been in the forefront in advocating positive and doable reforms. I have had the honor to communicate with and comment on his many eloquently written articles.

  4. I’m curious as to why Saudi won’t penalise sexual harassment.

    Surely, it would be a great boon for women.

  5. Wonderful interview! I have read his work and admire it. Eloquent, thoughtful, and practical – great combination!

  6. interesting interview.thank you.

  7. Nice interview with Tarek. Glad to see that he now understands a foreign woman’s extreme hatred (in most cases) of any Saudi man thinking about taking a second wife; especially in secret.

    Some Saudi men discuss this issue at dinner parties in front of their wives. They say how it is their right to do so and that their first wife will just have to get used to having a second one in their life. It seems that they do not realise the damage that this kind of talk (actions in many cases) can do to the first wife (and her children) and to the stability of the close circle of other foreign friends that she has here. The feelings of shame, guilt, depression and lonliness are just a few of the reactions I’ve seen in many of these cases here in Saudi, and so many of these women are not financially stable enough to just start over as they would do in the states. Many first wives are strapped financially when the husband begins spending all of his money setting up the new wife.

    We foreigners who have left our families and our friends have given up everything to make a life with our husbands and our children in this very difficult country. The least we deserve is our husband’s respect, especially in front of our friends.

    If a Saudi man is brave enough to marry a foreigner and bring her to Saudi Arabia, he should do everything in his power to stay only with her and keep her happy. And, if he must break it off, he should at least set her up comfortably and INFORM HER AND HIS CHILDREN of his decision to take another wife BEFORE he marries again.

    While there are SOME foreign women willing to share, they ARE the minority in the American community here.

  8. I really liked his idea of compulsary military service for a year, – a great leveller and one that should be instituted for both men and women. I’m not for forced recruitment into the military, but a 1 yr term after school seems like a reasonable break and great training before they are let unleashed on this world. They could even take some college credits that yr…

    in all a very nice interview, however I feel bad when women are warned away’s from saudi’s. It might be justified but the way the rules are set there are extreme, I think any 2 people in love should be married and provided all chances for happiness without the govt / religion/parents/culture/geography throwing hurdles in their path.

    A for taking the 2ns wife, it is decency and common courtesy to be told that there’s a 3rd person involved, i have nothing against polygamy just as i have nothing against the 1st wife being giventhe choice to opt out.
    unfortunately neither the culture nor the govt in saudi make sthat an easy option. — hopefully somehting will change soon…

  9. enjoyed the interview!

  10. I like the idea of community service more than I do the military for all ages. Giving a helping hand to the community at large will foster a love for the people who live and work in their community and open their eyes to others less fortunate than themselves.

  11. I would certainly agree with al-Maeena that Iran isn’t an obvious threat to Saudi Arabia. Still one shouldn’t blame the Israelis or the neo-cons for this one. US/Iran discord dates from the 1950’s when the US deposed a legitmate leader and reimposed the Shah. This is a long time before the neo cons and the Israelis were allied with the US at that time. For Israel, Iran is a legitimate threat.

  12. Interesting interview…but why would he steer someone away from marrying a foreigner when he himself has done just that?

  13. I would also say that the US has been the greatest threat to the region. Israel isn’t propping up dictatorships in Egypt. The US effort to stabilize the region has meant that issues that should have been solved by now, have been left to simmer. Israel in its current form could not have survived without US help. The Iranian history since 1950 would have been far different if the US hadn’t intervened.

  14. @tariq
    i’m curious about the saudi military, as to what age requirements, career choices, qualifiying to get in at levels, and anything else that you know

    when i ask about the mililtary, all i get is a negative response of “no” and that men get sexually assaulted. i don’t mean to sound harsh, but would like to know the reality of it. and maybe other american mothers of saudi kids would be interested too.

  15. Coolred, I thought the same thing and then concluded that he must have learned from his own experience that it’s not worth it for others to undergo. Maybe his wife regularly informs him that life there is hell for women (especially foreigners used to freedom).

  16. I don’t want to speak for Tariq but many of us in this situation steer people away from it, because we know the pitfalls that can occur and it happens within our circle of friends. He straight out says it- the women can and sometimes do get left with no recourse and no support. Who would recommend someone enter that sort of situation?

  17. “We foreigners who have left our families and our friends have given up everything to make a life with our husbands and our children in this very difficult country.”

    If you choose to give up your freedom, the consequences can be severe. (Polygamy, here we come.) The woman who made the choice bears some responsibility for the outcome.

    People have been fighting and dying for freedom for centuries, and that’s why we have democracies and human rights. Romantic fantasies never gave anyone democracy or human rights. Getting women the vote was hard lifelong work. It is perilous to be dismissive of this.

    Of course expats who marry Saudis aren’t responsible for Saudi society. But they are responsible for their choice to join it, with all its consequences. Sites like this are useful in that they clarify the choice, for women who are willing to think about the real life consequences of their romantic choices. But many aren’t. Oops.

    I think it’s infantilizing when western women are seen strictly as victims in this situation. The truth is, freedom has intrinsic value for women, and if you choose to give that up… Nuff said.

  18. This is a really random question, but I’m just wondering, would a Saudi be shunned for marrying an Iranian with all the drama between the two?

  19. Great interview which has spawned many interesting queries and comments.

    I can say from my own experience that there is an active “Saudi/Iranian” community in Riyadh. I had the pleasure to meet many of these couples (Iranian woman married to Saudi man) as well as Iranian expats who have been in the Kingdom for a long period of time. This group made me feel very welcomed. Now a large percentage of the Iranian expats all had a second passport such as British or Canadian but all also retained an Iranian passport.

    Each man I knew who had married an Iranian had his own story to tell, In each case, they met each other in a third country. Obtaining governmental permission was not easy but did happen.

    I also like and endorse Tariq’s suggestion for a mandated one year military stunt. That would certainly teach discipline and order. I’d be in favor of it for both male and female but obviously that would be far off in the future!

    I think Tariq’s response of not being in favor of foreign marriages is a natural and well-intended response even though he himself has an American wife. I married a Saudi yet I would not readily endorse other foreign women to marry a Saudi. Most Saudi/foreign marriages where the couple meets young as students are the ones which most typically do not survive. The Saudi/foreign wife marriages which work better are when both are from similar cultures and/or older in age with greater life experiences and/or the foreign woman has firsthand knowledge of the customs and culture. Yet like Tariq said, if marrying a westerner, it probably is in the best interests of the marriage and future of the couple to not settle in Saudi Arabia. I say that in spite of having lived in Saudi Arabia and enjoying my time there. I recognize though that I was a minority.

  20. Thank you Carol I appericate you answering my question I was afraid it was stupid to ask, lol! Thank you thank you 🙂 The interview was amazing, as always!

  21. Really enjoyed this interview, though I seriously question his idea of Israel being the biggest security threat. In that case, it really takes 2 to tango. Israel would love to just exist in peace, but folks won’t let it and refuse to even compromise on it. Israel is on the defensive, not the offensive.

  22. @Confused,

    There is never a stupid question!!!!

  23. […] Bedu has a nice interview with Tariq al-Maeena, columnist for Arab News. I met Tariq in Jeddah during the Saudi BlogCamp. I find it strange that […]

  24. Lark,
    Sorry, but we foreigners did not willingly give up our freedom. It takes two people to fall in love and when that happens, nothing else matters except being together, no matter where you live in the world. Most of us were not planning on spending 5 years here, much less 20, 30, or more.

    But, once living and working back in this country, it’s very difficult to leave for a multitude of reasons. And, most women won’t just walk away from their husbands and/or children just because they can’t vote or drive unless it’s also an abusive situation in the home. The lack of freedom for women is one of the least hardships here.

    The worst is having your aging parents on the other side of the world, especially when one of them dies or when they are sick and need your help. Twenty year olds just don’t think that far ahead. I have been blessed with a husband that has always supported me in being able to visit my side of the family back in the states.

    For our children, it’s different. They have their friends that they grew up with, their extended family, and their feeling of belonging. They are used to living away from their cousins back in the States. Like most of us, I’m not sorry that I chose a Saudi for my husband. We’re still very much in love. But, I (along with most of us still married to Saudis) would highly advise against it for others unless they agree to live outside the Kingdom.

  25. This isn’t completely off topic, but I just need a bit of advice here.

    I have read other blogs, with other posts about how Saudi men treat women they are serious about. I’m confused because he has done a lot of things they were saying is bad, but he has also done other things that serious saudi men do. So which is it?

    I met him and his friends at the same exact time, so he didn’t need to introduce me to his friends. Athough, he did introduce me to his uncles, and cousins. All males, as he doesn’t have any female relatives in the states.

    His mother also knows about me, we have said “Hi” and he has been teaching me arabic so I can have a conversation with her, as she doesn’t speak more than a couple words in english. She asks about me every time they talk (atleast he says she does) and he doesn’t have any sisters, so thats a no go.

    As for his male friends and relatives, yes I have hung out with them, but he is very, very protective around them. One of his friends touched my hair once, and he smacked them. And he gets severely offended if a guy talks to me or looks at me that he doesn’t know. Even men he does know (that he isn’t necessarily friends with) he watches like a hawk when I talk with them.

    So, bad, good, what do you think?
    Thanks!!

  26. Jasmine,
    You’re kidding, right?
    Are you sure you have been reading THIS blog? All of us married to Saudis are saying don’t do it. I’m confused. Which part of “don’t” don’t you understand?

  27. @jasmine
    pretend he is your all american cutie boyfriend from next door treating you like that…now how does he look to you?

    you still have your rights…be prepared for segregation soon!

  28. I have given much thought to what would happen if I were to marry my sweetheart from KSA later on in life (though currently the relationship status in unclear). I care about him a lot for many different reasons and I guess you could say I’m in love with him. However, being in a relationship with him takes more work than if I were to date one of my other friends (from other countries such as Nigeria, Bangladesh, US, UK, Qatar, etc.). There are many cultural differences each of us have to adapt to and they aren’t always obvious ones- such as how to settle disagreements. For instance, it is seen as okay to raise your voice and yell if you are upset in American culture, but this does not appear to be as true for Saudi culture.

    Furthermore, I have personal goals that I want to accomplish. I do not want to be just a housewife. While I realize that it would be very difficult to set up a business in KSA, if I were to live there this is exactly what I would want to do. I would want to have the opportunity to employ women if at all possible. This means learning even more about the culture and law. This also means that there will be times when others would disagree and/or look down upon me (I imagine) for not being a better “housewife” and whatnot. So, in order for me to one day marry him, he would have to stay open-minded AND be strong enough emotionally to deal with all the things that come along with marriage to someone like me. This is not something that is easy for anyone to do.

    As for living in KSA, I personally think it would be a better scenario to live in a neighboring country where as a woman I would have more rights but close enough we could visit his family often. Plus, it would be easier for my family and our friends to visit. However, it really would depend on the individual situation. Currently, I am not planning to marry anyone in the near future.

    That said, my sweetheart is very supportive of me and appreciates my independent nature. I love him quite a bit and I believe he loves me a lot as well. However, if it did not work out between us, I do not think I would date a Saudi guy again as a general rule because it’s a lot of effort and I don’t know if I want to go through that again. Of course, at this point, I’m not sure if I even want to date again. lol.

    So, this is my view. Yes, I dearly love a KSA citizen, but no, I won’t give up my dreams for him. Even one that treats me extremely well (and he does) that I believe loves me deeply. My view is this: there are billions of people in the world. Surely there are others I could make a relationship work with. There are others that I would love this deeply somewhere in the world, even if I haven’t met them yet. Find one that respects you, loves you, and supports you throughout life whether they are Saudi or not. Read up on Saudi culture and law. Visit and/or live there before marriage if you can. If you can’t live in such a place, see if he is willing to live outside KSA somewhere that you can both agree on. If not, then move on.

  29. Oh, sorry again for the length. Just wanted to share my view since so many women were saying don’t do it, but also saying they’d marry theirs again because they love him. So I thought it might help to share my views on it and current situation to hopefully give an idea of some things to consider.

  30. Jasmine,
    Every person is different. Trust your judgment. It seems to me that if he told his mother about you, then he cares quite a bit for you. However, I would still make sure this is what you want before committing to anything. Take your time to make sure that you can work through any and all disagreements. Make sure that you agree on all the important things, such as where to live, lifestyle, children, etc. But again, that’s just my opinion. Every guy is different. Like I said, trust your own judgment.

  31. Great interview Tariq, I met you back in the mid eighties when breakfast in the hangar sheetmetal office was a huge platter of shrimp, Abdulla Kashcari was the supervisor, you made me feel comfortable knowing that I was probobly in shock just arriving from the UK. My name is Paul Holt and ended up staying with Saudia 14 years cc825. I would like to say thanks to Tariq (he signed a vacation form for me) and again a great interview.
    Rgds Mr Paul

  32. […] American Bedu Interview with Tariq Al-Maeena – AmericanBedu Blog – Jan 5, 2011 […]

  33. […] American Bedu Interview with Tariq Al-Maeena – AmericanBedu Blog – Jan 5, 2011 […]

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