Saudi Arabia: Is There a Chasm for Expatriates

It’s been three years now since I left Saudi Arabia with my husband never expected to not return.  However that does not stop me from having the Kingdom in my mind each day.  I packed a lifetime of memories during our short time which we were in the Kingdom.

Today I was mulling over was there truly a chasm for the expatriates in Saudi Arabia?  Well, the answer is yes.  The wider the chasm between the Saudi nationals and expatriates depends on both gender and nationality.

I believe it’s easiest to close that chasm and experience some male bonding if you are a Western or Arab expatriate man.  There are great opportunities to know one another, build a friendship, bond and do things together.  Most expatriate men in Saudi Arabia are likely working with or for Saudis.  There are many places they can go outside of the workplace and do activities together from treks in the desert, visiting estrahas, going to coffee bars and going to each other’s homes.  They generally can converse in a common language.  They can talk “man-to-man” on business, politics and other issues of interest.  It is easy to bring a Western man into a Saudi home and uphold the tradition of segregation.

Expatriate women on the other hand have a harder time to get to know and make Saudi friends.  She is prohibited from socializing with any man unrelated to her.  Therefore, if she is a single expatriate woman, she will unlikely to receive invitations to a Saudi man’s home.  If she is a working expatriate woman, she may build relationships among Saudis but they can be limiting.  Only the minority of other working Saudi woman will take the initiative and invite an expatriate single woman to their home.  If she is not working, it is even more difficult for her to meet and make friends with Saudis and especially women.  There may likely be language barriers to start.

However, there are activities which can bring Saudi and non-Saudi women together which will offer opportunities to converse and exchange information.  But there may be limitations on how Saudi and non-Saudi women can meet outside of an activity.  Depending on where an expatriate woman lives, she may not be able to have Saudi guests to her home as some of the Western compounds prohibit Saudi nationals on the premises.

My suggestion is to first plan on meeting for lunch at one of the many restaurants located in ladies sections of certain malls where woman can relax, get to know one another and build friendships.


27 Responses

  1. Posted on July 18, 2012 by American Bedu: “The wider the chasm between the Saudi nationals and expatriates depends on both gender and nationality … I believe it’s easiest to close that chasm and experience some male bonding if you are a Western or Arab expatriate man”.

    Carol, as always you are right on! The key to “bonding”, as you pointed out, is if you are a western or arab expatriate man

    I have worked as a healthcare professional in saudi arabia and in other arab/muslim countries, while I was still a moozlum. I found saudis (and to a lesser extent other arabs also) to be the most OPENLY racist people on this planet against their fellow asian muslims. Thus for me and them it was and remains close to impossible to develop any kind of “bonding” with saudis at work or off work.

    BTW, and most importantly, asian muslim expats (from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia, etc) are called ‘miskeen’ by the Saudis, which is equivalent to the “N” word here in the US. “Miskeen”means ‘poor wretch’ or ‘down and out’ or simply “wretched”.

    What hurts the most for asian muslims especially is that the Saudis address the white expats of Europe and US as ‘rafiq’ (friend). Now hold your steeds! Wait a minute …

    What happened to the concept of ‘ummah’, the koranic/mohammed preaching that all Muslims are one nation? Obviously, the concept of ‘ummah’ applies only to Saudis, Iraqis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Kuwaitis Bahrainis, Emiratis, etc, but not to others. Arab Muslims only, it seems to, qualify for the elite “ummah” club.

    The Saudis abolished slavery only recently in 1974. Then why are the asians still called the degradatory term of ‘miskeen’? Is slavery in saudi really abolished though?

    If you get the opportunity, do check out the book Arabia of the Bedouins by Marcel Kurpershoek. He records that Saudi Arabia still remains tribal in the 21st century. And big tribal families employ lavishly opulent slaves riding Land Cruisers. And these tribal feudal lords have made asians, especially Indians/Pakistanis/Bangladeshis, till the fields of their masters. Not much different than how they lived in 610 AD.

    Having experienced first hand how islam is “lived” in saudi and other arab/muslim countries, left bitter tastes in my heart and mind, and was the turning point in my renouncing islam. I have been much much more more happier since then, even considering the fact that my immediate family has renounced me and consider me “dead”, as far as they are concerned. It is as if a BIG LIE has been lifted off my soul and mind. In the muslim world, there is beautiful talk only, but sadly no real action. Sorry but they simply don’t walk the talk.

    Here is an excellent article penned by one of my cousins (only one who has not renounced or denounced my apostasy), about his life and work experiences in Saudi Arabia, “Miskeen: Racism in Saud-Family Occupied Arabia” :

  2. Thank you for sharing the article, X. I did not realize you were originally from Pakistan. Having lived there at two different times in my life, I can imagine how you were ostracized and shut out from your family. What part of Pakistan were you from?

  3. I lived in saudi for only a few yrs and inspite of being married to a saudi ( or should i say saudi who spent part childhood there) i still had a very hard time getting ot know saudi women, I worked but there were not many actually no saudi-women in my field. and as someone of indian origin i was not rated high in my saudi family list 🙂 inspite of being married to the eldest son and inspite of supplying the funds 🙂

    I’ve realized that there is something deep rooted in saudi against asians it’s kind of hard to get past that for them, and when looks at you diff you are not put int he best of moods and don’t feel like being too friendly.

    Ont op of that if one is not white, there’s that barrier, just to many hurdles to face i guess so expats kind of remain intheir own circle.

    but the few friendships i made there last to this day and i’m enriched by them. having lived in many places i can say i was not very comfortable in saudi , could be my state of mind at that time.

  4. @Radha – please do check your email.

  5. Perhaps part of the problem is that Saudi women do not want to invest time and effort into befriending someone they know will leave their country?

  6. Bahraini’s are just as racist against asians, blacks (even black arabs) etc. I also agree that the “ummah” is only an ummah when it consists of arabs/white muslims/and any muslim currently being killed or persecuted by Israelis.

  7. Hi Carol,

    I was born in Hunza (in pakistan-occupied kashmere) but went to school/college in Peshawer. Also lived in Lahore for a few years.



  8. Dear X,

    I spent a weekend in Hunza and wished it could have been much longer!

    Dear Wendy,

    I don’t think it is so much that Saudi women do not want to make an investment in a friendship with an expat but more based on language barriers and opportunities to just get to know one another.

  9. We can’t have a real friendship with origin Saudis . They were raised in the idea that they are superior to all the others even Muslim Arabic people. But we can have a superficial relation.
    It’s more easy to have friends among Saudis of foreign origin.
    to be muslim represents a difference for them. It is obviously easier if we speak arabic.

  10. It is interesting that we think of Saudis as racist but read what Mr. Najeeb Al-Zamil, member of the Shoura Council:

    “Now is the time to be honest about ourselves. Yes, we Saudis suffer as a result of media manipulation and Western stereotypes, but then, why is it that we are misunderstood and hated by people living among us?” he asked recently during an exclusive interview with Arab News.

    “These expatriates who have come here to make a living and to improve their lives — why do they not like us? Things are so bad that if you are Saudi and you smile, people get confused. ‘Are you sure you are Saudi?’ they ask. And if you tell them, ‘Yes I am a Saudi,’ they say: ‘No, come on! Maybe your mother is from Palestine or Sri Lanka or Africa.’ This is because Saudis are known for always putting on a grim face. Of course we cannot control the global media. But why do these people who work and live among us, why do they have this bad opinion of us? Why? I am a businessman. Expatriates who work for me — they see me more than their wives or their families back home, and yet they don’t like us.”

    – Published in Arab News on Thursday, October 22, 2009

  11. @sarah – there’s obviously 2 sides to every coin and that is their side. however i’ve always felt a Bias in saudi – percieved or otherwise and most of the time i have been mistaken for a maid while going out with my husband and obviously asian looking kids ( now why a maid would hang close to her employer or why the kids would call the maid as mom i don’t know. just stating what i felt and lived.
    Nowhere else int he world have i been judged like that based on apearences. just got used to it and giving back the stare while in saudi.

    ofcourse that never stopped the men from throwing pieces of paper with ph nos.

    But whatever the reason it is hard to make friends with saudi’s in saudi than outside saudi from my experience.

  12. Radha
    Yes even the thinnest pancake has two sides. I feel that both sides feel the same. It is very commom to think that any asian female is a maid because there are a lot of them in Saudi and surrounding countries.

  13. So X, you merely denounced Islam based on the actions of misguided and ignorant people? The worst mistake is to judge a religion by the actions of an arrogant group of people.

    I have been the subject of racism on many occasions. But I have never judge a belief system by the people who fail to practice it nor do I group all people together. That is only a sign of the weak.

  14. Interesting comments

  15. @sarah – that doesn’t mean there are no non-maid asian women in saudi 🙂 and i’m talking differentiation even in the workplace where they treat you diff based on your nationality not on your work…
    like i said it’s easier to make friends with a saudi outside saudi for some reason they get all high and mighty once inside the country.

  16. Kareem, on July 18, 2012 at 9:23 pm said: So X, you merely denounced Islam based on the actions of misguided and ignorant people? The worst mistake is to judge a religion by the actions of an arrogant group of people …. I have been the subject of racism on many occasions. But I have never judge a belief system by the people who fail to practice it nor do I group all people together. That is only a sign of the weak.

    Considering English being your 99th language, it is understandable that you have a severe comprehension problem. I never said I renounced Islam solely for racism/discrimination issues. It was the totality of the issues.

    Re-read what I said.

    Having experienced first hand how islam is “lived” in saudi and other arab/muslim countries, left bitter tastes in my heart and mind, and was the turning point in my renouncing islam.

  17. Kareem:

    Actually I denounce Islam based upon its hate doctrine and inhumanity. The people just often are following the doctrine of hate.

  18. X: I read what you said, and you made it ond like that was one of the deciding factors for you leaving Islam.

    Maybe you yourself should reread what you wrote with an attempt to understand your own writing. What you write and how you write it can say a lot more than what you think.

  19. Bigstick: The issue is Saudi Arabia and how they practice Islam or how they fail to practice it.

    Lots of new Muslims from many different countries comment about how they would probably have never accepted Islam if they had known the way Arabs behave, or if they hadn’t had proper knowledge about Islam before coming here.

    I myself still wonder how most Arabs in Saudi Arabia can even call themselves Muslim and keeoba straight face. :-/

  20. X: One other thing, don’t try to twist things. Miskeen basically means poor and not wretch. it’s the exact opposite of ghani(rich).

    Further more, it is usually the poor who refer to themselves as ‘miskeen’. Saudis usually refer to them as sadeek or Muhammad when addressing them. And I’ve even heard of some Pakistanis and Indians complain about that!

    And don’t pretend that Saudis don’t discriminate against other Arabs. Because we all know it’s a lie. You must have either not have been in Saudi Arabia long enough, or are just lying through your teeth.

    And what’s a moozlum anyway? Sure isn’t something I’ve ever heard of.

  21. A Primer On The Meaning Of The Word ‘Miskeen’: ‘poor wretch’ or ‘down and out’ or simply “wretched”

    For the poor, koran has two words: ‘faqir’ and ‘miskeen’. ‘Faqir’ is ‘a man in need’ but ‘miskeen’ is ‘completely down and out’ or ‘poor wretch’ or simply ‘wretched. ‘Faqir’ has less than what he needs; ‘miskeen’ has nothing. ‘Miskeen’ literally means, ‘brought to a standstill in one place’.

    In Hebrew, the word for poor is ‘meesken’. The Arabic root ‘skn’ means that which has lost all movement. Hence, ‘miskeen’ or poor is someone who can hardly move. But the ‘skn’ root otherwise yields positive words, like peace and tranquillity (sakoon), including the koranic word sakina (peace) that explains the feeling inside the Ark of the Covenant, expressed in the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of shekinah.

    One more thing: In Saudi Arabia, the Europeans are called ‘rafiq’. It comes from the root ‘rfq’, meaning ‘elbow’: one who is ‘by your elbow’. Friendship is ‘rafaqat’. Interestingly, ‘artafaq’ means leaning on something for support as if raising oneself on one’s elbow. Most accurate sense of ‘rafiq’, therefore, is companion.

  22. X: You I am well are that the Quran uses faqir for poor or the needy as well as miskeen. The Quran uses both is various suras. If you understood Arabic and read the Quran in Arabic, you would have know this.

    Also, no one in Saudi Arabia uses the word faqir in normal everyday life. The always use the word miskeen when speaking of the needy. Sign don’t try to give me a lesson in Arabic with something you most likely pulled off of wikkipedia.

    And here’s a bit more information in the word miskeen that seemed to be missing from your explanation:

    The word for poor in Arabic is miskin. It is taken from the same word as knife, sikin, because the latter stops something from moving. A poor person is given this title because he is literally not able to move or look after his affairs.

    Now you also know the origin of the word.

  23. X: The way, an India was once complaining about the word ‘rafiq’. He claimed that it was a derogatory used by the Arabs to belittle those of India, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi origin.

    I just think it’s that you guys think that you yourselves are somehow inferior to others. So that kind of makes you paranoid. And there’s no pleasing you no matter what one say. :-/

  24. What’s wrong with these kind of sites? I can’t type anything without the screen going crazy on me. Maybe it’s. My phone?

  25. Miskeen is not a derogatory word. It is just a word. And it is not used for South East Asians in general- it is used for ANYONE who is misfortunate for whatever reason. I have even heard Saudi’s use it to describe other Saudi’s. Some people do refer to the very poor- and those without nationality as “miskeen”- not as an insult but as a word that describes their situation.

    There is racism and there are things to critisize in Saudi. Use of the word Miskeen is not an example of either.

  26. hi sandy. i don’t know but i googled: miskeen, saudi arabia, asian, pakistanis, indians, bangladeshis. i got over 1500 results in 25 secs.

    quite a few of the links did say miskeen to be a degradatory word used in saudi arabia for asians. i learnt another “bad” word i.e. abid used for blacks in saudi.

  27. Well I only know what I’ve heard and seen here for the last couple of decades or so. It may sometimes be derogatory- but it certainly isn’t always.

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