Tragic Kingdom – Reflections on Saudi Arabia

Personal observations about the country.

In October 2011 I traveled to the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh to teach English as a foreign language to university students. Intending to stay for two years, I eventually left after a year and seven months. During my time in Saudi, I worked at the Al-Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh and the Institute of Public Administration in the coastal city of Jeddah. Teaching positions in the country are well paid, and like most western teachers, I was in Saudi to save money and pay down university debt. In my first week in Riyadh, a Pakistani cab driver jokingly asked me if I was in the city for business or pleasure. The joke being that nobody in recorded history has ever visited Riyadh for the purpose of enjoying themselves. Inevitably, my view of the country was partial and colored by own cultural background and political persuasions.  As a consequence, I have been reluctant to write about my personal experiences. However, a number of friends have encouraged me to write about my time in the Kingdom and the recent death of Saudis “reformer King” seemed to provide an occasion for setting down my thoughts. Due to the efforts of human rights activists (coupled with the contradictions of the increasingly uneasy alliance between the Kingdom and the West) the oppressiveness of the Saudi state is now quite widely understood. For this reason, in the following remarks, I have tried to confine myself to aspects of the country that may not be so commonly known.

The Richest Poor Country in the World 

I had thought that I was going to Saudi with my eyes open. I was quite aware of the repressiveness of Saudi society, the appalling second-class status of women, the unjust treatment of the Shia minority, and the dire conditions faced by many migrant workers. What I hadn’t been prepared for was the poverty of the country and the decrepit third world character of her cities. Foolishly I had imagined Saudi to be more akin to the Gulf emirates, where a surface sheen of modernity overlays the repressiveness of the social structure. However, in many respects, Riyadh is a very typical third world city — with pockets of extreme wealth surrounded by crumbling slums.  The quality of most housing and road infrastructure is poor, the streets are strewn with litter and beggars are a common sight. Although there is poverty amongst Saudis, a large proportion of the Saudi poor are migrant workers, mostly from South Asia.

The migrant population is at the mercy of the kafala system. This system requires that migrant workers have a Saudi “sponsor” who is responsible for their visa and legal status in the country. It is common for employers to confiscate their employees passports, fail to pay them some or all of their wages, subject them to various forms of abuse, and all with little fear of  repercussions. The system is practically an invitation to exploit and abuse workers.

Apologists for the late King Abdullah claim that the Saudi patriarch was an earnest reformer whose efforts to change the Kingdom were stymied by the conservative character of Saudi society. Though ultimately I do not agree, it is perhaps conceivable to mount such a defense in certain cases where reform is particularly likely to offend the religious establishment. It is, however, extremely hard to believe that the Saudi regime could not if it had wished to, have scrapped the kafala system. Even the absolute monarchy of Bahrain has at least formally ended the practice (Bahrain’s Labour minister accurately described the system as akin to slavery). [1] It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Kingdom’s rulers did not scrap the system, not because they couldn’t, but because they simply did not want to.

The inadequacy of public housing reflects the indifference of the Saudi ruling class to the fate of migrant workers and the Saudi poor. To varying degrees this is true of any society marred by extreme class divisions, but in Saudi the rich, in their gated compounds and plush malls inhabit a quite different country from the migrant population. The best estimates suggest that perhaps a quarter of the Saudi population live below the poverty line. The Saudi government does not provide statistics on poverty, and raising the matter in public forums is highly dangerous. In 2011 Saudi blogger, Fera Bugnah, was detained by the security forces. His crime?  Producing a video that documented the slums of the Al-Jaroudiya district of Riyadh.

Prior to living in the Kingdom, I spent a number of years teaching in South Korea. The contrast in the economic trajectory of two countries, ruled for decades by authoritarian leaders, is quite extraordinary. Immediately after World War Two Korea was as poor as Nigeria was at the time. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Korea had no significant resources and succeeded in rapidly developing by building a highly protectionist economy that nurtured Korea’s nascent industries until they were ready to compete globally. South Korea industrialized at triple the speed of the United Kingdom and is now a major economic center. The Saudi regime could, of course, have diverted much of its abundant oil wealth to developing new industries. Instead, the country remains overwhelmingly reliant on the oil industry, and there is little reason to believe that it will successfully diversify its economy before the oil eventually runs out (or rather becomes too uneconomical to extract). Much of the oil wealth has been diverted into the hands of the ruling family and associated elites. Much else is invested in the United States and Western Europe — partly in order to maintain influence and support in Western capitals. On more than one occasion, young Saudi students asked me: ‘Look at Riyadh and tell me — where is the oil money’? It is a good question to ask, perhaps one day the Kingdom’s rulers will be called to give a proper accounting.

The Education Sham

Although it was not remotely as disturbing as encountering Saudi poverty, I was also unprepared for the realities of the Saudi education system. In Saudi, it is widely known that nothing, save the repressive security establishment, runs efficiently. My time working at the Al-Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University (and, to a lesser extent, IPA in Jeddah) confirmed this. The most notable aspect of the university was how little work appeared to be going on. This was the case in regards to both the English teachers and the students. (I cannot comment regarding other subjects but I have been led to believe that the situation is not wildly different).

One semester began a full five weeks late because the administration (of a well-resourced university) failed to produce a schedule. Classes were frequently canceled for no apparent reason; teachers failed to turn up to class, and many students were not seen in class at all until their final exams. For the most part, the students were likeable but remarkably immature for their age. My personal theory at time was that the subordinate status of women and the widespread employment of house servants has perhaps served to infantilize young Saudi men.

One of the peculiarities of the situation at the university was that the students often had more authority than the teachers. The vast majority of the teachers were not Saudi but rather migrant workers from other Arab states. The largest proportion of these teachers are from Egypt (maltreatment of Egyptian workers has led to protests at the Saudi embassy in Cairo). The primacy of the Saudis meant that only the upper ranks of the administration, who were Saudis themselves, could exert any control over the students. The most visible effect of the faculty’s impotence was widespread, brazen cheating, both in class and during exams. On one occasion, I observed a student physically confront a teacher for having the temerity to interfere with his efforts to cheat during a math exam.

The cause of this problem is the very structure of Saudi society. Indolence is a quite rational response to the irrationality of the education system. Saudi Arabia remains a tribal society, and as such is plagued by cronyism. Hard work and intelligence are only very tangentially related to success in the Kingdom. What is most important is what is known in Arabic as ‘wasta’ — connections to influential people who can get things done. Given that context it makes little sense to work hard if you do not have wasta since you cannot succeed with hard work alone. Equally, it makes little sense to work hard if you do have it — since you will likely succeed regardless of whether you knuckle down or not. One day a student enlightened me as to the importance of wasta in Saudi Arabia. He told me that several years previously he ran over an old Yemeni man in his car. The man lost the use of both of his legs and now uses a wheelchair. The student told me, with a smirk, that although he was sentenced to fifty lashes and a few months of jail time, his father was able to use his wasta to make the sentence “go away.”

Maintaining good relations with the university administration depended on adjusting to absurdity of the situation. This meant not forcing the students to work — a sure way to provoke complaints from students and possible dismissal. By my second semester, I had fully adjusted to this peculiar situation. However, a new colleague, named Eric, had not. My friend was insisting on taking the job seriously and provoked the ire of his students by interfering with their conversations and web surfing on their smartphones during class. One day the head of the department called me into his office to ask my advice on “what to do about Eric?” He congratulated me for being “an excellent teacher” who was “well liked” by students while criticizing Eric’s “bad attitude.” In this topsy-turvy system Eric was provoking opprobrium by trying to do his job while I was being praised for giving the students free rein.

Out of Time

Many of the older Saudis that I met seemed resigned to, and in some cases seemed proud of, the conservatism of Saudi society. However, my students frequently expressed their displeasure at the oppressive social atmosphere and the absence of the most fundamental freedoms. They openly criticized the oppression of women, bemoaned the lack of democracy in the country, and were critical of the censorship of the media. There are very few places in which young Saudis can spend time together in public. There are, of course, no bars, and all restaurants and cafes are divided into ‘family’ and ‘single men’ sections. This absurdity even extends to the shopping mall food courts. The counters of McDonalds and Subway have plastic dividers to protect the virtue of Saudi women. There are no cinemas in the country, and the internet is censored. [2]  In the absence of any places where Saudi men and women can congregate, Saudis go to extraordinary lengths in order to meet each other. For instance, in Riyadh certain 24-hour supermarkets are well known as cruising spots where young Saudi men and women go to check each other out. Saudi women are, or course, always dressed in the full veil and abaya. Conforming to Saudi notions of modesty in dress helps women to evade the unpleasant attentions of the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’ — the grandiloquent sobriquet of the hated religious police.

Aside from the more devout students recognition of the bizarre character of the modern Saudi state seems to be common to most young Saudi men. Having not had the opportunity to talk with them, I cannot say how Saudi women view their country. The atmosphere in the country is akin to what I imagine the last years of the old German Democratic Republic must have been. There is a palpable sense of the chronic injustices of the society, recognition that the domestic media is a complete sham, and widespread understanding that alternatives to the present system abound. In spite of state repression and the steadfast support of the West, it is hard to believe that such a society can endure for much longer. One of the most repressive societies on earth may well be living on borrowed time.

Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7


[1] The key word here is ‘formally’ in effect the system persists in Bahrain and mistreatment of migrant workers is very common.

[2] Censorship of the internet has little consequence since tech savvy young Saudis can easily evade these restrictions using proxy servers.

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