Moving to Saudi Arabia was such an incredible culture shock. Having been accustomed to a really open way of life in Barcelona, I just did not know what to think. I kept telling myself not to panic and that in time, I would adjust… Eventually I did.
Aside from the restrictions I had many wonderful experiences.
Saudis are such friendly, hospitable and generous people. I was constantly being thanked for coming to their country and educating their people. I remember one man in particular saying,
“I would like to thank you on behalf of our people for coming here and educating us. We need it.”
I have lived in lots of different countries and have never been told that.
Furthermore, I was routinely stopped by strangers on the streets, who insisted on inviting me over for lunch. To begin with, I found it rather disconcerting. However, I soon realised that they were just interested in welcoming me to their country and wanted to find out a bit about mine.
I really admire how close their families are. They are typically much larger than ours and they often choose their friends from within. Friendships, too, are very strong. Also, I found it amazing that if someone cannot afford to get married; their friends often come together and pay for the wedding. I am English and I have never heard of that in my country.
I also enjoyed their sense of humour. I laughed so much with them and I never expected that. They are very sarcastic and there are plenty of double meanings to look out for.
Ramazan is fantastic there. You really see the best of Saudi Arabia during this month. The people are kind to the less fortunate. It is impossible to walk down the street at dusk without being invited to break-fast with someone. I kept telling them that I was not Muslim, but this did not seem to matter.
In the West, Christmas is a lonely time for those without a family, but the same cannot be said of Ramazan, especially in Saudi Arabia.
Sadly, positive stories rarely get through to the West. Every time I return to England, people just seem to hate Saudis, Arabs and Muslims more and more. My friends just refuse to accept that the reality might be any different. It is not their fault. The trouble is that the events reported in the media often fail to provide the all important context.
Naturally, people make judgments based on their own society, but Saudi Arabia is a different world and therefore must be evaluated as such. For example, most Western women I meet are enraged that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive. However, none of them seem to know why.
It is not that the authorities perceive women as being incapable of doing so; it simply is not safe. Saudi Arabia needs time to adjust. At present it would be extremely irresponsible to allow a woman to drive alone in a society that has prevented interaction between the sexes for so long. Saudi men are just not ready for that and sexual crimes would soar.
Journalism on the country really needs to improve. I recall meeting two reporters from a major news agency at the British embassy and I was shocked to discover how little they knew about the kingdom. I was saddened to think that these people were responsible for informing the West, yet it was quite apparent that they rarely left the diplomatic quarter.
Yes, dreadful things happen in Saudi Arabia as they do in many countries, but there are also many things to be admired and learnt. One day, when I have a family of my own, I hope it will be as closely bound as those in Saudi Arabia. I would like to teach my children to be as hospitable and generous as they are. Although, I expect I might have a bit of trouble persuading my wife to have quite as many children as they do.
Read more by Sebastian here.