As a traditionalist, conservative monarchy thriving off the wealth made from fueling the modern world, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may seem to be paradoxical. Oil wealth and the realities of globalization and modernization have propelled this country, built on tribal ties and puritanical Islam, to a position of global influence. Yet while it is one of the most powerful economies in the world and the key player in Arabian geopolitics, its women are not permitted to drive or be legally independent from their men and daily life is governed by strict religious laws and customs. Saudi Arabia is thus a country at conflict with the changing character of the world around it, and with itself. Saudi culture is torn between its reverence for the traditions of the past and its reluctant acknowledgement of the pressures of the future. As a country where tradition rules everything, the liberalizing changes that come with modernity do not so easily take hold there. Indeed, the conflict between progressive modernity and Islamic tradition can be seen in the disgruntled and disillusioned individuals it produces: 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. This paradoxical nature of Saudi Arabia can only be understood by appreciating the context and circumstances of its people and culture. Only by learning about the government of the Kingdom, it’s strictly conservative Wahhabi brand of Islam and the history of its people can the current nature of the monarchy and the country truly be understood. Soon, I will have the opportunity to do so.
Starting on Saturday and lasting for 10 days, I will be traveling this fascinating land, learning about its people, culture, government, and history. I will visit the sandy deserts of Arabia, the ancient cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, bustling markets and squares, and the massive development projects started and funded by the wealthy royal family. Though this trip itself will be a fun and exciting experience for me, it will also be informational. We will be meeting with Saudi officials, businessmen, policymakers, workers, and others to learn about their way of life, their struggles and challenges, their hopes and fears, and their perceptions of the world. I will be constantly immersed in an environment that I know little about, and will be able to learn and take away so much as a result. Replacing my ignorance of this culture and country with a greater understanding is my main goal.
After all, for being a country of such strategic and political importance and having had such a long and important historical relationship with the United States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s nuances and intricacies are relatively unknown to the people in the West. For many, the Kingdom is little more than a place where we purchase our oil. Most in America do not understand the history and people of Saudi Arabia, and as such cannot hope to understand how and why they act as they do in the present day. As evidenced by our sometimes confused relationship with and foreign policy on them, an understanding and knowledge of the Saudis may even be absent in our scholars and policymakers. While many Saudis are afforded the opportunity to visit and study in the United States and in doing so learn about us, very few Americans are given a reciprocal opportunity. American ignorance of this very important and interesting country is a result.
Learning about this country, then, is of incredible importance, and spreading that knowledge even more so. Saudi Arabia, being one of our strategic allies and an increasingly significant player in Middle Eastern and global affairs, should be a focus of American policy and understanding. Our peoples are divided in culture, customs, traditions, and lifestyles, and this divide has been a source of the antipathy, ignorance, and fear that clouds the post-9/11 American mindset. Bridging those divides, and revealing the relatable and unshakable human character of the Saudi people, is thus one of the most important steps towards building a peaceful and harmonious future between our countries. Perhaps of more fundamental importance is that we, as citizens of not only the United States but the planet Earth, cannot afford to be ignorant of the other cultures living on our planet. Our country is but one of many, and our way of life is only one way of doing things. Broadening our understanding of the human experience broadens our perspective, and in turn makes us into more cultured, more learned individuals.
I leave for my trip to Saudi Arabia knowing it will be a trip of learning and understanding. I hope to contribute to a greater knowledge of the Saudi people, their culture, and their government. To do so, I will be using this blog to describe my travels and my discoveries. I hope to update it daily, describing what I have learned, where I have visited, who I have met, and providing insights into this foreign land. I expect that this trip will be not only informational, but also incredibly exciting and fun. I invite you to join me on this incredible journey and enjoy with me the sights, the culture, and the learning.