Thursday, February 7, 2008

Riyadh: Home to International Business, Islam, and Reality Checks

Today's conventional wisdom is that people, particularly Americans, should hold the beliefs and customs of other cultures in great respect.

Recognizing that each culture has its own treasured traditions and practices, and that these should be respected, sounds like a good idea. The trouble, as I see it, is that many people who believe this live in places like America, where women are allowed to
  • Read
  • Write
  • Drive cars
  • Even walk outside without a male relative
Growing up in a free society may tend to give people unrealistic expectations about other cultures. Particularly about how far other cultures can be exposed to foreign ideas, before something cracks.

An American woman had a very unpleasant reality check recently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital.

Yara, a managing partner at a Saudi financial company, was not pleased with the reputation Riyadh had, at least in America. Not long ago, she had an unusual opportunity to straighten out the Bush family about Saudi Arabia's capital.

She met President Bush's younger brother, Neil Bush, at an economic forum put on by King Abdullah. The younger Bush, CEO of the education software company Ignite!, was speaking at the forum.

"I was boasting about Riyadh, telling him it doesn't deserve its bad reputation," she said. "I told him I never experienced any harassment. I'd had no trouble as a woman. It was business as usual."

Her Riyadh-boosting talk wasn't motivated by politics, she said, adding that in addition to being secular, "I have never advocated for anything in my life." Except, apparently, Riyadh's reputation as an open-minded center of international business.

Yara, 37 years old and a mother of three, has a cosmopolitan background. She was born in Tripoli, Libya, to Jordanian parents, and grew up in Salt Lake City. She moved to Saudi Arabia eight years ago with her husband. As befits someone with a background like hers, she's sensitive to, and respectful of, local customs. While in Saudi Arabia, she has consistently worn an abaya (a loose, black head-to-toe robe) and a headscarf.

Two weeks after straightening out a Bush about Riyadh, the power went out in Yara's building. She and a male colleague went to a nearby Starbucks to continue their business.

That's when all hell broke loose.

According to Yara, "Some men came up to us with very long beards and white dresses. They asked, 'Why are you here together?' I explained about the power being out in our office. They got very angry and told me what I was doing was a great sin."

Those men were Mutaween: Saudi Arabia's religious police. They took Yara's mobile phone, confiscated her identification, and took her to Riyadh's main prison. She was "interrogated" there. After being strip-searched, threatened, and forced to put her signature and fingerprints on a fake confession, she was put in front of a judge.

The judge told her that she would "burn in hell."

Hours after her arrest, and after hours in a hygienically-challenged prison cell with dozens of other "guilty" women for company, her husband pulled political strings and sprung her.

Perhaps because her husband is seriously connected, and because she now has a bodyguard, Yara says she'll stay in Saudi Arabia: but not Riyadh.

Yara has had a rough time. "When I was arrested, it was like going through an avalanche," she said. "All of my beliefs were completely destroyed."

She's laying low at her family's home in Jeddah, and taking medication for post-traumatic stress. Her husband, Hatim, said: "Thank God they did not harm her more.... The psychological impact is beyond description.... She's normally a very calm, stable woman. Now she's afraid to leave our compound."

So What?

I think that Yara's unpleasant experience should be a wake-up call for anyone in the western world who likes pork, dogs, wine, beer, or not being flogged for going outside without a man.

To say nothing of living in a society where women do not wear burqas.

Until recently, that part of the Islamic world which thinks women will burn in Hell if they sit in a Starbucks with a man was not a threat to the the western world.

Now, the Islam of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Mutaween, is a very real threat to those societies which allow women to read, write, and drive. It is time for Americans and others to realize that no amount of respect will make some cultures respect us back.
More at "American Woman Boasted of Saudi Freedoms To Bush Brother Before Arrest at Starbucks"

Related posts, on Islam, Christianity, Religion, Culture and the War on Terror.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.