Over the years, Americans' perceptions of Saudi Arabia culture have shifted dramatically. At one time, Baby Boomers and their parents may have associated the Kingdom with the folklore of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. During the 1970s, the country was at the center of the vortex of the oil crisis. In the post-9/11 world, Saudi Arabia has been viewed by many with suspicion, if not downright hostility. Skyrocketing costs at the gas pump have fueled an increasingly vocal chorus of those calling for energy independence. Despite the extent to which the two countries are intertwined, however, most Americans don't know very much about Saudi Arabia beyond the images of sand and mystery that they've seen in movies or read about in a novel.
But even the best book notes won't lift the veil and reveal the true essence of Saudi Arabia culture. To do that, you have to read the account of someone who has lived and worked among the Saudi people, who has experienced, firsthand, history in the making. There are few outsiders who regularly interact with Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia, for example, since most non-Arabs live in segregated compounds. The real insights into the culture come from people like those who have worked in nursing in Saudi, and thus have seen the good, the bad, and the unthinkable.
For example, something that Westerners take for granted - like an aspirin - can be rife with controversy in Saudi Arabia culture. Although aspirin's anti-clotting properties have many useful medical purposes, for years women were prohibited from taking the analgesic. Why? The thought was that aspirin could cause longer menstrual periods, which meant that a woman would be "unclean" for a greater length of time, which in turn would lead to an absence of conjugal relations and the possibility that the husband would engage in a sinful act with another woman.
Westerners are often perplexed by even the simplest Saudi customs, such as Saudis' traditional garb. In truth, the multi-layered robes are extremely practical as a means of trapping the body's moisture and prevent dehydration in the searing desert sun. Although much has been made of the abaya, or black garment, that Saudi women wear for modesty reasons, most Westerners don't realize that behind closed doors and only in the company of other women, the abayat come off. Underneath, the wealthy are often wearing the latest fashions that have been imported from New York, Paris, and Milan.
To one extent or another, each of us is ethnocentric, believing that our culture and our traditions are superior to those of another. Saudi Arabia culture is no different, in that Wahhabis believe that this Sunni sect of Islam is superior to all others. Similarly, Americans tend to believe that their culture is superior to that of Saudi Arabia. The truth, of course, is at neither extreme. Indeed, it is only through exposure to another's culture through the eyes of someone who has lived it can we build bridges of understanding.
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Chris Robertson is an author of Majon International, one of the worlds MOST popular internet marketing companies.
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