[This] eight-page brochure entitled “Marriage to Saudis,” …was published and distributed by the consular bureau of the Department of State, from the mid-1990s.
The document is an advisory to American women contemplating marriage to Saudi men, based on the long experience of U.S. consular personnel in the kingdom. It is remarkable for its undiplomatic and anecdotal tone, so distant from the department’s standard bureaucratic style. For prospective spouses, “Marriage to Saudis” constituted an official tutorial in Saudi culture; for others, it served as a fascinating example of practical anthropology, school of hard knocks.
The straightforward and talkative frankness of “Marriage to Saudis” also led to its retraction by the department.Â The Saudis themselvesÂ were not perturbed by the document. But when the brochure went up on the department’s website,Â the American Muslim Council demanded its removal, calling it “hurtful,” “derogatory and biased.” In February 2000, the department removed the document from its website for “revision,” but it was never replaced.Â
No subsequent revision could supersede “Marriage to Saudis,” a minor classic by an anonymous diplomat determined to tell it straight.
The following advice and guidelines for women considering marriage to Saudi nationals were culled from interviews with women well known to our Embassy for their embattled relations with their Saudi spouses, from anecdotes from women whose husbands are well known to the Embassy because of their positions in government or business, as well as conversations with women happily or tolerably married to middle and lower class Saudis.
American spouses fall into two broad categories: those who are married to well-off, westernized Saudis, and those who are married to not-well-off and non-westernized Saudis. Both meet their husbands when they are students in the U.S. The former tend to maintain homes in the Kingdom and in the West, they socialize with other dual-national couples, they send their children abroad for college education (sometimes high school), travel frequently, and while in the Kingdom have the luxuries of drivers, servants, and villas separate from where the Saudi in-laws reside. Their husbands permit them to appear before men to whom they are not related, acceptâ€”if not encourageâ€”their desire to find employment and generally do not require them to veil fully (i.e., cover the face with one or more layers of cloth) while in public. The women are allowed to travel separately with the dual-national children. The women may or may not have converted to Islam; their conversion may or may not be sincere. These represent the minority of dual-national marriages.
Most American women fall in love with westernized Muslim traditionalists, leery of the West and its corrosive ways, and eager to prove their wives’ conformity to Saudi standards. The husbands are not “Arab princes” of western folklore; rather, they are part of the vast majority of Saudis who “get along” with the help of extended family members and marginal expectations. Their American citizen wives are often from the South/Southwest (where many Saudis prefer to study), they have virtually no knowledge of Saudi Arabia other than what their fiancÃ©s have told them, and do not speak Arabic. When they arrive in the Kingdom, they take up residence in the family’s home where family members greet them with varying degrees of enthusiasm and little English. Typically, their only driver will be their husband (or another male family member), their social circle with be the extended family, and they will not be permitted to work or appear uncovered among men to whom their husband is not related. Initially, the American citizen spouse will be almost entirely isolated from the large western community that resides in the Kingdom. Gradually, the spouses who survive form a network with other American citizen women married to Saudis. The majority of American citizen spouses fall into this category.
The Myth of the Westernized Saudi
Inevitably, American citizen spouses characterize their Saudi husbands during their school days in the United States as being completely “westernized”; drinking beer with the best of them, chasing after women and generally celebrating all the diversities and decadence of a secular society. Women married to Saudis who did not fit the stereotype of the partying, or playboy/prince, are careful to point out that their spouses nevertheless displayed a tolerance toward all of these diversions and, particularly, toward them. In other words, the Saudi-American relationship virtually always blossoms in the States, in a climate that allows dating, cohabitation, children out of wedlock, religious diversity, and a multitude of other Islamic sins which go unnoticed by Saudi relatives and religious leaders thousands of miles away.
American citizen wives swear that the transformation in their Saudi husbands occurs during the transatlantic flight to the Kingdom. There is the universal recollection of approaching Riyadh and witnessing the donning of the black abayas and face veils by the fashionably dressed Saudi women. For many women, the Saudi airport is the first time they see their husband in Arab dress (i.e., the thobe and ghutra). For those American women reluctant to wear an abaya (the all-encompassing black cloak) and for those Saudi husbands who did not make an issue of the abaya prior to arriving, the intense public scrutiny that starts at the airportâ€”given to a western woman who is accompanying a Saudi maleâ€”is usually the catalyst for the eventual covering up. Since the overwhelming majority of American citizen wives never travel to the Kingdom prior to their marriage, they are abruptly catapulted into Saudi society. When they arrive, their husband’s traditional dress, speech, and responsibilities to his family re-emerge and the American citizen wife is left to cope with a new country, a new language, a new family, and a new husband. Whether a Saudi has spent one year or eight studying in the United States, each must return to the foldâ€”grudgingly or with reliefâ€”to get along in Saudi society and within the family hierarchy that structures most social and business relations.
Social pressures on even the most liberal Saudi are daunting. Shame is brought upon the entire family for the acts of an American citizen wife who does not dress modestly (e.g., cover) in public, who is not Muslim, who associates with men other than her extended relatives. Silent disapprobation from family and friends is matched by virulent public disapproval by the Kingdom’s religious proctors (Mutawwaiin) and vigilante enforcers of the faith. Several American wives, fearing the latest round of religious harassment, have started fully veiling; not to do so, they discovered, meant public squabbles with the Mutawwaiin who vociferously oppose dual-national marriages. The experience of all dual-national couples is that voluntary and involuntary compromises are made or simply evolve. The sum of these compromises is quite often a life very different than the one imagined and speculated upon in the safety of the United States.
What to Expect and Consider
Quality of Life.Â Life in a desert kingdom that prides itself on its conservative interpretation and application of the Qur’an (Koran) requires that couples talk about very basic lifestyle issues.
How cosmopolitan is the Saudi husband’s family?Â All American wives encourage prospective brides to meet the Saudi family before arriving in the Kingdom as a married woman. (Most Saudi families will travel to the U.S. during the course of their sons’ studies, if only to attend graduation.) While it is no guarantee of acceptance, a family that regularly travels abroad or one in which the father has been stationed abroad is generally more broad-minded when it comes to their son marrying a Westerner. It is the parents who can be the greatest source of pressure on a dual-national marriage, and it is important to divine their opinions on what an American wife can and cannot do while living in the Kingdom.
With whom will you live?Â Many newly married couples move in with the groom’s parents, in a sprawling villa which may house several other siblings and their wives and families. Privacy is elusive and tensions with family members who for one reason or another resent the presence of an American wife often make this living arrangement difficult. In a more affluent family, a couple may inhabit one of several homes that comprise a small family compound. Some Saudis live separately in villas or apartments. While that resolves the issue of privacy, many American wives find themselves completely isolated during the day, surrounded by neighbors who only speak Arabic, with no access to public or private transportation.
One tolerably married American citizen wife is not permitted to step out on the apartment porch since the risk is too great that an unrelated male would be able to see her….
With whom will you socialize?Â Saudis socialize within the family. Expatriates who have lived and worked for years in the Kingdom may never meet the wife of a close Saudi friend and, according to custom, should never so much as inquire about her health. For an American wife, a social life confined to her husband’s family can be stultifying, particularly since few American wives speak, or learn to speak, Arabic. Whether the Saudi husband permits his wife to socialize with men to whom they are not related determines how “normal” (i.e. how western) a social life they will enjoy. Several American wives have difficulty even visiting the American Embassy for routine passport renewals since their husbands are opposed to their speaking to a male Foreign Service Officer. Because of the segregated society, Saudi men naturally spend much of their time together, separate from wives and family. (Even Saudi weddings are segregated affairs, often held on different evenings and in different locations.) Only the most westernized Saudi will commit to socializing with other dual-national couples.
What freedom of movement will you enjoy?Â Women are prohibited from driving, riding a motorcycle, pedaling a bicycle, or traveling by taxi, train, or plane without an escort. All American wives were aware that they would not be able to drive while in the Kingdom, but few comprehended just how restricted their movements would be. Only the relatively affluent Saudi family will have a driver on staff; most American women depend entirely upon their husbands and male relatives for transportation. While most expatriate western women routinely use taxis, an American spouse will be expected to have an escortâ€”either another female relative or childrenâ€”before entering the taxi of an unrelated male.
Will you be permitted to travel separately from your husband?Â Travel by train or plane inside the Kingdom requires the permission of the male spouse and the presence of a male family escort. Travel outside the Kingdom is even more restricted. Everyone leaving the Kingdom must have an exit visa. For an American spouse, this visa must be obtained by her Saudi husband. The Saudi spouse must accompany his wife to the airport to assure airport officials that he has given his permission for his wife to travel alone or with the children.
One American’s marriage contract specified that “she stated that she shall never request to travel from Saudi Arabia with any one of her children unless with his prior consent.”
Most American wives believe that the U.S. Embassy can issue exit visas in a pinch. This is not the case. The U.S. Embassy cannot obtain exit visas for American citizens. Passports issued by the Embassy are worthless as travel documents without the mandatory Saudi exit visa. While some more affluent American relatives offer to pay for the American wife to travel independently, this often meets with disapproval from the Saudi husband or family.
Will you be permitted to work?Â There are two hurdles an American wife must overcome before finding work outside the home: the disapproval of the family and the paucity of employment opportunities.
Most husbands will not approve of a wife working outside the home if it entails contact with unrelated men. One American wife, who was a teacher in the U.S. during the entire five years of her courtship with her husband, was shocked when her husband threatened her with divorce when she requested to return to the U.S. to finish up one quarter of classes in order to qualify for a state pension. Now that she was married, the Saudi husband could not tolerate her being in the presence of other men. However, even if the husband is willing, the jobs are few. Employment is generally restricted to the fields of education (teaching women only) and medicine. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous social bias against the nursing profession and Saudi husbands would not approve of a wife working with patients, except in the position of a physician.
Will your husband take a second wife?Â Among the younger generation, it is rare for a Saudi to have a second wife but it does occur. A man is legally entitled up to four wives, with the proviso that he is able to financially and emotionally accord them equal status. One American wife discovered that her Saudi husband had married her best friend, also an American, while he was on vacation in the U.S.
In principle, all Saudi men must marry Muslims or converts to Islam. In practice, many American women blur the issue, participating in a Sharia wedding ceremony but never actually converting.
The pressure to become a Muslim, or to be come a sincere Muslim, is enormous and never-ending. There is no separation of church and state in Saudi Arabia, and at the popular level there is simply no comprehension of religious freedom, of the desire to remain Christian or undecided. One American wife, approaching her tenth wedding anniversary, has been terrorized by relatives who insist that the King has ordered that all women who don’t see the light after ten years must be divorced and deported. For another, the pressure comes mainly from her children who are mercilessly teased at school for having a foreign, non-Muslim mother. (Half-hearted converts to Islam find that their children are ridiculed for having mothers who pray awkwardly or not at all.) One Saudi teacher informed the children of an American citizen mother, who has sincerely converted to Islam, that their mother could never be a Muslim since “only Arabs can be Muslim.” Women who don’t convert must accept that their children, through hours of Islamic education a day at school and under the tutelage of the family, will be Muslim. Women who do convert must understand that their conversion, particularly in the aftermath of a divorce, will be suspect and their fidelity to Islam perceived to be less than their husband’s.