Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)
On a hot sunny day in the July of 1954, a group of American men and women planned a public gala to celebrate the 4th of July to mark their country’s independence day. On the day of celebrations, people were enthralled by various activities like a parade, Girl Scout float, people posing as Indians riding horses, cowboys and cowgirls. People enjoyed dancing and various contests organized to attract people of all age groups. At night, many headed out to see movies. But, where did these celebrations take place? Was it in Memphis, Tennessee? No, it was at Saudi Aramco’s compound in Dhahran. It wasn’t only Americans that worked for Aramco who attended the celebrations but some American diplomats, Saudi citizens and people of other nationalities also joined in the celebrations. The bottom line is that everyone from different nationalities had so much fun and with it came closeness among people from different nationalities, races and faiths.
These celebrations took place before the birth of this writer. In other words, people in those days were more tolerant toward each other and they were more accommodating. I still remember how, during my childhood, men from Oman and Yemen celebrated Eid in Al-Ahsa with their traditional dances. Not behind closed doors but in the open. Many Saudis and expatriates used to watch them with joy. In the past we learned many new sports such as cricket from Indian and Pakistani expatriates. Many people today may not consider these events very significant but Saudi Arabia could have utilized some of these slow changes in the society for present international public relation and a way to expose life in Saudi Arabia as a multi-cultural society. In the past, expatriates were part of the neighborhood. It is true that Saudi Aramco employees had their own living compounds but others were part of the society. Today many of the expatriates especially those from the western countries live in isolated compounds with minimum contact with the outside world. Many westerners working in the Eastern Province live in the Kingdom of Bahrain and commute on a daily basis. It is true that these compounds are furnished with all the necessities but it is still considered isolation from the Saudi society and local neighborhoods. There are various reasons for the continuation of these trends. One of the many reasons is our lack of ability to communicate with those from other parts of the world.
Because of the millions of expatriates living in the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia had a golden opportunity to establish many cultural centers and think tanks all over the world many. It is true that the political and economic relations between Saudi Arabia and the outside world were preplanned and monitored and Saudi Arabia holds a very important position in the world, but the cultural connection was not very strong. Relations between different countries can be initiated in few minutes by a signature between delegates but strengthening relations among people from different countries can take years. Cultural exchanges are very important. These exchanges can be in sports activities, art, media, students’ exchange, tourism and many other ways. At this time and age, it is very difficult and almost impossible to be away from the outside world. And there is no need of fear from outside influence on our culture and social habits. We have stayed behind in exposing ourselves to the outside world and were shy to become more involved in many activities. This is why at this stage many people from the outside are writing about us more than what we write about ourselves and about our country. And when the outsider writes, he writes from his perspective.
We see many seminars, conferences and talk shows about Saudi Arabia but the speakers; audience and the moderators are not from Saudi Arabia. In other words, going back to the year 1954, our fathers and grandfathers were more open and better equipped socially.
Written by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim. Open Up to New Ideas reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.