How much variety and discrimination is there in the Gulf?

The GCC is as diverse and complicated as any other part of the globe (credit: rasheedsworld.com)


Looking on in from the outside, most expatriates see the Arabian Peninsula as one monotonous geography. The women wear black (unless they’re Kuwaiti) and the mean wear white. The language is the same, and everyone is a Muslim. And that’s the Gulf.

Well, hardly. Each country is unique, and offers a wealth of diversity in terms of culture, history and opinions. The range of accents in Bahrain is so prominent that a local will be able to tell where a compatriot may be from how the greeting alone.

Saudi is the most diverse country in the region. Its twenty million nationals come from all four corners of the world, and don’t be surprised to meet a Saudi whose roots trace back to Indonesia, China, or Western Africa. The Kingdom’s Western Region is the richest melting pot you’ll come across, thanks to hundreds of years of pilgrimage to the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Often foreigners think that Dubai or Doha are the two cities that offer the greatest contrast of cultures and groups, but they don’t come close to what Jeddah has to offer.

And Christians in Kuwait and Bahrain? And a Jewish community in Manama? Yes, they’re locals (but there’s not many of them).

And of course, with variety comes discrimination. There’s a good deal of nepotism across the Gulf mainly due to the tribal, bedouin nature. It’s not uncommon to find a certain group dominating in one company – it’s not so much where a person is from as often as what their tribal name is. Many Saudis don’t use their tribal names any more. And there’s also discrimination based on region (Jeddah versus Riyadh, Dubai versus Abu Dhabi etc), on the history behind the family name (in other words how far back can the family’s genealogy be traced), and on religion (which mathab or religious affiliation a person adheres to).

While this isn’t unique to the Gulf (tell me a place where there isn’t any discrimination) what I do find interesting is the institutionalized discrimination in certain parts of the GCC. Some states, most notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman count GCC nationals as locals when it comes to hiring and nationalization quotas. The UAE and Qatar do not – when they say local they mean local. For a European the difference in policy between the two groups is hard to fathom (especially when considering the relatively small populations of both Qatar and the UAE when compared to Saudi Arabia).

So, the next time you’re sitting in the coffee ship and sipping on your coffee do remember to ask yourself where the gentleman in white is from. You may be surprised at how much you can learn about a region that is full of culture and contrast.

Are Saudis the most open nation in the Gulf?

Saudi Arabia’s society is changing at a much faster rate than many of its neighbours

Hands up all those people who’ve heard of or been to the cosmopolitan Dubai. I’m sure that you’ll know about Qatar, the country that has made a name for itself by investing all over Europe and for winning the 2022 World Cup. And there’s Kuwait, probably best known for its role in the first and second Gulf wars. One of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, one could say that Oman unfortunately isn’t as well known abroad as it should be.

And then there’s Saudi Arabia, a mysterious land which up until recently was spoken of in Chinese whispers. The Magic Kingdom was a country that was known for oil, religious and cultural conservatism. Despite the spread of the internet and the ensuing countless videos and other types of multimedia information hosted online Saudi Arabia is still an unknown to most people.

The country’s reputation, image and visa regime doesn’t help to educate foreigners, but I’ve been struck recently on a number of occasions how open today’s Saudis are. This is especially true of the younger generation. Many of the Saudis I know who are under the age of 40 will talk about anything and everything, especially in a closed environment. They’re knowledgeable, they’ll know much more about the workings of the country and national government than is written about or published in the news. And they’re not afraid to be blunt about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to public policy.

Having lived in Saudi for a fair few years I’ve always been fascinated by how Saudis are becoming ever more open to sharing their views with people they know and trust, especially in the setting of the Majlis where the men traditionally gather in the evening to discuss both personal and business issues.

The difference in openness between Saudis and other GCC nationals is becoming ever more noticeable. While traditionally the most open society in the Gulf, Bahrain has been transformed due to the events of the past two years. Both Qataris and Emiratis are very welcoming, but they’re less inclined than Saudis to talk at length with foreigners on the issues that are shaping their respective countries.

And then there’s the Kuwaitis, who are probably definitely the most outspoken people in the Gulf. But for me, today’s Saudis are more open because many will acknowledge both the positives and negatives of their country.

I’m not suggesting that the country is a bastion of diverse views which are aired in public by all and sundry. There are still many subjects that are taboo, but many barriers have been broken over the past two years partly thanks to the widespread adoption of social media by many young Saudis. Just think of any controversial topic in the Gulf, and you’re going to find it being discussed in Saudi by bloggers, on Twitter and Facebook.

Looking forward, I can only hope that this openness will be a blessing to the Kingdom as it looks to tackle issues such as unemployment, the changing role of women in the society, graft and governance. These subjects will be better dealt with if there’s an open dialogue between the country’s nationals. As always, I’m optimistic about where Saudi Arabia is headed and would like to hear if you agree with me or not about my thoughts.

Reflections on why we all should adapt to the cultures around us

How much do you understand about and live in harmony with the culture around you?

I was reading a short but poignant piece by Annabel Kantaria, the Daily Telegraph’s journalist in Dubai. The column was about Dubai’s Brits and how today’s British expats in the Emirate are a breed apart from their predecessors (have a look at the article here).

My take on culture and our settings may be different to most, partly cause of my background and partly due to my circumstances. As a child of two cultures, I’ve always been acutely aware of the importance of the need to adapt and become part of the community within which I am living. For years my family lived in Saudi Arabia, a country that has a very distinct set of cultures. I’ve married into another culture as has my sister.

For those that aren’t from a melting pot of genes, traditions and customs I can imagine that it isn’t easy to let go of what you know so well. Is there an urge to make others adapt, to conform? You could certainly say that the walls of a compound are a way to keep out external influences.

However, isn’t there more to living in a foreign location than just a job or a salary? How much more can we enrich ourselves through adapting to the local culture and becoming part of the local community?

It pains me when I meet with people who can’t utter a word of the local language despite having lived in the country for years, and whose only contact with their environment is the food (usually hummus). Admittedly exchanges do need to be two-way; a dialogue needs two or more people to talk and listen to each other. However, someone needs to make the first move and look beyond their boundaries to understand, learn and appreciate what is different.

Despite its reputation for being a harsh place to live, I loved my time in Saudi Arabia. Why? Because I became part of the community. I spoke the language, I developed friendships and spent time with locals talking about what is important to them.

I miss that cultural understanding, that bridging of the divide between me and them. The world will be a better place with more understanding. Adapt to your surroundings, thrive in your local environment rather than simply live there, and you’ll end up calling your foreign adventure your home rather than a ‘couple of years abroad.’