In this interview with Brunswick, Dr. Al Lily discusses his bestselling book, which offers foreigners unprecedented insight into Saudi culture.
What is unique and different about your new book?
This Amazon best-selling book is the first English-language piece to talk about Saudi culture in a purely descriptive (and thus non-judgmental and unbiased) manner and to deliver the voices of working-class and lower-middle-class Saudi men and women. It is written by a male Saudi who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, who is still based in this country, who is a former formally-recognized imam and who comes from a working-class family—yet has traveled the world, is married to a non-Muslim European, studied in Oxford, published with the largest international academic publishers and hence has the ability to communicate with foreign mentalities.
What are some of your most surprising findings?
Music is not allowed in public facilities (e.g. restaurants, shops and gyms). There are no musical concerts, cinemas, ballets, nightclubs, musical schools or musical associations. There are no female changing rooms, no CCTV cameras in female-only areas and no human-shaped statues in museums. There are no pigs: no pig toys, no pig cartoons, no pig t-shirts and no pig comics. There are no video clips or bedtime story books featuring pigs. Advertisements do not display the faces of Saudi women. At times, faces of foreign women on imported products and gym machines are pixelated or obscured using black pens or tape. An adult woman covers her face in the presence of any adult with whom she is eligible to be in a marital relationship, including an immediate cousin, brother-in-law or adoptee. So, a man does not know how his female cousins or his sisters-in-law look like. An adult woman does not veil in the presence of her ‘brothers-in-milk’. The concept of ‘brothers-in-milk’ means that two total strangers are perceived as brother and sister if they are breast-fed by the same mother. When defecating, one is not supposed to sit in the direction that points towards Mecca.
Some women veil when using webcams to chat with their family. When not in use, some women cover the hole of the webcam with tape. When ill, many Saudis do not go to medical doctors and rather seek treatment from religious scholars. There have been discussions among Saudis about unconventional types of legitimate marriage that can be done secretly, can last even for a few hours and be based on simply an oral contract articulated by the two parties. Some Saudis rely on a ‘matchmaker’ to find them a partner. A woman is divorced if the husband says three times: ‘I divorce you’. Yet, for some, during her cycle, she cannot be divorced – if he says ‘I divorce you’, it is invalid. There is a welcome-to-married-life package that includes books and audio materials. This pack gives advice about married life. However, it does not address eroticism. There is no marriage or wedding during Ramadan. If one has intercourse during daylight hours of Ramadan, this is a sin. To redress this sin, one has to fast during daylight hours for 60 consecutive days. If, however, one cannot do such fasting of 60 consecutive days, one feeds 60 poor people.
Should foreigners interested in doing business in Saudi Arabia read your book?
The book lists a large number of norms and values that are specific to Saudi culture, making Saudi Arabia a land of unconventional and unique business opportunities. Yet, deep understanding of Saudi culture is essential, helping investors to start or close deals and to know where to put their money. The book shows Saudi society to be highly regulated and directed by rules that are difficult for foreigners to recognize without a detailed, descriptive guidebook (like the current book). These rules have long been unwritten and only verbally communicated among Saudis. The book makes a list of examples showing Saudi culture to witness a great deal of dependency and classification, with Saudi men depending on Saudi women, and Saudi women depending on foreign workers. This dependency opens unique opportunities for foreign investors. The book provides norms showing Saudis to have culturally unique work ethics and efficiency standards. It also shows that Saudis prioritize culturally and socially oriented matters over work and professional matters. It also offers values showing the need for foreign business people to establish and sustain emotional relationships with their Saudi clients.
What is most important for them to know about Saudi culture?
The book shows that a crucial factor for the success or failure of foreign businesses is how well investors know Saudi culture. This is important for various reasons. First, Saudi culture tends to regulate not only one’s public life but also one’s private life, including what one does inside the restroom. Second, Saudis are protective of their own tradition and sensitive towards anything that might somehow affect their traditional norms and values. They interpret (or misinterpret) any act by foreign cultures toward their own culture. They explain this act as a conspiracy against their traditional norms. They may twist a text or picture written or designed by a western figure to make it look as if it is a conspiracy against Saudi tradition. Third, any product or business activity that Saudis interpret as having any element that goes against their culture will make many of them lead campaigns or even boycotts against this product or business. If any country or company missteps Saudi traditional values, nationals boycott against its products in the hope that this will teach them a ‘lesson’. Fourth, many Saudis proactively seek to keep their society closed and pure. ‘Dirt’ should remain outside the country. Many have sought to prevent foreign values from being imported, initiating real and virtual campaigns against Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s celebrations.