My Time in Saudi Arabia

Posted by Tara Foley
October 10, 2007
Tara Foley at the White House

Foreign Affairs Officer Tara Foley works in the Office of WMD Terrorism, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. Here Tara shares her impressions of Saudi Arabia... Tara's next post: An American Girl in Riyadh

Late one evening in February, my plane touched down in Riyadh. I was about to begin my first overseas assignment for the Department of State: four months as an Economic Officer at US Embassy Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I waited for my luggage, looking around the terminal, trying to imagine what the Kingdom had in store for me, and nervously wondering if it was ok for me to be standing there in my business suit and ponytail. Earlier on the plane, young Saudi women clad in designer jeans, trendy European tops, and flawless makeup had lined up outside the aircraft restrooms, emerging fully draped in black abayas and hijabs, ready for re-entry into the KSA. I wondered how I would fare over the next several months: Would I be successful at my job? What would my personal life be like? One thing I knew, I was excited to begin this new adventure.

The night air was soft and warm; quite a change from the frosty cold winter I had left behind in Washington more than 17 hours before. On the way to the Diplomatic Quarter (the “DQ” neighborhood contains all of the embassies and most diplomatic housing), we drove past glittering Memlika Tower and Faisalya Tower, which comprise the Riyadh skyline. I peppered my embassy sponsor, Diane, with a thousand and one questions, wanting to uncover every last detail I could.

Four months later, my plane landed at Dulles, outside of Washington, DC. In the hours and days afterward, it was my family’s and friends’ turn to pepper me with questions about my time as an American diplomat in Saudi Arabia. Did I like Riyadh? What did I do for work at the Embassy? Was it hard to live and work in a place so different from home? What is the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia really like? How did I feel as an American woman in Saudi? What were the people like: both Saudis and the other Americans living there? I’ll address these questions, and others, in future posts. One thing I can tell you is that my time in Saudi Arabia was one of the most wonderful and most challenging times of my life. I feel fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to experience a part of the world that many people will never get to see and, I hope, to have contributed to the good work and strong relationship between our two countries.

Comments

Comments

Carol
|
Michigan, USA
October 9, 2007

Carol in Michigan writes:
Bless you for sharing!

Fozan
|
Saudi Arabia
October 10, 2007

Fozan in Saudi Arabia writes:
Dear Tara,
As Saudi Arabian national living in Riyadh all my life except for the few wonderful years I spent in Florida when I got my Bachelor degree in Computer Science and the two lovely years in the best place on earth (California) working for Raytheon, I know how it feels to live in another country where cultures and traditions are so different. Being there is not the same as reading books or watching movies about a place.

I for one certainly saw the beautiful side of the American society that is so different from what Hollywood is showing in movies about the Violence, Crime, Drugs, etc in America.

I hope your experience in Riyadh was not bad. I hope that you had the chance to intermingle with local people to see the good side and to hear about their struggle in improving their society and try to catch up with the industrialized world in so many aspects while retaining the great traditional values of Arabs and Muslims.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:
@ Fozan in Saudi Arabia -- Welcome, Fozan, I'm happy you found our blog. I was wondering if we might gain some Saudi readers! The struggle you describe between embracing modernity while still remaining true to traditional values fascinates me. I think many countries across the globe face this challenge, but it plays out in particularly vivid and poignant ways in Saudi Arabia. I definitely plan on writing on this topic very soon. Please come back and let us know what you think. And tell your friends to check out our site!

tominoman
|
Qatar
October 10, 2007

Tom writes:
The girls changing in the restroom of the airplane was right out of the book "Paramedic to the Prince" was written by an American Paramedic that worked for King Abdullah and spent ten years over there. Tara you should read it. I would like your comment..

Patrice
October 10, 2007

Patrice writes:
I look forward to reading more about Tara's experiences in Saudi Arabia; I'm curious to learn more about life in Saudi Arabia from the perspective of a young American woman both personally & professionally.

Jeanne
|
New York, USA
October 10, 2007

Jeanne in New York writes:
I hope you could convey to people in the Middle East that Americans, if they understood the brutal Israeli occupation and settlements in Palestine, would not support these policies. Americans are very fair people, but they have no idea that Congress kowtows to the Israel Lobby and dare not criticize anything Israel does or they will be targeted for defeat by the Israeli Lobby. I, too, would be enraged against the U.S. if I were an Arab. Please help people in the Middle East understand that it is almost impossible for Americans to know of the theft of Palestinian land and water by the Israelis. Anyone who tries to inform Americans (such as Jimmy Carter) is smeared with the anti-Semitic label.

Anu
|
Illinois, USA
October 10, 2007

Anu in Illinois writes:
I think this blog will be fascinating - I have always wanted to know what Africa is like.

Tom
|
Connecticut, USA
October 10, 2007

Tom in Connecticut writes:
Why can't you improve the contrast between background and text. It makes it very difficult to read. So I can't.

I am not visually impaired at all, but you are violating some very basic laws of web design (grey on black with intermittent fading pattern.).

If you want to communicate, why make it more difficult than it has to be?

Dipnote Bloggers write:
@ Tom in Connecticut – We hear you and are in the process of changing the page templates so that there will be black text on a white background. We’re testing the new designs now, so expect to see the new look in the next week or so.

Ken
|
Virginia, USA
October 10, 2007

Ken in Virginia writes:
Nice, post, Tara. Hope to see some thoughts about media misreporting or biased storylines about administration policy in the Middle East or the nature and fervor (or lack of fervor) of anti-American sentiment overseas.

lauren
|
New York, USA
October 10, 2007

Lauren in New York writes:
Hi Tara, great job on your first post! But I agree with Bruce -- you left all of us hanging! Can't wait for your next one!

Ben
|
Georgia
October 10, 2007

Ben in Georgia writes:
I don't write this to be rude, but all the blog post I've seen don't really tell me anything. What is the point? I'm all for public service, I am one too, but what does writing a blog do for America really?

Naturally you were going to be worried, concerned, excited upon your arrival to a foreign land. When I was posted overseas the same thing happened... but so what?

Eric
|
Maryland, USA
October 10, 2007

Eric in Maryland writes:
Very interesting post! A great read!

James
|
Georgia, USA
October 10, 2007

James in Georgia writes:
The United States invades Iraq and sacrifices nearly 4000 American servicemen and spends more than $600 billion because we had faulty intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and presented a threat to Israel. We also learn just recently that the Israelis admitted that the intelligence provided to the United States in regards to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were misleading http://dwb.sacbee.com/24hour/special_reports/iraq/story/1079096p-7536596...

We have also learned that the Israelis used phosphorous bombs in their attack on Lebanon last year causing hundreds to suffer extensive and fatal burns. These phosphorous bombs and the hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs that the Israelis used were all supplied to them by the good ole United States.

Is it any wonder that the Arab world has lost all respect for this country? Is it any wonder why we live in such a world of terror? We have a standard for the treatment of Israel that is so high that it cannot be criticized no matter what crimes it commits. Then we have a second standard for the treatment of the Lebanese and the Palestinians that is so low that we publicly finance their ethnic cleansing and torture.

America has reasonably moral policies at home but our foreign policy is as corrupt, hypocritical, and violent as any of the Third-World dictatorships we love to look down upon and occasionally bomb.

Kristen
|
New York, USA
October 11, 2007

Kristen in New York writes:
Tara, it was wonderful to read the start of your blog of your experiences in Saudi Arabia. And, I may add, what fantastic writing!

Briarlee
|
North Carolina, USA
October 11, 2007

Briarlee in North Carolina writes:
What a great start, but I'm with your family...what are the answers to all their questions? I spent two years in Riyadh, from 1976-1978 and am curious to hear if there have been many changes other than the skyline.

Susannah
|
Canada
October 11, 2007

Susannah in Canada writes:
Excellent idea Tara! I'm a writer researching Saudi Arabia for an upcoming project. I stumbled across your blog while surfing. Looking forward to hearing more!

Michael
|
California, USA
October 11, 2007

Michael in California writes:
Hi Tara,

You're a beautiful young woman, and represent our nation well. It's truly gratifying to see someone of your caliber in the position you are.

One matter of deep concern in regard to our ally Saudi Arabia; I understand that Meyrav Wurmser, while she was working at the Heritage Institute, drew up plans for the take over of Saudi Arabia. In short, the plan would add most of Saudi Arabia to the "Greater" or "Eretz" Israel, at a time of their choosing.

In my/our opinion, operations such as that are NOT something America should be engaging in.

You may be aware there's a group of Neo Con's who have designed a very hostile, dominating American agenda worldwide, calling for many wars throughout this century.

I hope you'll be able to dissuade this administration, and the ones that follow, from carrying out the plans that are laid out in the Project for the New American Century group's, "Rebuilding America's Defenses" document.

We believe in an America that is a strong nation, and stands proudly beside other strong nations, not an America that is the bully of the planet.

Your writing makes me think of a geologist friend who's written a book on his time in Saudi Arabia finding the Saudi oil. It's called "Expatriate" and his name is Bud Rudesill. He met and married his beautiful wife who was working for ARAMCO as a nurse at the time. I'm sure you'd enjoy his writing and stories.

www.amazon.com/Expatriate-Bud-Rudesill/dp/1413750117

Our very best to you in your work.

Warm regards.

Medea
|
Virginia, USA
October 12, 2007

Medea in Virginia writes:
Q 1: Were you intellectually able to observe and understand the Arabian culture on its own terms or were you able to judge it only by the degree to which it incorporated western standards and styles?

Q 2: Is this blog part of your work at the State Dept in this part of your career, or do you do this outside of work hours as your own, personal project?

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:
@ Medea in Virginia --
1. You've hit upon one of the greatest challenges people face when traveling abroad. I think it is important to make the effort to understand other cultures in their own context. It goes a long way toward cross-cultural understanding when we can identify mutual values (honor, respect, hard work, the importance of family) while also recognizing that two cultures might express those values in different ways. Still, there are some circumstances where even if we can intellectually understand a dissimilarity, it's not always as easy to come to terms with it in our hearts. I touch upon this topic in my latest post, An American Girl in Riyadh, when I describe a situation where a male colleague declined to shake my hand because I am a woman. Check out the post and let me know what you think.

2. Dipnote is the official blog of the U.S. Department of State. It's an innovative, fun new project and I'm excited to be a part of it. I'm only one of many bloggers – click on the "Home" button above and you can I check out all the other great stories that are available. We have officers and Department leaders alike blogging about their experiences in Baghdad, Kabul, Nepal, Sudan... not to mention Washington and New York. I think you'll enjoy it. As to the second part of your question, I usually sketch my stories at home and type them up during my lunch break or before I leave the office in the evening. Thanks for reading, I hope you'll spread the word about our site!

Medea
|
Virginia, USA
October 15, 2007

Medea in Virginia writes:
Thank you for your response to my questions, Tara. I have read your essay, as you recommended. Unfortunately, both your essay and your answer suggest that, on a fundamental level, you do not even understand my initial question.

Your opening essay amounts to this: How does Arab culture today measure up to American culture today. I find that position shallow and disrespectful. American culture is not the end-all and be-all for everyone and everywhere. The notion that the degree of "westernization" a culture adopts is the standard for affording it respect seems to me to unbalance the world: the globe has east and west poles; why shouldn't its cultures?

My question wanted to know how deeply you were prepared intellectually to observe and report on the unique history, systems, institutions, and practices of Saudi Arabian culture on its own terms, and what you observed of that unique history, culture, etc.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:
@ Medea in Virginia -- Hello again and thanks for writing. I agree with you that the diversity of cultures around the world is precisely what makes our global community so interesting, and travel so enriching. I enjoy getting to know other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. That, in part, is why I do what I do. It's why I spend time learning about the history and the culture of the region, studying the Arabic language, and taking every opportunity I get to travel and broaden my understanding through personal experiences.

I have no intention of writing about how Arab and Western culture -- "measure up" to one another. Both cultures have an incredible amount to offer, are profoundly diverse themselves, and must be appreciated in their own way. But when we travel we do not simply observe new cultures; we experience them. Most international customs and values I have encountered, I have a deep appreciation and respect for, even if I don't personally relate. Others, I sometimes have a hard time with. I think that's natural. Similarly (as several readers have pointed out), when visitors come to the U.S., there are some aspects of American culture they enjoy, and some aspects they dislike or simply don't relate to. Every time we travel we're challenged to look at the world a little differently, to reexamine our own beliefs, and it helps us to figure out ourselves and the world around us a little bit better each time. I think that's a good thing.

Your comments also tied into a comment left by another reader on my second post. I hope that my responses help you to further understand my thoughts on this issue. Thanks again for reading.

John
|
Greece
October 15, 2007

John in Greece writes:
Mrs. Foley you are a real modern-day hero! A young, beautiful, high-educated American girl -with such an optimistic smile- that chooses to work in a dangerous, religious fanatic environment (I mean generally the Arabic countries and Africa) in order to offer and make the world better, instead of enjoying a more high-salary, safe position in a western multinational company -as she obviously could have done- is really a true hero!

Of course I would like to read more about your everyday life there.
Keep up the good work.

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