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 previous post: Remember the Ladies in Riyadh
One evening last spring, some friends and acquaintances gathered for dinner in Riyadh. After our meal, our small, international group sat and chatted. Some smoked apple flavored sheesha tobacco out of tall hookahs, filling the air with a cotton candy-like aroma, while the rest of us passed around the sticky sweet dates that are native to Saudi Arabia’s palm groves. Amongst the women gathered, the conversation eventually came around to the expat experience: What are the rules of etiquette and interaction when living in a foreign country?
Saudi Arabia is host to any number of expats: European bankers and teachers, American nurses and oil workers, laborers from Southeast Asia, and diplomats from all over the world. Here, in the political and economic hub of Riyadh, all of these people merge, and many must adapt their personal customs to the Saudi way of life. Non-Muslims cannot hold religious services or practice their religion openly, women must alter their mannerisms and dress, and Westerners generally speaking enjoy fewer personal freedoms than they do at home. The difficult question, often, is how to remain true to one’s own values, while also respecting the traditions and standards of one’s host nation.
One acquaintance sparked this conversation when she said, “I don’t understand when people from other places say negative things about living in this country. If they dislike Saudi Arabia, why not go home instead of criticize?” I wondered if that was true. When we are guests in someone else’s homeland, are we supposed to follow the age-old wisdom to say something nice or don’t say anything at all? Or are friends supposed to be honest with one another, both supporting one another’s strengths and working together to improve weakness? I think it’s natural to feel challenged when we encounter such differences; I also think it’s valuable to discuss these challenges with our friends. In the end, how honest should friends and allies be with one another?
The question applies to both friendship and diplomacy. Whether socializing over tea or negotiating across the conference table, diplomats and expats must balance between courtesy and candor. I believe that through encountering lifestyles and values different from our own, we grow as individuals; and it is by discussing these differences openly, with honesty and respect, that we strengthen our relationships with our friends. Often we reach agreement, and if not, we have at least grown in our understanding of one another.