I am writing this in my third and final week of a training engagement in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I did not know what the capital of Saudi was until I was offered an opportunity to provide Data Management training there. I also had to write “Riyadh” several times before I got the spelling right.
Visiting Europe is, for many South Africans, a magical experience. The breathtaking architecture, seeing the bloody historical sites where modern history was shaped, and tracing into our own family trees are just a few reasons for the attraction. I was sent there for work/conferences a few times and tried to fit in as much site seeing as possible – such enriching experiences!
Visiting a Middle Eastern country is entirely different. South Africans from a European background share many cultural facets with countries like Britain, the Netherlands, and France. Even so, spending time there can deliver quite a decent dose of culture shock. And although our South African Rainbow Nation has many cultural overlaps with Islamic nations, travelling in the Middle East is something else. Walking the streets of a city which is sleepy during the day but comes to life at night. Eating at restaurants where men and women generally don’t socialise together unless they’re family. Late nights of social activity sustained by coffee and fruit-flavoured hookah pipes instead of alcoholic beverages – a great mind shift.
When you speak to people in Saudi or read about the country, there is a lot of talk currently about the recent changes and “reforms” introduced by the Saudi royal family and the government. Extensive effort is going into promoting Saudi as becoming a country “of moderate Islam, open to all religions and the world” – to use the words of the Crown Prince widely reported by the media.
By the way, Saudi is ruled by the royal family, where the King is the prime minister and the Crown Prince is the deputy, and many other ministers are also of a royal connection. At the moment, the Crown Prince, not the King, is handling most of the actual running of the country.
My colleagues and I teach Data Management. We can see that the government truly supports its citizens in becoming much more fluent in data and artificial intelligence technologies and encouraging cooperation and collaboration with the rest of the world. Scholarships exist for students who would like to obtain their masters or doctorate degrees at universities in the United States, United Kingdom or Australia. They are well funded. Students are encouraged to bring that knowledge back to Saudi and help build the skills, infrastructure and start-ups required to ensure the country reduces its reliance on oil as an economic factor and becomes a world leader in data, AI and technology-related products.
When I learned about this, I couldn’t help but become saddened at the thoughts of our own struggling democracy. Corruption, populist propaganda and general mismanagement of our resources are discouraging local economic development and investment. Our currency is in junk status. Unfavourable political ideologies are chasing much of our best talent of all South African people groups to the UK, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. And they will stay there, not bringing back anything into the country. Why would they? Regulations that don’t prioritise merit, productivity and competence seem to exacerbate the problems in our job market. A lack of accountability in leadership, illusions of self-importance and blaming others seem to be on the Required Skills list to become a leader in our political parties and corporations.
We have so many things that need fixing that many of us are not hopeful for the future. We don’t see any obvious way out of our load shedding, our crime statistics, our corrupt government institutions, our inability to enforce justice upon those who are guilty. Our ability to provide for our families. Opportunities for our children.
These thoughts put me in a gloomy mood, and I think of Jeremiah’s laments (just scan over Lamentations 1) or Asaph’s disillusionments (Psalm 73). Sometimes we should refrain from jumping too quickly into “positive thinking” mode. We should make sure we truly appreciate the reality around us to prevent a disconnect from our surroundings – where we live in a utopia created in our minds, without a lifeline to the real world.
My mind jumps back to the present moment. I sit in a hotel in a country where most of the population is wealthy, not poor like mine. Where people here have a very different outlook on life, although we also share much. We have many problems relating to poverty. They have many issues relating to wealth. Are we tempted to say, “I will prefer problems of wealth over that of problems of poverty?”. Let’s tread carefully.
I am reminded again that we all receive a Lucky Packet of problems, skills, opportunities, time, relationships regardless of our circumstances. Whether it looks easy or complex from the outside, whether we are dealing with issues of overcrowding or problems of loneliness; issues of not having enough time in a day to problems of not having enough to do – God has provided for us what we need. It also comes with a promise that he won’t put more on us than we can bear and that we should trust in his wisdom and strength and not his own. Solomon’s wisdom springs to mind; there is a time for everything, including for all of us.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
– Ecclesiastes 3
I am also reminded of the Apostle Paul, who said:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
– Philippians 4:11
For example, I think of how different it is for girls who grow up in our country compared to girls who grow up here. I wouldn’t want to take the freedoms and individualistic taste of style away from my own daughter. Still, I also notice how the dress code here reduces the objectification of women and how some I have spoken to here actually prefers the traditional veiling of the face over western dress styles. Some displayed a remarkable awareness of the potential pitfalls with social media, where we in the West only seem to learn these lessons when it is a little too late. There is less social pressure (and opportunity!) to always look trendy when we go out, having to fit into a preconceived mould and selfie-ready mood.
Of course, the exact same things can be said about why some people in the Middle East would select traditional Arab dress over Western styles…
But that’s precisely the point – there are pros and cons in all (ok, perhaps just most) cultures and social systems. Many people back home will find the Middle Eastern family bonds a bit too strong, suffocating even. Maybe some here think so too. But on the other hand, there is almost no such thing as a single parent/single income family. Kids generally don’t grow up with nannies and au pairs here; they grow up with their parents and grandparents and sometimes brothers, sisters, and cousins because multi-generational homes are relatively common. It is like some of our African communities. However, families here are typically not as broken with invisible fathers and the lack of moral compass and discipline as in South Africa. But finding the balance between discipline that is too strong on the one hand and too weak on the other will always be something that lots of us will struggle with.
Another example. Getting married and the idea of finding a life-mate is as different between Western culture and the Middle East as oil (they have plenty) is to water (they don’t have much!). Exploring relationships, developing male/female friendships and socialising together is so natural that we don’t even consider any alternatives. Across from me, in the coffee shop where I have since moved to, three girls just came in to sit at a table. One is wearing a niqab (only eyes are open), and two are wearing a hijab (faces open). Two are wearing black, one a pastel green. No men will be joining them.
Until a few years ago, the Saudi religious police would have caused difficulty for you if you were in a mixed group. These restrictions have been lifted, but I guess it will take a few years for the culture to adapt to these restrictions (or will they?) In Saudi, you don’t find your own wife or husband. You generally trust your parents and family to help find someone suitable for you. Family history, social standing, religion and racial background are all aspects that need to be considered. Often, you actually just end up marrying your cousin.
Food for thought – strange that they seem to last longer than Western marriages, though.
And so we can continue.
I am genuinely thankful for all the freedoms we experience as a Western society. Yet, I also recognise that freedom, as with power, requires a counterbalance of responsibility. Does our personal belief system – the practical one which actually guides our day to day lives, provide enough of an interpretive matrix so that we can enjoy our freedoms without it destroying us? Do we invest enough time, for example, to read our Bible and meditate upon the Scripture to figure out how to engage with our freedoms, control them, and not have it control us? This is what Paul the Apostle meant when he said
…take every thought captive to obey Christ – 2 Corinthians 10:5
We do not want to have our freedoms revoked. But we want to increase our trust in God to help us navigate through them in a way that actually benefits us instead of harming us.
And so, in the end, it comes back to what God has put into each of our Lucky Packets. Regardless of where we live, which political regime we’re in, or into which socio-economic group we fall into…
We will have problems. And solutions. And opportunities. And choices. And relationships. And a portion of time. And, for those who are willing to accept it, a God to help us navigate all of these for our own benefit and for his glory.