When family and friends, Jews and non-Jews alike, first heard that I, as an American Jew, had planned to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the warnings and concern were swift and loud.
“Are you crazy?”
“Do you want to be kidnapped or killed?”
“What if you get arrested?”
“Why on earth do you want to go there? It’s dangerous.”
Well, after spending a week there, they were partially right. Saudi Arabia is a very dangerous place.
But not for the reasons you might think.
It’s dangerous because of the driving. Freeways filled with cars speeding in rush hour, weaving in and out of traffic without concern for lane lines or other cars. I saw four accidents in five days. Most days I just closed my eyes. Saudi drivers make the well known bad Israeli bus drivers look like driving instructors.
It’s also a dangerous place because the food is so delicious you can’t help eating more than your stomach will allow. Like how goldfish will eat whatever is put in their tank. I was the fish, and the Kingdom was my fish tank.
Perceptions of Saudi Arabia
All kidding aside, before visiting, it became clear to me that many Americans view Saudi Arabia as a place of backwardness and extremism. The opposite of living in “modern” America.
One friend believed that Saudis live in extreme poverty, asking me, “Don’t most of them live in tents?”
Another assumption is that the Saudis hate Americans. That all things West are despised there. That it’s a dangerous place.
I didn’t have any pre-trip discussions in which anyone remarked how lucky I was to be visiting.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Change happening in real time
The first thing I noticed after a friend picked me up from King Khalid International Airport was a Buffalo Wild Wings. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where then BW3s (Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck) was first opened. I knew right away that this was a new Saudi Arabia.
I’m not naïve. Saudi Arabia has been a religious and conservative place for a very long time. When I visited an historical site and saw pictures from the 1950s, it didn’t look much different than images we’ve all seen on the news in the past 10 years.
But it’s clear that Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (affectionately referred to as MBS) has made positive change and acceptance of others a national mandate, all while balancing respect for Saudis who don’t want to change everything right away. Still, the days of religious police arresting people for choosing a different path are over.
The change isn’t just happening with societal norms, but it’s everywhere around you.
And it’s not just because Baskin-Robbins, Texas Roadhouse, McDonald’s, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Dunkin’ Donuts and Domino’s Pizza are plentiful in the Kingdom.
There’s new stuff everywhere.
Just by way of example, the newly opened Boulevard is a beautiful modern outdoor venue where Saudis gather to listen to live music, shop at fun stores, and eat in an outdoor food court featuring everything from smoked brisket to traditional Saudi food. Hundreds of young adults laughing, smiling, dancing and taking pictures. Carnival games. Giant slides. Video screens. It’s fun in high speed. The Boulevard has a lengthy schedule of seasonal festivals planned there as well, including a recent celebration of the Chinese New Year with all the trimmings.
Another place I visited was The Oasis. An upscale venue planted an hour from Riyadh in the middle of the sandy desert. Five-star pop-up restaurants with world-renowned chefs, sculptors, and other artists, plus concerts, shopping and much more. Saudis flock to this real oasis. The atmosphere was fun, relaxed and engaging. I enjoyed a delicious meal at the celebrated Novikov Chinese-Japanese restaurant.
Then there’s an endless supply of high-end coffee shops that will dazzle your eyes and taste. Some are so popular now that you need reservations.
Ashjar was my favorite. We couldn’t get in until my friend played the “my friend’s a writer visiting from America” card, so they made an exception since they don’t typically get visitors like me. He told them in Arabic, but I could tell from the tone what was said. He confirmed as much when we laughed about it later. Ashjar boasts hand-poured coffees from all over the world with seating situated among beautiful trees, mirrored walls, stones, water and more.
Everywhere you go, modern change is palpable, with young Saudis embracing it with open arms and smiles. I can’t wait to see this place a year from now. In five years. In 10.
The Saudi people
Despite 200 years of religious, social, societal and political conservatism dominating the landscape, the Saudi people were some of the most welcoming, kind, curious and open-minded people I’ve ever encountered.
It’s not that they haven’t been conditioned to think certain ways on some issues. We all have if we’re being honest. But I had the pleasure of having group and individual conversations with at least a dozen or so Saudis ranging in age from 22 to 40. Some were people I previously met in the US, but most were new friends. The topics ranged from changes in their country, to my perceptions of Saudi Arabia, to Iran, to Israel-Palestine politics, to women in the Kingdom, American politics, and to Judaism and Islam.
But sprinkled throughout conversations was a deep sense of humor, unparalleled respect and kindness, and a genuine desire to learn new information. Virtually every discussion involved a kind “what do you think, Jeffrey?” rather than giving each other lectures. It was a reminder how we should be conducting our conversations here in in the US.
Saudis from cab drivers and store workers, to hotel guests and people in coffee shops, to friends and family of people I already knew, uniformly treated me with tremendous dignity and love. It was hard to leave.
Saudis are a generous people. I wasn’t even allowed to pay for my own coffee. A college student I met took me to a traditional Saudi breakfast and several coffee shops and demanded that he pay. Saudis who were just starting their careers insisted on treating me to lavish meals at fancy Saudi restaurants, ordering more food than one could possibly consume.
Every time I offered to pay, sometimes even begging to pay, I was met with a consistent: “Don’t insult me.” One new amazing Saudi friend even bought me my own Thobe and Shemagh, the white robe and red and white head covering many Saudi men wear.
Being a Jewish visitor
While I didn’t run through the financial district of Riyadh with an Israeli flag, I also didn’t hide the fact I was Jewish. In conversations with Uber drivers, in stores, in meeting new people, I told them about my ethnicity. My life’s mission is to bring people together, and I couldn’t accomplish that without sharing my identity. The response from Saudis was overwhelmingly joyous when I disclosed who I am. No exception. I was family to these Muslims, and they embraced me with open arms and love.
“We have so much in common!”
Two new people I met couldn’t wait to show me around. They were noticeably excited they had a chance to spend time getting to know maybe the first Jewish person they ever talked with.
Friends and family of a few of my Saudi friends couldn’t wait to meet me and spend time with me. Some have continued to text me even after I returned to the US. Saudis embraced their Abrahamic cousin with enthusiasm so much that several asked me to extend my stay.
At no time did I experience any adverse reaction to my being Jewish. I’m not naïve to think that all Saudis are the same, or that I would have been safe yelling out, “Ana Yehudi!” (“I am Jewish!”) in the middle of the conservative suq (market) I visited. Indeed, days after I left, an Arab Israeli Muslim was arrested for saying positive things about Israel. We still have a ways to go.
But it was readily apparent that the younger generation is ready for a new world. They’re tired of conflict. They’re exhausted with hate. They want a world based on love. The attitude about this was palatable.
Until 2018, Saudi women were required to keep completely covered. They weren’t allowed to drive. And their engagement in society was limited. There were religious police to enforce these rules. I even saw the headquarters of that division. One person I met told me he was arrested in 2013 as a teenager for just talking to a girl.
But much of that has changed dramatically.
Many Saudi women still keep completely covered, but there were many who only wore a hijab (covering of the hair but not the face). Conduct unheard of three years ago. Other Saudi women now wear a loose-fitting scarf over their heads. Yet I encountered other Saudi women who did not cover at all. There were also non-Saudi women completely uncovered. At no time did I witness even the slightest behavior that was antagonistic toward anyone based on these choices. I know it likely exists in some parts, but the change of acceptance and harmony was real.
Saudi women now make up over 30% of the work force, an MBS-stated 2030 goal that was reached years before imagined.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a modest society, although I’m not sure some level of modesty is so bad. But women there are very much a part of most aspects of society now. In universities, in medical fields, in stores, driving on the road. And doing so mostly without interference from others. You could feel the change in the air.
Women are still fighting for several rights. It’s against the law to wear tight fitting clothes or wear heavy makeup. There’s still gender-based rules among unrelated people in public spaces. Employers still separate the sexes in the workplace and divorce is still not so easy for women.
With all of that, MBS continues to move the country in a more inclusive direction and I for one am excited to see what’s next.
The food! The food! The food!
I’ve had food from around the world. I’ve eaten at The French Laundry in California. Per Se in New York. I’ve had street food in Uganda. Italian food in Italy. French food in Paris. Some fantastic places. Gourmet international cooking is also one of my favorite hobbies. So, I don’t say this lightly when I tell you that the food in Saudi Arabia is hands down the best I’ve eaten. Ever. From high-end Saudi restaurants to old-school, traditional Saudi dives where you sit on the floor and eat with your hand. The flavors are simply indescribable.
On my last day, I visited a suq (market) in the older part of Riyadh where they sell the same spices from the food I had tried over the past week. The shop owner scooped over 10 different whole spices and ground them together fresh in front of me. Dried lemons. Whole coriander. Black peppercorns. Dried flowers. You name it. I can’t wait to cook with them.
My first meal in Riyadh was at a place called Suhail, which is an upscale Saudi restaurant that combines traditional Saudi cuisine with luxury, all in a sleek, modern design environment. I had dishes like Kbeibah Hai’l. Lamb Khabsah. Jareesh. Qursan. And other dishes.
Khabsah, which I went on to have at several meals, is a mixed rice dish typically with lamb or chicken and served on a communal platter. It’s the national dish of Saudi Arabia. The spices in the rice are next to none.
Jareesh is another traditional Saudi dish made of crushed wheat, ghee, and various spices like coriander and cumin. It’s sort of like a type of porridge. And insanely delicious.
Even the falafel in Saudi Arabia wasn’t like you get in other places. Just mouthwatering.
I can’t talk about food in the Kingdom without mentioning dates. With over 60 varieties, they are served everywhere, including alongside a selection of delicious coffee.
This section is going to be short. Whether exploring on my own or with friends, at no time did I ever feel anything but completely safe. Certainly safer than many American cities. It’s time we look in our backyard before judging countries we know little about. Saudi Arabia was as safe as any place I’ve ever been, maybe save Rwanda. The crime rate in Saudi Arabia is actually exceptionally low.
What I didn’t like
Friends in Saudi Arabia kept asking me repeatedly what I thought of their country. As you can see from this essay, it was overwhelmingly positive. I even received a questionnaire from the Saudi government when I returned to the US, asking me the same type of questions. The government even wanted to know if my culture was treated with respect.
I think the hardest part to wrap my head around is the continued separation of men and women in society. I didn’t witness men or women approaching each other. It’s still a very male-dominated society. I’m happy for the changes, but this part was a lot different than the West.
Change is happening, and some things take time to be fair, but there is a real sense that being gay there would be very difficult. There aren’t men holding hands with other men. I appreciate a society where people can be who they are and not hide it. It’s still illegal in the Kingdom and subject to punishment. Having said that, the people I interacted with all had a very tolerant attitude even if they weren’t ready to embrace everything. Honestly, the comments about gay people were not much different than I heard in the US in the 1980s.
I had serious discussions with friends there about freedom of speech. I brought up that it still would not be okay if someone protested or publicly criticized the monarchy, although I also got the sense that there wasn’t widespread desire to do that. The respect and admiration for the monarchy was everywhere. Ironically, after my return to the US, Saudi blogger Raid Badawi was freed after years in jail. He was arrested in 2012 for criticizing the influence of religion in public life.
I was also keenly aware through discussions with friends that it would not be safe for me to be publicly Jewish in Saudi Arabia without confronting conflict. It’s not to say that most Saudis would be put off or even harm me, and indeed the people I met embraced me with hugs and laughter, but there’s enough who still are in the past that would. I suspect in the coming years that the Kingdom will follow the tides of peace and normalizes relations with Israel so Saudis and Israelis can embrace each other like Israelis, Bahrainis and Emirates have, who by the way for sure did so with Saudi blessings.
My hope, of course, is that the tolerance and acceptance being promoted at a rapid pace is the catalyst for these things to change in the coming years. I see it coming, no doubt. The Kingdom is on the move!
Saudis are fiercely patriotic. I was trying to figure out why, since it’s different here in the US, but then it dawned on me after several conversations with friends that it’s because of the culture in the Middle East. Here in America, we are always talking about ourselves. We demand our rights. The second our government tells us what to do, we stomp our feet in protest. One person, one vote. And don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of democracy. I’m a gigantic fan of justice, equity and opportunity. But things don’t quite work the same over there.
In Saudi Arabia, and indeed much of the Middle East, there’s a different approach. Monarchies have been a part of the Middle Eastern landscape for generations and generations. If you look at some of the more stable countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco and Bahrain, they are all run by kings.
This might not sit well with some of us in the West, especially given our last “King,” but the reason Saudi Arabia is able to make swift changes without much dissent is because the order comes from the top. Nobody polled Saudis or took a vote to see if they wanted to open society more. Nobody asked if it was okay to promote love and more tolerance. The reason Saudis are embracing and accepting the change is because it comes from their beloved king and his son.
We might not agree with this approach in the West, but it might be worth learning what works and does not work before we try any more nation building in cultures we don’t understand. Maybe had we reestablished the Hashemite Kingdom in Iraq, their society post–American occupation might have gone a different and more stable direction. Just something to chew on. What’s right for one culture may not be right for everyone.
The Cure for Xenophobia
Mark Twain said it best. The cure to racism is travel.
When people break bread with each other. When they have respectful conversation and dialogue, regardless of cultural or political disagreements. When they laugh together. When they talk about family. The result isn’t conflict. It’s creating safe places to love and respect each other.
Policy and governmental disagreements aside, if we all take it upon ourselves to reduce the racial and ethnic space that we’ve spent years creating in our own neighborhoods and cities, we will find that there’s beauty all around us and it comes in all shapes, sizes, colors and ethnicities.
Thank you to my old and new friends in Saudi Arabia for a beautiful experience. For the embrace. For the love. For the kindness and generosity. I fell in love with your country so I’ll be back soon.