It’s not impossible, but barriers exist to discourage Saudi/non-Saudi couples from making a future together. The barriers are political and cultural. For one, Saudi students and Saudi men under the age of 35 cannot legally marry a foreign woman. By legally, I’m referring to a marriage that is legitimately recognized in Saudi Arabia. Culturally, most Saudis practice arranged marriages and thus the idea of marrying your ‘lover,’ especially a non-Saudi , is unfathomable. In some cases, these barriers can be overcome. For a Westerner, these political and cultural barriers can seem unjust. But one must understand the purpose of these barriers in a Modern global context. Why do they exist in the first place? What are the implications of a Saudi marrying a non-Saudi? I will aim to answer these questions.
Although envisaging our future is unbearable at times, I am gradually accepting the fate of my Sheik and I. Sometimes I convince myself that I’m going to leave him, but it’s not so easy to leave someone who is my protector. All the portrayals of Saudi men as womanizers and users of foreign women cannot apply to all Saudi men. My Sheiks love is shown with sincere altruism. We both know our love will terminate in the near future. For now, all the barriers of society are things we ignore. He has treated me like his wife for quite some time now. He has made my life easier, and with his support I have the option to be away from a lifestyle that’s damaged me for years.
Arranged Marriage = Family Preservation
Cultures of the Arabian Peninsula/GCC (modern day Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait) are extremely beautiful in its traditional form, like all kinship societies. But unfortunately, these once collectivist societies have been contaminated by recent history of the Modern nation-state, neoliberalism and Western cultural imperialism. In other words, the ‘old’ ways dying out in favor of dominant global ideologies.
Indeed, Saudi’s traditional tribal societies are disappearing fast. Globalization had led to cultural imperialism of Western ideals, which permeates all political borders through television, internet, politics, commerce, etc. In simple terms: the old culture is being replaced by Western-Liberal values. Protection of cultural values is a big issue in an interconnected world. Many countries reject Western cultural imperialism. Many want to protect their cultures from the ills of Westernization (broken families, divorce, neglected children, etc). I empathize with this view. A strong family means children are not neglected, yet maintaining strong family ties is difficult in an individualistic society. How does this relate to marriage?
Marriage in kinship societies has symbolic meaning; it’s a means to facilitate social solidarity. Many Eastern cultures continue to practice arranged marriages. The purpose of the arranged marriage is not based solely on love, but rather on strengthening bonds between two families. In the case of exogamy (marrying outside the tribe), a man may marry a woman from another tribe to bridge solidarity between two tribes. In my case, my family used to practice arranged marriages, but we have all become individualistic and Westernized. Saudis, however, still practice arranged marriages, and the purpose is symbolic: to strengthen family ties among different tribes in the case of exogamy. Kin is essential for traditional societies like Saudi, and protecting kin is a big issue for them.
Marriage in today’s modern society has a completely different meaning. In the West, marriage is based on love rather than a economic foundation.
As much as one would want to feel pity for women in love with Saudis, we also must feel sympathy for the Saudi who genuinely loves a woman/man whom he/she cannot marry.
Hypothetically, what if I him and I got married?
Ideally, but only with full acceptance of the family. Yet what are the implications to our marriage? I have no tribe, and my family bonds are loose and erratic. I love my family, but unfortunately we lost our cultural significance and became, like many immigrants, consumed with the demands of Western life. A marriage between the Sheik and I will unlikely unite his family and mine. An individual with no kin has little value to kinship cultures, especially beduoin. I am a woman with no origins, and I belong nowhere. I long to be part of a large kin, to belong….yet membership is not easy because I lack the requirements: my own kin. At most, a woman like me can be designated only as a second wife, or temporary/misyaar wife (which I consider myself one now). Indeed, it hurts that I cannot belong, but I understand the meaning behind it. It makes sense: Saudis want to protect their kinship culture, and arranged marriage is essential to protect it against the growing Western-Liberal penetration. Yet the tragedy is that Saudi laws and customs that discourage/ban marriage-to-foreigners is not enough to preserve traditional society. The ‘poison’ has already sunk in, and many young Saudis dream of connecting love with marriage. There will be harsh implications for restricting lovers by law; only time will tell. Unfortunately, young Saudis are giving up their traditional ways for the more ‘attractive’ and ‘cool’ Western ones.
A Relationship Based Only on Love
The implications for Saudi/non-Saudi marriage is the further loss of culture. Yet I am critical of the marriage barriers, because the laws will not prevent the cultural imperialism. Everyone desires love, but with Saudi/non-Saudi marriage there is a fear of changes to the traditional arranged marriage. There is less likely to be a bonding of kins, or creation of tribal solidarity through marriage. The children of such a union will be mixed, which is embraced as ‘having the best of both worlds,’ but realistically mixed children cannot fully retain either culture. A marriage based solely on two people who love each other serves no benefit to the kin. Social science studies say that ‘enduring love’ is an unrealistic expectation and marrying for the sole purpose of love has a high failure rate. A relationship based solely on love does not depend on input and strengthening of two families. And what exactly is love? Ideas of love can be unrealistic; the idea that love is enduring, (while in reality, studies indicate that passion and romance in couples tends to decline after a two-year period). If love is all the relationship has, then how can the marriage survive ? For kinship societies marriage is based on more than just love,…it strengthens familial bonds too. The only people to benefit if the Sheik and I got married is him and I — it’s very isolated. Additionally, statistics indicated that love marriages compared with arranged marriages have a higher rate of divorce. Divorce impacts children, which impacts the family, which in the end breaks up the solidarity.
We cannot blame Saudi Men
I noticed there is a lot of blame on Saudi men for their inability to take charge. Some say these men are weak, and if they were really ‘in love’ they would give up everything for a woman. That’s a Western way of thinking – me, me, me. Collectivistic cultures do not think of “me” but rather are “we” based. They will think, “What will benefit my family?” instead of “What benefits me?” I’m sure there are Saudi men who do use women and don’t tell their girlfriends that they have no intention of committing to them, but that is not exclusive to Saudis only. If anything, Saudis feel the pain just as strong. They are caught between two worlds, the traditional and the modern. They face tremendous pressure to satisfy the demands of family, society, religion and the outside world. Indeed they feel pain and hurt. One just needs to listen to Saudi music or poetry to see there is a lot of pain expressed. I’ve observed countless music and arts that depict the pain of separation from their lover, the pain of being lonely, the pain of not being able to be with the one they love. This hurts them just as much.
I know my Sheik will suffer just as much pain, hurt and angst as I will when the time comes for our separation. I would never want my love to leave his family behind. It would be utterly selfish of me to ask him to join me in this individualistic world where family is NOT primary. Without family acceptance we would be isolated in our love, and that is not what I want.
For Saudis, family is everything, which is why it’s such a beautiful and admirable culture. And to preserve such beauty, we must try to understand why these barriers exist, even though it hurts.