Follow by Email

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Our Generous Hosts: Hospitality in the Arab World

The fact that Arab people are characteristically hospitable is probably not news, even to readers completely unaware of Islamic culture, but I will write this post to reaffirm this understanding and further apply it to Saudi Arabia.
Even in the US at Troy, I received numerous invitations to Saudi homes upon their learning that I spoke a little Arabic and generally cared about other cultures, so I knew that our group would be treated very well on our visit.  However, my own expectations were blown away and I received more invitations and gifts than I ever expected.  Though each present and offer was unique and very appreciated, I'm just going to list everything I can remember.

  • At each school we attended, we left with books, pens, keychains, mugs, and bags.  Just about all of this free university propaganda was well made and likely expensive to produce, making it impressive that the schools dolled out this stuff on American students that will, in reality, never attend their universities.  
  • At a few schools, the gifts were extra-impressive, even if they were only given to the boys.  The girls were rather unhappy that, on two occasions, the boys received briefcases from schools that only gave us a pen and a pile of brochures.  Male and female campuses operate mostly independently, and it's not surprising that male visitors were treated a little bit better, and it's still impressive that the schools were willing to spend so much on their visitors.
  • A quick picture with King Abdullah at the female campus of Al Saud University
    the ladies giving us a tour were uncovered, so I couldn't post any pics of them
  • The universities themselves made great efforts planning our visits.  At the female campus of Al Saud, we were shown around by an absolute army of PR women and many schools hosted us in huge board rooms with individuals in the highest levels of leadership. 

An example of a swanky boardroom afforded to our
NCUSAR visit, this one at PMU
  • Many meetings included small delegations of students to show us around and answer questions even though it was exam time and those couple hours were extremely precious.
  • Every single meeting everywhere included multiple opportunities to drink Arabic coffee, the symbol of Saudi hospitality, accompanied by dates and usually some sort of pastries or hors d'oeuvres.  The coffee and food was served immediately once we sat down, usually by a Filipino servant the same gender as our hosts, but sometimes by the lowest ranking individual among our hosts.  
  • At hotels, we were served fresh smoothies, called "cocktails" in the dry country of Saudi Arabia, while we waited for our room keys to be programmed.
  • Doors were readily opened and bags carried, if you protested, there would be trouble; then, you would hand over your stuff and let the favor be completed.  I'm sure that our male colleagues received only a slightly toned-down variety of this chivalry.  
  • Our Saudi guides from the Ministry of Education, Saad and Sultan, paid out of their own pockets for a number of things for the group.  This included a few souvenirs and a whole day of boating on the Red Sea for the entire group.  (I"ll post pictures from that day in my next post.)
  • Saad and Sultan also volunteered their time, patience, and expertise to our own shopping goals.  Sultan spent an entire evening with the girls while we shopped for new abayas in Khobar.  We walked about a half mile to find a spot with the best stores, and he helped each of us find abayas that were relatively fashionable and fairly priced.  There’s a surprising amount of variety available when purchasing these black, unflattering dresses.  He was quick to point out that the abaya I was eyeing was of an old fashioned cut or style.  He also frequently criticized my selections as being too plain.  Once I selected one I liked, Sultan carried it up to the salesman for the fiercest haggling I’ve ever seen.  He gave this attention to each of the girls purchasing abayas that evening.  Saad was equally dedicated to our shopping success when we went to the old souk in Jeddah and gold shopping in Riyadh.  Although the chaos of the old souk didn’t really appeal to such a classy guy, he still bargained for our spices, scarves, perfumes, and trinkets like he was paying with his own money.  Saad ended up also being a gold expert, giving us lessons on quality and then helping us select and barter for our own pieces in the markets of Riyadh. 
  • Both Saad and Sultan also picked up a few small items for the girls they were shopping with.  Sultan was extra happy to buy a recording of sung Koranic verses for the opera singer/Middle East expert in our group who also blogs at
  • I was at an advantage in the Kingdom because I already had a few friends living there.  When I was In Riyadh, a friend from Troy came to our hotel for dinner with us and then returned to give everyone in the group a little souvenir before we went home.  Another friend from Dammam dealt with my crazy schedule to pick me up, introduce me to his family, and then take me and another girl from our group, Khadija, out to eat with his sister and cousins.  Even the people we had just met went out of their way to visit us and take us out.  One new acquaintance even picked me up from the hotel to go out to the cafe at the Ritz Carlton with his cousin (it seems that cousins are always free for such things) and gave a first-hand lesson on covert fun in Saudi Arabia.  As in America, it is near impossible to convince your hosts to allow you to pay for your own food. 
  • In addition to our own planned tour, the one Muslim student in the group, Khadija, was taken on hajj to Mecca, a once in a lifetime opportunity that, to my knowledge, cost her nothing.
  • Everyone we met freely gave business cards, contact information, and Facebook friendships for networking and potential future visits.
  • Our visits were included in school newsletters and web posts, like this one from PMU
  • When we visited the Jubail Industrial City’s Royal Commission for Planning, we were privileged to a day-long tour, lectures, and a reception/lunch with Commission members and faculty from the university associated with the city.  The visit to Jubail ended with the best gifts we’d gotten thus far: traditional tagias, gutras, and igals for the boys, framed traditional Saudi jewelry for the girls, a framed picture of the group and the city lit up at night, and a CD of all the photos taken throughout the day.
  • When we visited the Nafissa Shams Academy for the Arts and Crafts, a training academy and production facility for Saudi women in Jeddah that specializes in traditional and Islamic handicrafts, we were greeted with spectacular warmth from our hosts, great prices on the few items that were for sale in their shop, and a beautiful set of prayer beads for each visitor.
  • We each received many invitations to dinner at private Saudi homes either as a group or through our own personal contacts.  Unfortunately, the only of these offers we were able to take up was the meal at Dr. Mody’s home, which was amazing and definitely worth waiting for until our last night.  
  • We also received many invitations for trips to the desert or cultural destinations that we were unable to accept based on our schedules.  For future trips, it might be helpful if the Ministry guides allowed a few of these visits, giving us the opportunity to experience Saudi Arabia through someone else's perspective and giving them a short break from a trip that is otherwise pretty demanding.
  • The wait staff at every hotel we visited treated us loud Americans like royalty.
  • One or two universities gave us the use of their buses for our travel while in their cities.
  • Though not quite in the vein of "hospitality," Saudis dolled out compliments, especially to the ladies in our group, very frequently.
Although this is an exhaustive list, it's not even near complete, but it hopefully solidifies your understanding of Arab hospitality, as experienced by a group of 10 American students and 2 NCUSAR leaders while on a brief visit to Saudi Arabia.  

1 comment:

About Your Author

My photo
Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.