Hierarchy of "Real Women" in Saudi Arabia

There are ~5.4 million women in KSA between the ages of 15-64 (~Saudi population is 20 million, 60% are over 15 years old, 45% of those are women) and 1.5 million are spinsters according to the Gulf News. 

That means close to 30% of Saudi women are not married because they are either considered old (over 25 according to some!) or unable to “attract” a husband. When asked about what makes women more attractive for marriage it turns out there is a hierarchy similar to that for men (see earlier post on racism and real men).

“Real Women” in order of decreasing attractiveness (for marriage) fall roughly in these categories (attractiveness for affairs or second marriages is another matter):

  • Tribal women- these are either Saudi (or Emirati women) that trace their lineage to a tribe. Each region has a hierarchy of tribes.
  • Foreigners (Western, Arabs, Asian, others)- the preferences between the various foreigners varies based on who is asked. Some mothers prefer Muslim Arab women for their sons, some mothers do not like converts, some sons prefer western women, some prefer someone who can speak the same language, some sons look for beauty and/or compatibility. What appears to be less common are tribal Saudi men married to Asian women (though it was more common a generation ago).
  • Non-tribal Saudi women, Saudi women doctors and divorced women- this category often ends up marrying non-tribal Saudis, divorced men or becoming second wives. Marrying non-Saudi men also happens however it is a prolonged process due to government approvals that are needed beforehand.

What is striking about the order is not that locals prefer to marry locals (that is true for almost every part of the world), it is the notion that non-tribal Saudi women are less desirable than foreigners. Tribalism is such a strong, heavily embedded concept that it completely supercedes nationality and language- not having a tribe while being Saudi is considered less than being a non-Saudi!

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Racism and "Real Men" in Saudi Arabia

Segregation of men and women in KSA in restaurants, schools, universities, work areas (even if not required by the government) is explained on religious grounds- that men and women who are not “mahram” for each other should not be alone with each other (different countries and societies deal with the issue of “khulwa” differently- the topic of a different post!).

A mahram is someone in front of whom a woman does not need to cover and can touch/hug e.g. father, father-in-law, bro, son, uncles, nephews, other women etc. For men the equivalent are: mother, mother-in-law, sister, daughter, aunt, niece, other men etc. Other than the husband/wife relationship, the people within the circle of mahram are people that one cannot marry.

So the question comes to mind that if the concept of mahram is so important that all public spaces are segregated, why is it ok for women to be driven by male drivers?

The answer I have received from several locals is mind boggling and has nothing to do with religion. Apparently the drivers in KSA are not considered “real men” as they are almost all from India, Pakistan, India and the Philippines. “Real men” can only be Arab. The hierarchy is as follows:

  • Tribal Arabs (Saudi or from other GCC countries)- real men
  • Syrians and Iraqis- real men
  • Other Arabs (like Egyptians)- NOT real men
  • Asian- not real men

The racism does not end here. People assume that Saudi women cannot possibly be attracted to non-Arab men. They also assume that all these foreign workers would not DARE approach a Saudi woman. Thus it is “safe” to be alone with them. Non-Arab foreign workers  are thus the preferred nationality for personal chauffeurs, limo drivers and taxicab drivers.

Saudi citizenship and immigration policies

 Saudi Arabia is not “home” to anyone who is not born to Saudi parents or is married to a Saudi. Short of these two options, or having something like 3 phds, one cannot ever make Saudi Arabia home as there is no other way to become a citizen.

What does that mean? It means that no matter how long one lives in this country, no matter how much one invests here (emotionally or financially), there is no way of settling down here. Iqamas (residence permits) are issued based on work. Once your work is over, it’s time to leave. Until recently expats were unable to purchase property. This has changed however it does not mean they are allowed to stay if they do not have a job. So retirement in Saudi Arabia after decades of work is not an option.

Part of the reason for exclusivity regarding citizenship is based on tribalism. Social status here is determined by tribal affiliations. Immigrants do not have tribal affiliations and are thus “lower”.  As is, there is plenty of racism in the whole of the GCC.

There are many cases of people who came to KSA 3-4 generations ago, when immigration law was different. All of the younger generations, born and bred in Saudi Arabia, who know no other home, went to public school here, are all married to similar families. No one is married to “pure” Saudis except as second wives.  

post updated: Feb 28, 2009