Before you move to a new country, it’s great to have an idea of the culture and customs you’ll be stepping into. When I first moved to Saudi Arabia, I encountered a lot of cultural clashes. For this reason, I highly recommend a few books that will give you a peek inside the culture and history of Saudi Arabia before you decide to live or visit in the country.
Here are my top three book picks you will want to read before you go!
Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa al-Sanea
Girls of Riyadh, or “Banat al-Riyadh,” is a novel by Rajaa Alsanea. The book is written in the form of emails that recount the daily personal lives of four young Saudi girls; Lamees, Michelle (half Saudi, half American), Gamrah, and Sadeem.
The novel takes a hard and honest look at the different types of relationships between men and women in Saudi Arabia. While Girls of Riyadh tells the story of the above mentioned four college-age friends in Saudi Arabia, it’s also a book about how hard it is to find love within the constraints of a system that allows women only limited freedoms while exacting, specific demands and expectations on women.
In Saudi Arabia, there is very little contact between men and women in society (although KSA’s society is evolving rapidly) – a fact that is even more true for single teens and young adults. However, technology has changed this a bit with many men now doing everything they can to get ahold of a woman’s cell phone number. The internet is another newer medium that makes it easier for men and women to share thoughts and experiences outside of the constraints of the old system.
In Girls of Riyadh, the anonymous narrator takes advantage of the anonymity of the internet to share her stories in the form of emails she decides to send out weekly to all the Saudi email addresses she can find.
The novel was originally released in Arabic in 2005 but it was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia because of it’s inflammatory, controversial, content. However, black-market copies of the novel circulated until Girls of Riyadh became a bestseller across much of the Middle East. Nowadays, English copies of Girls of Riyadh are thankfully openly available at major Saudi Arabian bookstores.
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal al-Sharif
Daring to Drive gives an honest and detailed account of what it’s like to be a woman living in Saudi Arabia. If you’re curious how much of what you read and hear in the news about Saudi Arabia is true, this book will give you insights, maybe even shock you, about what life is really like in a country ruled by Sharia – a place where the religious police are given seemingly limitless power.
Author Manal al-Sharif is probably not a name that you recognize, but this book recounts her life leading up to her arrest for simply driving a car, as a woman, and recording that defiant action sites like YouTube. This is because driving while female, while not technically illegal, was still seen as a punishable offense in Saudi culture.
Manal takes us on a journey through her childhood living in Mecca with her parents, sister, and brother. She shares how she survived obstacles to doing most everything she wanted to do, and how male family members or guardians had to intercede and give approval for the smallest things and largest of things – even medical care!
In this non-fiction title, Manal also describes, in detail, the way that the younger generation is being radicalized. Some readers will find the situations and events described in the book shocking. However, I commend the bravery of the author who, though she no longer lives in the country, still maintains close ties to friends and family living there.
The culture has since changed to make space for women drivers, but it’s bound to take some time to settle in. Manal’s story testifies to how far women still have to come to gain their fundamental rights in the country and region.
And while times are changing, slowly, this a powerful look inside the minds and hearts of the women who are pushing against the patriarchy and unjust cultural expectations. The women who put their lives on the line, daily, for the future happiness of others.
Here is Manal’s TED talk about some of her experiences:
Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia by Madawi al-Rasheed
Salman’s Legacy offers a timely introduction to some of the major debates surrounding Saudi Arabia’s challenges and policies in the twenty-first century through a number of academic essays.
The book offers a wealth of insights where the contributors share their understandings of a complex, diverse, and globally central country – different from what other scholarship may claim. It’s a must-read for those seeking to fully understand the contemporary regional landscape in Saudi Arabia as it navigates this transition through new policies, changes in state function, regional and foreign policy, economics, and religion.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, and author of Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era and Qatar and the Arab Spring, writes,
“Salman’s Legacy offers a timely and extremely relevant look at a kingdom in flux. The contributors shed valuable light on the country that Mohammed bin Salman looks set to rule for decades to come. This volume assesses and contextualizes the accelerated pace of change in Saudi Arabia, where an old order is giving way rapidly to a new but uncertain future.”
Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver, writes,
“In this meticulously edited volume, Madawi Al-Rasheed solidifies her reputation as the leading scholar on Saudi Arabia. Comprehensive in its scope, nuanced in its interpretation, with a plethora of fresh historical and political insights, no serious student of contemporary Saudi Arabia can afford to ignore this book.”
In Salman’s Legacy, author Madawi Al-Rasheed brings together a number of well-established historians and social scientists with deep knowledge of Saudi Arabia to reflect on the “New Kingdom” of King Salman who began his rule in 2015.
The collection of essays touches on Saudi Arabia’s history, culture, and contemporary politics to provide important reflection on the Saudi leadership’s ability to address and overcome recent challenges, including those brought on by the Arab uprisings. The various perspectives address the regional and international upheaval and whether Salman’s policies can create stability and security while also helping the global economy.
If you want to better understand the politics and culture of Saudi Arabia in an international context before you travel, this book is another must-read.
Have you read any of these titles? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!