Susie of Arabia: From Florida to Jeddah — Women on the Road

A former police officer and travel industry professional, Susie Khalil’s American life changed dramatically in 2007 when she followed her Saudi Arabian husband back to his homeland — where she has lived ever since. Her award-winning blog Susie’s Big Adventure was once banned; it sheds some light on life in one of the world’s most closed countries. Around 2010 (give or take a year) Women on the Road interviewed Susie, but updated the interview in 2018. The original 2010 interview is at the bottom of this story.

ED NOTE. Since the 2018 update, much has happened in Saudi Arabia: Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated; women have been allowed to drive and in some cases travel without a male guardian; Saudi Arabia now issues tourist visas and is letting foreigners visit. It’s impossible to know how powerful, positive or long-lasting any changes will be, but it is a backdrop against which to view Saudi Arabia.

Susie of Arabia: An Update (March 2018)

It’s been ten years now since I first set foot in Saudi Arabia. Hard to believe because I always said I could never see myself here long term, but somehow that has changed. I love my life in this country. I know it’s not what a lot of people want to hear because of what they believe about Saudi Arabia. But the truth is my husband is very good to me and I consider myself a very lucky woman. My social life here in Jeddah is far more active and full than when I spend my summers back in the US. There are always things to do and I find myself just as fascinated with this country, its people, and its culture as when I first moved here. I feel very safe and I have wonderful friends from all over the world.

With all the changes that are rapidly happening in this country, this is a very exciting time to be here. Things have been slowly changing for several years, but now things really seem to be picking up speed. The younger generation has had the opportunity to grow up with modern technology, so they have been exposed to the outside world a lot more than previous generations. They want change. They want more normal lives, like they see in other countries — and the Crown Prince MBS is trying to make that happen. I, and many others here, have great hope that he will succeed and that Saudi Arabia will emerge as the modern and moderate country it seems to want to be, once the dust settles in the next few years. The Crown Prince has the support of the younger generation — and the future of Saudi Arabia is in their hands.

As far as women here in KSA go, one of the biggest changes I’ve witnessed is in the workplace. No longer limited to working solely in education or the medical field, Saudi women pushed for that change by organizing boycotts of lingerie shops and other businesses that sell only female products. Previously foreign male workers were solely employed in sales positions. It was creepy, nonsensical, and weird that women in this country were humiliated for all those years, forced to purchase their undergarments from men, while having to be totally enveloped in black from head to toe. Women also kept plugging away at the driving issue and last year’s announcement that women would finally be granted the right to drive (to be effective June 2018) finally put an end to another illogical policy. For me, the long awaited driving announcement was actually rather anticlimactic, even though I had complained and written about it for so many years. But several years ago when Uber and other car services along with modern technology made it so much easier for us to get around, transportation just wasn’t the big problem for me that it used to be. So while I was happy at the news (I cried tears of joy) and definitely plan to drive, it just wasn’t as urgent or as important an issue as it once was.

Another exciting change is the news that Saudi Arabia will finally allow tourism. There will still be restrictions on travelers from what I understand, but people who are not Muslim and are interested in seeing this country for themselves may finally get the opportunity. It’s been such a closed society up to this point, and there are a lot of misconceptions about Saudi Arabia as well as a lot of natural curiosity about it. Saudization (replacing foreign workers with Saudi workers) is in full swing and many expats have departed the country. For the first time ever, there are taxes in Saudi Arabia. KSA is no longer seen as financially beneficial for expat workers as it previously was. The cost of living has risen as well, gas prices have gone up, and so has the cost of groceries. It’s still cheaper to live here than in the US though.

Blogging about Saudi Arabia has made a huge difference in my life in ways I could have never imagined. I am well known here by the large expat community and to anyone trying to find information out about Saudi Arabia. I’ve been asked to participate in events and panels because of my blogging. I’ve given presentations here and in the US about Saudi Arabia and also about the fabulous sculptures of Jeddah, which I have photographed and written a lot about. People write to me from all over the world with questions and requests. Some have moved here and have become my best friends. It’s been an amazing adventure that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Living here is not as restrictive or as oppressive as the rest of the world thinks. I really don’t feel restricted much, but I do know that the guardianship system invites abuse for some Saudi women. This system relegates Saudi women to the legal status of children for their entire lives and they are required to have a male guardian who is responsible for them. Many guardians pretty much let the women make their own decisions and do as they wish, however some men abuse this authority they have over women. I’d like to see the guardianship system abolished. This would give Saudi women full citizenship status in this country.

I still don’t like the gender segregation here, but that too is changing. Movie theaters are no longer deemed “haram” (forbidden) and should be opening in the near future. I still dislike that businesses must close down when it’s prayer time — it’s inefficient and bad for business — but there is talk that this too will be changing. Wearing the abaya — I’ve even gotten used to it and I actually like it now — but I’m always hot and that extra layer of clothing doesn’t help with that. Abayas have really evolved in the 10 years since I first moved here. In Jeddah women are wearing colors and prints other than just plain black. It’s a nice change.

Thankfully my husband has loosened up about me wearing the scarf on my head — that took several years! He still thinks every man wants me because I am so beautiful… lol. But most non-Muslim Western women do not cover their hair here and I am seeing a lot more Saudi women without the face veil and some even without the scarf too.

My son Adam was 14 when we moved here from Florida. In retrospect maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to bring a teenager to a place like Saudi Arabia. It was difficult for him and he didn’t do well in the adjustment. He suffered from depression. I persuaded my husband to send him back to the US to finish high school. Adam left Saudi Arabia after three years here and he hasn’t been back since. I do hope that he eventually appreciates the time he spent here and sees it as a good experience. He lives in the Seattle area, where we purchased a home nearby a few years ago and spend our summers there. My husband has indicated a desire to spend more time back in the US, so we may end up reversing the schedule we’ve had these past ten years and start spending less time in KSA than we have been. Actually, as long as I’m with my hubby, I’m happy — and I’ll follow him anywhere!

Original Interview with Susie of Arabia (2010)

What was your first impression of Saudi Arabia?

I felt like a kid going on a very exciting adventure and I hardly slept a wink on the long flight. When I was looking out the window of the airplane as we were approaching Jeddah, I thought it looked awfully brown, with not much vegetation. I was moving here from Florida which is very green, so it was a visual jolt.

I arrived during Ramadan. It was 10 or 11am on a weekday. There was absolutely no traffic on the streets at all and the businesses were all closed up! I thought it was really strange, but I learned that since it was Ramadan when all Muslims fast during the day, everybody sleeps late and many businesses are closed all day and open up later in the afternoon and stay open quite late.

I was welcomed warmly by my husband’s family and I think that had a lot to do with all the positive energy I have felt here. I found the mix of the old and the new here to be remarkable — in architecture, in dress, in culture and in technology. The older areas of the city and just the whole ethnic feel reminded me a lot of Mexico.

And what are your impressions a few years later?

I’m still amazed that I am here because I never thought it would happen. I still feel like a newcomer here and I’ve been told that I see things differently from other women ex-pats who have been here much longer. I think maybe I notice many things that people who’ve been here a long time take for granted and just don’t pay attention to.

I still find wonder in many things that others would consider mundane, but to me are fascinating. Jeddah blooms with magnificent artwork all over the city — I don’t know that most people here really appreciate it the way I do. I still find so many things here remarkable, but after a year or so, that euphoric honeymoon phase wore off and more of that in-your-face reality set in.

I can see that things could be so much better here with some small changes. Like for example, the trash and rubble I see all over the city, even right next door to a beautiful villa. Foreign workers are brought in to clean up the place, but people aren’t concerned about dumping their trash wherever. To me, it makes no sense. There’s also a lot of graffiti, which initially surprised me because of the stiff punishments here for crimes. But I realize there is graffiti everywhere — I just didn’t expect it here for some reason.

Saudi Arabia gets really bad press in the West: is it deserved?

Yes, and no. For the most part, the population is made up of warm and lovely people. I do think that because Saudi Arabia is such a closed society, there is so much mystery surrounding it, and there are a lot of misconceptions and generalizations made that aren’t necessarily true. I think that the West has gotten a bad impression about Islam, Muslims, and Saudi Arabia because of 9/11 and other unfortunate events.

What the West needs to realize is that those responsible for the terrorism are no more representing Islam than Tim McVey represented Christianity. Extremists exist everywhere.

That being said, I think that in many ways, Saudi Arabia doesn’t really help its own image. Some of the legal cases, verdicts, and sentences that are handed down are impossible for the West to understand or agree with.

Take, for example, the case of a 75-year-old Syrian widow who was sentenced to 40 lashes, four months in prison, and deportation. Her crime was that she received two 25-year-old male visitors in her home who were not related to her and were bringing her bread. They were doing a good deed and trying to help out an elderly widow. But they were all charged with immoral behavior because they were alone in her home together and were unrelated members of the opposite sex. How can Saudi Arabia expect anything but bad press for a story as absurd as this?

And this is just one example. I could give you many more that are equally ridiculous. Blaming a woman for being gang raped and sentencing her to lashes and imprisonment. Upholding as perfectly legal the marriage of an 8-year-old child to a man in his 50s as payment for a debt her father owed. In other countries, this is considered child molestation, but not here. I think that the cultural and religious extremism here does a lot to damage the reputation of Saudi Arabia, but the weird thing is that they don’t really seem to care.

As an American, how do you cope with the lack of gender equality in Saudi Arabia?

This is a very difficult issue for American or other Western women to deal with here. Luckily I have always been optimistic and tend to focus on the positives instead of dwelling on the negatives. I am able to go with the flow and I am a very flexible person. However I have never in my life had to bend as much to conform with the rules as I have here.

The vast majority of women do not work, and at this point in my life, I guess I am ready for that. I was a career woman all my life back in the States. I was very independent. Here women are forced into a position where they are very dependent on the men. I have to remind my husband that I am not a Saudi woman and I never will be, and I must stay true to myself. Just because we have moved a different continent doesn’t mean that I must change who I am as a person. I can still have respect for the culture and traditions but remain true to my own beliefs and feelings.

One issue that has come up recently has been covering my hair with the hijab. I don’t object to covering my hair when we are out in public. I have blond hair and I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I don’t mind covering my hair in front of my husband’s family because that is what they do. But I do have a problem understanding why my husband insists that my hair has to be covered in a small private social setting where other women are not covered. My husband knows that I am not comfortable wearing the hijab. Not only that, I truly dislike wearing it. It makes me hot and makes my neck itch.

On two different occasions recently, he insisted I wear the hijab when the other women did not. I conceded and wore the hijab to please my husband because it was his wish, but I voiced my objections and unhappiness about the situation. I am feeling now that if another occasion arises like this, either I will stay home or he will. He is not willing to compromise for some reason on this issue, and I feel I have compromised enough by wearing the hijab when out in public and in the company of his family. I went for 55 years of my life with my hair uncovered and it wasn’t a problem, and I don’t see the point in covering it now when I don’t feel it’s necessary.

What do you miss most from America and what do you appreciate most in Saudi Arabia?

Of course I miss my family and friends back home. I don’t so much actually miss driving (Ed: the law changed in 2017 to allow women to drive), but I miss the freedom of being able to just grab my car keys and go whenever or wherever I feel like it. I miss going to the movies (there are no movie theaters here either). Since there is strict segregation of the sexes, I miss simply socializing in mixed company. I miss going out with my girlfriends shopping or to dinner.

What I appreciate most in Saudi Arabia would have to be my husband’s family. They have been nothing short of amazing toward me and my son. I’m sure if it weren’t for them welcoming us with open arms, our experience here would be totally different. I am grateful for feeling safe here when I thought it might be a bit scary before I came. Modern technology is something that I am thankful for each and every day because without it and my hobbies, I would likely go stir crazy because there is really not much for women to do.

I also appreciate how much cheaper it is to live here — food, medicine, and clothing and other things are cheaper. I’m thankful that my son is being exposed to his own Saudi heritage, is learning to read and write Arabic, and I hope that one day he will appreciate it.

What does the future hold for you?

Honestly I don’t know. Some years ago there was no way I ever imagined I would be living in Saudi Arabia. Right now I cannot see myself living here long term. I have met Western women who have been here for more than 20, 30 or even 40 years. I cannot imagine that, but who knows?

My true desire is to live in a cooler climate because right now I am feeling doomed to living in hot places all my life — Arizona, Florida and now Saudi Arabia! My husband does not want to move back to the States, but he is open to living in another country. So, for now, we are here. I hope that the future holds happiness and contentment for me and my family, wherever in the world we may be — but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!

You can keep up with Susie on her fabulous blog, Susie’s Big Adventure.

Originally published on Women on the Road.

Solo Travel | Journalist | Author | Internationalist | Foodie | Serial Expat | Advocate for women's rights

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