I am an American. 12 years ago my country was attacked by a terrorist group led by a man from the Middle East. My country engaged in many years of war to find those responsible — and as a byproduct, has created a culture of fear, ignorance, and judgment on our own soil. All because of assumptions and fear of countries we know absolutely nothing about. We have been fed a perception that is a complete misrepresentation of not just one city or country, but an entire region of countries — and unfortunately, this perception that will affect the future generations of this region and our own country because of our ignorance. Think of it this way: People who aren’t even born have already been mislabeled.
The reason I am writing this is because I too once fell into this ignorance, maybe not to an extreme by any means, but without doing any actual research or actively pursuing understanding.
I just got back from seven days in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and I cannot even begin to explain the remarkable and eye opening experience I had there. I want to write about my short trip to a place that not many people get to know in the hope that you will put aside whatever judgement you may have and even do some of your own travels.
Quick Saudi Arabia Facts (cited from CIA.gov):
Major cities – Population: Riyadh (capital) 4.725MIL, Jeddah 3.234MIL, Mecca 1.484MIL
Unemployment, youth ages (15-24): Male-23.6%, Female-45.8%
Government type: Monarchy
Economy: Oil based economy. The worlds largest exporter of petroleum (possess 17% of the world’s petroleum reserves)
Labor Force: 80% of the labor force is non-national (71.9% of which is focused in the service industry)
Now, these are stats about the country — but let’s do a quick search on CNN.com on Saudi Arabia. Here are some of the first headlines you will read:
“Saudi Arabia beheads man for stealing”
“Saudi Arabia’s unsolicited monitoring of women’s travel”
“Two Saudi’s in human rights groups get 10 years in prison”
I believe these are the common headlines we are constantly fed and have been fed ever since 9/11. When I told many of my peers I was heading to Saudi Arabia, the reaction was one of caution because of this perception.
Now, if I were to give you three newsworthy headlines about my experience there, they would look more like this:
“Saudi Arabian’s, the most hospitable people I have ever met in my life”
This article would talk about the distinction between what the media portrays Saudi’s to live in a culture of hate that is flooded with violence, when in reality, every Saudi I met was more than generous and compassionate. They have a culture of caring for people, being a great host, and ensuring that your time with them is of great value. I was overwhelmed by how out of their way the locals went to ensure that I was happy.
“Saudi Arabia’s vision of hope for a better world”
This article would discuss a new generation of Saudi’s and their passion to create a new world for themselves. We have had three Startup Weekends in Saudi Arabia and they have each been the largest events we have held around the globe. There is this immediate sense to take action, to create, to do unconventional things, and to change the world for this generation — and it showed when I was in Jeddah. When I asked Sara Kabdeep (one of the winning team members at Startup Weekend Jeddah) what entrepreneurship meant to her, she said, “… Strength, independence, and a gate to endless opportunity!”. This epitomizes the viewpoint many of these young and aspiring Saudi’s have.
“One family shouldn’t be a way to judge an entire nation”
This article topic is something that I would want to make sure everyone understands clearly. On my drive to my hotel, a local and I engaged in some of the negative perspectives Saudi’s have and one thing that really stuck out to me was when discussing the monarchy of the kingdom. He said, “… you have to remember that Saudi is entirely run by one giant family, just one (as he sternly stuck 1 finger in the hair). How can you assume 30 million people are all the exact same?” You personally may not have agreed with some of the actions some of the wealthy leaders in Saudi took, but it’s absurd to label the other 30 million people with those negative assumptions. We are all different, we all have our own individual experiences that have crafted the people we are, and it is an injustice for people to not care enough to get to know others because they are too lazy to find out the truth. It is an injustice to label people who look similar with the same beliefs and viewpoints. It is an injustice to not think about how you would like to be treated and act that way to others.
There is so much I could write about my travels to Jeddah, but more than anything I would encourage you to experience Jeddah on your own. There are of course things to watch out for and cultural things you need to be aware of — but that is just like any other place you will travel to. I have been fortunate to have traveled to a handful of places around the globe and want to clearly make a distinction between “Traveling” and “Vacationing.” A vacation is all about a personal reset. Vacationing is going to a beach and relaxing for seven days to get away from your personal day to day. Travel is all about exploring, learning, and personal growth. Travel is challenging because it forces you to think differently. I am so thankful for the privilege of traveling to this amazing place and insha’allah I will be back to Saudi Arabia soon. Thank you to all of the amazing people I met in Jeddah; I am honored to consider you all great new friends.