Over the past year, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has come under intensified public scrutiny in the United States. One of the many issues that have been thrust to the fore is the status of American women married to Saudis and of the dual-national children of failed marriages. In a number of highly publicized instances, these children have been taken to or kept in Saudi Arabia by their Saudi fathers, against the will of their American mothers.
The House Committee on Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), has played a prominent role in publicizing the issue. The committee held hearings in June and October 2002, taking testimony from mothers, experts, and U.S. officials. Burton also led a delegation to Saudi Arabia in August to raise the matter directly with Saudi authorities. Recently he has exchanged barbed letters with Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, accusing Saudi Arabia of "bad faith" in the dispute. The American media have also been riveted by the story. Most notably, William McGurn, chief editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal, has written a series of hard-hitting pieces accusing the Saudis of holding Americans captive. A new book by one of the mothers will appear early in 2003.
The issue has yet to be resolved, and it has come to exemplify the sharp cultural clash suppressed by the interest-driven politics of U.S.-Saudi relations. No document better conveys that clash than the eight-page brochure entitled "Marriage to Saudis," which was published and distributed by the consular bureau of the Department of State, from the mid-1990s.
The document is an advisory to American women contemplating marriage to Saudi men, based on the long experience of U.S. consular personnel in the kingdom. It is remarkable for its undiplomatic and anecdotal tone, so distant from the department's standard bureaucratic style. For prospective spouses, "Marriage to Saudis" constituted an official tutorial in Saudi culture; for others, it served as a fascinating example of practical anthropology, school of hard knocks.
The straightforward and talkative frankness of "Marriage to Saudis" also led to its retraction by the department. The Saudis themselves were not perturbed by the document. But when the brochure went up on the department's website, the American Muslim Council demanded its removal, calling it "hurtful," "derogatory and biased." In February 2000, the department removed the document from its website for "revision," but it was never replaced. (The department has since published a straightforward fact brochure on child abduction in Saudi Arabia.)
No subsequent revision could supersede "Marriage to Saudis," a minor classic by an anonymous diplomat determined to tell it straight. The document appears here in its entirety.
The following information has been prepared by our Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to assist American citizen women in understanding more fully the cultural and legal differences they may face if they are considering marrying a Saudi man.
Our Foreign Service posts in Saudi Arabia estimate that approximately 500 American women reside in the Kingdom with their Saudi husbands. Our Embassy is acutely conscious of the dual-national marriages which fail, monitoring approximately 40 child custody cases and instances of extreme marital discord and abuse. But American women who are both happily and unhappily involved in relationships with Saudi men admit to having been appallingly ignorant of the Kingdom and its culture prior to their betrothal. All the women interviewed strongly urged prospective wives of Saudi men to investigate the Kingdom and meet the Saudi in-laws before making a commitment to a culture antithetical to the one in which they were raised.
Survivors of dual-national marriages provide a checklist for American women to consider prior to making a commitment to living in the Kingdom. The stories of those whose marriages have failed underline the necessity of looking before leaping into the cultural chasm that separates Saudi husbands from their American wives.
The following advice and guidelines for women considering marriage to Saudi nationals were culled from interviews with women well known to our Embassy for their embattled relations with their Saudi spouses, from anecdotes from women whose husbands are well known to the Embassy because of their positions in government or business, as well as conversations with women happily or tolerably married to middle and lower class Saudis.
Profile of American Citizen Spouses
First, the American citizen spouse of a Saudi national is with a handful of exceptions always female. Saudi women are prohibited from marrying non-Arabs except with a special dispensation from the King. (A dispensation is also required before a Saudi woman may marry an Arab who is not a citizen of the Gulf Cooperation Council—i.e., Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.) The Embassy is only aware of four American men who are married to Saudis. A few daughters of Saudi diplomats, raised and educated abroad, are also known to have received Kingly dispensation for marriage to Europeans. Most Saudi women who are married to Westerners tend to reside abroad with their husbands.
American spouses fall into two broad categories: those who are married to well-off, westernized Saudis, and those who are married to not-well-off and non-westernized Saudis. Both meet their husbands when they are students in the U.S. The former tend to maintain homes in the Kingdom and in the West, they socialize with other dual-national couples, they send their children abroad for college education (sometimes high school), travel frequently, and while in the Kingdom have the luxuries of drivers, servants, and villas separate from where the Saudi in-laws reside. Their husbands permit them to appear before men to whom they are not related, accept—if not encourage—their desire to find employment and generally do not require them to veil fully (i.e., cover the face with one or more layers of cloth) while in public. The women are allowed to travel separately with the dual-national children. The women may or may not have converted to Islam; their conversion may or may not be sincere. These represent the minority of dual-national marriages.
Most American women fall in love with westernized Muslim traditionalists, leery of the West and its corrosive ways, and eager to prove their wives' conformity to Saudi standards. The husbands are not "Arab princes" of western folklore; rather, they are part of the vast majority of Saudis who "get along" with the help of extended family members and marginal expectations. Their American citizen wives are often from the South/Southwest (where many Saudis prefer to study), they have virtually no knowledge of Saudi Arabia other than what their fiancés have told them, and do not speak Arabic. When they arrive in the Kingdom, they take up residence in the family's home where family members greet them with varying degrees of enthusiasm and little English. Typically, their only driver will be their husband (or another male family member), their social circle with be the extended family, and they will not be permitted to work or appear uncovered among men to whom their husband is not related. Initially, the American citizen spouse will be almost entirely isolated from the large western community that resides in the Kingdom. Gradually, the spouses who survive form a network with other American citizen women married to Saudis. The majority of American citizen spouses fall into this category.
The Myth of the Westernized Saudi
Inevitably, American citizen spouses characterize their Saudi husbands during their school days in the United States as being completely "westernized"; drinking beer with the best of them, chasing after women and generally celebrating all the diversities and decadence of a secular society. Women married to Saudis who did not fit the stereotype of the partying, or playboy/prince, are careful to point out that their spouses nevertheless displayed a tolerance toward all of these diversions and, particularly, toward them. In other words, the Saudi-American relationship virtually always blossoms in the States, in a climate that allows dating, cohabitation, children out of wedlock, religious diversity, and a multitude of other Islamic sins which go unnoticed by Saudi relatives and religious leaders thousands of miles away.
American citizen wives swear that the transformation in their Saudi husbands occurs during the transatlantic flight to the Kingdom. There is the universal recollection of approaching Riyadh and witnessing the donning of the black abayas and face veils by the fashionably dressed Saudi women. For many women, the Saudi airport is the first time they see their husband in Arab dress (i.e., the thobe and ghutra). For those American women reluctant to wear an abaya (the all-encompassing black cloak) and for those Saudi husbands who did not make an issue of the abaya prior to arriving, the intense public scrutiny that starts at the airport—given to a western woman who is accompanying a Saudi male—is usually the catalyst for the eventual covering up. Since the overwhelming majority of American citizen wives never travel to the Kingdom prior to their marriage, they are abruptly catapulted into Saudi society. When they arrive, their husband's traditional dress, speech, and responsibilities to his family re-emerge and the American citizen wife is left to cope with a new country, a new language, a new family, and a new husband. Whether a Saudi has spent one year or eight studying in the United States, each must return to the fold—grudgingly or with relief—to get along in Saudi society and within the family hierarchy that structures most social and business relations.
Social pressures on even the most liberal Saudi are daunting. Shame is brought upon the entire family for the acts of an American citizen wife who does not dress modestly (e.g., cover) in public, who is not Muslim, who associates with men other than her extended relatives. Silent disapprobation from family and friends is matched by virulent public disapproval by the Kingdom's religious proctors (Mutawwaiin) and vigilante enforcers of the faith. Several American wives, fearing the latest round of religious harassment, have started fully veiling; not to do so, they discovered, meant public squabbles with the Mutawwaiin who vociferously oppose dual-national marriages. The experience of all dual-national couples is that voluntary and involuntary compromises are made or simply evolve. The sum of these compromises is quite often a life very different than the one imagined and speculated upon in the safety of the United States.
What to Expect and Consider
Quality of Life. Life in a desert kingdom that prides itself on its conservative interpretation and application of the Qur'an (Koran) requires that couples talk about very basic lifestyle issues.
How cosmopolitan is the Saudi husband's family? All American wives encourage prospective brides to meet the Saudi family before arriving in the Kingdom as a married woman. (Most Saudi families will travel to the U.S. during the course of their sons' studies, if only to attend graduation.) While it is no guarantee of acceptance, a family that regularly travels abroad or one in which the father has been stationed abroad is generally more broad-minded when it comes to their son marrying a Westerner. It is the parents who can be the greatest source of pressure on a dual-national marriage, and it is important to divine their opinions on what an American wife can and cannot do while living in the Kingdom.
With whom will you live? Many newly married couples move in with the groom's parents, in a sprawling villa which may house several other siblings and their wives and families. Privacy is elusive and tensions with family members who for one reason or another resent the presence of an American wife often make this living arrangement difficult. In a more affluent family, a couple may inhabit one of several homes that comprise a small family compound. Some Saudis live separately in villas or apartments. While that resolves the issue of privacy, many American wives find themselves completely isolated during the day, surrounded by neighbors who only speak Arabic, with no access to public or private transportation.
One tolerably married American citizen wife is not permitted to step out on the apartment porch since the risk is too great that an unrelated male would be able to see her.
The most western, but least common, housing arrangement would be an apartment or villa located in a western compound or on the Diplomatic Quarter. There, a semblance of western suburban life goes on behind high walls or, in the case of the Diplomatic Quarter, under the protective gaze of a multitude of Saudi police officers. However, most Saudi owners of western style compounds ban Saudi tenants since they fear western inhabitants would object. The very rare Saudi male who endorses this living arrangement is generally a naturalized Saudi, of Lebanese or Palestinian origin. For the average Saudi family, residence in a western compound would be an unnatural renunciation of Saudi culture and would make one culturally "suspect."
With whom will you socialize? Saudis socialize within the family. Expatriates who have lived and worked for years in the Kingdom may never meet the wife of a close Saudi friend and, according to custom, should never so much as inquire about her health. For an American wife, a social life confined to her husband's family can be stultifying, particularly since few American wives speak, or learn to speak, Arabic. Whether the Saudi husband permits his wife to socialize with men to whom they are not related determines how "normal" (i.e. how western) a social life they will enjoy. Several American wives have difficulty even visiting the American Embassy for routine passport renewals since their husbands are opposed to their speaking to a male Foreign Service Officer. Because of the segregated society, Saudi men naturally spend much of their time together, separate from wives and family. (Even Saudi weddings are segregated affairs, often held on different evenings and in different locations.) Only the most westernized Saudi will commit to socializing with other dual-national couples.
What freedom of movement will you enjoy? Women are prohibited from driving, riding a motorcycle, pedaling a bicycle, or traveling by taxi, train, or plane without an escort. All American wives were aware that they would not be able to drive while in the Kingdom, but few comprehended just how restricted their movements would be. Only the relatively affluent Saudi family will have a driver on staff; most American women depend entirely upon their husbands and male relatives for transportation. While most expatriate western women routinely use taxis, an American spouse will be expected to have an escort—either another female relative or children—before entering the taxi of an unrelated male.
Will you be permitted to travel separately from your husband? Travel by train or plane inside the Kingdom requires the permission of the male spouse and the presence of a male family escort. Travel outside the Kingdom is even more restricted. Everyone leaving the Kingdom must have an exit visa. For an American spouse, this visa must be obtained by her Saudi husband. The Saudi spouse must accompany his wife to the airport to assure airport officials that he has given his permission for his wife to travel alone or with the children.
One American's marriage contract specified that "she stated that she shall never request to travel from Saudi Arabia with any one of her children unless with his prior consent."
Most American wives believe that the U.S. Embassy can issue exit visas in a pinch. This is not the case. The U.S. Embassy cannot obtain exit visas for American citizens. Passports issued by the Embassy are worthless as travel documents without the mandatory Saudi exit visa. While some more affluent American relatives offer to pay for the American wife to travel independently, this often meets with disapproval from the Saudi husband or family.
Will you be permitted to work? There are two hurdles an American wife must overcome before finding work outside the home: the disapproval of the family and the paucity of employment opportunities.
Most husbands will not approve of a wife working outside the home if it entails contact with unrelated men. One American wife, who was a teacher in the U.S. during the entire five years of her courtship with her husband, was shocked when her husband threatened her with divorce when she requested to return to the U.S. to finish up one quarter of classes in order to qualify for a state pension. Now that she was married, the Saudi husband could not tolerate her being in the presence of other men. However, even if the husband is willing, the jobs are few. Employment is generally restricted to the fields of education (teaching women only) and medicine. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous social bias against the nursing profession and Saudi husbands would not approve of a wife working with patients, except in the position of a physician.
Will your husband take a second wife? Among the younger generation, it is rare for a Saudi to have a second wife but it does occur. A man is legally entitled up to four wives, with the proviso that he is able to financially and emotionally accord them equal status. One American wife discovered that her Saudi husband had married her best friend, also an American, while he was on vacation in the U.S.
In principle, all Saudi men must marry Muslims or converts to Islam. In practice, many American women blur the issue, participating in a Sharia wedding ceremony but never actually converting.
The pressure to become a Muslim, or to be come a sincere Muslim, is enormous and never-ending. There is no separation of church and state in Saudi Arabia, and at the popular level there is simply no comprehension of religious freedom, of the desire to remain Christian or undecided. One American wife, approaching her tenth wedding anniversary, has been terrorized by relatives who insist that the King has ordered that all women who don't see the light after ten years must be divorced and deported. For another, the pressure comes mainly from her children who are mercilessly teased at school for having a foreign, non-Muslim mother. (Half-hearted converts to Islam find that their children are ridiculed for having mothers who pray awkwardly or not at all.) One Saudi teacher informed the children of an American citizen mother, who has sincerely converted to Islam, that their mother could never be a Muslim since "only Arabs can be Muslim." Women who don't convert must accept that their children, through hours of Islamic education a day at school and under the tutelage of the family, will be Muslim. Women who do convert must understand that their conversion, particularly in the aftermath of a divorce, will be suspect and their fidelity to Islam perceived to be less than their husband's.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest birthrates in the world and families with five or more children are the norm. The family is the basic unit of Saudi life and family members have much closer relations than in the United States. Every family member feels free to give an opinion on any facet of another family member's life. Siblings—particularly an older brother—are expected to financially aid each other, and males must band together to guard the honor of their female relations. Children are not expected or encouraged to leave the nest; rather, extended adolescence can occur well into a man's early thirties.
What are the differences in child raising? To a much greater degree than in the West, Saudi children are indulged. Little girls are dressed in miniature prom dresses; little boys wear the latest in western sport togs. Both wreak havoc. American wives must suffer silently when the children of various relations run riot through the house. One wife related the story of a brother-in-law's child who carefully doled out chocolate pudding on the brand new furniture. When she scolded the child, she was in turn scolded for making a fuss about something that could be cleaned.
On the other hand, the Saudi family is replete with babysitters and children always have young and old playmates with whom to mix. Because foreign labor is so cheap in Saudi Arabia, even lower middle class families will have an Indonesian or Filipino housemaid to help with the chores. Among the very affluent Saudi families and particularly within the royal family, each child will generate its own servant.
Many American mothers are frustrated by the dearth of things to do with their children. Absent a driver, mothers are cooped up at home with the children and, even with a driver, there are few venues to visit.
What will it be like to raise a daughter? Cultural differences are never greater than when it comes to the role of women, and raising a daughter is a challenge in any Saudi-American marriage. Growing up in the Kingdom, a young girl will naturally look forward to the day when she comes of age and can wear the abaya and cover her hair. She will naturally be very devout. She may be expected to marry a first cousin. While playing a central role in the family, a girl is nevertheless a statutory second-class citizen who needs to be protected and whose word is worth only half of a man's.
For a Saudi girl, this is the natural state of affairs; for an American mother of a Saudi girl, it can be unsettling. Not surprisingly, most of our child custody cases in which a child has been kidnapped from the United States involve a Saudi father "saving" his daughter from a "sinful" society and her "decadent" mother.
Since Saudi women are prohibited from marrying western men, an American mother must expect her daughter to integrate more tightly into Saudi society. This is not necessarily the case with sons who might be encouraged to study in the U.S. (Saudi girls are permitted to study in the U.S. only if they are chaperoned by a family member), who could freely travel to the West, whose business might facilitate travel between the two countries, and who might elect to marry an American woman. Several very liberal Saudi fathers and their American wives have been embarrassed by their more conservative daughters' decisions not to attend school in the United States in deference to the disapproval of their culture.
If the Marriage Fails
In the worst scenario, an American wife can find herself summarily divorced, deported, and deprived of any right of visitation with her dual-national children. Sharia law decidedly favors men in the dissolution of marriage. And the laws of Saudi Arabia require that all individuals be sponsored by a Saudi citizen in order to receive a visa, resident or otherwise. Therefore, once a marriage breaks up, the ex-wife must leave the Kingdom and may only return with the explicit permission and sponsorship of her ex-husband. (In cases where the Saudi husband attempts to prevent his spouse from leaving, the Embassy can call upon Saudi authorities to facilitate the American wife's departure. The Embassy cannot force a Saudi husband to relinquish the children.)
In one instance, an American who had undergone a bitter divorce and child custody battle with her Saudi husband, applied for and received a visa to work with a company located in the Kingdom. Once the Saudi husband and the Saudi authorities discovered her presence, she was thrown into jail and ultimately forced to leave her position and the country.
What custody rights do women have under Sharia law? Theoretically, a mother should maintain custody of the children until the ages of 7-9, when their primary care would be transferred to their father. However, the ultimate objective of a Sharia court in the settlement of custody issues is that the child be raised a good Muslim. Whether a convert or not to Islam, an American woman will not overcome the prejudice against her upbringing and society. The Embassy has no knowledge of an American or any western woman ever winning custody of dual-national children in a Sharia court.
Can an American mother flee the Kingdom with her dual national children? It is impossible to legally leave the Kingdom without the express permission of the Saudi husband. A woman who wishes to leave her husband but is pregnant at the time, can be required to wait until after the birth of the child. The same would hold true if the Saudi husband passed away: custody of the children and any unborn child would remain with the closest living Saudi male relative.
Can an American woman be denied visitation rights with her children? A Saudi husband must give explicit permission for a divorced wife to visit her children in the Kingdom. The Embassy has worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create the "no-objection" visa. The ex-husband must be willing to sign a statement that he has no objection to his ex-wife visiting the Kingdom. In that statement, the ex-husband establishes how long he is willing to let his ex-wife remain in the country. The history of no-objection visas is mixed.
A husband often objects to the emotional disruption of a visit from the American wife. Often the husband's second wife becomes jealous, and the American mother finds that her visits are restricted in time and carried out in full view of the extended Saudi family.
Only one American wife has successfully made no-objection visits over the course of the last five years. She has been successful because she speaks Arabic (dual-national children quickly lose their English skills once their mother departs the Kingdom), has managed to maintain steady relations with her ex-husband, and reconciled herself to the fact that her child would spend at least his first 18 years in the Kingdom. If the custody dispute has involved kidnapping by one or both parents, then by the time the children reach the Kingdom the father has no interest in facilitating relations with the American citizen mother. In these cases, all communication can be closed off and Saudi authorities will not intercede in family disputes. Consular Officers are rarely permitted to pay "Welfare and Whereabouts" visits.
Because the customs and laws of the Kingdom are so at variance with the expectations and emotional imperatives of an American citizen wife in the event of a divorce, an American considering marriage to a Saudi must always contemplate the worst-case scenario. American wives are bitterly disappointed and angry when they discover the limits of the Department's and Embassy's ability to intervene or resolve family disputes. The Department can provide no guidance on which marriages will succeed. But knowledge of Saudi Arabia and its particular interpretation of Islam should be an American woman's first step in determining whether the compromises required are worth the proposed relationship.
 Links to all committee hearings, statements, and correspondence, at http://www.house.gov/reform/saudiarabia.htm.
 All by William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal: "Saudi Arabia's American Captives," June 11, 2002; "Daughters of American," June 13, 2002; "'I Am an American'," July 11, 2002; "An 'Ally's' Contempt for America," Sept. 3, 2002; "Truth, Lies, and Videotape," Oct. 1, 2002.
 Patricia Roush, At Any Price: How America Betrayed My Kidnapped Daughters for Saudi Oil (WND Books, announced for spring 2003).
 "As a government agency, the State Department has the right to issue warnings about what to expect," a Saudi official told ABC diplomatic correspondent Eric Wagner, "Matters of State," Feb. 4, 2000, at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/DailyNews/mattersofstate000204.html.
 "Saudi Arabia—International Parental Child Abduction," at http://travel.state.gov/abduction_saudi.html.
 According to Rep. Burton, during his August 2002 trip, "the Saudi Foreign Minister [Sa'ud al-Faysal] pledged that no adult American woman will ever be held in Saudi Arabia against her will. This is an important step forward." Press release, Sept. 5, 2002, at http://www.house.gov/reform/pr.02.09.05.htm. —Eds.