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From 2003: U.S. Department of State: Marriage to Saudis

Middle East Quarterly

Winter 2003, pp. 74-81

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.[1] 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.[2] A new book by one of the mothers will appear early in 2003.[3]

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.[4] 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.)[5]

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 Editors

….Family

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.

Comment

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.

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