Najeeb Al-Zamil: 'Saudis Need Attitude Adjustment'


By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Thursday, October 22, 2009

Well-known columnist, prominent businessman and Shoura Council member Najeeb Al-Zamil has urged his fellow countrymen to open a channel of communication with expatriates in order to improve the image of Saudis.

“Now is the time to be honest about ourselves. Yes, we Saudis suffer as a result of media manipulation and Western stereotypes, but then, why is it that we are misunderstood and hated by people living among us?” he asked recently during an exclusive interview with Arab News.

“These expatriates who have come here to make a living and to improve their lives — why do they not like us? Things are so bad that if you are Saudi and you smile, people get confused. ‘Are you sure you are Saudi?’ they ask. And if you tell them, ‘Yes I am a Saudi,’ they say: ‘No, come on! Maybe your mother is from Palestine or Sri Lanka or Africa.’ This is because Saudis are known for always putting on a grim face. Of course we cannot control the global media. But why do these people who work and live among us, why do they have this bad opinion of us? Why? I am a businessman. Expatriates who work for me — they see me more than their wives or their families back home, and yet they don’t like us.”

Al-Zamil says this requires some serious consideration on the part of Saudis. “We have to think about this rotten state of affairs. If you are a doctor, then you cannot heal a patient or treat him unless you have correctly diagnosed the problem or the disease. The problem is with us — with our attitude,” he said.

“I can’t blame expatriates for having an incorrect opinion of us. This disease afflicts me, and so I need the medication. I have to initiate something to rectify the situation. Correct diagnosis led us to the discovery that people don’t like us because they don’t know us, and they don’t know us because we have put walls around us. They (the expatriates) are living on an island. We haven’t made any effort to reach out to them. We haven’t created bridges to get to their islands, and because they don’t know us, they have all kinds of things in their mind. They think that beyond their islands live monsters. They all have vague ideas about us; they are afraid of us. To them, we are mysterious people.”

Al-Zamil recently announced the creation of an informal forum called the Saudi-Expat Forum. He offered the facilities of Al-Zamil House, which has hosted many debates and discussions on a range of topics of local, national and international interest, as the staging center for this forum. “This forum is to encourage Saudis to open their doors to communicate, to engage the expatriates — to allay their fears. They are in our country; they are in our society; they are our guests. We should show them generosity. We should tell them we are modest. We should demonstrate our modesty,” he said.

What Al-Zamil says about Saudis can also be true of expatriates. Most of them have been living in Saudi Arabia for ages and have made no effort whatsoever to reach out to Saudis, to speak their language ... These expatriates are not aware of the local culture and make no efforts to make friends with Saudis. What does Al-Zamil say to that?

“The problem is we don’t encourage them. We have never encouraged them. If I go to India or Pakistan, people make an effort to get to know me. Expatriates have been here for so long, and we have not made the effort to know them, to understand their problems, to communicate with them on a human level. Since they are in our country, we have to make the effort. Let me be honest: Saudis suffer from attitudinal problems. Many of us think, ‘Oh they have come here to work. They are workers; they are beneath us.’”

Al-Zamil doesn’t use the word racism, but he says this attitude prevails everywhere. “It happens in Germany. It happens in America. In Germany, Asians are berated and sometimes insulted. However, in their case, their feeling of superiority is understandable. The world admires the Germans for their Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Volkswagens. They have technology. They have machines. What do we Saudis have? Nothing — only ourselves as human beings.”

He said Saudi elitism was something neither the Kingdom nor its citizens needed. “This attitudinal change occurred a few decades ago. A conscious effort was made to drill into our psyche that we Saudis are different, that we are the best, that we are special people, that we don’t need to work. This work is for that Indian and that Pakistani or that Bangladeshi to do. I don’t have to work. I am Saudi. I have to be the boss, nothing else. We were taught such stuff for decades.”

It is a fact demonstrated by some of the Kingdom’s economic statistics. “Who would believe that we have unemployment? That is precisely because our people don’t want to work. Islam encourages people to work hard. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said a working hand is much better than an idle hand and that an idle hand will only unite with evil. Work is sacred. Work is divine. Saudis have to change.

“They have to lead from the front and let these expatriates know us better so they will go and bat for us and speak for us. If we beat our own chest, nobody will believe us. It is when others say good things about us that the image will change,” Al-Zamil said.

29 comments:

P.J.J. Antony, Jubail said...

This interview is remarkable and worth reading for both Saudis and expatriates. In the context of King Abdullah’s initiative to promote pluralism in religion and internationals relations Najeeb Al-Zamil’s frank observations on Saudi-Expatriate relationship and his suggestions to improve it is certainly commendable and welcome.

Arabs in general and Saudis in particular are misunderstood and misrepresented world over. Saudis are unfortunately described as intolerant of pluralism and closed to anything and everything outside their own closed world. Being a member of Toastmasters fraternity and a freelancing journalist I have come through experiences contrary to this general perception. I have heard Najeeb Al-Zamil on a couple of occasions from a speaker’s dais and was fascinated by his affable style and frank attitude.

Saudi Arabia has a unique opportunity to interact with the international community at home to influence to alter the misconceptions about Saudi society. Unfortunately, such an initiative has not so far taken wings because, as Al-Zamil has pointed out, the Saudi community in general considers the expatriates as mere “work force” and socially keeps away from them. The fact is that these expatriate communities consists of a substantial number of opinion-makers such as social activists, journalists, authors, artists, educationists, etc. who could influence public opinion even back in their home countries.

Expatriate social forums with memberships going beyond thousands are active in Saudi Arabia, which offers enviable opportunities for Saudi-Expatriate dialogue and interaction. Toastmasters International, a chain of educational clubs promoting communication and leadership skill enhancement in English, is one among them. It has a substantial number of Saudis and expatriates on its roll as members. If its leaders could be a bit flexible, imaginative and community-oriented it could be also turned into a meaningful and effective forum Najeeb Al-Zamil dreams of.

Realization of the vision of King Abdullah and Saudi intelligentsia to have a more tolerant and appreciative world where Arabs are understood and respected for what they are could be speeded up if avenues could be opened for intercultural-interreligious dialogue at home.

Ahmad Al-Abdullah, Jeddah said...

I respect and admire Najeeb Al-Zamil. But he has gone too far in criticizing his own people. He will agree with me that many expatriates are pretty judgmental in nature; they have bad ideas about Saudis even before they land here. I have seen and experienced this myself. To them, Saudis are nothing but "savages who got money by mistake"!

Many large companies are like colonies where Saudis are not allowed. In many companies, there are expat mafias where non-Saudi managers do everything to keep locals out. Naturally, there is frustration among Saudis.

Yes, our society needs to change. We need to open up. We need to learn to accept people the way they are. Yet, we need help, and we need these attacks to stop. Al-Zamil's tirade is certainly not helpful.

Faheem Zia, Riyadh said...

We should not see Saudi-expat relations only from the employee and employer angle. Human relations are based on certain values. The guides to these values are the Qur’an and the Hadith. If all of us follow the true teachings of Qur’an and Hadith, none of us will have any problems in dealing with others and no one will have any complaints. Our religion teaches us to respect human rights. Relations between Saudis and non-Saudis is overall good. Such problems exist in all societies.

A. M.,Dammam said...

Najeeb Al-Zamil has the moral courage to speak out. The expatriates should also make an effort to know the Saudis, starting with their co-workers. I came to know quite a few Saudis during my stay in Saudi Arabia — and got to be very friendly with some of them. Once you come to know them, you will find them to be very helpful, kind and generous.

Abdul Nayeem Qayyum, Riyadh said...

We should not generalize. Saudis in general are very friendly. The initiative has to come from both sides.

Mariam Shubaily, Jeddah said...

Why do expats have a problem with Saudis here in the Kingdom? It’s an easy question to answer if you just look at the working situation. When expats have problems with their Saudi bosses, who goes to bat for them? No one. If they are not paid their promised bonuses or monthly salaries as per their contracts, what can they do? Nothing. If they go to the courts to complain, they will surely lose their jobs, and wait for years to collect back wages.

If Saudis want to be seen in a new light by expats, they should pay their workers before the sweat dries on the workers’ brows. They should honor the contracts they sign. They should show some appreciation to their workers for extra hours during Eid and/or other times and for going above and beyond their duties for their employers. They should be paid their bonuses. Believe me, if workers were paid as promised, fairly and on time...they would have plenty to smile about.

Zia-ul-Islam Zuberi, Riyadh said...

It sounds very strange! Can just one article change a person’s perceptions of another country? But this is what has really happened.Your interview with well-known columnist, prominent businessman and Shoura Council member Najeeb Al-Zamil has completely changed my view of Saudi Arabia.

I really did not think Saudis cared about the expats in their country and I am so grateful to Najeeb for being so candid on the subject. We love and respect our brothers in Saudi Arabia because they live in a land we hold dearest and most sacred in our hearts but as Najeeb pointed out, the attitude of some Saudis has distorted our relationship. I hope this interview will generate new thinking and lead to better and more brotherly relations between the expat community and the Saudis to the overall benefit of both.

Abdul Qayum Ghouri, Alkhobar said...

I appreciate Al-Zamil’s forthright views. As a matter of fact, Saudis have to change their attitude by all means because things are changing on a daily basis.

The International situation will undergo revolutionary changes and a capital-based society will suffer a lot. Consequently, new players will be in, and the rule of game will definitely be changed. In such circumstances, only the hard-working nations will prosper. And whoever works hard will succeed.

Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis have made great contribution to the development of the Kingdom. They worked at lower wages than is given to other nationals. But we were always treated as inferiors.

One day all the expatriates will move to their countries; then these Saudis will have to undertake the responsibilities of loading, unloading, cleaning the roads, streets, work in farms, shops and restaurants. Are these Saudis prepared?

Therefore, in order to meet the future requirements, the media have to take initiative to bring expatriates and Saudis together and get their views in a one-to-one meeting so that a future Saudi generation will understand the difficulties of an expatriate.

Farozan Warsi, Saudi Arabia said...

An extremely heartening interview. This opens the way for some introspection. Like with everything else, it would be wrong to generalize or to stereotype. Whenever we leave this country let there be memories of good days spent and good things done by Saudis to the expats, not just recollections of the amount of money we earned.

Sohaib A. Yusuf, Dammam said...

Yes it’s time Saudis changed their attitude not just toward other Arabs or Westerners but the Asian people too. Why this arrogance toward an expatriate who isn’t doing any harm and who abides by the rules of the country? I specifically mention Asians because being one of them I have been at the receiving end of this arrogance. It’s nice to know that there are indeed Saudis who think on the lines of Al-Zamil.

Aashique, Riyadh said...

I sincerely appreciate Al-Zamil’s efforts to bring the subject out in the open but I am doubtful whether Saudis really want to bridge the gap between them and the expats (at least the non-Western part of it).

Ismail Simjee, London said...

Someone has finally spoken about and acknowledged what has been known all along, not only about Saudi Arabia but also about UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. The problem is at its worst in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. I organize Haj and Umrah tours from UK. The bulk of people in my groups are professionals such as hospital surgeons/consultants, doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants and businessmen.

I will give you two incidents to show how prejudiced Saudis are toward Asians. Once, as we awaited call-up by immigration officers to process our arrival, an officer commented to me that we were all miskeen (poor people) — and this was in response to my query about the reason for the long delay. I asked him to clarify and he said we were all Pakistanis and that meant we were miskeen. I was shocked and tried to reason with him that being of Asian descent does not mean we are miskeen and that I had at least two pilgrims with me who could easily pay the salary of the entire staff employed at the Haj Terminal. That reasoning fell on deaf ears and I did not pursue the matter as we were in ihram.

The second incident was at Arafat where I had lost one of my pilgrims. I approached my mutawwif to assist me in my search and he replied that I was causing him trouble. I tried to reason with him and asked him to lend me a loudspeaker. His reply shocked me. I will not quote the exact words but what he said in effect was that it was only because of the holy places that he and other Saudis had to put up with people like me (“you people,” to use his words). The point is “miskeen” and “you people” laid a clear emphasis on you and us.

It is time the citizens of Saudi Arabia and the government looked into this great disparity and prejudice against non-Saudis in general and the people from Asia in particular. Prejudice is in the mind and exists everywhere. It matters when we practice it and it matters even more if we prevent it.

Khurshid Ahmed Sheikh, Riyadh said...

I have been here in the Kingdom for the last 22 years and I have yet to see any change in the attitude of local people toward us. It will take a massive campaign by the media and nongovernmental organizations if things are to change for the better.

Ramkumar P., Jubail said...

Kudos to Al-Zamil for his down-to-the earth views on Saudi-expat relations. It is true that there is a communication gap between the expatriate community and Saudis mainly because of the cultural differences. A feeling of exclusion from the mainstream society always pesters the expatriate community irrespective of their social status. Saudi Arabia’s foreign community hesitates to associate freely with Saudi citizens. My experience, however, has convinced me that most of the Saudis are truly generous and modest if we show genuine friendship with them.

I am speaking from my experience of a decade. Unemployment among the Saudi youth is another factor that compels a local to view expatriates as unwanted guests. They believe that foreign workers are the main reason for the current situation. This can be overcome only by the change in the work culture and focus on a type of education that would equip young Saudis with right skills. The creation of an informal forum, the Saudi-Expat Forum, as suggested by Al-Zamil will certainly help open doors of understanding and remove mutual suspicions. Healthy debates and discussions, as suggested, will create an atmosphere of mutual understanding benefiting both Saudis and expats.

A. Kuraishi, Saudi Arabia said...

Only brave people can speak the truth, even when it reflects badly on them, and definitely Mr. Al-Zamil is one of them. Bravo Mr. Al-Zamil!

Muhammad Ismail Eliat, Saudi Arabia said...

This article is both honest and funny. Saudis have to change a lot. Gone are the days when money and wealth was considered to be everything. People now value someone's character and knowledge above all. As an expatriate, I hardly hear anyone saying good about the Saudis in general. Except when it comes to the great services rendered by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques towards pilgrims and the exemplary services at the Two Holy Mosques which indeed is above praise. Yes, there must be a change in the attitude of Saudis and also expatriates should come closer to understand more of the Saudi culture and Saudis.

Muzamil Ibrahim, Saudi Arabia said...

I agree with most of what Mr. Al-Zamil said. It is great to know that Saudis are realizing that there is something missing in them. It is a start.

I have seen a Saudi man treating an expat as a slave even when he is living off the money of the expat. Sad!

Thank you Mr. Al-Zamil for the effort. Not all of us, expats, are here for money. So it is only fair that we as Muslims be treated as Muslims.

Sangeeta Das, Saudi Arabia said...

What Najeeb Al-Zamil has said is absolutely correct. National pride should not be mistaken for not requiring to work. The statistics of inflation from 4.1 has risen to 4.4. This has to be brought down. Unemployment has to come down. There is enough ability for Saudis to be recruited instead of expats alone. A more balanced percentage must be put forth in every country.

Khaleel Tawfeeq, Saudi Arabia said...

Good talk! This ought to have been said years back. Saudis should take heed from this! Not only the unlettered among Saudis are infected with this cankerworm but even those who have been tutored in some of the world celebrated universities in the West. It is time that Saudis rejuvenate their self-imposed esteem and walk on the path of reality. Thanks for the good talk.

Mirza Baber Ali Baig, Saudi Arabia said...

Yes, I agree with Mr. Al-Zamil. He is a wise man. Every Saudi has to think like him. Saudis are excellent people. They just have to change their attitude.

M.R.M. Nair, Saudi Arabia said...

This is really a very good and important article. I personally admire Mr. Al-Zamil's open-minded thinking. If most Saudis accept such change in attitude, then all expatriates will definitely love them. There are very good Saudis working with us. They are very polite, honest and gentle. We all love to work with Saudis. We are here to work for the people of Saudi Arabia and to see this country prosper in the years to come. May peace prevail everywhere. Good wishes, good luck and long life for Mr. Al-Zamil. Thanks again for such a wonderful article.

Remus Catada, Saudi Arabia said...

I salute Mr. Al-Zamil for this article.

Shahid Pasha, Saudi Arabia said...

As Salaam u Alaikum

This is a great article. This gentleman reinforces the fact that there are good people here amongst the Saudis. I don't live in Saudi Arabia but I visit very often, and coming from the West, every time I land here I get saddened at the state of the Saudi people. I find that all their mannerism, the sweetness and the way of life of our beloved Prophet is millions of miles away with no horizon in sight. But with people like Mr. Al-Zamil, there can be a change from within.

And I would love that for my Saudi brothers and sisters because, like it or not, they are seen as the leaders of Islam and keepers of the Holy Sites, but unfortunately a great portion of the world’s population (Muslims and non-Muslims) despises their attitude and behavior.

And it is not only the Saudis but most of us “Muslims” be it Saudis, Pakistanis, Indians, etc., who have had no exposure of the West behave this way. This is not what Allah tells us to do, nor did Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) teach us this, and Islam doesn't propagate this.

Please live up to your divine responsibility as we are all answerable and ignorance is no excuse. May Allah make it easy and possible for all of us.

Ameen.

Syed Mumtaz Hussain, Saudi Arabia said...

I very much appreciate Mr. Al-Zamil's views. However, I think this article should have been published in Arabic language newspapers. That would have created better understanding between Saudi and the expatriates.

Bader Barqawi, Saudi Arabia said...

Excellent article. This is something we should have worked on years ago.

Ismail Chirsanski, Saudi Arabia said...

This man is the most insightful and quite frankly remarkable Saudi I've ever heard of. Now if only the rest were like him the world would take Saudi seriously for something other than oil.

McMann, Saudi Arabia said...

I totally agree with the writer's point of you. I also think that you cant change this overnight. This thing needs to be devloped in a child from his childhood. Usually children see how their parents or elders treating the expat working for them. So they just follow them. If Saudis really like to change, then they have to educate the young ones at the school itself.

The first most disgusting thing is how they relate to people when calling them. They just call Hindi, Bengali, Pakistani, Filipini. No, first they are humans working for you in your country.

This is one of the greatest countries with Islamic history. No other country is comparable to this country. But unfortunately because of the reasons Mr. Al-Zamil pointed out, they are getting a bad name.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite articles. Truth be told, it is just more than a courageous interview. Mr. Zamil has rightly pointed out the fault lines lying in Saudi society. Attitude is the biggest problem that is causing gulf between expats and Saudis.

But, the most interesting thing that I have noticed, living in the Kingdom, is that those who are Saudis by origin are friendly and down to earth but those who got their Saudi nationality later are more egoistic and real trouble makers who are affecting the image of Saudis. I personally have met crown prince family and they were amiable and down to earth like normal people. They had no extra odinary feelings about themselves.

Cheers.
Best Regards. :)

Kareemullah said...

This interview is a marvelous thing happened and worth of reading. It is the first time in my life since my stay in KSA from the year 1993, I read a Saudi of such a high calibre directly pointing the finger on his compatriot community. It will be better if this interview is published in Arabic news papers of Saudi Arabia. The concept will be more clearer for our Saudi brothers too. Islam, does not promote caste system and segragation of humans in the society based on the economical and race superiority, it is totally prohibited. Instead the person who will be nearest to the creator will be judjed only by the creator based on his/her piousness and total submission of his/her will to him (Creator). May Allah subhana ho wa tala guide us to the straight path. Rest Allah knows the best.