How big is the cultural gap between Germany and the nations many migrants are coming from? One useful document is this State Department guide for American women who are contemplating marrying Saudi nationals. It was later retracted, for reasons that will probably become obvious as you read it. Now, Saudi is a more conservative place than most Arab countries (and also a lot richer), but at least half of the customs described in this document apply in some form to most Arab countries, I would wager. And as you'll see, there are quite a lot of them.
[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."…
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.)