Monthly Archives: February 2012

Boy meets girl, fall in love, separated by oceans, waiting for family to agree, waiting for marriage permission…

Often when people discover mine and my husband’s nationalities, they are surprised; sometimes smirking at my husband as if by marrying a Westerner he has done something deliciously forbidden. However, we are not the only such couple out there and it has been my observation that many of our stories share similar characteristics…

Most Western wives meet their Saudi husbands at university where their husband is usually studying on a government scholarship. During this time, the young couple fall in love and enjoy their time together…until he finishes his studies. At that time, pressure from family, homesickness and a sense of obligation to serve the country which gave him his education, lures him back home. Even if he wishes to prolong his stay in the country to remain with his partner, it is often impossible due to an inability to obtain employment there. Ultimately, as a student fresh out of university, even at the Masters level, the search for a job outside KSA proves too difficult.

So he returns to a country to which she cannot follow him and to a culture which is likely still a mystery to her. He himself must deal with reverse culture shock and, in recent times, long stretches of unemployment. This is without mentioning dealing with the heart break and distress at having been torn apart from his lover.

Upon expressing his desire to marry his foreign lover he will likely be met with disapproval. This can be for a variety of reasons:

  1. For a conservative, tribal family it may be the very fact that the woman is not Saudi or even that she is not part of their tribe (some such families are so insular that they will not even allow their family members to marry outside the family)
  2. For most families it is a genuine fear for the ability of the foreign wife to adapt to the very challenging and unique environment in KSA. In the Western world we have the ‘not without my daughter’ stereotype but what many people don’t realise is that they also have their own horror stories about Saudi men who have married foreign women and lost their children. Indeed, there have reportedly been a significant amount of cases in KSA where non Saudi women married to Saudi men have effectively kidnapped their children and left the country without warning, never to set foot in the country again. This was not necessarily done to escape an abusive husband but rather to escape a country which they found themselves overwhelmed by and unable to adapt to. All families want the best for their children and if they see them entering into what they consider to be a high risk situation they will naturally be uncomfortable with that and unfortunately, mixed Saudi/non Saudi marriages are indeed high risk with half of mixed marriages failing as opposed to 22% of Saudi-Saudi marriages (see link).
  3. For those women who are not Muslim, often the family will have the additional concern of how a non-Muslim woman will raise good Muslim children in the future inshaAllah.

If family approval is given (sometimes even when it’s not!), they then move onto the next obstacle – obtaining marriage permission from the Saudi government. The government require that before any of their citizens marry a non Saudi, they must apply for permission to do so. There is no set processing time and it has been known to take anywhere from days to years.

A major determining factor of the speed and success of the process is wasta. Wasta is the practice of using your connections/influence to get things done quickly and easily, or indeed getting things done at all. It can be a wonderful thing when you have it but for the many who do not, it can be incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, big wasta is required if you want to get the marriage permission in a reasonable period of time i.e. months rather than years. However, if you are not blessed with this, there will likely be a number of people, mainly government workers, along the way offering to accept large sums of money from you in return for speeding up the process. Such under the table deals, while tempting for the many desperate couples whose patience is wearing thin, are inherently risky and it is not unheard of for these people to accept the money without keeping their end of the deal.

Meanwhile, the lovers, often compelled by circumstances to remain apart in their own countries, may marry under Islamic law without the knowledge of either of their governments. Should they choose to marry under the civil law of the woman’s country, the Saudi man faces a fine of SR100,000 which, at the time of writing, is equal to roughly AUD25,000 (see link).

They wait and they wait and they wait, at the mercy of a bureaucracy which seems only to care about wasta and dollar signs but alhamdulilah, as Allah promised us, after hardship comes ease. After what is usually a painful, lengthy wait, the couple often eventually obtain the permission whether through wasta and/or bribes or purely by the grace of God. InshaAllah they are finally free to begin the adventure that is married life as a mixed couple in Saudi Arabia.

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Why I want Saudi citizenship

It was recently announced that those wishing to apply for citizenship are now at the mercy of a particularly ruthless points system. On a practical level, for wives of Saudi’s to obtain citizenship, they must now…

1) Have had the marriage permission for 12 years (this does not include the years of marriage before gaining marriage permission from the Saudi government)

2) Had more than 2 children with their Saudi husband

3) Have at least a bachelors degree.

Now, personally I’m on zero. Even if I fulfil the first two requirements in the future inshaAllah, it doesn’t count for much because I don’t have a degree. And although I am aware that to protect my own future prospects in Saudi (not just to obtain citizenship) I should finish my degree, the reality is that I have attempted the university thing on three separate occasions so far, and I loathed it every time. So, the chances of my attaining a degree in the future, is rather slim especially if I’m in Saudi popping out all those kids as per the first two requirements! We must also consider those women who have been married to Saudi men and lived in KSA for years and have children but do not have a degree. They have more right than most to be granted citizenship and yet according to the new system – they cannot.

So now you may be asking why someone with a Western passport aka key to the door of opportunity, would exchange that for a Saudi one. Its appeal for myself and many others married to Saudis, is that it grants some degree of solid protection for the future inshaAllah.

Saudi visas, like most of the Arab Gulf countries, run on a sponsor system. Foreign women married to Saudi’s are also subject to this system. Until they obtain citizenship, which as we can see is neither quick nor easy, their Saudi husband must sponsor their iqama aka residency permit. The iqama is received upon entering Saudi Arabia after obtaining the marriage permission and marrying under their law. The iqama must be renewed every couple of years. This means that, should such a marriage end in divorce, your husband and his family can choose not to sponsor you so that you can stay. Without a sponsor, you will be deported. This is a problem if there are children involved because they will have Saudi citizenship and as such cannot be taken back to your country with you unless your husband gives written permission (very rare).

If  such a woman has been deported and is still unable to find a sponsor to live in Saudi, the only way to get back into the country on a long term basis is to gain employment there. Easy? Not so much. Applying for a job in Saudi Arabia from outside the country is extremely difficult if you do not have at least a bachelor’s degree and years of experience in a field of work. Employment opportunities for foreigners in KSA are concentrated in the medical and educational (teaching English as a foreign language) fields. Unfortunately, with the anticipated Saudisation of workplaces in KSA, it’s likely that in time it will only become more difficult.

However, it is possible to have someone other than your husband or in-laws sponsor you should the marriage go bad. I was recently advised of two separate cases where non Saudi women who were separated from their husbands gained not only sponsorship to remain in KSA with their children, but financial assistance from a Saudi prince mashaAllah may Allah reward him. Apparently Court appointed lawyers can also act as sponsors and I’m sure there are many other possible candidates.

If the woman cannot  find a job in Saudi Arabia, it is possible for her to visit her children in Saudi Arabia provided that her husband issues a ‘no objection’ statement.

For those women who are able to remain in Saudi Arabia  as well as those who wish to leave following divorce,  it is highly unlikely that they will gain custody of their children. It is not common for even Saudi women to get custody of their children and it is even less common for non Saudi women. Generally, the Saudi Courts grant the father custody and the wife visitation rights, however, there are cases where the woman didn’t even receive those. Needless to say, none of this reflects the way things should be done under Shari’a (Islamic) law. For a description of how child custody in the Shari’a works please see this link.

Ostensibly, the reason the government has been making the citizenship laws increasingly tough is that non Saudi women were marrying Saudi men simply to obtain citizenship and once they received it they would escape with their children and then the government would have to deal with distressed fathers begging them for help. And to that I say – where is the proof? We hear a lot of these sorts of claims by the Saudi government used to justify unreasonable laws and on the rare occasion evidence is provided, it is extremely unreliable. Two good examples of this are the laws which govern marrying foreigners and those against women driving.

Should all non Saudi wives, a large number of whom are Western women who have no reason to want citizenship other than to protect themselves and their family, be punished for the alleged crimes of what I suspect are a relative minority? Is this yet another attempt to punish and deter those foreigners who ‘lured in’ Saudi men? I suspect so.

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