The following information has been prepared by our Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to assist United States citizens in understanding the cultural and legal differences they face when considering marriage to a Saudi citizen. The information was culled from interviews with Americans married to Saudis, most of whom were American women. While the majority of this document will address concerns specific to American women, American men may also want to consider these issues as well.
All the Americans interviewed strongly urged prospective spouses of Saudi men to visit the Kingdom and meet the Saudi in-laws before making a commitment to a culture very different in many respects from the one in which they were raised.
The American citizen spouse of a Saudi national is, with a handful of exceptions, 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.) Saudi families generally will not allow their daughters to marry non-Muslims, and conversion to Islam is often required before an American man could marry a Saudi woman. A few daughters of Saudi diplomats, raised and educated abroad, are known to have received royal dispensation for marriage to Europeans. Most Saudi women who are married to westerners reside abroad with their husbands.
WHAT TO EXPECT AND CONSIDER
Life in Saudi Arabia, a country that prides itself on its conservative interpretation and application of the Quran, (Koran) requires that couples talk about very basic lifestyle issues. Americans in Saudi Arabia suggest that Americans considering marriage to a Saudi discuss the following lifestyle issues with their prospective spouse before marrying or living in Saudi Arabia.
How cosmopolitan is the Saudi husband's family?
All American wives encourage prospective brides to meet the Saudi family before arriving in Saudi Arabia as a married woman. 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 determine their opinions of what an American wife can and cannot do while living in Saudi Arabia.
With whom will you live?
Many newly married couples move in with the groom's parents, in a sprawling villa that may house several other siblings and their wives and families. There is no such thing as personal privacy and tensions with family members who for one reason or another, may 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 in a small family compound. Some Saudis live separately in villas or apartments. While that may resolve the issue of privacy, many American wives find themselves completely isolated, surrounded by neighbors who only speak Arabic, and with no access to public or private transportation.
Western-style housing arrangements, which are rare, are often an apartment or villa located in a western compound or in the Diplomatic Quarter. In the Quarter, there is a semblance of western suburban life; however, most Saudi owners of compounds catering to non-Saudis ban Saudi tenants since they fear western inhabitants would object. The 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 Saudi Arabia 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 western a social life they will enjoy. 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, with observances for men and women 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 Saudi Arabia, 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, any woman married to a Saudi will be expected to have an escort - either another female relative or children - before entering the taxi of an unrelated male.
Will you and your children be permitted to travel separately from your husband or leave the country without him?
Travel by train or plane inside Saudi Arabia requires the permission of the male spouse and the presence of a male family escort. Travel outside Saudi Arabia is even more restricted. Everyone leaving Saudi Arabia must have an exit visa.
Women and children residing in Saudi Arabia as members of a Saudi household (including adult American citizen women married to Saudi men, adult American citizen women who are the unmarried daughters of Saudi fathers, and American citizen boys under the age of 21 who are the sons of Saudi fathers) require the permission of the Saudi male head of their household to leave the country. Married women require the permission of their husband to depart the country, while unmarried women and children require the permission of their father or male guardian. The U.S. Embassy can intercede with the Saudi government to request exit permission for an adult American woman (wife or daughter of a Saudi citizen), but may not be able to obtain permission for the departure of minor children without the father's agreement.
Temporary visitors normally do not need an exit permit but may be prevented from departing the country if they are involved in a legal dispute.
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 lack of employment opportunities, particularly if the wife does not speak Arabic. Most husbands will not approve of a wife working outside the home if it entails contact with unrelated men. Employment is generally restricted to the fields of education (teaching women students only) and medicine. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous social bias against the nursing profession and most Saudi husbands would not approve of a wife working with patients, except as 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 to up to four wives, with the proviso that he be able financially and emotionally to accord them equal status.
In principle, all Saudi men must marry Muslims or converts to Islam. In practice, many American women blur the issue, participating in a Sharia (Islamic) wedding ceremony but never actually converting.
Pressure to convert to Islam 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 or the desire to remain another religion or undecided. Children born to a Saudi man are considered to be Muslim at birth. Women who do not convert can find it difficult to accept that their children, through hours of Islamic education a day at school and under the tutelage of the family, will be practicing Muslims. Women who do convert may find that their conversion, particularly in the aftermath of a divorce, is 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 may 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 aid each other financially, and males must band together to guard the honor of their female relations. Children are not expected or encouraged to leave home even when they are adults.
What will it be like to raise a daughter?
Cultural differences are never greater than when it comes to the role of women, and a mother raising a daughter in Saudi Arabia can anticipate that her daughter's upbringing will be very different from her own and that her daughter will have dreams and expectations that her mother may not share. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, a young girl may 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. For a Saudi girl, this may be the natural state of affairs; for an American mother of a Saudi girl, it can be unsettling.
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 children. Sharia (Islamic) 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 American must leave Saudi Arabia and, in most cases, may only return with the explicit permission
and sponsorship of her ex-husband.
If a Saudi husband attempts to prevent his wife from leaving, the Embassy can call upon Saudi authorities to facilitate the American's departure. The Embassy cannot force a Saudi husband to relinquish the children.
The basis for marriage under Shari'a Law is the marriage contract, which is negotiated between the prospective husband and wife prior to marriage. The signing of the contract by the bride and groom and their witnesses in front of a Shari'a Court official is the legal beginning of the marriage. The contract can include prenuptial agreements concerning the custody and place of residence of children and the wife's ability to depart Saudi Arabia if the marriage should be terminated by death of the husband or divorce. An American citizen considering marriage to a Saudi citizen can obtain Saudi legal counsel to assist in negotiating the marriage contract to include agreements of this nature. It is the Embassy' s understanding that prenuptial agreements written into the marriage contract as an integral part of the contract will be subsequently honored by a Saudi Shari'a Court.
What custody rights do women have under Sharia law?
Theoretically, a mother should maintain custody 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.
Can an American be denied visitation rights to his or her children?
A Saudi parent must give explicit permission for an ex-spouse to visit their children in Saudi Arabia. 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-spouse visiting Saudi Arabia. In that statement, the Saudi parent would establish how long he or she is willing to let the ex-spouse remain in the country. The history of no-objection visas is mixed.
A Saudi parent often objects to the emotional disruption of a visit from the American parent. Often a Saudi husband's second wife can become jealous, and the American mother may find that her visit is restricted in time and carried out in full view of the extended Saudi family.
OTHER CHILDREN'S ISSUES
For information on international adoption of children and international parental child abduction, please refer to our Internet site at http://travel.state.gov/children's_issues.html or telephone (202) 736-7000.
REGISTRATION AND EMBASSY/CONSULATE LOCATION
Americans living in or visiting Saudi Arabia are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the Consulates General in Dhahran and Jeddah. U.S. citizens who register at the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. Consulates General may obtain updated information on travel and security within Saudi Arabia and can be included in the warden network.
The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is located at Collector Road M, Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 94309, Riyadh 11693. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: U.S. Embassy, Unit 61307, APO AE 09803-1307. The Embassy telephone number is (966) (1) 488-3800, fax (966) (1) 488-7275. Additional information may be found on the Embassy website at http://riyadh.usembassy.gov.
The U.S. Consulate General in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, is located between Aramco Headquarters and the old Dhahran Airport at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals highway exit. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 38955, Doha-Dhahran 31942. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: Unit 66803, APO AE 09858-6803. The telephone number is (966) (3) 330-3200, fax (966) (3) 330-6816. Additional information may be found on the consulate website at http://dhahran.usconsulate.gov.
The U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is located on Palestine Road, Ruwais. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 149, Jeddah. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: Unit 62112, APO AE 09811-2112. The telephone number is (966) (2) 667-0080, fax (966) (2) 669-3078 or 669-3098. Additional information may be found on the consulate website at http://jeddah.usconsulate.gov.
U.S. citizens should also consult the Department of State's Country Specific Information for Saudi Arabia and the World Wide Caution Travel Alert , which are located on the Department's Internet website at http://travel.state.gov.