Saudi Arabia then and now, in the eyes of Kingdom's American expats

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Saudi Arabia has had a prosperous and fruitful relationship with the US since the early 1930s - as displayed by the numerous number of American expats who have lived in the Kingdom throughout the decades. Dhahran Girl Scout Den Mothers in the late 1960s. (Supplied)
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A 2011 reunion of the Aramco Brats. (Supplied)
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A 1969 photograph of a youth baseball team from Dhahran. (Supplied)
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Santa Claus arrives at one of the Aramco camps for a Christmas in the late 1960s. (Supplied)
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A camel pool floatie from the Aramco Brats reunion 2019 event. (Supplied)
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Updated 14 February 2020

Saudi Arabia then and now, in the eyes of Kingdom's American expats

  • Expats talk to Arab News about changes in the Kingdom
  • When Aramco was first founded, most of its employees were Americans who relocated to Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: Living in Saudi Arabia as an American might not be quite as difficult as people think it is. Despite the differences in culture, the language barrier, and the new rules one must adapt to, life in the Kingdom can be perfectly pleasant for our American friends. Just ask them, as we did.

Saudi Arabia has had a prosperous and fruitful relationship with the US since the early 1930s. One of the biggest and most well-known examples of this is through Aramco, the world-famous oil company.

When Aramco was first founded, most of its employees were Americans who relocated to Saudi Arabia to assist the country with its oil boom. The children of these employees formed an organization called the Aramco Brats in 1996 to promote fellowship among those who were born, raised, educated, or lived in Saudi Arabia. The organization hosts reunions every year, sends out newsletters on a regular basis, and even offers help with getting birth certificates and other official documents.




Dhahran Girl Scout Den Mothers in the late 1960s. (Supplied)

Alison Hooker, publicity manager of Aramco’s expat reunion, arrived in Dhahran in Dec. 2006. “My husband Nigel, a paleontologist, was offered a job with Aramco in exploration, and we felt it would be a great adventure for our family, as our kids were the right age (nine and 11) to appreciate and benefit from living in another country and culture,” she told Arab News.

She said her impressions of Saudi Arabia had changed considerably in the 13 years she has been in the country.

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“My first impression was of rules and restrictions – you can’t do this, you can’t go there, you can’t take photographs, you can’t drive (as a woman), feeling ignorant and uncomfortable as a Westerner about how to behave appropriately in Saudi company, and trying not to enter a coffee shop through the wrong door.”

With the help of Saudi friends, who shared their culture and faith with her, she gained a much deeper understanding, respect for and appreciation of life in the Kingdom. “Now, it feels like coming home. Where I once felt anxiety on arrival, I now feel a sense of connection.”




A 2011 reunion of the Aramco Brats. (Supplied)

In 2014, the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives published a book of anecdotes by Americans who had spent time in Saudi Arabia between 1938 and 1998. Titled “Forever Friends,” the book is full of stories about childhoods spent becoming friends with princesses, receiving gold coins from kings and overcoming language barriers to build lasting friendships.

John MacKenzie, who lived in Saudi Arabia from 1950 to 1970, wrote: “Never again in my life did I experience such hospitality. I shall never forget the scent of rose water, the taste of sweet dates and goat’s milk as long as I live.”

But the connection between the two countries does not stop there. Many Americans still make their home in Saudi Arabia, and not just on its east coast.




A 1969 photograph of a youth baseball team from Dhahran. (Supplied)

Dr. Alia Mitchell, vice dean of the College of Humanities at Prince Sultan University, has been living in Saudi Arabia for 20 years. She moved to the Kingdom in 1998 from the US and, barring one year spent in the UAE, she has lived in Riyadh that entire time.

As a Muslim, Mitchell thinks that the environment in Saudi Arabia suits her perfectly and she finds it difficult to imagine living anywhere else. “It’s home for me,” she told Arab News.

As far as how much Saudi Arabia has changed since her arrival, Mitchell said it was “an easy, yet difficult question” to answer.

“Over 20 years, anywhere you live, you’re going to see changes in society. Now with all the new policies geared toward empowering women, it’s giving a greater chance and opportunity for women to excel and be recognized for their hard work.”




Santa Claus arrives at one of the Aramco camps for a Christmas in the late 1960s. (Supplied)

Mitchell thinks the most amazing change was seeing the leap in the quality of education and literacy. “Back when I was in grad school and doing research, I looked at the literacy rate in Saudi Arabia as one of the countries I was interested in coming to when I finished my studies. In a lot of other countries, it takes a much longer time to raise the literacy rate, but Saudi Arabia was able to do it at a much faster pace,” she said.

She commends the hard work that has gone into raising the country’s quality of education overall.

“It’s not just about sitting in a classroom and getting your certificate and stopping there. They want to make certain that there are qualified individuals that go out into society to improve conditions.”


Saudi TikTok users weigh in on potential app ban

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Updated 12 July 2020

Saudi TikTok users weigh in on potential app ban

  • Due to pandemic, interest in the app skyrocketed as many users watch videos and try to recreate them while in quarantine

RIYADH: Chinese video platform TikTok is under fire once again, as rumors of the app being a tool used by the Chinese government to spy on users resurface online.

TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is a video-sharing site similar to the now-defunct Vine, where users share short clips of themselves which can be altered using AI technology.
Lip-syncing along with a track, using filters, and adding special effects give users the chance to create short clips that can be shared and downloaded in several social media platforms.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, interest in the app skyrocketed as many users downloaded TikTok to watch videos and try to recreate them while in quarantine. The app has also gained significant popularity in the Middle East with influencers such as Saudi model Roz, UAE-based content creators Khalid and Salama, and Saudi top TikToker iimeeto, who recently celebrated reaching four million followers on the platform.
Rania Mohammed, a fourth year medical student at Dar AlUloom University in Riyadh, said that TikTok was “the only thing keeping her sane” as she struggled with the pressures of school and quarantine.
“As a med school student, my attention span and free time are both severely limited,” she told Arab News. “Taking a 15 minute break to watch silly TikToks has helped me keep motivated. The specific brand of humor on that app is the fastest way to make me laugh.”
Mai Alhumood, a government employee, said that she downloaded the app while she was bored and became “quickly addicted” to the platform’s fun short videos.
“People are so creative on TikTok, and the challenges that keep going viral are so interesting,” she told Arab News.
However, the app has long-suffered from accusations of spying and gathering users’ private information on behalf of the Chinese government, leading to both temporary and permanent bans in countries around the world.
Recently, it was reported that Amazon requested that employees remove the app from their smartphones in an email over “security risks.” The company later retracted its directive.
Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber believed that concerns over the security of TikTok’s collected data stemmed from the app’s country of origin and its rules and regulations.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Following a provisional ban in April 2019, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned TikTok permanently in June this year, along with 58 other Chinese apps. The ministry claimed that the apps were a ‘threat to the sovereignty and security of the country’ following a Himalayan border clash with Chinese troops in the disputed territory of Ladakh.

• Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok in July 2018, citing public concern regarding ‘illegal content’ such as pornography and blasphemy. However, the app was unblocked following various changes from TikTok such as the opening of a government liaison office and implementing security mechanisms.

• Recently, the US became the third country to seriously consider banning the app, according to information from President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump also weighed in on a potential TikTok ban. He said that banning the app would be ‘punishing China for its response to the coronavirus.’

“TikTok collects data in a very similar way to US applications,” he told Arab News. “However the main concern is that the US has regulations and compliance that must be met when collecting customer data, such as GDPR data privacy regulation. In the case of TikTok, we don’t know as much about how the data is being used or stored because we don’t know their regulations.”
Following a provisional ban in April 2019, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned TikTok permanently in June this year, along with 58 other Chinese apps. The ministry claimed that the apps were a “threat to the sovereignty and security of the country” following a Himalayan border clash with Chinese troops in the disputed territory of Ladakh.
Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok in July 2018, citing public concern regarding “illegal content” such as pornography and blasphemy. However, the app was unblocked following various changes from TikTok such as the opening of a government liaison office and implementing security mechanisms.
Recently, the US became the third country to seriously consider banning the app, according to information from President Donald Trump’s administration.
Trump also weighed in on a potential TikTok ban. In an interview with Gray Television, Trump said that banning the app would be “punishing China for its response to the coronavirus.”
“Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful,” he said.
While Saudi Arabia has yet to announce a ban of any kind of TikTok, local users and followers are trying to practice caution while using the app anyway.
Alhumood considered making videos on the platform, but dismissed the idea and only uses it to follow other people’s videos.
“I have ideas for it, sure, but I’d rather not take the risk. I don’t even have a username or a registered account, and that’s one of the better things about TikTok. I only have the app, but I can still watch all the videos without giving them my private information.”
Mohammed also said that she had no interest in creating videos herself, though she did have a registered account in order to comment on videos and keep track of her favorites.
However Al-Jaber said that, in his opinion, registering an account on TikTok did not necessarily pose more of a risk than using other social media.
“If you use Facebook or Twitter, it’s not much different than using TikTok,” he said.