quotes Arabia to America and back to Arabia again

25 November 2021
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Updated 25 November 2021

Arabia to America and back to Arabia again

As the 21st century unravels, humans and society are interacting with ever-changing and an ever-increasing amount of data. With a plethora of outlets to entertain us, keeping up with our favorite news channels and dedicating our hours to following others on social media, we, at times, are allowing algorithms to lead us into an echo chamber that only serves to reverberate our redundant thoughts.
As humans, we naturally take pride in knowing we are right. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a significant problem — we rarely allow ourselves to be confronted with new knowledge by voices outside of those we have made ourselves comfortable with. A nation that much mystery and myth surrounds is Saudi Arabia. Prefacing the point of this article, dear reader, resides my personal story to give a past and present human perspective — as an Arab American.
My story starts with my father, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia before eventually coming to the US, where he studied at university and met my American mother. Those became his primary reasons for staying in the US and not returning to Saudi Arabia. As a result, I grew up around Princeton, New Jersey, nestled in a truly liberal area that allowed me to spend my youth absorbing modern thought while remaining studious.
Regardless of this cultural surrounding, we grew up socially conservative due to the traditions of my father’s Saudi family. Our favorite meal was kabsa, I was not allowed to talk about boys (nor befriend them) and, instead of portraits, our household decor was hung swords. Because the US has a cooler climate compared to Riyadh in the summers, we would have my extended family from Riyadh shuffle in and out to visit us throughout the years. My grandmother’s luggage always smelt like cardamom and we would be showered in dates, Turkish coffee and 1990s Arabic music cassettes that we would dance to late into the night.
Compared to many, my upbringing was strict, and 99 percent of the time I couldn’t even leave the house, but we still had a fulfilling life in the confines of our warm, family-filled home. We would stay up late to dance to George Wassouf and Abdul Majeed Abdullah’s early works, in addition to a number of other activities we considered quality family time.

As both a bridge-builder and a deal-maker in two of my various roles, I found the Kingdom to be a fascinating space to observe

Sarah Elzeini

That was my life and, though different from those around me in Princeton, it developed in me an appreciation of life that now allows me to navigate that world with love and grace, even in times of trials and tribulations that are not always delicate. The guidelines based on which I understand the world and appreciate others were being prepared even before I was born.
My grandfather moved to Riyadh from Palestine, where he made a living that each of his children (and, later, his grandchildren) benefited from. For him, Saudi Arabia was the “New York” of endless possibilities, even at that time. As discussed above, his son (my father) came to the US and met my American mother and started his career here. So, although born here as an Arab American, culturally I was raised with a very Arab upbringing. This background has resulted in me still feeling sentimental ties and a sense of belonging to Saudi Arabia, the greater Middle East, and all its people.
Sometimes, I think it is convenient to forget the past in favor of current events in the news and viral misinformation. Unfortunately, this detracts from the recognition the Kingdom deserves. I, personally, make a point of not forgetting the past — I am here today because of their hosting. From Palestine to Saudi Arabia to the US, I take pride in my identity as a global cosmopolitan Bedouin; an identity that encourages me to keep moving forward while never betraying my past in favor of what is convenient. This is a resistance in and of itself to a world that looks at things in the moment, rather than in context.
Although my family traveled frequently there before my time, we never made the trip to Riyadh as children, since our family there typically came to us. Nonetheless, I always grew up curious about it. This year, I was invited to attend the Future Investment Initiative in Saudi Arabia and I seized the opportunity, seeing it as a way for me to involve myself in vital business dealings and explore the city of my family at the same time. As both a bridge-builder and a deal-maker in two of my various roles, I found the Kingdom to be a fascinating space to observe. I have always appreciated its history and culture due to my familial proximity to it, but being able to observe what is unfolding, activating and becoming publicized there was an incredible, eye-opening experience for me.
The Riyadh I experienced was plural, a mix of economic classes, with old, protected buildings scattered across a dreamer’s growing skyline. I felt that the city had maintained its cultural identity through learning lessons in urban development from its neighbors and had harnessed a unique charter to build not only a city to house more companies and welcome more residents, but also one that gives back to its people and the natural ecosystem on which it sits.
I have my own boutique firm that specializes in strategic activity and advice. For me, bringing two worlds together, be that through business or public affairs, is immensely fulfilling. I find that the world is a better place when we open ourselves to the truth of the world — not just what is in our cozy, comfy echo chamber. I have always held a deep appreciation for Saudi Arabia for many reasons, as you can see, and I highly encourage others to step outside their comfort zone and experience it for themselves.
I encourage you, dear reader, to never reduce a country and its people down to individual incidents and the mainstream media. If we do not embrace this personal growth, we may never allow societies throughout the globe to have the opportunity to grow into greater nations themselves. We should never deny others the agency to prosper off our consequentially surface-level views.

• Sarah Elzeini is a founder and CEO of SMZ International Group, a boutique strategic advisory and activities firm. Her clientele include law firms, non-profits, the private sector and sovereign states.
Twitter: @SarahElzeini