Who is better off in Saudi Arabia, an expat or a Saudi woman?

Would you like to know how most expats living in Saudi Arabia feel? Ask a Saudi woman

Somayya Jabarti
Somayya Jabarti
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
9 min read

Would you like to know how most expats living in Saudi Arabia feel?

Ask a Saudi woman.

An expat cannot reside, survive or thrive independently in the kingdom and is at the mercy of a sponsor, almost like a dependent. A Saudi woman cannot legally and independently live without a male guardian, or a “mahram” (a close male blood relative whom a woman is forbidden by Islamic law to marry). She too, for life, is a dependent bound to, and at the mercy of, a man.

While an expat cannot leave the country without the sponsor’s approval (via exit and re-entry visas), a Saudi woman cannot travel without her male guardian’s approval, now upgraded from a piece of paper to a computerized electronic version putting the power of approval or denial of a woman’s travel literally at his very fingertips.

After landing at an international airport in the kingdom and while lining up at the passport counter, an expat’s heart may skip a beat or two in trepidation until he or she has passed safely through immigration and is officially in the country. Likewise, a Saudi woman when departing to an international destination may hold her breath until her travel permit is confirmed, her passport stamped and she has smoothly passed through and is officially out of the country.

What of an expat’s residence permit, i.e., an Iqama? During the recent amnesty period, it was noted that many sponsors had not acquired Iqamas, residence permits, for the expats they were sponsoring, although overlooking such a measure is illegal. Well did you know that there are many cases where Saudi women are without passports or national IDs because their male guardians have not done what was required to have these documents issued even though, this too, is illegal?

How about renting a house or an apartment? A landlord will ask the expat for a letter from the sponsor, i.e., the employer. And for a Saudi woman, the landlord will ask that a mahram or male guardian “vouch” for her even though no law requires this of her.

To date a sponsor can falsely report a sponsored expat as “huroob” (a runaway) or demand his or her deportation without the latter’s knowledge. And what can be done behind a Saudi woman’s back, without her knowledge? She can be divorced in absentia. Inheritance due to her can be confiscated. Even her travel permit can be revoked without her knowledge. She could be well on her way to the airport to catch an international flight only to find at the passport desk that she doesn’t have “permission” to fly. (The new updated travel permit is now computerized enabling a male guardian to use the Internet to log on and alter a Saudi woman’s travel status).

If a sponsor should abuse the sponsored expat, shortchange him or her, delay salaries or not pay any salary at all, can the expat report the sponsor, retrieve due rights or payments without jeopardizing his or her job and status in the kingdom? No. The only way out of such a dilemma would be to ultimately leave the country. And what of a Saudi woman abused at the hands of a male guardian or a mahram? She may report him and she may even take refuge in a shelter home, but the male guardianship remains intact and as such, her life and her very person are still under his control even though Islam states otherwise.

To date a sponsor can falsely report a sponsored expat as “huroob” (a runaway) or demand his or her deportation without the latter’s knowledge

Somayya Jabarti

What happens to an expat if he or she has finished serving a prison sentence? Can they just walk out and go about their way? No. A sponsor must receive them. Likewise, a Saudi woman after serving her due time in prison can ONLY be received/picked up by her male guardian. In fact this has compelled the authorities to set up “guest housing” to which Saudi women whose families refuse to take them back are transferred. Now, the latest news is that the authorities are “studying” how to force families to take back their women kin after the latter have done time.

If a sponsor should die, what happens to the sponsored expat? A sponsorship transfer is mandatory to continue living or working in the kingdom or else she or he must leave. And what happens to a Saudi woman in the case of the demise of her male guardian? The next male paternal kin inherits the male guardianship. For example, when a Saudi woman is widowed or divorced, her father or brother, an adult son or even her father’s brother becomes her male guardian. And if this Saudi woman happens to have daughters, the male guardian of her daughters would be their father’s brother, etc. Yes a mother and her daughters would not even share the same male guardian. Only in the case of there being an adult son would the Saudi mother and her daughters have a united male guardian.

Legally restricted? Frustratingly powerless? Indeed my dear expat, I know how it feels, perhaps even more than you do.

For did you know that an expat can go to court without a sponsor for whatever reason while a Saudi woman cannot appear in court as either a litigant or a lawyer without a male guardian, mahram or other man who is legally authorized to represent her? Just recently, a judge asked a Saudi female lawyer to leave the court because she was without a mahram.

Of course it goes without saying that expat men can drive while Saudi women cannot.

Or that an expat can renew his or her passport in Saudi Arabia while a Saudi woman can neither renew nor apply for her own passport? Only her male guardian can apply for or renew her passport. In fact she cannot even pick up her own passport once a male guardian has renewed it or had it issued.

Even when it comes to recreation, let us say staying at a beach resort or spending the day at sea on a boat ride, an expat woman can book herself into a beach resort and take that boat ride by herself or with other expat women. But a Saudi woman cannot do the same without a male guardian present to sign her into the beach resort, although she can register herself in a hotel. And as for the boat ride, she needs the male guardian to be present or his written consent.

And while expats can marry, get divorced and remarry while living in the kingdom, even a divorced or widowed Saudi woman cannot get married independently even though she can do so Islamically.

And should an expat, God forbid, die, his or her dependents will inherit from the expat by default. But should a Saudi woman married to a foreigner pass away, her non-Saudi husband and their children do not inherit from her.

So who is better off, an expat or a Saudi woman?

Some argue that the two cannot be compared because one is a citizen and the other is not.

But therein lies the (cruel) irony, does it not?

This article was first published on the Saudi Gazette on Nov. 28, 2013.


Somayya Jabarti is the Deputy Editor of Saudi Gazette. Previously, Jabarti was the Deputy Editor of Arab News, a Saudi English newspaper based in Jeddah. Jabarti worked for Arab News for over nine years, where she started out as a local desk editor and advanced to become the Deputy National desk editor, then Executive Editor and later Managing Editor. She is currently the first Saudi woman to make Managing Editor and Deputy Editor of a Saudi daily publication. Jabarti has participated in various media focused trainings and workshops such as the 2008 MENA Media Emerging Leaders Fellowship, London Middle East Institute & the Commonwealth Journalists Association reporting course. She was also involved in planning and organizing the Women’s First Media Forum held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2006.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending