The recent news that a senior judge in Saudi Arabia has said it is permissible to kill owners of satellite TV stations which broadcast “immoral” programmes reminds us yet again how out of touch with the “real” world much of Arabia still is. The fact that an editorial in the UAE’s Gulf News, then pussyfooted around saying three quarters of the way through the article that this “measure must be condemned….” and that “sadly, beheading broadcasters portrays a false image of Islam” surprised no one.
I had the honour and privilege to work in Saudi for very many years and only moved to the United Arab Emirates at the start of 2008. For two countries with a common border the differences could hardly be greater; but this is not just a reflection of the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam.
Take Ramadhan, for instance. In Saudi, the locals turn night into day during their holy month, sleeping throughout most of the day and only going in to work late at night. The streets in the day are totally deserted. The expats are expected to continue working in the daytime, but it is also expected of them to take phone calls at 3am or even to be called in to a meeting at that time.
Over in the UAE, everyone goes to work in the daytime – admittedly for shorter hours - but the streets are manic at all times of the day and night and they try as much as possible to live a “normal” life, as much as fasting, praying and going to endless iftar and suhour gatherings will allow.
But there is one major difference between Saudi and the UAE that I was simply not expecting; one that I have to admit took me totally by surprise. In the more liberal UAE I was unprepared for one of the more unusual (to me) customs of the local populous.
It’s when you are comparing diaries and trying to work out when to go out with someone – assuming one of you is a woman, that is. It is a well known fact that when a woman is menstruating she is no longer required to fast or even to pray, despite it being Ramadhan. The fall out from this is that in such a hot and humid country as the UAE, where it is difficult to spend any time outside without being able to drink water or any other liquid, the conversation goes something along the lines of “I could do anytime that week, but not during the other three weeks of that month”.
Fixing up diary dates dependent on a woman’s periods would, of course, never happen in Saudi since it is still illegal to have men and women working in the same office, let alone to be discovered in the same car together if they are not closely related.