Al-Salem ’17: I am not my country’s corruption

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, November 6, 2014

I only ever understood the concept of a “bad guy” following my binge-watching of “Community” and “Parks and Recreation.” It dawned on me that everyone, even real-life friend groups, needs someone to hate. Whether it be Jerry from “Parks and Recreation,” Pierce from “Community” or that one friend everyone else in the rest of the group feels less enthusiastic about, everyone feels they need a scapegoat for their pent-up frustrations.

But it doesn’t stop at wonderful television shows and personal relationships. This phenomenon penetrates even politics, and it appears that the scapegoat — the big bad bully — of Middle Eastern politics is my very own Saudi Arabia. We’re not in the media frequently for horrific war crimes, as is usually the case for media portrayal of the Middle East, but every now and then, Saudi Arabia gets slipped in between political conversations on college campuses. Sometimes it’s about our oil, our lack of women’s rights or our symbiotic relationship with the United States. Sometimes it’s simply, “I hate Saudi Arabia.”

I specify college campuses because, after my experience at the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference, which brought college students from all over America together, it started to appear acceptable to lump Saudi Arabia with its citizens into one “bad” entity. Saudi Arabia becomes a country that anyone can hate without holding back because citizens are seen as free of any “real” problems — people don’t acknowledge the corruption the country faces among certain officials or the treatment of women by religious police. This phrasing is specific because the country isn’t viewed as the enemy. Instead, it’s simply viewed as a country that seems to have it all — money and a strong relationship with the United States — and thus it’s okay to hate us.

The frustration over having to explain and apologize for my country reached its boiling point when I interacted with two students, one from a Boston college and one from a Santa Cruz college, at the conference. Though these students came together under the impression that they understood mutual struggle and oppression, Saudi Arabia apparently did not fall under that umbrella of understanding. When I mentioned that I was half-Palestinian but born and raised in Saudi Arabia, one of the students visibly scowled. The other student said I should only mention the Palestinian part because of “obvious reasons.” I did not understand what he meant, and his only explanation was that “Saudi Arabia is just a terrible place.” It did not seem to occur to him that his insult was rude, hurtful and insensitive — and it definitely did not register that it was outright racist.

If these comments had been made by angry trolls on the Internet, I would not take them so personally. But it’s because these comments are usually said by intelligent, progressive and respectable college students that they frustrate me. One time, when I was discussing the Islamic State with a peer, she mentioned Saudi Arabia and its connection to the United States. I was engaged and nodded at her very valid points, such as the United States ignoring Saudi Arabia’s governmental corruption and abuse of human rights — until she started referring to Saudi Arabia as “the Saudis.” While I would like to believe this was not meant maliciously, this use of the country’s people homogenizes an entire population and perpetuates the racism and hatred against said “Saudis” while simultaneously erasing any struggles the people might face.

Many reading this will feel that this is a whiny cry because, again, most view Saudi Arabia and its people as rich, oil-loaded misogynists who can’t see basic morality through all their Saudi riyals. The country does boast a low poverty rate — ranked in a report by the World Bank as 10th-lowest globally and first in the Arab world — making it an easy target of unchecked criticism. But this “bad guy” label both diminishes and normalizes the people’s actual struggle against corruption in the country.

The country and its people are conflated when Saudis are ostracized in the Arab community because of Saudi Arabia’s corruption. Referring to Saudi Arabia as “the Saudis” disregards the oppression Saudis experience. The country becomes a whole body that no longer has a voice. When we talk about Saudi Arabia, why do we stop talking about political struggles against corrupt officials and their monopoly over lives? Why assume we aren’t in pain as well?

Because we are so silenced on both sides by these corrupt officials and by individuals depicting us as one body with one mindset, you do not hear us and thus assume we must be content. There is no space to talk about human rights — there are only structured beliefs spoken for us. There is no such thing as the “Saudi voice.”

This is problematic enough on its own, and if Saudis continue to be shunned as a single body to hate, I refuse to tolerate such racism, stereotypes and blatant ignorance. The country is full of brilliant youth, and each day we strive to create the Saudi Arabia we know can exist. I am proud to identify as Saudi, and I look forward to my country’s beautiful future.


Sara Al-Salem ’17 loves her country and her people and does not want to be mistaken as saying anything else when she critically analyzes the inability to separate a country’s corruption from its people. She can be reached at


  1. I’ll say it loud and clear. Saudi Arabia probably, (scratch that), is the most horrible place on earth. You as an individual have nothing to do with it. I don’t know your views so i do not judge you.

    However, make no mistake. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship hiding behind religious symbols and excuses. Not some “monarchy”. That being said, individual citizens of that country also get a well deserved bad rep because of lots and lots of stories of how women, especially Asian maids are treated so horribly. And then have their heads cut of when some of them fight their molesters. You don’t hear ordinary Saudi citizens complaining about that do you ?

  2. “To clarify: Wahhabism is the only officially
    recognized and allowed religion in Saudi Arabia. Other forms of Islam and other
    religions are banned and persecuted by the state.

    Saudi Arabia is the only Islamic state in which there is no
    church, no synagogue and no other place of worship of any other religion.

    Shiite Muslims have been systematically discriminated
    against for decades. Jews are even forbidden to enter the Kingdom.

    Saudi Arabia practices a form of Sharia law that is one of
    the most brutal systems in the world. Saudi Arabia has at all times rejected
    the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

    Women may not drive a car and can be punished by flogging.
    Corporal punishment, including amputations and executions, are part of everyday
    life in the country. Just two weeks ago a Sudanese immigrant in Saudi Arabia
    was publicly beheaded for ‘sorcery.’ Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries
    in the world in which the death penalty is enforced even on teenagers,”
    the paper said.

    • Reality Check says:

      Jews are even forbidden to enter the Kingdom.

      Except, of course, when they’re members of an American army coming to keep the royal family from getting overthrown by Saddam. Then that rule gets bent pretty quickly and for a very long time.

  3. Convenient memory, Sara, that you leave out the fact that Saudi Arabia is the largest financial supporter of exporting extremist Sunni mosques, literature and imams in the world.

  4. talmidchochem says:

    you mainly criticize the criticizers, not so much the corruption and mysogyny. no activism on your part to address that, too close to home. but you have plenty of time for SJP.

  5. Give my regards to your young camel.

  6. Thanks for your article. I think contrary to some of the blatantly ignorant and hostile comments others have made (that ironically support your thesis), conversation on Saudi Arabia is immensely problematic. As a Saudi, I thank you for pointing out that ‘Saudis’ are not a homogenous group (something that should be really quite standard and obvious given we’d never dare lump all Americans as being one people for example…), and that we are just as (if not more) critical of the Kingdom as non-Saudis are.

    Is there a lot wrong with the Kingdom? Yes. Does a lot need to change? Yes. But how is criticising it and labeling it as a “terrible place” productive in trying to implement change?

    Thanks Sara, for hopefully shedding some much needed perspective on a subject that is too often overlooked.

  7. Dislike of Saudi Arabia is not racism, by definition. It may be “nation origin” hatred.

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