Saudi Arabia makes massive reforms in life and culture

Not a few overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), especially oldtimers, rattle off a litany of complaints regarding their stay in Saudi Arabia.

    Some complaints are valid like homesickness, prohibition for an unrelated man and woman to talk in public, incarceration if one does not  have an insurance and meets with an accident while driving, authorities accosting expatriates to check if they have an Iqama (residence certificate), among others.

    Homesickness is normal, especially for one from a closely-knit family. The only remedy is for the expat worker to bring his family to the Kingdom, which could be costly due to newly-imposed fees for dependents.

    To lessen loneliness, expats used to go to city centers like Batha in Riyadh, Corniche in Alkhobar  and Balad in Jeddah to pass the time and meet friends, find new acquaintances, window shop or eat at their favorite restaurants.

    On social mores, the Kingdom has kept in step with the times by relaxing rules.

    “But while unrelated men and women could now meet and talk in public, they have to do it discreetly,” said Consul General Edgar Tomas Q. Auxilian of the Consulate in Jeddah.

    The religious police or mutawa used to be very strict regarding men meeting in public women who are not their relatives.

    One  area in which the Kingdom took a big step is in allowing women to drive. But ConGen Auxilian noted that Saudi women could drive without the traditional Saudi women’s dress but their arms should not be exposed.

    As for expat women, they should, he added, dress properly.

    “Wala ng mutawa, parang Dubai na ang Saudi,” said Jack Cañete, a Filipino community leader who regularly  conducts a financial literacy seminar in Riyadh.

    He works as a contract and estimator manager at the Genomi Centres of the Al Hokair Group.

    But being put in jail remains a possibility if an expat meets an accident while driving and does not have insurance to cover the damage to the other party’s car.

    The expat will remain in jail until his sponsor or employer bails him out.

    Another area where the Kingdom has introduced reforms is in the implementation of the rule on Iqama among expats.

    “Authorities now only check Iqamas in checkpoints or when there’s a campaign against illegal residents in the Kingdom,” added Cañete.

    This development seemed to have been indicated earlier. It was sundown and I was having my nightly walk in Al Yasmeen district where I lived when I was in Riyadh.

    A police officer called me as he emerged from the darkness that had enveloped the environs and asked for my Iqama.

  I took my wallet out of my pocket but it did not have my residence certificate. Fear crept up my spine.

    I asked the officer if he could accompany me to my residence where I left my Iqama.

    Realizing that I was telling him the truth, he merely said,” Don’t forget to have your Iqama next time you go out for a walk at night.” Then he left.

    When I, with five others, arrived in 1986 to join the Riyadh Daily, authorities, particularly the mutawas or religious police, were very strict as far as the Iqama was concerned.

    The mutawas were at the height of their power and could enter establishments like restaurants to check the Iqamas of those who were inside.

    When the then Crown Prince  Abdullah bin Abdulaziz took over from his half-brother King Fahd bin Abdulaziz who passed on at age 84 in 2005, the rule on Iqama implementation seemed to have been relaxed a little.

    The mutawas also seemed to have lost some of their power.

    When expats left for good, or on exit visas only, they used to have to surrender their driver’s license and Iqama.

    But when I surrendered these the Saudi capital’s King Khalid International Airport (KKIA), the Customs officer told me, “Keep them as remembrance.”

    The kindness shown by the Customs officer spoke volumes regarding the Kingdom’s kindness and projected a generous image for Saudi Arabia.

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