From "Anywhere But" to "Nowhere But" Saudi Arabia: A Conversation with Kathy Cuddihy

Published: December 4, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

When SUSRIS was launched ten years ago one of the aims was to present first hand experiences of Americans who have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia to educate their fellow citizens about the relationship, beyond many news reports and TV talking heads which may not have been informed by time spent in the Kingdom.  We continue to regularly talk with “expats” about their lives in Saudi Arabia, their work, their friends, and their perspectives on the relationships between Americans and Saudis.

Today we have an opportunity to share one such conversation with you and it is much more than a series of memories. Kathy Cuddihy, 24-year veteran of living and working in Saudi Arabia, is author of several books that must be considered for any collection of books about the Kingdom, including her recent offering, “Anywhere But Saudi Arabia: Experiences of a Once Reluctant Expat.” It is a memoir, her stories — some humorous, some sincere — across more than two decades in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Cuddihy was initially reluctant to move to Saudi Arabia in 1976.  “Bechtel transferred my husband Sean from San Francisco,” she told AmericanBedu blogger Carol Fleming. “He was part of the team building Riyadh’s international airport. I went on the condition that it wouldn’t be for a minute more than the initial 2-year contract.”

Having traveled abroad before, Canadian-born Cuddihy was not a stranger to international travel. However, with little prior knowledge or available authoritative information regarding Saudi Arabia at the time and without any comprehension of its customs, Cuddihy traveled to the largely unknown Kingdom along with her husband and newborn baby completely unprepared.  Even while living among streets without names, unsteady electricity and other scarcities, Cuddihy’s sense of reluctance began to fade as she overcame social hurdles to create an everlasting connection to the country and its people.

While learning to become a part of an essentially unknown culture, Cuddihy kept an open mind and firm respect for her Saudi hosts as she began working and documenting her experiences. Mindful of the information vacuum when she was preparing to go to Saudi Arabia Cuddihy has contributed a large part of her career to adding to the knowledge of Saudi Arabia with the hopes that other first-time expatriates will abandon stereotypes and misinformation.  Speaking to AmericanBedu, she said:

“Respect should be a fundamental ingredient in a foreigner’s baggage. Saudis are happy to explain their ways. Understandably they don’t appreciate an aggressive challenge. They do many things differently than we do.. ..but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is part of the growth process of living in a foreign land, seeing life from a different perspective.”

Some of Cuddihy’s other titles include Saudi Customs and Etiquette, Gifts of Arabia, A-Z of Places and Things Saudi, and Familiarity Breeds Content, a collection of articles from an expat experiences column. She tells AmericanBedu, “The most popular book, Saudi Customs and Etiquette, came about because I saw that most expats were totally ignorant of the Saudi culture. They either had the wrong information or none at all.”

This week Cuddihy releases her seventh book, Anywhere But Saudi Arabia: Experiences of a Once Reluctant Expat, her latest, reminiscent account of her time living and working in the Kingdom. “This is a memoir of my Saudi years. There’s plenty of humor in the accounts of all my adventures and misadventures. It’s written with love but it’s not sugar-coated,” she said.

As Cuddihy learned from 24 years of first hand experience, the convergence of Saudi Arabian and American cultures can sometimes be shaky. The relationships and experiences of expats like Kathy Cuddihy reinforce that the personal and business relationships prevail among cultural misguidance. On this, she offers her advice.

“I think the important thing is to go with an open mind, a mind that’s willing to learn and to change. Your way may be right in your environment but it doesn’t necessarily transfer well. Instead of trying to convert people, take time to listen to why they think or act the way they do. There’s a good reason why traditions develop.”

Today SUSRIS is pleased to provide the exclusive conversation with author and American expatriate Kathy Cuddihy as she discusses her overseas experiences and the release of her new book, “Anywhere But Saudi Arabia: Experiences of a Once Reluctant Expat

In addition to the interview you can also read a sampler of excerpts from Cuddihy’s latest book, provided separately today.


From “Anywhere But” to “Nowhere But” Saudi Arabia: A Conversation with Kathy Cuddihy

[SUSRIS]  Thank you for taking time to talk with us about your experiences in Saudi Arabia and your new book, “Anywhere But Saudi Arabia.”  Why, where and how long were you in Saudi Arabia and why were you a “reluctant expat”?

[Kathy Cuddihy] I was there for 24 years in two periods. The first was 1976 to 1990, and then from 1993 to 2003. We were in Riyadh. My husband was an engineer with Bechtel and he was waiting for an overseas assignment.  Saudi Arabia was at the bottom of our wish list because nobody knew anything about it in those days except that it was a desert.  We had a very young baby and we really didn’t want to go there. There didn’t seem to be anything to do. Women couldn’t work. I just did not want to go there but the financial incentives were considerable and there was no other assignment on the horizon. So that’s why we went.

[SUSRIS] What were your impressions when you arrived compared to stereotypes most Americans had in that era of going to such a little known place?

[Cuddihy] Well back then there were no stereotypes. It was as if you were talking about Mars. No one knew anything about it.  It was a blank slate.  Most people we asked didn’t even know where it was on a map. That’s how unknown it was.

When I arrived I thought I had stepped into a scene from the Bible. There were wandering goats and sheep herds. People went to an open oven down the street to get their freshly baked bread. Veiled women shopped in suqs. It was the most foreign place I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot of places. But I loved it for some reason, I just loved it.

In contrast, by the time we left in 2003, oil riches had brought Arabia from virtual obscurity to being a world player.  Alas the events of 9/11 paired the country with the word ‘terrorism.’ The average Saudi was the same as always, it was just that the world’s view of him had changed.

[SUSRIS]  What were the reactions, the attitudes and the opinions of the Saudis you met about Americans when you first arrived?

[Cuddihy]  Many Saudis we met had been educated in the States, or they went there for holidays or for healthcare. So they really had quite a fondness for the country and the people. Untravelled Saudis often viewed Western women with suspicion because of what they saw in movies. They assumed immorality was part of our culture. Nevertheless, they’re always respectful to Western women.

[SUSRIS] Let’s talk about your book, now that we know the background of the title, “Anywhere But Saudi Arabia.” What inspired you to write it?

[Cuddihy] The book actually didn’t start as a book. I began taking notes around 1984, not for a book as much as for my children.  I knew that what we had experienced – I guess it was nine years at that point – was unique in the world.  Here was a place that was literally a desert outpost, an oasis, and it was moving to be among the fastest growing cities in the world.  It was amazing what was happening in Riyadh and Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] Did you have a background in writing?

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[Cuddihy]  I had been a technical writer in San Francisco beforehand. But as I say, I wasn’t writing a book. I was just making notes and stories for the kids, and it kept getting put into a bottom drawer as I did other things. Finally a publisher contacted me and asked me what I was working on, because by then I had written six other books.  I told him about it and they wanted the book. So that inspired me to get it finished.

[SUSRIS] Tell us about your other books?

[Cuddihy] Mostly books about culture, a lot of it Saudi related, some of it humor.  “Saudi Customs and Etiquette” and “An A-Z of Places and Things Saudi,” are the two best known books.

[SUSRIS] What did you do to occupy your time while living in the Kingdom?

[Cuddihy] Well that was difficult at first because I had a young baby. I had never had a child before so I had to get used to being a mother. I had to get used to living with a bunch of other women, and that for me was the biggest hurdle.

Gradually I got into the lifestyle. I learned how to play tennis and I started mixing with other people. Then I got a job and that got me out of the house on a regular basis. There was a great social life. That was the big secret about Saudi Arabia that the social life for expats was utterly brilliant.  That kept me quite busy. Then I began to seriously work again at writing and traveling around the Kingdom.  I became a public relations consultant. I had my own business. By then I was busy all the time.

[SUSRIS] How would you describe what has happened in the Kingdom over the years since you first arrived, in the 1970s, to now, in terms of changes, reforms, and modernization?

[Cuddihy] When I first went to Riyadh, as I said, it was just an oasis. There was one traffic light in the place. The Saudi government has been fantastic at creating a modern infrastructure. They were starting from scratch so everything took time. That allowed people to adjust to all the changes. Suddenly they had hospitals, big highways, electricity that worked all the time, telephones. It was quite dramatic, the changes, and they were done well.

As far as social reforms go, the pace is too slow in my opinion because of the religious conservatives. As long as they’re strong there can’t be any significant progress. Having said that, it’s inescapable that there have been a lot of changes. However from the perspective of the Western world it’s slow. But you know I always say to people who criticize the pace of progress that we didn’t do it overnight either.  As I mentioned I would use the word “biblical” to describe what I saw when I arrived in 1976.  So I think the Saudis have done an amazing job in a very short time.

[SUSRIS] So you were in Saudi Arabia from 1976 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 2003. You fortuitously skipped the Gulf War

[Cuddihy] Yes. My husband was transferred to Hong Kong in October of 1990. But yes we missed the war.  Not intentionally.

[SUSRIS] Observers would say that the post Gulf War period was the point that marked reform-minded changes in the Kingdom. 1979 was marked by a conservative turn in the country as significant events unfolded in the region – the Iranian revolution, the Grand Mosque seizure, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  But after the Gulf War it became a more progressive period.  Did you notice a difference when you went back in 1993, the post-Gulf war period, was the climate different?

[Cuddihy]  I went back immediately after the Gulf War.  We had a gap in living in the Kingdom but I was still working for a Saudi employer the whole time, commuting from Hong Kong. The change when I visited right after the war was euphoria, absolute euphoria. It was amazing really. And there was a lot of hope.  You know about the episodes of women driving. That could’ve been the start of something because all sorts of women were driving in Saudi, the military women were drivers. It was an opportunity to move forward but it didn’t happen, it got staunched by the conservatives.  Reforms were very slow. There were a lot of changes, all sorts of big shops came and established themselves in Saudi Arabia. You could buy anything but those were superficial changes.

[SUSRIS]  Crown Prince Abdullah became King in 2005 and he has established a reputation as a reformer, bringing more movement on women’s empowerment issues — increasing number of women in higher education, delivering the right to vote, serving in the Consultative Assembly.  What is your take of changes in the last few years?

[Cuddihy] I think they’re great, absolutely great. The Saudi women that I know are astounding people, very efficient, very opinionated. If Saudi women had more of a voice, that country would really move ahead.  When change occurs, I think it’s more likely to happen outside Riyadh. You know, Jeddah, Dammam, all those places, they were always more progressive than Riyadh at the heart of the traditionally conservative Nejd region. So it’ll take a little longer in Riyadh. But boy, those women are strong.

[SUSRIS]  What do you tell people about Saudi Arabia? How do you characterize it?

[Cuddihy] Everybody who knows me knows I absolutely love Saudi Arabia. We got to know the people very well.  We got to know the country very well. I don’t think any other Western woman has seen as much of the country as I have seen.  I was well known for traveling around the country. And I love it. I love Saudi Arabia. But there’s the persistent stereotypes: they’re terrorists, they treat the women badly, whatever. And I have to fight that all the time and sometimes I just get very tired of it. People do not want to believe.  Some people do not want to believe anything except the bad stuff.

[SUSRIS] You mentioned that in the 1970s when you first went to Saudi Arabia there was little known about it by Americans and that after 9/11 there was concern about terrorism.  Since then we’ve seen the Kingdom sending tens of thousands of young people to study in American colleges; concrete results from cooperation in anti-terror intelligence and operations; increased commercial opportunities and relations; a government to government strategic partnership; and the expanding role of Saudi Arabia on the world stage.  Do you see any improvement in the image among Americans?  Or is there still a lack of information and understanding?

[Cuddihy] You know, my own opinion is that it’s not getting any better. The media may be less negative than ten years ago, but people who don’t believe, don’t believe. There’s something that causes many people to want to see the worst side of Saudi Arabia. And many of them will not be persuaded.  Media portrayals are probably becoming more accurate, but to a great extent they focus more often than not on negative events.  They often take situations out of context.  It just doesn’t tell the full story of a people who are greatly misunderstood.

To be quite honest I think the Saudis don’t help themselves. The media wants to tell a story but the Saudis have a very closed society, just by its nature. So it’s hard to get another story other than the negative news. They don’t encourage Western tourism enough.  Compare the situation it to the French for example. There’s a love-hate relationship between Americans and the French. But you can go there and decide for yourself. You can’t necessarily go to Saudi Arabia and decide for yourself what it’s like. You can’t easily meet people there and see their wonderful hospitality and their kindnesses. It’s just not possible. So the door remains closed because the Saudis choose to keep it closed.

[SUSRIS] Do you have any final thoughts on impressions of the Kingdom that American’s may hold that they should reexamine or understand better about Saudi Arabia and its people?

[Cuddihy] Well, if people read my book, I hope that they’ll learn that bridging the cultural differences takes an effort and that the effort pays great returns. And I hope they’ll learn that we shouldn’t let ourselves be consumed by misconceptions. If I’d given in to my fears and prejudices, I would’ve missed the opportunity of a lifetime.

[SUSRIS] Well there’s no better ending than those sentiments.   Thank you.

About the Author:
Kathy Cuddihy, Canadian by birth, has lived abroad for most of her life. A penchant for foreign cultures and languages has served her well throughout her extensive travels. Her varied career has included being a jillaroo (cowgirl) in Australia, a secretary at the United Nations in Geneva, and a public relations consultant in Saudi Arabia. This is the author’s seventh book. Her two children and four grandchildren reside in the US. Kathy lives with her husband Sean on Bantry Bay, Ireland.

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About the Book: When Bechtel offered Sean Cuddihy a transfer to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1976, his wife Kathy agreed to go along on one condition: that it was only for two years, not a minute longer. This reluctant commitment turned into a 24-year love affair with Saudi Arabia and its people. Kathy’s humorous anecdotes of her adventures and misadventures trace the journey of a country in transition. Never has a nation made so much progress in so short a time. As a trusted journalist and businesswoman, Kathy witnessed, recorded and participated in this spectacular development.  From palaces to prisons and mud houses to private jets, Kathy’s perspective is unique and her experiences remarkable. Told with the wit and stylishness for which the author is well known, Anywhere But Saudi Arabia! is a treasure for all who know and love the Kingdom, and an eye-opener for those with no comprehension of what life was, and is, like for a non-conventional non-Muslim woman in a conservative Muslim population. At times hilarious, at times shocking, but always honest and entertaining, Kathy’s story is infused with deep affection for her adopted country.

Also by Kathy Cuddihy:

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Saudi Customs and Etiquette — From “Would you know how to greet a sheikh? Can you dress so as not to cause offence? All these points and more are covered clearly and entertainingly in Saudi Customs and Etiquette (now fully revised and updated). The book will guide a visitor through the intricacies and conventions of life in Saudi Arabia. From a glossary of terms, expressions and sayings, to advice on the lunar calendar and holy days, the reader is provided with all the knowledge needed to survive and impress in social situations. Saudi Customs and Etiquette is a must for anyone visiting the region and for all those interested in the culture, people and customs of Saudi Arabia.”

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A-Z of Places and Things Saudi — From “This handy book takes you through the A to Z of Saudi Arabia, from the abaya to Zabaydah road, encompassing everything from dust devils to Makkah and marriage. Did you know for example, that Eve is said to be buried in Jeddah? Do you have any idea how a camel stores its water? With over 500 entries, enhanced with colour photos throughout, this is an invaluable reference for anyone learning about the kingdom, its traditions, customs and people.”