Magoosh GRE

Globalization and the Saudi Arabian Culture

| March 12, 2015

Globalization refers to the growing interconnectivity of various aspects of the world, especially the world economy. Douglas Kellner, an American sociologist stated that “globalization is the buzzword of our times” (Kellner 1998, p.23). According to Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist, “the term has entered everyday commentary and analysis with every business guru talking about it” (Gidden 1990, p.55). Globalization concept has indeed spread at breathe taking pace since the late 1980’s. It is a term which has become very popular and has generated a lot of controversies amongst academicians, scholars and policymakers.
Debates on globalization are currently raging with regards to its existence and its equation to westernization. Researchers broadly concur that globalization has developed out of a modern society. Analysts however disagree about the particular aspects of modernity that have generated globalization. Marxist, for instance, treated modern capitalist production as the primary cause. Liberals on the other hand regard modern industrial technology as the chief stimulus (Eleanor and Marsha, 2003). However, a general consensus prevails that globalization is in one way a product of modern social order.
The cultural effect of globalization has been seen by some researchers as a form of westernization. As pointed out by Gidden, “it is an attack by the west on the rest of the world” (Giddens 2000, p.15). Alternatively, it could be a form of reverse colonization. Hence the aim of this analysis is to debate on these arguments with specific reference to Saudi Arabian culture. For a country proud of its advancement within globalization with respect to its religion and tradition, Saudi Arabia represents a good case study for our analysis.

Saudi Arabia is a country with strong Islamic traditions where women dress in the black abaya, a Stylish Islamic clothing for women (Ahmed and Ishtiaq, 2004). Twenty five years later after the development rush facilitated by globalization, women’s faces which in the past were almost fully covered have become unveiled. The abayas have also changed to become coats of silk that are slightly form fitted, flowing, embroidered and almost sensual (Ahmed & Ishtiaq, 2004).
Gone are the days of the shapeless shroud that hung from the forehead to foot and gone are the thick folds of black gauze that covered the face. Also gone are the days, when invisible boundary lines kept women off the streets away from public awareness. These conservatisms had their origin both in the local customary practice and religion. Nowadays, Saudi women are increasingly meeting in restaurants, roving in packs through the malls, visiting public libraries and art galleries as well as shopping at the supermarkets (UNESCO, 2008).
What does this public “face” of women show about the changes in women lives and society at large after more than twenty years of Saudi Arabia’s engagement with the global economy? Could this be an attack by the west on the Middle Eastern nations? In addressing these concerns, we will explore on the impact of globalization on women of the Middle East. Globalization effects on Saudi women are discussed below.
Globalization effect on cultural diversity in Saudi Arabian can be seen where the Saudi women have increasingly gained access to German fashion products despite its strict dress code that requires them to don a flowing, black, head-to-toe robe (Clement and Rober, 2001). It has led to the Saudi women gaining more access to high end designer clothing and makeup, worn indoors in most western female settings. Despite its strict dress code, Saudi Arabia has surpassed the more liberal Dubai to become the biggest importer of German fashion products in the Middle East (Clement and Rober, 2001). Clearly, globalization has led to the increasingly use of fashion in the Middle East with the blending of western concepts with distinctively Islamic elements hence corrupting cultural diversity.
Despite the cultural hegemony brought by globalization which is widely viewed as weakening cultural diversity, it should be noted that globalization has had predominantly positive impacts on women living in the Middle East. This is evident through multiple examples. Overall, their lives have improved a culmination of the process of globalization, despite the misperception that Arab women are down-trodden.
One aspect of how the Middle Eastern women have benefited from globalization is through education. It has been made a priority by most Middle Eastern nations to ensure equal educational opportunities for the women like the men. The Saudi Arabian government, for example, reaffirmed the right to basic education for all, especially the university education (Mahmood, 2005). The governments considerable interest in the education of women can be demonstrated by the financial assistance granted to the female students at all the stages of the programme as seen in between 1999 and 2000 where the budget allocation for the girl child surpassed that of the boys (Mahmood, 2005). More recently, the Saudi government provided opportunities for young Saudi women to enroll in higher learning with incentives in the form of allowances throughout the entire course of the study.
Globalization has also led to women empowerment as can be seen in Saudi Arabia where women who are forced to stay indoors for most of the day due to religious constraints, enjoy watching “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (Bayne and Nicholas, 2000). The Saudi women in the present day have become so enamored with Winfrey that they watch Oprah’s show religiously and pass around copies of the Oprah magazine brought back from western sojourns.
The multitude of Saudi women with great devotion to the show has led to Oprah exploring on the local taboos which constraint women living in Saudi Arabia. This is evident in a recent article – “Oprah lifts a Saudi veil” – where the America’s iconic talk show host appeals for the marginalized Saudi women of the Arabian Peninsula (UNESCO, 2008). This has positively impacted on the Saudi women by increasing their awareness of their rights hence empowering them.

Another important aspect of how globalization has positively impacted on Saudi women can be seen through the increasing work opportunities. The internet, for instance, revolutionized the lives of women in the Middle East, a region in which traditions had severely limited avenues for interaction. The growth of information technology in Saudi Arabia opened doors for new business opportunities for the Saudi women.
According to one estimate, the number of business women grew by 200% in 2001 as a result of this information technology (Eleanor and Marsha, 2003). Additionally, globalization has led to participation of Saudi women in all sectors of work without any form of discrimination, including in terms of salary. Due to the pressure exerted by the global world on the Middle East nations to give women equality, the Saudi government has responded by giving women the same educational and work opportunities as the men.
Perhaps the most important contribution of globalization on women of the Middle East is their economic advancements. With education, women from Middle East have been able to secure greater career opportunities and become increasingly wealthy. Because of globalization, most women in Arab states hold billions of dollars in assets (Shoch and James, 2000). Banks in the Middle East are therefore hiring female managers to cater for the banking needs of this wealthy group. Saudi women have greatly benefited with most of them owning an ever growing number of SMEs. According to a study by Edimax US Publications (2002), some parts of the Middle East comprised of 40% women business owners. This illustrates that globalization is quickly transforming women to become more independent.
More recently, the Middle Eastern governments have been initiating women’s entrepreneurial growth. There are ongoing plans by the government in Saudi Arabia to open huge number of job opportunities for placement of women. Additionally, the United States has developed a program to support free markets, advancement of democracy, education and women’s empowerment in Middle Eastern countries (UNESCO, 2008).
These programs have broadly been embraced by the women of the Middle East and the results have been impressive such that it has garnered attention of the Forbes Magazine which named 50 most powerful Businesswomen from the Arab World in the year 2006 (UNESCO, 2008). Globalization has thus fostered the success of these businesswomen by keeping a close eye on the treatment of women in the Middle East.
Clearly, we have identified that globalization as pointed out by Giddens can be seen as a form of westernization as evident in Saudi Arabia. Alternatively, it could be a reverse colonization in which nonwestern countries have a strong influence on the west as seen in the UK where a number of higher institutions are offering Arabic, Middle Eastern studies and Islamic degree programmes.
One such example is the IMES, a leading UK institution for research, postgraduate and undergraduate degree programmes in Arabic, Persian and Middle Eastern studies (IMES, 2011). The Islamic College of England also serves to facilitate classical Islamic knowledge to today’s modern and diverse environment. Additionally, conferences on ‘Islam in higher education’ have been conducted as a result of globalization as seen in the University of Birmingham in 2005 (Gary, 2010). These conferences represent a significant theme in political, religious and educational climate for the Muslim community, wider academy as well as the UK society (Gary, 2010). These are but some of the examples of a form of reverse colonization where the nonwestern countries exert a strong influence on the west as a result of globalization.
Our research has identified that globalization is a form of westernization. While we may find alternative argument in globalization as a form of reverse colonization, evidence of globalization as an attack by the west far outweigh this alternative argument. Hence, I hold of the view that globalization is an attack by the west on the rest of the world.

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