The Kids Are Not Alright – Children in Saudi Arabia

We are very fortunate here at KAUST, in that we have one of only two cinemas in the whole country here on campus. In Saudi culture the cinema is seen as sinful by some religious clerics and was banned in the 1980’s in an effort to appease them. Recently there have been faint rumblings the ban may be retracted which would be great news for this country but as it currently stands, any Saudi’s who wish to go to the movies have to cross over to Bahrain.

As a result of this it really is something special that we have our own cinema on site. It is incredibly cheap (5 SAR a ticket, approximately 85p), surprisingly large inside and plays fairly up to date films, two a week – changing every Sunday. You might be wondering what any of this has to do with children in Saudi Arabia – on Friday we went and watched Everest, a great film starring Jason Clarke, Keira Knightly and Jake Gyllenhaal about, you guessed it, Everest. Here is the trailer:

*or here will be the trailer when I figure out how to do it*

It really is a decent film, if only for the breathtaking Nepalese scenery. The reason I know it’s a good film is because I watched in in England before I left to move to the kingdom. Unfortunately Paul hadn’t seen it before and really struggled to understand what the film was about or what was even going on because THERE WERE SO MANY KIDS RUNNING AROUND AND MAKING SO MUCH NOISE IT WAS INFURIATING AND IMPOSSIBLE TO FOLLOW THE DAMN MOUNTAIN FILM *shakes fist, tries to strangle nearest noisy child, remembers that this is ‘murder’ and releases child who carries on making an impossible amount of noise, zero fucks given*.

Now as a disclaimer before I write the rest of this article, I should probably mention the fact that I don’t like naughty kids. Well behaved children I am good with, I have a goddaughter who I love more than life itself, I’m from a big family with many (younger) siblings – I’m not a child hater. However, badly behaved children make me want to drown myself. Unfortunately I did not find out until I had already arrived that 99% of the world’s population of undisciplined children live in Saudi Arabia. My life is literally now a living hell.

During the entire showing of the film children were clambering all over their parents/nannies/strangers, running up and down the stairs, throwing shoes down the stairs as a form of ‘fetch’ – which, might I add, didn’t even look like that much fun. Screaming, talking, and basically ignoring the GINORMOUS TV SCREEN THAT IS THE ONLY THING TO LOOK AT IN THIS ENTIRE DARKENED ROOM. How can you ignore it? HOW?!

Yet alas, ignore it they did. Throughout the whole thing no child was reprimanded which is standard in Saudi culture. Children are indulged, ignored and left to behave how they wish. I don’t understand how but the parents don’t even seem to notice them when they have literally climbed on top of the parents own head and are dancing the Charleston. In the malls you have to watch where you walk, not in case you walk into a child, but in case they walk into you. You are expected to dive out of their way, maybe lie down to create a living carpet for them so that their delicate little feet don’t ache. Okay so I’m exaggerating, but seriously not by much.

Child behavior, or lack thereof, is particularly apparent in the malls. They roam around in packs – pushing, shoving, running, hitting you in the face with a balloon. It is terrifying – like being knee deep in Battle Royale. Most of them have some kind of wheeled device strapped to their feet which enables them to move even faster with no effort. Like Battle Royale from space. Their parents wander behind them with their friends, completely oblivious (this is a massive generalization, I’m sure there are many Saudi parents who are brilliant at parenthood and discipline their children and teach them it’s kind of annoying to continually barrel into strangers legs…it’s just I’ve never seen any of them yet). Whoever invented this particular machine of terror deserves a painful death, these things HURT when they are driven over your feet by a vacant, overweight twelve year old.

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After speaking to a few people who live here and reading on the internet it would appear that there are a number of causes to the problem. Domestic help is very popular in Saudi Arabia – most workers come across from India or the Philippines and are hired as housekeepers/nannies and drivers for the wealthy Saudi Families. This is such a normal part of Saudi culture that a domestic helper is offered as part of your housing package here in KAUST if wanted, for a monthly fee out of your wage. Again, a story for another post I think.

As a result of the help, the majority of Saudi children are reared at least partially by a nanny, who often is unable to speak Arabic. The nanny has absolutely no authority over the child and is expected to fulfill their every wish – or indeed, as they get older, command. Children naturally emulate their parent’s behavior, and if a child is regularly witnessing a parent giving instruction to their domestic help, they will do the same. It is not surprising that a child will absorb this perceived ‘superiority’ from the adults around them. The domestic help is not able to challenge their behavior and so the spiral continues.

This is obviously just opinion based on what I have witnessed and read, but some news stories seem to support this way of thinking. I read a story on the internet recently where a car was pulled over in Jeddah which is a city close to us, because a child was behind the wheel of the car driving on a main road. There was an adult male in the passenger seat who was allowing this to happen. When questioned further it transpired that the adult was the driver of the child’s family, the child had instructed the driver to let him drive and for whatever reason the driver did not feel able to say ‘no’ to this child and let him drive the car which had his three young sisters in the back. The child was eight.

There have also been medical reports recently claiming 15% of Saudi children may suffer from ADHD (http://m.edarabia.com/15percent-of-children-in-saudi-arabia-suffer-from-adhdsays-expert/75470/) with a distinct lack of medical professionals specializing in this area many children are thought to go undiagnosed and untreated. We’re talking 40 specialists for an estimated 1 million affected children.

No matter the reason behind this behavior, it probably has been the biggest culture shock I’ve experienced so far since arriving here. I finally had enough last night on the bus back to KAUST from Jeddah when the little girl sat behind me began thumping on a window as a means of entertainment. After five minutes when it became apparent that her mother was not going to do anything about it, I turned around and politely asked her to stop. She got the shock of her life – I genuinely think that may have been the first time she’d be asked to not do something. In her defence, she whispered sorry, and immediately stopped and didn’t make a peep the rest of the way. So maybe there is hope for us after all.

Have you had any experience of children in the Middle East? Maybe you are a mother yourself? Feel free to comment and get in touch.

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2 thoughts on “The Kids Are Not Alright – Children in Saudi Arabia

  1. All I can say is “WELCOME TO SAUDI ARABIA!” haha. I enjoyed reading this post because I have witnessed all that you were saying about kids in Jeddah/Saudi Arabia. Just imagine how they are in schools?!
    One cause of this, according to my observation, is that going outside (especially in the malls) is the only outlet kids have here. Since they’re not out most of the time, they run, play, and do whatever they want to do outside. Thus, seeing roller skates, scooters, and the newly trending hovertraxx which you have posted here. Only in Saudi Arabia.
    In schools, it can be more shocking, especially for boys’ school.
    BUT, there’s hope. This generation of new moms has somehow seen this trend and is slowly changing this image. There are parents, mostly the new ones, who are gaining knowledge (thanks to the internet) on how to manage kids. Yep. There’s hope alright.

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