Everyone here is a cabbie. I’m in Al-Kharj, a city of a few hundred thousand, located about an hour’s drive south of Riyadh. The town is small enough that it doesn’t support a taxi industry. But here’s the cool thing – it’s normal just to flag down anyone driving and ask them to give you a ride. You offer them a few riyals (the equivalent of about one US dollar), but half the time they refuse payment. I find it so novel – I get to work just by hitch hiking, essentially.
This system works here, because giving someone a lift is one of the basic good deeds you can perform to honor Allah in Islam. By the way, the most basic good deed is giving someone a smile. How beautiful is that? In any case, a majority of the drivers here will just stop and give someone a ride wherever he needs to go. It’s a really inspiring kind of love-thy-neighbor thing.
Saudi culture contains somewhat of an inherent socialism by default. People are never too busy for one another. And they don’t have our capitalist drive to always be better, and to have more.
At first, it seemed illogical to me that all businesses here are grouped next to each other. All the cabinet shops are neighbors, all the tire shops are neighbors, all the phone stores are on one street, all the pharmacies are on another street. This is counterintuitive from a Western perspective – you don’t have a successful business by opening up shop right next to a “competitor,” you go somewhere where there is a “demand.” Right?
But it seems that Saudis don’t really have this mindset that looks at others as “competitors.” Maybe I’ll find out the case is different as I spend more time here. But it’s hard to think otherwise when you see neighboring shop owners loitering in front of their businesses, laughing and sharing cigarettes.
Although family and tribal identity forges a stronger bond between people here then their national identity as Saudis, they are all united as Muslims. A man might not actually believe in God, he might not live up to all the moral values, but it doesn’t matter. If he’s Arabian, he’s a Muslim. Every Arab I have met has an attitude of brotherhood and helpfulness ingrained in him that seems very socialist in my eyes, but not overtly so. It’s more subtle, a casual understanding that everyone here is working together.
(I want to take a moment to acknowledge that, in this writing I have drawn sweeping generalities from isolated anecdotes and my overall impressions of the people and attitudes I have encountered here. Any generality can be dangerously misleading. Of course, there are always multiple sides of a story, and I could discount everything I said by citing rivalries, both historic and current, between various Arab factions. However, I believe my point stands as far as the people I have met on the street and at work.)