Saudi Arabia: Yikes! This is a Move Backwards…

When I worked in Saudi Arabia the usual standard for any company, governmental organization, university or other entity which had international connections was to have correspondence in both Arabic and in the language of the other host country.  Additionally, correspondence would be dated in both the Islamic (hijri) date and the Gregorian date.

It was also typical for many hotels, restaurants and other service oriented businesses to have staff who spoke English.  After all as of 2010 there were an estimated 8.4 million expatriates in the Kingdom.  In spite of Saudiazation efforts, a large (in the millions) expatriate community remains.

Therefore, it came as a surprise to read a recent article in Gulf News that advises Saudi Arabia has banned the use of Gregorian dates in any correspondence and also the use of the English language to answer calls or communicate has been banned too.

This truly is a move backwards in today’s global world.  The majority of the world uses the Gregorian dates and has little understanding of the Hijri calendar.   The Islamic or Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar based on phases of the moon and therefore the months and days usually shift by 11 days each successive year.  I can see where this can easily cause confusion in international business and can run a risk of misunderstanding dates of important meetings.

In addition, English is known as the international language of the world.  Therefore it is not unusual or threatening for a hotel or restaurant to answer calls or communicate in English with non-Arabic speakers.

Now the Gulf News article is a little vague in that it credits the new ruling to a Saudi Ministry but does not identify which one.  I’m just guessing but I’d say this was likely a ruling passed by the Ministry of Interior.

Is this an indication of possible further insulation on the part of Saudi Arabia?

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27 Responses

  1. It is further insulation and further stupidity. A conservative adviser is canned here, the Gregorian calendar is banned there. No consistency, no hope, no nada.

  2. I recall quite well the translation services in Kuwait and Qatar, for the purposes you mention, Carol.
    However, perhaps Saudi Arabia wishes to dispatch fully with ALL expatriate services. From petrochemical engineering, drilling, exploration, maintenance, IT, communications, aw hell, EVERYTHING that makes their nation work, as EVERY Saudi I know of EXCLUSIVELY works as management, with precious little practical knowledge or experience in the field they mismanage.
    Meanwhile, the leadership is quite competent overall.
    So, I suspect this will fade away, with a certain minister being sacked, with a generous pension…
    As the effect WOULD be what I outlined above, due to pure attrition and lack of both recruitment (already a bit tough) and retention.
    It’s been said that the US government is an exercise in the Peter principle. I disagree, there are other nations who purify it and retire it at its maximum level, they just don’t advertise it.
    Or, for those who think I’m being an apologist (you know who you are), it’s the asshole rule. Assholes do asshole things, then get fired and the management glosses it over, over a mild amount of time to save face.

  3. I can’t imagine that this would actually be enforced. If English is not to be used, why keep thousands upon thousands of young Saudis in English speaking countries on scholarship in universities?

  4. If by the order of the Ministry, now, this act had become official but the wrong interpretation of Saudilization has been seen in practice for months. Confusions about the choice of spoken language and language priority at important meetings when ex-pats had been invited to participate are un-healthy example of not achieving best for their investment.
    Saudi nation ought to be proud of such sizable ex-pat community willing to participate in knowledge sharing exercise but the capacity building requires endurance to receive training and tolerance to accept the communication protocol.
    Fair enough, if there is an ambitious plan towards independency then such tampering will not pay dividend.

  5. This has to be a misreport or a mistake… because if the government does this, then all of its passports logically will lose the English lettering/Gregorian dates and thus will not be valid for travel anywhere outside of the Arab world.

  6. You are correct. According to the Arab News/Saudi Gazzette, this cam from the Ministry of Interior. The intention is to “preserve the Arab language”.

  7. Interesting to see what the fall-out will be either in 12 months or in 5 yrs. The U.S. needs to remember that 90% of the world has moved to metric measuring system. Certainly working in the scientific and engineering jobs internationally…it’s metric, not imperial. In international sports, Olympics it’s running running 1,500 metres, etc.

  8. The calendar change is ridiculous and will prove very expensive to KSA to maintain especially if they own % of a U.S. or any other international business.

  9. It does not sound like a decision that was thought through. It also seems to contradict the recent changes in the Ministry of Education which is introducing English classes to younger grades.

  10. From my experience I can say it is just a patriotic move to protect the language and the islamic saudi culture (thus the calendar). English language has become the most important requirement for hiring in any company in Saudi. This tug of war between protecting language and thus culture from outside culture goes on in all countries. What we need is an international agreement between all nations on one auxilliary international language that is taught along with the mother tongue so understanding and communication is facilitated and people can build bridges to each other.

  11. There are places in the US that answer phones in Spanish because – I suppose – most of their clientele are Spanish-speakers. Makes sense that you gear your language towards the market your company reaches. If most Saudi hotels cater to out-of-towners (i.e., non-natives who may be in KSA for work or hajj), why not offer English since it’s well-known by many in the world these days?

    You can preserve Arabic through your religion, can’t you? Many do this already when they are made to read the Quran in Arabic despite not knowing what it says.

    As for dates, I think anything that is international should have a standard calendar so everyone will show up for the event on the same day.

  12. There’s absolutely no fear that Arabic will be lost. That is such a stupid excuse for trying to ban English. We went through this in Canada with our Quebecois (French Canadians in Quebec) tried to stop all English with the excuse that they didn’t want to lose their language. They didn’t exactly win but do have some language laws in the province but there are still many, many people in rural Quebec who don’t speak English and never will.

    The Dutch have never lost their language but most speak 2 or 3 languages with English being spoken in most businesses when it’s necessary. This is correct isn’t it Aafke?

  13. I don’t understand the resistance to learning more than one language. I think it opens up an entire culture that you never could have experienced in as great a richness otherwise. Plus it is a part of the ongoing legacy of your country why not embrace the positive aspects.

  14. Jean said, in part, “The U.S. needs to remember that 90% of the world has moved to metric measuring system.”
    Quite true. It also has cost the US millions at times, to include use of imperial measurement AND metric measurement not being reconciled, causing a Mars probe to become a meteor.
    Spending as much time as I have overseas, I became acclimated to metric, but admit to still thinking in imperial.
    Though, the admixture used in the UK is a fascinating study in social development and change.
    As is the US failure to change to a true global standard (I remember back in the 1970’s, when the government introduced the metric system in schools, where it was taught that the US would adopt the metric system).

  15. Canada converted so why is the USA so stubborn then?

  16. bigstick, I cannot agree more. However, there has long been a trend in the US of rejecting languages other than our own variant of English.

    Wendy, the only reason I can think of is a tendency for many US citizens to resist change. Granted, there would be business costs involved and a learning curve, but if my wife and I could manage it, there is no reason other US citizens can. Indeed, for my wife, it was extremely difficult, as she is dyslexic! But, she managed to learn the metric system quite quickly.

  17. Maybe a change is coming in the near future in certain quarters that will make the people setup and take notice. Saudi will go forward not backwards as the young people in Saudi want to be international and are openly using English everyway possible. Arabic is a long traditional language and will be perserved without a doubt.

  18. There is a lot of discussion in car hobbyist sites in the US about vehicles that have both metric and US standard parts. It is really a stupid issue if one is trying to build for a global market. There is a conservative stubbornness in the US that many Saudis would probably understand.

  19. Don’t you think this is one of those laws that one can easily break? There is also a law against satellite dishes. You would have to be blind not to see all of them in Jeddah. . . . tee hee.

  20. Julia, probably it’ll be a law that gets ignored, as that satellite dish law is largely ignored.

    Jerry M, I know the feeling. I HATE when I am working on the car, then have to pull out my old imperial sockets because of a few bolts that aren’t metric! Then, after, I have to sort the things out to make sure they don’t get mixed together.

  21. I think this is good step. I would like the Government to do more in spreading the Arabic among the foreigners. For instance, by opening more language schools to teach the guests the Arabic language. This will also provide more job opportunities for unemployed Saudis, where they could teach the guests of the country Arabic language.

    There is shops and restaurants in Riyadh -in the heart of Arabia- have staff who only speak English!!! When people try to communicate with them in Arabic they couldn’t. Those staff suffer to much. I think the employers should enrol those staff in Arabic courses. Staff don’t need to have PhD to work in shop, but small amount of teaching and training could solve the problem.

    Sometimes when Governments introduce new laws there will be victims, and I hope and I think with this law there will not be victims. No one will lose their job, no one will be fined or prosecuted, I am sure it will not reach this.

    When talking about preserving languages, I always wonder how the Great nation of Germany gave up their language when they moved to the US. They are more than 50 million and they gave it up!! Was there any law forcing them not to use their language?

  22. Snowman, it wasn’t ALL of the nation of Germany that emigrated to the US, but a portion during hard times, as every OTHER immigrant group has done.
    The US had some Americanization programs for some of the immigration waves, such as my father’s parents when they immigrated from Italy. They were taught that their original diet was bad for them, but beef and potatoes were good. Olive oil was greasy and bad, but the saturated fat oils were good. In short, pretty much all that they were taught turned out to be scientifically wrong, though that wasn’t known at the time. English wasn’t mandated, but “strongly encouraged”, as in if you want a job, you’d better learn English.

    I have no problem with preserving ANY language, however, Arabic is in no way in danger, as every Arab in every Arab land I know of speaks, reads and writes in Arabic. What this CAN become is a massive barrier to both trade and skilled workers.
    And to be blunt, if Saudi were to rely purely on Saudi workers for their IT and telecom infrastructure, they’d be in horrible trouble, there are insufficient skilled workers of Saudi citizenship, those who DO train, immediately move into management, hence have zero experience in the systems they are responsible for.
    I’ve never had a problem with working in a foreign nation or even here at home, training someone to replace me.
    I DO have a problem with someone who wants to be the manager with zero practical experience, only due to his nationality. Said manager would have zero practical knowledge on the systems in question to make informed decisions and could never take over the systems directly. That seems to be a mindset with most Saudis I’ve met, all wanted to be the boss, but never learning the job first. If I could do it and I have, they can as well. They’d then find the most enthusiastic teacher on the planet, as their experience and learning would be a reflection of my teaching.

  23. I would not place much importance on what this article in the Gulf news says.

    There are a lot of unreliable announcements that appear from time to time on newspapers or magazines. Journalists always want to fill a page or two and get people to buy/read their material.

    What I know is this:

    yes, in job contracts involving foreigners they do make a sidenote in English, but officially the langauge of Saudi Arabia is Arabic and the calendare Hijri. That was always this way and has never changed.

    That applies to visa durations ( it has always been in hijri) or any legal documents, e.g marriage certifcates attested, birth certificates and so on. Sharia law is also written officially in Arabic.

  24. Wendy, In the Netherlands we learn three languages: English, French and German, a lot of schools also offer Latin, Greek and Spanish, and some other languages like Arabic as extra subjects.
    It also depends on which level of high school you attend. For the last two years before graduation you choose a more limited number of subjects, (to be in a Dutch school is very hard work, more than a day job, we consider American schools as hardly serious). At least one foreign language is mandatory. Most students choose English, because it the most useful, and thanks to all the English programs on tv it’s familiar, and most of all it’s the easiest foreign language to learn. (English grammar is virtually non-existing.)

    So if you go to the Netherlands you will find that all the Dutch, except a few old geezers from earlier generations, can get along very well in English.

    There are Dutch people who are very keen on a language and the country, they are called ”anglophiles” or ”francophiles” etc. and they like to read the literature, go to the country for vacation, cook the food, and of course get to be fluent in the language.

    Languages can also gp in and out of fashion, at the moment English is the most popular language, and it seems to be in for a long run, but in the 70’s French was the hip language, all shops were called ”boutiques”…

    And we all still speak a lot of Dutch ;) We even have many different dialects still alive and kicking!

  25. Crossroads Arabia has also debated this topic …

    http://xrdarabia.org/2012/05/23/saudis-dont-ban-english/

  26. @Snowman: My great grandparents were some of those German immigrants who came to the States. My grandma said she remembers her father strictly forbidding them to speak German at home. This was because it was during the times of World Wars I and II – these immigrants were poor and just trying to make a good life in a new country, and they did NOT want to be associated with the enemy in any way! Of course it’s sad now that we lost the German language, but considering the politics of the times, it made sense why they wouldn’t want to be associated with the likes of Hitler!

    Sorry for the off-topic comment, just thought I’d offer a clarification.

  27. Catherine,

    I know what you mean. Same experience here with my grandparents.

    After 9/11, I know quite a few muslim family friends, legally changed/
    anglicized their names. Also few (not too many) converted too.

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