More On Saudi and Arab Names

In the Arab world one will frequently hear (or even read comments by viewers of this blog) who may have Abu or Umm placed in front of their name.  This is meant as a sign of respect and tradition.  For example if someone is addressed as Abu Abdullah or Umm Abdullah that means the individual is either the father or mother of a child named Abdullah.  (Abu is father in Arabic and umm is mother)  Once a married couple has a child, this allows the Abu or Umm and the childs name to be applied.  It is considered an honor as children are highly cherished.

In the working world, use of Abu and Umm continues to apply with those who have regular ongoing contact with one another.  Otherwise depending on where one works titles such as Doctor or Professor will apply.  If not eligible for one of these titles to be used, then one may be addressed instead as “Miss” Elizabeth or “Mr” Donald.


When being introduced to a Saudi who is a senior citizen, it is respectable to address them as Aunt or Uncle (Amah or Amm).


I have further observed that in regards to housemaids it is typical for many of them to address the couple for whom they work as “baba” or “mama” meaning “daddy/father and mother.”  Some may also address their employer using the Abu or Umm.  I do not know of any housemaid who addresses the employer by either a first name only or Mr. or Mrs.  As a westerner, I am typically addressed as “Madam” by domestic help.


Continuing on about names, I also wrote previously on understanding Arab names which explains why the Saudi husband and wife will have differing last names. See to read the full post.


In the West and elsewhere in the world some women may choose to retain their name instead of taking the husband’s family name.  This may be done for professional reasons as it can be difficult to get documents changed when one has had a professional history prior to marriage or a woman may choose to keep her family name for other reasons such as family tradition.  Alternatively there are a number of western women who have also chosen to hyphenate their name upon marriage.  For example, if a woman’s family name is Kendall and she marries a man whose family name is Rice she would refer to herself as Mary Kendall-Rice.


  As a result, for anyone coming to the Kingdom I believe it is fair to say that Saudis are easy-going about ones name. However you introduce yourself is how you will be referred to.  One closing point is to reassure a woman coming to the Kingdom who has a different last name than her husband.  This should not pose a problem as long as there are supporting legal documents documents identifying the couple as husband and wife.  Until they have received iqamas and are in the Kingdom on a visitor visa, have a copy of the marriage certificate handy.  One iqamas are issued the wife would be identified as such on the iqama in spite of having a different name than her husband.

20 Responses

  1. Arabs tend to be a bit more formal about titles. In English we would never introduce an engineer as “Engineer Abu Sinan” but in the Middle East you certainly would hear “Mohanndas Abu Sinan”.

    As to the “Kunya” thing with the usage of “Um” or “Abu” it isnt always used to denote that someone is a mother or a father of someone. Sometimes it is more honourific. Sometimes men who dont have children use a kunya with a figure gleamed from history

    Look at Yassir Arafat, he was called “Abu Ammar” but never had a child named Ammar, it was kind of a Nom de guerre although everyone knew about it.

    As an American it is a bit weird when I am called “Abu Sinan”. I first used it online after my mother in law called me it. I have a co-worker who can never remember Sinan so he calls me by my second son’s name, “Abu Sayf”.

    Arabs tend to pick and choose names and do not think too much about it. I know when my wife’s grandfather came to Saudi from Yemen back in the early part of the 1900s their name was “al Ashbat” but they changed it to the region in Yemen where they came from.

  2. I was actually surprised when we married in the states many years ago that my husband told me he would prefer if I took his last name since this is not the custom here in Arabia. So I did.

  3. Susie, you raise a good point. I know of some foreign wives who will have their husbands last name instead of retaining their own family name. I was told that in some cases the husband believed it helped for his wife to gain acceptance to the society and culture where “who is one’s family” is of high importance. Therefore instead of just being say “Susie Jones” but instead is “Susie Al Omran” then it is automatically known you are not just another “mere foreign expat” but from a respected and known family.

    In the case of my husband and I, I still have my own family name which is in part because of not wanting to “muck up” our marriage approval process at the time which was submitted with my own family name.

  4. That is interesting. I know in the Spanish culture one can have your maiden name and husband’s last name. If my mom kept that tradition up her name would be very long. I had a friend who addressed his companion as abusara…the first born being sara.

  5. Yes; you;re right. I have known a number of individuals from Spanish backgrounds having long and beautiful names.

  6. Better: in Spain you can choose wether you use your mother’s or your father’s surname! (my mother’s surname was ever so much nicer than my father’s!)

  7. I like the Spanish recognition that both the father and the mother share equally in the procreation of the child and therefore either name should be considered. Using two names- the hyphenated mother’s-father’s name is an awkward custom that will break down as soon as the first child grows up and becomes a parent.

    Women who want to hyphenate should consider the confusion that can result. I work in a hospital, and I dread seeing those hyphenated names because they are clumsy to work with, and subject to misunderstanding regarding which name goes where. We people do not confused, but the computer does. I freqently see hyphenated names printed as if the last name is the first. Example: Susan Jones-Miller becomes Jones-, Milller Susan instead of Jones-Miller, Susan.

    The Arab custom avoids this, but I still like the Spanish custom better.

  8. Quote Abu Sinan:

    “As to the “Kunya” thing with the usage of “Um” or “Abu” it isnt always used to denote that someone is a mother or a father of someone. Sometimes it is more honourific.”

    I have noticed that is very common practice amongst the Palestinians; in fact I have known several Palestinians whose kunya and first-born sons are completely different, i.e. Abu Khalid but having a first-born son called Muhammad.

  9. So I could be Umm-Rabhar! Or Umm-Tarq.:) Perhaps they are the names of their husbands, as I understand the first minor in her life a married woman has to deal with.

    Marahm: when my mum got her law-degree, they used her maiden name. (She did her law-degree after they kicked all of us out of the house)

  10. I personally appreciate keeping my own name, but in terms of culture, I think it alienates the woman from integrating into the family life she gave birth to in the first place. Let me give you an example:
    – She will have no clear relationship to her children. They carry their father’s family name.
    – If she is referred to as “Um Eyad Alwan” for example, she carries her son’s name and she carries his father’s last name, therefore carrying no pride and identity of her own.
    – She will not be part of the family tree. Family tree extends by male descendants and their children. She’s a dead end. A father with only daughters will also be considered a dead end…

    As for me personally, since I only recently entered the Um land, people who previously know me attempted several times to start calling me Um Eyad. I strictly refused. Also, upon first encounter, some people out of respect would ask me what my child’s name is. I tell them, he is Eyad, but please call me Aysha…

    Maybe the new generation will start interpreting um and abu differently.

  11. I would certainly not appreciate being identified by the fact that I had given birth, and suddenly only be called umm-so-and-so.
    As far as the english language goes I always considered it the ultimate insult that if you are married to, say; John Smith, you might be called: mrs. John Smith!!!
    Really the ULTIMATE insult! As if you are not a living, sentient being by yourself, but just a loose appendix to your husband!

    Before patriarchal religions took hold, families, and inheritance, went through the female line. Some very old English noble families can still pass the titel on trough the female line.

  12. Also, the Quran says to give the child his father’s name. That is why many Muslim women do not change their last name (“maiden” name, of their fathers).

    Many things in Saudi culture reflect Islam.

  13. It is the Sunnah, or tradition of the Prophet SallAllahu alaihi wasallam for the woman not to change her name upon marriage…as distinct from the pre-Islamic period where women were chattels and ‘owned’ by their husbands…and even if he passed away were simply passed on to another brother, no questions asked! So with Islam came the woman’s independence and to show this she keeps her family name. Many make the individual choice depending on so many factors….

  14. This is a little off the subject but we have a neighbor,he’s a very nice older man,and he always says hello to us but he can never remember my husbands name(Issa)but he does remember that he is from Chad in Africa so he calls him Chad!
    I chose to take my husbands last name. I think it will make it less confusing for our children as most married couples and their children in America share the same last name.Also when naming our children,they have my husbands first name as their middle name but do not carry his middle name as their last name,we used his last name as their last name also.Hope that made sense!

    Peace & Blessings!

  15. I guess I could have called this post “What’s in a Name…” The way names are chosen and used is an interesting topic. Tina, I like how your neighbor refers to your husband… Not surprisingly, many Saudi individuals here who know me and have become friends simply refer to me as “Bedu.”

  16. This reminds me of a funny incident that happened to me on the first day of a tajweed class at a local Riyadh madrassa. The teacher was asking each woman her name. UmAbdullah, UmKhalid, UmNour, UmAmina, UmHajer, UmHammama (laughter at this one).

    Then my turn came. I said, “Maryam,” because that is how I was known in the early days.

    All eyes fixed upon me- the only Westerner in the entire school- and the teacher said, “UmMaryam?”

    “La. Maryam. Ismi Maryam.”

    The teacher glared at me. “UM MEEEN?” she growled, and I dutifully said, “Ranya, UmRanya,” though Ranya was not my birth child, and I didn’t want to called UmRanya. The episode is funny as I look back, but at the time, I was mortified.

  17. That’s quite an experience, Marahm. Thanks for sharing.

  18. […] name such as John James Sr, John James Jr, John James III, etc., it is unlikely to find such a tradition in place in Saudi names.  A Saudis name will always indicate who his father and grandfather […]

  19. […] Even if a mother or father had a daughter before giving birth to a son and might have been known as Umm or Abu Ameerah for example, once little Khalid as the first son is born, the mother or father is […]

  20. […] must submit a visa application independently.  After all, the wife of a Saudi does not carry his family name; she retains her own family name.  As a result it would be difficult to validate that she is a […]

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