In their own voices: Saudi Arabia, stereotypes and transformation with Hussain Al-Abdali

Hussain
Photo courtesy of Hussain Al-Abdali.

For this week’s installment of our In their own words series, Arabic TED Translator and TEDGlobal 2017 invitee Hussain Al-Abdali responds to our question What is one significant aspect of, or recent development in, your country that you think people (and not only TED Translators) should be aware of? Read on to find out why there may be more to Saudi Arabia and its people than you know.


It’s undeniable (perhaps to the point that it goes without saying) that media of all types shape many of our perceptions about the world. At times, this influence can be problematic: media are very often riddled with stereotypes, despite their attempts to remain “objective”. Occasionally, a degree of truth underlies some stereotypes, but that truth is usually so distorted and obfuscated by mis- and disinformation that we can barely, if at all, discern it. A case in point: my home country of Saudi Arabia and Saudi people in general.

In my experience, if you ask somebody who hasn’t been to Saudi Arabia what they know about the country, they’ll likely answer you with the following (or some iteration thereof): Saudi Arabia is populated mostly by obscenely wealthy, extremely religious and repressive men who live in a desert rife with oil wells and (yes, folks sometimes say this) camels. Of course, as I said, there’s a level of truth to this stereotype; but more than anything, this widespread perception of Saudi Arabia and its people glosses over the actual rich complexity and diversity of the country; it’s a simplistic misperception.

Saudi culture—be it religion, politics, education or what have you—is comprised of a vast array of perspectives and positions. On top of this, there’s an increasing gravitation toward coexistence, mutual understanding and what could be called “moderate globalization”—especially among younger Saudis like myself. We want to take part in resolving the numerous problems plaguing the Middle East, as well as try to apply what solutions we devise to troubles throughout the rest of the world. And when I say “we”, I mean both men and women; Saudi women’s inclusion and participation in our endeavor is crucial. A promising roadmap for achieving our goals has been laid out by Saudi Vision 2030, which was introduced by the Deputy Crown Prince of the Kingdom. This follows earlier similar initiatives, such as the late King Abdullah’s founding of the King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria.

On a smaller scale, there are lots of young Saudis (myself included) who translate TED and TEDx Talks, and who are involved in other progressive activities. Translating for TED, in particular, has enabled us to rethink many of our own ideas, perceptions, values, etc., and, just as important, to find commonalities in other folks, whatever their backgrounds.

That said, the transformation of Saudi Arabia I’m delineating still has a long way to go and countless obstacles to tackle. But its momentum is building, and a vital part of maintaining this trend is to encourage people outside the country to think and act beyond whatever stereotypes of Saudi Arabia they may have. I hope my answer here will provide such encouragement.

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