In December 2023 I traveled to Saudi Arabia with friend and colleague Jeannie Sager. We had the honor of being two of three women presenters at the Eleventh Forum for the Development of the Non-Profit Sector. While I have been privileged to travel personally and professionally many times, this was my first trip to the Middle East. The experience was full of powerful impressions that will last a lifetime.
In this blog post I reflect on the Saudi Arabian culture of hospitality and generosity. The Kingdom has been famous for its culture of hospitality for those traveling to its holy cities Mecca and Medina to perform Hajj, the sacred Islamic pilgrimage. I was overwhelmed, however, that the welcoming culture would extend to the far eastern region of the country – especially to a white woman in Western attire. I purchased my tourist visa online and received approval almost instantaneously. Naturally, I expected politeness during our stay, but Jeannie and I were welcomed with open arms – beginning with the passport control officer at the airport. He peppered me with questions exuding curiosity and warmth, not interrogation: was this my first time in the Kingdom? What U.S. state did I come from? What are my impressions so far? Staff in restaurants, shops, and our hotel asked us throughout our stay how we were enjoying the country.
We had the great fortune of a few hours of free time that allowed us to visit the UNESCO site Al-Ahsa Oasis. Inside the visitors’ center, we entered an exhibit area that interprets not just the oasis, but the entire Kingdom. Imagine our surprise when the staff lured us inside with the hook, “we are a nonprofit.” When I said, “we study nonprofits!” all differences of culture and language melted away. The mission of the nonprofit Saudi Friendship is to welcome visitors with this mantra:
Dear Guest, Saudi Arabia is one of the most misunderstood countries around the world regarding religion, culture, and heritage. Since the country is open to tourists and visitors worldwide, we are obliged to show the reality of Saudi Arabia in various ways … to clarify any misconceptions and show them the true image of Saudi Arabia.”
One of the posters says simply “culture impress the world.” The bright green (the national color that represents Islam) tote bags we received contain small examples of material culture such as post cards, a guide to daily Arabic words, facts about Saudi Arabia, sachets of coffee, and dates. My enduring impression, much more than the souvenirs, is the true warmth that the staff and volunteers exuded. This, I posit, is the essence of philanthropy.
At the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, we continuously research philanthropy in all its forms, the formal and informal giving of time, treasure, talent, testimony, and ties. We debate whether humans are hard wired to be generous, how we learn philanthropic behavior, the relevance of cultural context, and how we should measure it. Yet it is easy to take hospitality for granted as a tourist industry or some other phenomenon. This experience reminds me that hospitality and philanthropy are not only intertwined, both are profound phenomena that connect human beings across time, place, language, history, and culture.