Saudi Social Norms: Buy Or Cell

GENERIC cell phone saudi arabia map
This article was written by CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips.

Elsewhere in these pages this week an otherwise sanguine senior columnist has been lamenting the demise of telephone etiquette that has accompanied the advent of the cell phone.

Here, in this feudal empire floating (precariously, some say) on a sea of oil, the cell phone has joined the headscarf, the gold-trimmed gossamer robe, the be-jeweled dagger, the dyed goatee and the AK47 as the fashion accessory of choice.

In cars, in shopping malls and — more to the point — in formal ceremonies in royal palaces while the King is in the room, not to be on your cell phone is not to be anybody.

Commuters in the West may find the constant blather of phone-users in the next seat on the train tiresome, but what is a King of Arabia to think when the crème de la crème of Saudi society throngs to his vaulted marble halls to pledge undying fealty to him. There, during an ancient ceremony of great cultural significance, they stand around punching numbers into their phones, playing games on their phones and talking on their phones — presumably to their stock brokers, their offices or perhaps their bookies.

The din is overwhelming. Rather than a respectful, even reverential hush falling over the place as robes rustle and shiny Gucci's pad soundlessly over inch-deep plush carpeting, the atmosphere is a racket of competing, discordant ring tones of the sort your kids annoy you with at the dinner table.

At one point, as foreign reporters were being ushered into yet another breathtaking hall for yet another demonstration of the inexorable bond between King and People, one of the Royal Guard told us to turn our phones off. Maybe he just didn't want us to overload the network, because it seemed just about everybody else in the room was using their phone at the time. Perhaps you can text-message your loyalty.

I describe this phenomenon not to distinguish Saudi society from that of the West — the incursion of the mobile phone into our lives has been just as relentless. (A friend of mine once described the cell phone as invention being the mother of necessity.)

Rather, I bring it up because the cell has become another of the telling features of a Saudi society that is struggling to modernize while holding to the traditional values that would seem to inhibit the modernizing process. The separation of the sexes in public, for example, is still the social and religiously required norm. Yet the cell has proved to be a useful tool for young Saudis to connect across the gender barrier without exposing themselves to the wrath of the mullahs.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for