The New Kids in Town: Young (dancing) Saudis pour into Vancouver

Photo: Vancouver Saudi Club

Vancouver is a great city for challenging stereotypes.  The city’s population is not only incredibly diverse but also mixed.  Walk down any downtown street and you’re likely to hear a blend of English, Mandarin, Chinese, Farsi, French and at least a half-dozen other languages.  With so much interaction, it’s hard to hold onto simple preconceived ideas about groups of people.

I was reminded of this recently when, on a Saturday night, I saw a group of young guys from Saudi Arabia partying it up on Granville Street.  Perhaps no region in recent years has been the victim of as much stereotyping as the Middle East.  More often than not, Saudi Arabia is talked about in the context of violence and extremism.  In the absence of any real contact with Saudis, that’s all many people know.

But on Saturday night, I saw something entirely different.  A small crowd had gathered outside near the corner of Granville and Robson Streets, where Arabic music was being pumped out of a speaker.   In the middle of the circle stood about a dozen Saudis, all guys in their teens and twenties.  Except for the fact that they were speaking Arabic, it could have been any group of guys.  They had managed to plug an iPod into a street busker’s amplifier – the kind of random stuff that happens late at night on Granville Street – and had cranked up a popular Saudi tune.

And suddenly, they all started dancing.  The dance was obviously one they knew well – maybe a Saudi take on the Macarena – because they shimmied in time to the left, to the right, backward and forward.   A scene like that – a bunch of guys dancing like the Backstreet Boys to Arabic music – naturally attracted some attention and the crowd swelled to about 100 people.

As the song built to a crescendo, so did the dancing.  The Saudis spun and bobbed heads – grooving with a grace that I’m sure a lot of the guys watching envied – and at one point erupted into some excited cheering.  All the time the crowd got bigger and the volume of the clapping got louder.  And the whole thing was totally spontaneous:  no special occasion, no commercial motives, just a surreal outpouring of energy and enthusiasm (And, as Saudis don’t drink, alcohol probably had nothing to do with it).

The dancing went on for about 10 minutes and even included a kind of audience participation conga line.  Then the busker demanding his amp back, sending the Saudi students and most of the crowd that had gathered on their way.   I found out afterward that there are a lot of young Saudi students in Vancouver these days.   A special scholarship program launched by the Saudi government in 2007 provides tuition money and a very nice monthly stipend to students who choose to earn their degrees abroad.  There are around 10,000 Saudis currently studying at Canadian universities, with thousands here in Vancouver.  Many are enrolled in English programs here, hoping to boost their language skills and then get admitted into university.

Photo: Vancouver Saudi Club

The idea behind the program is to lessen Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil and give Saudis the skills to succeed in a modern economy.  But another big benefit is breaking down stereotypes and introducing the world to the richness of Saudi culture.  The impromptu boogie over the weekend on Granville Street might not be exactly what the Saudi government had in mind, but I couldn’t think of a better way to change perceptions than a good dance party.

Anybody else see the Saudi dancing on Granville Street over the weekend?  Better yet, does anyone have a video that they’d like to post?

Remy Scalza

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