Two years ago I went to work in Saudi Arabia. While plenty of people – particularly those from the States, UK, Australia and South Africa go there to work, it remains a country that is still a mystery to many. It’s taken me a while to process my experiences there, but it seems more relevant than ever to write about the country that is increasingly in the news.
Saudi was definitely not on my ‘to-do’ list as a traveller, but I was headhunted for a job there. In hindsight I’m really glad I did it, and I’d done a lot of research about the country, its people and most importantly, its laws. This is no country to get caught out unawares or to be ignorant of customs and laws. Yet, you’d be surprised by how many westerners do.
I was there to teach English to Saudi apprentices in the oil industry. The Saudi government had a huge intake for its nationalised oil industry, as part of the Saudization programme to make the workforce less reliant on foreign workers, and to give locals jobs. The general feeling was that this was more about Saudi’s ruling family and their concerns that the Arab Spring uprisings would spread to their backyard, and so a mass-employment programme would occupy minds susceptible to radicalisation.
Lots of foreign workers arrive in the country on the The kafala visa system, giving employers a great deal of power of their expatriate employees, and is open to abuse – and such abuses are widespread. When I arrived I had my passport confiscated, and told I could have it back in three months. I was very apprehensive about just giving my passport over, but once you’re in the country there isn’t much you can do. Even with a passport you still need your employers permission to leave. If you’re white and western it’s not as common. If you’re Indian or Pakistani you’re not likely to get your passport back until you somehow find a way to leave, and as salaries are higher in the Gulf than the pittance they make back home – they usually end up staying years.
Unlike the majority of Pakistani, Indian (and Filipino) workers, my salary was quite handsome, rewarded by the lottery of birth and the fortuitous nature of being a UK passport holder. I never felt comfortable knowing that I was making far more than other people just by merit of my birth, but I always tried to be nice and tried to interact with the cab drivers and shopkeepers – almost all of whom are from the Indian sub-continent.
If you don’t have a job offer and you’re not a muslim attending the Hajj pilgrimage, entering Saudi Arabia is near impossible. It remains a closed shop for a great number of people, and as such, people’s perceptions of it are often incorrect or misguided. There’s not a great deal to do or see even if its borders were open – there are no cinemas, bars, clubs or theatres.
If you’re in Saudi, you’re not there for the culture or the nightlife, put it that way. And outside of working hours, you need to know how to entertain yourself. I saw a couple of people ‘lose the plot’ while I was there – one of my colleagues was so bored to tears, he furtively left on plane at the midnight hour before the employer could catch him, another had a breakdown event in the staffroom, was hospitalised, and deported shortly afterwards.
If you’re planning to write a novel, or read the complete works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dickens then it’s probably the perfect place. Paradise on earth. The same applies if you’ve got 3 years of HBO dramas to catch up on, or its your life’s dream to complete every computer game known to humankind. I worked with a guy who played Football Manager religiously, even in the gaps between classes he was teaching. Find something and marry it.
Thursday night consisted of finishing work at 11pm – the end of the islamic week of course, and while we all dreamed of ice cold beers in a bar filled with excitement, the reality was hitting a juice bar, or the coffee shop to have tea (or coffee) and confectionary. Probably the most surreal thing I’ve done for kicks at midnight (and I’ve done my fair share), was getting excited for a cup of tea at the advent of the weekend in a small town in Saudi.
While this might be enough to make many dribble at the mouth and start beating their head against a wall, the boredom is in some ways the beauty of the place. Look inward, stretch and investigate who you are. I read more novels than I have done since finishing a Literature degree; I also started writing a novel and by doing so, created a reality that wasn’t around me. For some reason, Saturdays were boring as sin – and I always felt restless and homesick on a Saturday. Friday – the first day of the islamic weekend – was always easier: being the holy day it was ok to sleep until late, laze around with food and coffee at home and wait for the shops to open at 4pm. Apart from food, there was nothing much worth buying unless you like buying shit for the sake of it.
I had an American neighbour who, as nice as he was, was also into World of Warcraft and tons of other fantasy simulations. He would corner me for hours in his living room and explain them in painfully minute detail – I’m all for escapism – I get it, I get the fascination for weird monsters and Middle Earth dreamscapes, and I say go for it, but I can’t really roll with being a fantasy forest dwelling beastie with some superpower hangup, playing a game that takes 3 months just to ascertain who got to roll the first dice. That was his way of dealing with the boredom – everybody has their own methods of distraction.
So, I’d sit in my room on my own and smoke a million cigarettes and have a dozen cups of tea and write and write and write. I set up a writer’s club too – we would meet at weekends to read and discuss each other’s work. Having so much down time, I read a whole lot of books too. It was the closest thing, in some ways, I’ve had to paradise, minus booze and contact with the opposite sex, whom I didn’t have contact with for several months – and that was possibly the hardest part of the whole experience.
When I say this, I don’t mean from a sexual or romantic perspective either. I’m talking about socialising or working with the opposite sex – something we take for granted in the west.
I found the gender exclusive societies very strange, and completely unnatural. Many of the quirks and unorthodoxies of Saudi(s) [men] stem from not having public interaction with women. While I suspect that women grow up less damaged than men, despite the segregation, it is clearly women who lose out once they reach sexual maturity. Loss of freedom, loss of autonomy and ultimately, loss of visibility. While it is very rare to see people walking about in Saudi publicly – due to the heat – you’re far more likely to see a man than a woman.
One evening at dusk, just after prayer time, I met a local woman on the street while walking home from playing football – as I did most Saturday evenings. Now I don’t for one minute presume she fell so madly in love/lust with me that it was worth her risking her freedom – or most probably life – for me so I figured she needed something.
She approached me, and stood maybe five foot from me – I heard: “excuse me..,” So I stopped, as I’m a am pre-programmed to do in a thoughtless western way when somebody calls my attention.
She said something else, but I couldn’t hear through her niqab it could’ve been Arabic or English, but I suspect it was English. She repeated herself and I again, I couldn’t understand her. This went on almost comically for about 5 or 6 more times before I froze and thought ‘what am I doing?’ and politely declined her further contact.
My first thought was that she might be in some of distress, although one of my colleagues suggested she might have been selling her wares, which doesn’t make any sense. If she had been in some kind of distress I realised there was little I could do, but it was more dangerous for her to be seen talking to me than it was for anything I could do to help her. And ultimately, as a westerner you are blocked off from this side of Saudi society.
The segregation of men and women was the hardest thing for me to understand. Saudis know that westerners find it tough to understand: when I accidentally walked into the women and families only area of a restaurant in my first few days, a Saudi man smiled at me and said ‘it’s ok!’very cheerfully.
Making a social faux pas can carry serious consequences in Saudi, depending on who sees it and how they interpret it. One colleague went out in shorts during ramadan and received a slap on the face by a member of the religious police (mutawa) for wearing inappropriate clothing. That said, most people are understanding and helpful.
In Part 2 I talk about the people I met and the impression they made on me.