Living and working in Saudi Arabia part 2

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In my previous post, I briefly wrote about some of the things that stood out for me during my time in Saudi. In this blog post I’d like to share with you my impressions of the people I met while I was there.

Upon arriving in Saudi at Dammam airport around 11pm, I was confronted with a three hour wait at customs for no real reason. The customs clerks sat with their mobile phones in their hand, texting friends and sharing jokes amongst themselves. Feeling like I was enrolling myself into some kind of penal colony for the foreseeable future, I was in no real hurry to enter the country, despite the wait being tedious. After about 2 hours stood with the queue not having moved an inch, an middle-aged English bloke pipes up:

“Fucking Saudis. They’re all lazy bastards.”

‘Charming.’ I thought to myself. Despite the lack of urgency I thought it was a pretty harsh indictment on a nation’s people, but I was prepared to meet a lot of those kind of people – or should I say those kind of expats. I didn’t think about it again until weeks later.

Almost all of the westerners who worked in the small oil town I based in lived on a compound. There were two compounds – one was for men only, the other was for men who had brought their families with them. Neither compound was particularly nice to look at or live in. Both compounds were remnants of the first Gulf war when Iraq invaded Kuwait – with the ‘rooms’ being trailers that were left by ground forces. These trailers had been compartmentalised, and were let by the day, week or month.

The compounds still had that military feel about them; surrounded by huge walls with barbed wire and guarded by a listless Saudi with a machine gun. They were home to newcomers and expat veterans. Some of the old boys who lived there had developed a siege mentality, and clearly didn’t think much of the locals – I often wondered why they’d stuck it out for so long.

I didn’t want to live on a compound. The idea of being sectioned off from the society I had come to work in seemed a bit weird. There was plenty of Saudi society that wasn’t open to me due to being a westerner – I wanted to make the most of what I did have access to.

So I moved into an apartment block in the old town. The apartment block had a couple of other westerners but mainly Saudis lived there, the old town, was mainly inhabited by Indians from Kerala and poorer Saudi families.

Despite many of my colleagues being western, the boys who I taught and spent most of my working days with were Saudis.

I met only Saudi men, aged between 18-22, of course, but what struck me was, they were just like anyone their age and fascinated by the same things. I had one corner of the room whispering questions to me ‘what are English girls like?’to others wanting to debate the merits of Real Madrid over Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga – telling me their favourite English team. Had I not known anything about football I would’ve been screwed, luckily however I am as football mad as the kids were. With the absence of pretty much anything to do, socialising is about watching football or ‘drifting’, which is what people do in the absence of alcohol, or in the west due to the abundance of it:

Football was a great way ‘in’ for me with the boys. It allowed me to build rapport with them and to find common ground.  Many of the boys had come from places all over Saudi Arabia and it was not only there first time away from home, but also their first opportunity to meet a westerner. So it was as fascinating for them as it was for me.

They were fascinated by London and what life was like there. One guy in the class had been there as a kid for a few days, most had never been out of the country – or only to Bahrain.

Getting them to do any kind of work was a monumental task in itself. I thought back to what the English guy had shouted at the airport upon arriving – and it struck me that ‘the cultural norm’ cannot not be applied from one society that has developed over millenia, to one that is less than a century old – and founded on oil.  Everything is so heavily subsidized in Saudi that not much money is required to get by. Added to that, outside big cities, people live very simple existences. Nevertheless, the idea that Saudis all walk around with Platinum credit cards and high-end sports cars is a western myth: poverty is very much present, albeit well hidden.

For decades Saudi has relied on foreign labour both skilled and unskilled in order to create, maintain and expand its infrastructure. In recent years, the Saudi government has embarked on a ‘Saudization’ programme in order to give its own people training and skills – and to ween itself off from the over-reliance on expat expertise.

When you’ve been in Saudi long enough, you begin to hear an array of stories where a company has hired a Saudi to fill its quota of nationals, only to find that the Saudi in question has no aptitude or enthusiasm for the job – so they are sent home and told to stay there, while remaining on the payroll.

Are Saudis lazy? Well, they’re not known for their work ethics per se, most westerners working in Saudi would probably say ‘yes’ to this question – I found that most of my students did little or no work in mine or anyone else classes. It was an accepted fact. That said, I had a couple of kids who were exceptionally bright and hardworking. I’ve also met other Saudis (outside of Saudi) who have been smart and driven.

It would be unfair to make such a generalisation about a nation’s work ethic when, from my own experience, my only meaningful contact was with kids who had been given a job for life with one of the world’s wealthiest companies.

As many of my students had come from small towns and rural areas, the idea of working for a huge company with a western organisational structure, albeit owned by the Saudi government, was perhaps overwhelming. The word that was repeated endlessly by the western middle managers was ‘acculturation’ and how they had to be ‘acculturated’ to the company culture and western work ethic.

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What was fascinating for me most of all was the culture clash that these kids faced every day: apart from getting used to conforming to a company ethic that was imported by Americans on the discovery of oil in the country in the 1930s, they were grappling with the weight of modernity and digital technology encroaching on their traditional ways.

Living in a society where ultra conservative Wahhabi islam rules, they also somehow had to retain in their mind the doublethink of western liberalism that was on offer to them through their tablets, smartphones and laptops: another world of hip-hop, Hollywood and beautiful women with uncovered faces and revealing clothes.

As you’d imagine, they were fascinated by women. If it was possible for an 19 or 20 year old bloke to know any less about women than I did at that age, then these were good examples.

Although any website that has the slightest suggestion of titilation is blocked by the Saudi authorities, teenagers will always find ways around the rules. VPNs are used by practically everyone in Saudi in order to download films or check sites that might have fallen foul of the censor. They illegally downloaded hollywood blockbusters and porn and freely admitted it.

As far as meeting women was concerned, that would technically be out of the question until a bride was chosen for them. However, being a two-hour drive to Bahrain, many of them would drive down to Manama, the capital, (as many Saudis do every Thursday evening) to revel in a slightly more liberal society – where alcohol and prostitutes are readily available.

Without ever eliciting this information the students freely gave it to me, including the prices they paid for their brief education in female flesh.

One day, while doing a listening exercise with the boys in class, something  happened that stuck with me. They were all using textbooks that had been vetted by the Saudi Ministry of Interior to make sure they were culturally appropriate in their material – there were pictures of women all of whom had their faces uncovered, but usually wearing a head scarf.

One of the boys while listening to the exercise, in an absent-minded reverie (he had tuned out of the exercise too) began sketching, with a pencil, the outline of a full face veil (niqab) onto the photo of a woman in the textbook. I quietly asked him why he had done it: ‘I don’t know’ he shrugged, and continued to fill in the outline with more shading.

One of the few locals from the area was my student and neighbour Sulaiman. He was about 20 years old, always had a smile on his face and was cheeky chappy in class. Despite doing very little work, he was very likeable. He epitomised Saudis for me. He loved talking and laughing – usually while smoking – and he was always friendly and very generous. Like most of the boys I taught, he was a good kid.

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Sulaiman would always come over to me and say hello in the training complex where I worked, and if he ever saw me while I walked around town doing shopping, he would usually stop and offer to give me a lift somewhere.

He drove what Americans call a ‘land barge’ – huge American car from the early 1980s with a dark brown leather interior and that handled like a tank – they’re very common in Saudi. One weekend I decided to go to Riyadh on the train. He offered to drive me to Dammam train station, which was about 50 miles away, despite it being a Friday, the holiest day  of the week. I learnt a lot about the people and the country

 

I’ll talk more about that car journey in the the third and final part of my  notes on Saudi, where I’ll focus on some aspects of culture.

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Working and living in Saudi Arabia Part 1

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.

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Ras Tanura – where I lived and worked

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Eight things to do before living and working abroad

IMG_5373I came across this article earlier in the week in The Guardian and it seemed very general advice, which doesn’t do the subject justice. Working in another country needn’t be difficult or traumatic, but a lot depends on the area of the world you have in mind – and how adaptable you are as a person. If you’re prepared to go away with no preconceptions and love a challenge, then it can be a great adventure.

Research, research, research

Research is the biggest thing you can do, not matter how many times you’ve been somewhere. Having lived and worked in Spain and in the Middle East, as well as the UK, employment practices vary wherever you go.

I know for certain that you’ve not much chance of landing a job in Spain unless you’ve already moved there or transferring in some capacity, without a local contact number and address you’ve no chance. Whereas in the Middle East, a lot of jobs are either done at job fairs, recruitment drives in London, or through skype interviews, or in some cases, networking. I’ve worked in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates having never visited there previously – but what I did do was extensive research – about the company I was working for, the industry conditions, about the national/regional culture and about the local culture and geography. This might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it’s amazing how many people I’ve met working abroad who’d got themselves in a position they didn’t like – all because they didn’t do any research.

Learn some of the lingo (but nobody expects a newcomer to be fluent)

English is the lingua franca of the modern world, and unless you’re going to the most remote of places you can expect to find someone who will understand you. That said, it’s also incredibly rude to expect people to speak English. Most people who go abroad and stay there do so because they have a specialisation or are skilled workers, and so English will be spoken for the most part. If you work in retail or the service industries you’re highly unlikely to get a job in a non-English speaking country other than European tourist resorts in peak season. In the countries I’ve worked in, even those with very menial jobs (and that were not necessarily ‘front facing’ i.e. dealing with the public) were required to speak the language fluently.

Regardless of your trade, it’s important to show the locals that you’ve at least made the effort to learn basic salutations and the nouns of everyday common objects. It will endear you to the locals much quicker and it also helps to ease culture shock if you have some recognition, or gist, of what is being said in public places. I once visited a bar in Spain with Brits who’d lived there 20 years and they couldn’t speak a word of Spanish – hardly surprising then that these expats didn’t have a very high opinion of the locals!

Job hunting is NOTHING like it is in the UK

Despite what is mentioned in The Guardian article which prompted this blog, I would say the contrary applies – the recruitment process is different in all parts of the world. Quite often the only similarity is the laborious CV & Cover letter combo to register your interest in a position. After that, anything can happen. Many countries require an up-to-date photo accompanying your application. When working in the Middle East for example, you might wait weeks between having an interview and being offered the job – or similarly they might offer you the job there and then. In the first job I took out in the desert, I was offered a job and then heard nothing from the company for nearly 4 months, and then they expected me to have all my documentation and formalities completed in a matter of days. Which means…..

Find out what documents you need to take with you

It’s wise to take, at the very least, a photocopy of all of your academic and professional qualifications with you – for long-haul destinations it might be wiser still to take the originals with you. Before you pack them away, you’ll need to find out if any documentation needs attesting – this is where a solicitor signs them to say they are the legal originals. These documents will then need to be sent to the Foreign Office for legalisation which you can find out more about here. Document attestation at solicitors can vary in price. I called up a few solicitors and got 3 documents done for £45. Legalisation costs £30 per document plus postage. This process can take a few weeks, so do it early.

Taking copies of passport(s) and visas is also a good idea, as is having a dozen or so passport photos – whether you’ve already been offered a job or not.

Do the maths

if you haven’t already been offered some money for turning up regularly to a building and doing some stuff, then you’ll need to get an idea of what the average salary is for your job in your chosen destination. It’s also a pretty good idea to find out about rental prices of houses and apartments, and even the cost of everyday sundries. Not only will it give you an idea of how much you’ll have to play with every month – but it might also save you from being ripped off.

Networking

Hmm….approaching people on social media is good groundwork and preparation if you’re about to set off to your chosen destination – LinkedIn, Twitter or friends of friends on Facebook can offer something – but how much time will these people give you in real life? Nothing beats getting business cards printed, CVs copied and making your face known upon arrival. While it’s not ideal to spend all of your time abroad solely in the company of people from the English-speaking world, the expat community is a good source of information about job opportunities, local bureaucratic processes and where to find a bargain. Approaching local companies directly with a business card and a crisp CV can’t hurt either. When you’re settled, it’s a good idea to limit the expat circle if you really want to fit in and learn about your new home – but for getting info and making friends, it’s unbeatable in those first few months.

Teaching English?

It’s a good way to work anywhere in the world, and if you’re both a passionate about your job and love travelling – then it’s the perfect job. If you have future aspirations of another career – take my advice: go to a region of the world that you like work and teach there for 2 years – then stop teaching. If you work in EFL for over 2 years then it gets difficult to escape, as I wrote about here.

Travel light

Even if you’re taking a family abroad, you don’t need more than the bare essentials. Some people seem to transport their entire lives with them – and while creature comforts are necessary, it’s likely that most stuff can be bought upon arrival. And if the worst case scenario happens, and things don’t work out – having a load of stuff in storage means you won’t have to start again on your return.