Friday, 8 June 2012

Thinking About Moving to KSA? My Experience and Advice!

 Setting the Stage: What's KSA Really Like?

If you're a reader of my blog, you're either a friend, family member, or someone who was searching to learn about life in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps you're even considering moving here! I know that when I was thinking about coming, I went through a long and complicated decision-making process. It included reading a LOT of articles, travel guides, and --most importantly--blogs!! Blogs, I found, give the "real" on the ground experience of life in KSA. Rather than reading "educated" or "researched" speculations about the country and culture, blogs provide a more realistic perspective that show the good with the bad in a usually more balanced, less biased way than, say, an article about the "poor, oppressed women" in Saudi Arabia.
Do you think I'm oppressed? Think again!
Being here, I find answers and make discoveries about the "REAL" Saudi Arabia every single day. When I was deciding to come, I was scared, nervous, hesitant, and very unsure. Are women really really as oppressed as the Western media makes them out to be? How would it be to be a Christian woman here? What would it be like to cover when it's SO HOT out? (This is, after all, the desert!) What about not being able to drive? Being dependent on my "male guardian"? Not being able to leave the country without my husband's permission? Question after question. 
Moving to Saudi?

The Real Thing: Not What Anyone Told Me!
I was surprised that when I moved here I really didn't experience culture shock. I guess I was over-prepared! Additionally, the things that I thought would be a HUGE deal (for instance, covering) aren't even bothersome, while things that I didn't think I would mind are at times overwhelmingly aggravating (such as not being able to drive. Turns out it's a BIG deal, especially in a city like Jeddah where there is NO semblance of a transportation system. And I'm used to Toronto's amazing TTC / metro).

Advice: should I move?
I was inspired to post this entry when a woman who is part of a Yahoo group in which I'm a member (shout out to "Expats in Saudi Arabia"!) asked the following question:

I'll be moving to SA with my family in about one month. I'm feeling very rotten about not being able to leave unless my "sponsor" gets me an exit visa. Please tell me there is an easy way for me to get out of the country when I want to do so.

I'm 26 years old and single; both my parents got job offers in Riyadh, and since they're still paying for my education, I've got to tag along. I will be living in SA with a dependent visa under one of my parents. My plan is to finish my education, save some money teaching, and leave the first chance I get.

I need to assess whether I should go or not. If it's going to make me a depressed wreck then I have to make some decisions.

I'm U.S Citizen currently living in Malaysia. My parents are Muslim; father is Egyptian. My father already has the whole Arab culture thing going (wear the hijab, don't sit with men), which I've learned to deal with quite well through the years. But a whole country of it, I don't know.

I'd appreciate some input to help me make a decision on what to do.
What's Saudi really like?
Here's my reply.

I saw your question and thought I'd add in my two cents. I'm a Canadian female, 27 years old, and thought we might have similar experiences in KSA given our similar demographic. I live in Jeddah, however, and I'm sure that would make a difference in terms of my notes about daily life.

My husband moved to KSA a few years ago, and last fall I finally decided to join him. Here, even if a woman is on her own visa, she has to have her husband's (or guardian's / father's) permission to leave the country. That REALLY irked me at the beginning, too, and I read a number of stories about daughters / women being "trapped" in KSA because their husbands or fathers had denied them permission to leave. My mother, in particular, was big on warning me that my husband would "trap" me in KSA. She was sure she'd never see me again.

An American friend who lives here and is married to a Saudi gave me the best advice on this concern. She said that as long as you completely trust your husband (in your case your father...) then you shouldn't worry about this regulation. So, do you trust that your father would give you the freedom to come and go? It's not an issue at all to get an exit / re-rentry visa as others have pointed out; the issue is unfortunately our guardian's "permission."
The turning point in my decision to come was based on my friend's advice, which I took. I completely trust my husband, and he has signed for me to travel a couple of times now. It's no issue.

The Things I Wasn't Ready For...
The BIG issues (at least for me) are things I COMPLETELY overlooked and didn't think would matter when I was deciding whether or not to move here. That's to say the things that drive me crazy are the day to day frustrations and inconveniences of being a woman in this country. The biggest thing? I naively thought that not being allowed to drive wouldn't bother me. How wrong I was!! If you're at all like me and enjoy going out, shopping, having the ease of coming and going at your leisure (even to grab some groceries or have a quick coffee with a girlfriend), then this will definitely be an adjustment for you in Saudi. 
The frustration of not being able to drive...
Would you be living on a compound? Or in the city? We live in an apartment in the city, which gives us a nice cultural experience in Jeddah, but it means I don't have the shopping trips on the compound bus, or the collegiality with other women who'd live nearby on the compound. 

This fall we plan to get a driver once we come back from holidays. This was my biggest dissatisfaction so far, and if I could have got out on my own, been able to meet up with friends, and had a general freedom of movement that having a driver would bring, it would have made my first 6 months here a LOT easier. I don't know any Arabic, and my husband isn't comfortable with the idea of me taking cabs alone. There's nothing fun about waiting for an "approved driver" my husband knows for 4 hours in a mall the keeps closing for prayer when I just want to be back home!
The best advice I can give: get a driver!!!! 
Sooo....after all this detail (sorry it's so long lol) I'd say that if you'd be living in a compound, you'd live a pretty "normal" life and have a pool, gym, friends nearby, transportation... and it would probably be just fine. If you'd be living in the city, negotiate with your parents to get a driver. It would make life in Riyadh manageable. Definitely different and a BIG change, but it wouldn't be so bad if you had a way around. Trust me, even if the man in your life (father, husband, brother) says he'd LOVE to drive you around, after a month or so he'll stop enjoying the traffic jams, shopping waiting, and being your chauffeur. 

The Verdict is In!
Overall, Saudi is a unique experience that many Westerners never have. It's definitely something that will contribute to your personality!! I don't regret moving here, and most of the time I'm pretty happy :)
Good luck and all the best in making this big decision! Feel free to ask any other questions...and let me know what you decide!!

Back to You, my Readers...
So...what about you? Are you reading my blog as a way to help you make the decision about whether to move to KSA? Are there any questions you still have that I didn't address? 
from abaya...
to swimsuit!!

Wherever you are, and whatever your situation, have a fun and safe summer...and enjoy the heat!!! For my part, I'm looking forward to some "cool" Toronto weather (i.e. nothing over 30 degrees most of the time!) and some warm evenings. (Here in Jeddah we're lucky if it stays below 40 degrees in the day + humidity. At night, the temperature goes down to only about 25 or 27 degrees. Yikes!!)

DH and I will be flying into Toronto on July 10th. We're looking forward to enjoying a summer sublet in the city. I, for one, await the day I can soak up the sun sans abaya

Keep smiling,

Julie :)