Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Living it up in Saudi: The "relaxed" life of working expats!

Back in Saudi Sand!

Well, after a month of being home in Jeddah, I`ve finally found the time to write. What’s driven me (almost forced me because I’m slightly incapacitated...) to write has become somewhat of an opportunity to contemplate life here. Since last night, I’ve had a terrible, terrible stomach ache that simply won’t go away! I left work early this afternoon with the ever-growing sensation of knives stabbing my insides. Not fun. I’ve had stomach problems my whole life; I remember being in grade one and going to a specialist with my mom. No doctor really diagnosed what’s wrong. Considering that the elimination of various foods didn’t point to anything diet-wise, my conclusion is simple. Stress. 

Back to the desert! 
“Stress...in Saudi Arabia?!” you may be asking. “Aren’t you in the most laid-back part of the world? Where things take forever to get done, where taking your time is the name of the game?” Well, let’s go back in time a little bit and recall the time when I thought the same way...

What We Expect

Since returning to Jeddah on September 3rd, this past month has flown by in a flurry of, yes, chaos and busyness. When I first moved to Saudi Arabia, I was under the impression that all things in the Kingdom are done in a leisurely, relaxed pace. I was "sold" on the idea that moving here would mean a new lifestyle marked by short workdays, lots of holidays and opportunities to travel, and weekends spent gallivanting around shopping and visiting with friends. 

At his job, DH, who was here for two and a half years before I joined him, comes and goes depending on his class schedule. Some days, he teaches for three hours in the morning and is then free from 11am on! Needless to say, I had some pretty rosy glassed on when I decided to move here!
Commuter train in Toronto
Today at work I was chatting with my wonderful boss, M. She's really sweet and we get along amazingly well, Alhamdulillah (Arabic for praise God!). Years ago, M used to work in Paris. She commuted back and forth from work to home for three hours a day. She took a bus, the train, and was rushed, rushed, rushed with work, family, and life commitments. This is life in the West. I, too, as an undergraduate student, graduate student and an employee often felt simultaneously burdened with so many commitments: extra-curriculars, volunteering, school work, teaching and research assistantships, funding applications, family responsibilities, and later on wedding planning to top it all off! 

And then came the opportunity to move to KSA. "Yes," I thought. "Finally a break. Finally all my hard work, my rushing here and there, my chaotic life will come to a halt." I couldn't wait for a change of pace.   

What We Actually Get!

And then I arrived in Jeddah. The first month was absolutely wonderful. I'd been waiting for months on end for my visa (for that story click here: http://pinkjeddahsunset.blogspot.ca/2011/09/time-is-very-slow-for-those-who-wait.html, and here: http://pinkjeddahsunset.blogspot.ca/2011/11/day-42-why-we-wait.html), and DH and I, then newlyweds, had spent some torturous time apart (really—it felt like forever) while I waited for sponsorship. I arrived here mid-semester last December, and had to wait until the new term at the end of January to begin teaching. 

In the meantime, DH showed me around my new city, took me for dinner, drove me to the Red Sea Mall, the Red Sea, and showed me a good time. And then I started working.
My first trip to the Red Sea,
December 2011
Reality Sets In

Starting a new job is not easy. Neither is being in a new country. Being newly married isn’t a walk in the park, either! Needless to say, it was a tough, tough year adjusting to all these new things.

Oh, how I resented my husband at the time. (I’m sorry, my love!) My job was (and is) NOT a simple “go in for your classes, then head on home” kind of job. While DH often brought work home, he, as a man who is permitted to drive here, had the “leisure” of being able to drive straight home after work. Even if I finished class at 11am, he taught until 4pm on those days and so I had to wait for him, my DH, my DD (designated driver!).
Wishing I was allowed to drive our car...
Exit/Re-Entry Visas

On top of this, DH had promised that we’d have the chance to travel and “see the world” when I moved here. [Let me pause for a second and draw your attention to something quite *interesting* [insert sarcasm here!!]: Saudi Arabia is the ONLY country in the world where you not only require a visa to ENTER the country, but one to EXIT and RE-ENTER again. A person’s employer / sponsor must issue this document for a person who is not Saudi to leave the country.] So, go figure that when I finally arrived in Jeddah, it was the first year that DH’s workplace stopped allowing employees exit / re-entry visas at any time other than over Hajj Break (the annual pilgrimage to Makkah). Like some large corporations, DH’s university gives long vacations a number of times throughout the year, but no longer allows employees to leave the country. How frustrating!!! Last year, I did end up visiting friends who are teaching in Kuwait, but without DH it just wasn’t the same. This year (actually, in just over two weeks a really good friend of mine and I are traveling to Ireland for our vacation!) I guess it`s not all bad news--at least I can come and go!
No traveling for him... 
Overall, my misconceptions about what it meant to “work” in Saudi Arabia were honestly one of the worst perpetrators of my negativity and consequent attitude about being here. The college where I work isn’t just another “private” college. It’s an internationally-accredited, degree-granting university. The first one in Jeddah to be American accredited, in fact. Accordingly, we have extremely high standards, academic and otherwise, to maintain, and this means that faculty necessarily have to work longer and harder than instructors at other institutions. At the end of the day, though, this is what drew me to my place of work. I had other job offers (I wrote about one of them here: http://pinkjeddahsunset.blogspot.ca/2011/05/delays-and-other-job-offers.html), but my school has so many benefits.
The College!
The garden at work
The Silver Lining

As with other Saudi schools, it’s an all-female environment. Once I’m at work, I can take off my abaya and hijab and wear what are considered, by Canadian standards, “normal” business-casual clothes. OH, THE FREEDOM!!! Seriously, when a man enters the college (to fix something or to give a workshop, etc.), alerts go off over the PA system: “A man is in the building. Please put on your abayas. I repeat: put on your abayas!!!” Sitting at work or teaching in the classroom in an abaya and hijab is definitely not as comfortable as wearing “normal” clothes. I prefer that the men stay away!

Although I worked so much last year—and in fact I’ve been teaching two extra classes this semester because we’re waiting for another faculty member to receive her visa; I’ve also taken up a tutoring position three nights a week—this year is much better. At the college, we have lots of extra-curriculars, events and activities. Last year I taught piano lessons to Saudi students, and this year a colleague and I have started the Drama and Music Club. We’ll put on a production each semester and get the girls involved in the fine arts.

The college also has English and Arabic Journalism Clubs, a Mock UN Club (that won something last year in a competition at Harvard!), sports clubs, and basketball, badminton, and dance teams, just to name a few! It’s a bustling, busy place.
The atrium where the Club Fair was today!
Champion Sports Room
We offer majors including Law, Business, Fashion and Interior Design, Architecture, Arabic, the Social Sciences, and many others. Graduates have gone on to complete master’s degrees and PhDs in America, Canada and Europe. I’m really and truly proud to be part of the community where I work. Yes, I work a lot of long, hours, but what teacher doesn’t (okay, maybe there are *some*...)?

And I Wouldn’t Change a Thing!
(...except for my stomach ache lol)

At the end of the day, most of my students are hard-working, honest and respectful young women who have solid goals, plans and ambitions they can’t wait to embark on! We have fantastic discussions about social issues, women’s rights, and the ongoing rapid changes—especially in women’s education, as I’ve described above—in this rapidly-developing country. I’m thrilled to be a part of this amazingly inspiring social change in Saudi Arabia, and am honoured to spend so much time with this strong, determined generation of Arab women.


  1. Julie, I love reading about your ventures in Saudi. Keep them coming. I hope you feel better soon. Stress can definitely affect everything you do.

  2. Thanks, Aunt Mary! Glad you enjoy reading :) xo

  3. You are working so hard to make life better for these girls. I know you must be lonely at times but it wont always be like that. And ya know what? People here are so busy and stressed they hardly have time to do anything anyways either...so youd probably be equally bummed here and potentially suffering from seasonal depression. Hope you are enjoying ireland and not suffering from stress stomach anymore