10 Ways to Survive the year in The Kingdom

After announcing my move to Saudi Arabia, I received disapproving shaking of heads, uneasy looks, and plenty of “are you sure??”s. With 15 of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, being Saudi .. I can’t say that I wasn’t a little nervous as well. Movies, like “The Kingdom”, which reenacts the compound bombing of 2003, didn’t help ease anyone’s nerves. So, kidnappings and bombings were what I was looking out for. Little did I know, that these worries are the furthest down on the list. My list is in order, of least often –> often, of what I see foreigners getting deported, arrested, or hassled for.

  1. Negative Talk: Put 100 female teachers together during 6 hours of idle time, and see gossip spread like wildfire. Don’t say anything, unless you don’t mind it shared 10 times over. Voicing your dislike the company can get you fired, if spread to the wrong person. Also, prepare to have your students test you with this question.. “Teacher, do you love our King?”.. The answer is and should always be “Yes”. People have been reported and/or arrested for voicing their opinion otherwise. Thankfully, the Saudi king is actually a good guy and has done quite a bit to advance the Kingdom, making this an easy question to pass.
  1. Contraband: Before you step off the plane and onto Saudi soil, you will see “Illegal drugs = death”. Kind of seems like a late warning, if you ask me.. It’s not like the smugglers can simply turn around. You can find alcohol in a few brave private residences. But getting caught can mean deportation or getting arrested, and possibly receive lashes. Watch “Locked Up Abroad: Saudi Arabia”. Other things not allowed into Saudi, are pork, vanilla extract (it has alcohol in it), and bulk religious items. My Bible was actually confiscated and I had to tuck away my cross.
  1. Gender Mixing: Unrelated men and women are not allowed to gather in this country, except for in a few secure places. I will say that many foreigners have gotten away with this rule. However, it would suck to be the exception.. as one of my friends has spent a few days in jail by doing so. Conservative Saudis are quick to report any suspicions.
  1. Walking Alone: One thing that us foreigners cherish, is the freedom to go wherever you want and however you want. You do not have that freedom here. Walking the streets, in general, is just not done in Riyadh. So a foreign woman walking can bring trouble. Before knowing this, I decided to get a nice workout w/ an hour-long walk home. Fully cloaked from head to toe, I counted 73 honks and 3 men pulling over to offer money. From then on out, I had to put away the “do what I want” “Strong black women”.. I bought a treadmill and took taxis.

  1. Drifters: The latest problem with walking (even in groups), is dealing with Drifters. These young teenage drivers make a game out of getting as close to the pedestrians as possible, without hitting them. A few suck at this game, leaving a few of my fellow teachers injured and/or shaken up.
  1. The Muttawa: Also known as the “religious police”. You will often see these guys parading around the mall advising or harrassing (depending on point of view) females. They don’t have the power to arrest or enforce any laws, but being big men yelling in Arabic, is sometimes enough to intimidate a few. Their actual job is to remind people of the cultural and religious rules of Saudi. They usually pick out foreigners to cover their hair. But you may know the Muttawa from the incident of the womens school on fire. They were locked inside of the burning building because they were uncovered, and unpresentable to public. The latest news were Muttawa attempting to kick a women out of the mall for wearing nail polish.         

  1. Taxi drivers: I know I said in #7 that it’s not the safest to walk, and to take a taxi.. but not any ole’ taxi. When you find one that you trust, it’s a smart idea to take his number as your personal driver. In many parts of the world, foreigners (or American women) are stereotyped to all be “easy”. Therefore, some of the younger drivers think it’s ‘cool’ to have an American in the back seat. He’ll whistle to the young drivers at the stoplight next to him, do the money sign (which is the same in every language), and then ask you to smile …. Or you’ll get some drivers who don’t like foreigners at all, and simply get frustrated with your English/broken Arabic  directions and drop you off on a strange corner in the middle of the night. This isn’t an everyday occurrence, but you can see that it’s getting closer to my #1. To avoid all of this, just have a few good drivers handy.
  1. Standing Out: Single foreign females stick out like sore thumbs. First of all, unlike many Saudi women, we don’t have male chaperones. So this kind of makes you a target for unwanted attention. Being alone, having your hair uncovered, even doing a slight jog to get into a closing store will get you stares. When walking outside, covering your hair could eliminate maybe a quarter of the attention. Wearing a niqab can play in your favor too. Basically.. when in Saudi, do as Saudis do.
  1. Words/Topics to Avoid: If you can teach in this city and country, you can teach anywhere. The limitations we have, makes getting your point across quite a challenge at times. If you’ve read one of my previous posts “Things not to say in a Riyadh University”, you’ll see a lengthy list that can easily get any teacher to slip-up. Some students lure you into these topics. And sometimes it’s totally your fault. “Like, duh, what were you thinking, talking about birthdays???”. I’ve accidentally hit these topics a few times. Thankfully, my students love me and let it slide 🙂 Some teachers aren’t so lucky and get reported. This goes on your record, and if done enough could be a reason to be let go.
  1. The unexpected: The #1 thing that I fear in this country, are accidents. Everyday on the way to school we cross a 3-lane, 4-way intersection that has no stoplights. We go over about 10 unmarked speed bumps. The lines to designate the lanes are faded to no avail. There’s a random trough of a bulldozer sitting in the middle of the road. Construction workers lifting an unprotected spin-saw 3 stories, using a rope tied around the handle. Right-laners make left turns. Metal pipes blowing hot steam onto the sidewalks. Jumping over boulders, ditches, and puddles when it hasn’t rained in weeks…All of these things have no warning signs before you reach them. The “Final Destination” series, should have been filmed here.  To sum it up.. Safety is not #1 priority, so constantly be on alert!

The real-life ‘roadrunner’. Ostrich running the streets of Riyadh, a few months ago..

19 thoughts on “10 Ways to Survive the year in The Kingdom

  1. Hi! I saw your blog on the Women of Color Living Abroad group. Your was quite interesting to read. I was in Saudi for a while, and I think you list some good information for those who are on their way or thinking about going to Saudi. Although, I didn’t experience some of the things listed (or maybe not to the extent that others did), I have heard he stories and incidences from those who have experienced them or knew someone who had (both Muslim and non-Muslim). I must say that #1 and #10 made me chuckle.

    I’m glad I ran across your blog. I wish you a a great experience which will be invaluable to you and those you share it with!

    • Thanx for dropping by! What city were you in? I live outside of a compound, in Riyadh. Although I wish I had the amenities and freedom, I never run out of stuff to write about in my location.

      • I lived in 3 cities while I was there: Tabuk, Riyadh and Jouf. Except for the lack of the posh amenities that many of the compounds far from the local habitations offer, living among the locals in the city presents an opportunity for more experiences of culture and the people as you have found, experiences outside of our usual interactions within the bounds of work. While in Riyadh, I also lived within the city among the locals instead of on a compound. I lived on compounds in the other 2 cities. In Jouf, we were told that women didn’t have the choice of living within the city in apartments. In Tabuk, which was the smallest of the cities, we could get an apartment closer to the city center or choose another compound besides the one provided by the company. Unfortunately, I didn’t take as many pictures in Saudi as I have in other places because I was nervous about the possibility of capturing women or children which is a no-no there. I wish I had more pictures from there, though. I usually like to have pictures and/or video to go along with what I write about, so that is one reason I didn’t write as much about my experience there as in other places, along with a bit of lethargy for writing that I’ve had since I was there 😦 However, I’m hoping to write about some more of my experiences at least before the year’s end…lol 😀

      • I have’nt met too many folks from the outside, besides Jeddah and Khobar! So I have many questions for you, as these 2 cities are on the list of where my company may place me next! Out of Jouf and Tabuk, which did you enjoy most and why? What are the compounds like there (exercise facility?)? How was the internet? Are there a lot of foreigners? More conservative than Riyadh? Safe? What did you do for fun? And lastly, do you mind telling me which company recruited you?

      • Hi 🙂 Sorry it has taken me so long to finally get back to you. I’ve been pretty busy lately but have a break now. I actually worked with Al Khaleej. I know of AETG and Education Experts which are some of the widely used employing agencies in Saudi, as well as Al Khaleej. I think some new ones have sprung up this year, too.

        Both Tabuk and Jouf are small cities located in the northern area of Saudi. I was in Tabuk during the winter, and it gets very cold there. I think the natives are very welcoming in both. In Tabuk, there are more taxis available, lol…except for driving around near the compound as our compound was out in the desert. Actually, both compounds that I stayed at were pretty far from the city centers in either city. Tabuk has more options for shopping, malls, souks, department stores, etc. Jouf doesn’t have very much variety when it comes to shopping, but usually, you can get essentials.

        Being so far out from everything can be a hassle. In Riyadh, you can usually hail a taxi easily. In Jouf, the company provided shopping trips 6 days out of the week, plus the company drivers could make stops at the bank, corner store or pharmacy when requested on our way back to the compound, if he had time and the places were open. Plus, they would pick up things for teachers as favors (and teachers would give them a little tip for this). We could also tell the compound manager if we needed to travel outside on other times separate from the shopping times, and he could arrange for one of the drivers to take us their or pick us up. You could also call for a taxi if you preferred. In Tabuk, we only had one shopping trip a week when I got there which grew to two before I left. However, these were not always the most fun as teachers who finished shopping quickly (15-30 min) would often complain on these trips about teachers who took longer or wanted to go to other places besides the designated shopping store, even if they walked there and back to the designated stop (and this was when we only had one shopping trip). We could sometimes ask to be dropped off at the bank along the way back to the compound but probably have to get a driver back. In Tabuk, there weren’t many taxis, so you had to rely on personal drivers (usually driving you illegally because they didn’t have the correct paperwork or license to do so). Sometimes, they could be iffy because usually they had more than one client and juggled between calls. So, they may not call back or take longer to pick you up. Plus, if they were stopped by the police, they could be in trouble, so they may try to avoid driving on certain roads or at certain hours that police would be more prevalent. So you may get dropped off but not always a guaranteed pick up by the same driver. So, in that case, you should have the numbers of a couple personal drivers. We could actually arrange to be taken somewhere within reason (like the pharmacy, doctor, shopping, etc.) with the assistant manager and driver in Tabuk, but again, some teachers seemed to be upset about this (because apparently before they had to always pay for drivers before they hired a company driver) and often speak negatively about teachers if they knew they were using the company driver to take them places. To me, it just seemed like some of the teachers were always working against other teachers for whatever reasons instead of trying to work together to help each other and bring about positive change.

        Both compounds were very small. I think I preferred the compound in Tabuk because there were actual bathtubs in the bathrooms…lol…I love my baths. Both had small gyms. I think the in Tabuk had more equipment. Plus Tabuk’s had a tennis/basketball court, swimming pool, activity hall (pool table, dart game, entertainment room, hot tubs and sauna). There were also date, lemon and various orange trees which the owner allowed teachers to pick from, as well as various herbs. At Jouf, each villa had its own personal swimming pool. The Internet was fine in Jouf which got Internet access for each villa right before I went; whereas in Tabuk, the Internet was less reliable and there were many problems, plus the speed in the villas wasn’t usually good for skype calls. However, they were constantly doing something to it because it was down a lot, so maybe it’s much better now.
        There are quite a few foreigners in both, but it depends on whether you’re just talking about teachers or native English speakers. I think there are more teachers in Tabuk than Jouf, but there are also more bilingual teachers as opposed to native speakers there as well. There are a lot of people from the UK who work in Tabuk, as well as Americans who are there with the military.

        Both cities are more conservative, and because they are small, the muttawa presence seems to be more noticeable, usually in the city centers not as much around the compounds. So, they can be more bothersome. I really didn’t have a problem with them anywhere, though. The only time, I really wore my hijab while I was in Saudi in any of the cities was when getting off the bus to go into the universities because we were told we had to by the company because of problems with muttawa in the past. Other than that, I rarely ever wore it and had no problems. However, I have heard stories of harassment from others before.

        I felt pretty safe in each city. The only thing that may pose a safety problem is the fact that there are no taxis available near the compound in Tabuk. So, having to call a personal driver who doesn’t have the legal paperwork to drive you around can cause issues if stopped with the police, and one of those could also be that you’re in the car with a man not related to you who isn’t legit. Plus, the fact that you are not always guaranteed a pick up from them can be a problem if they don’t pick you up and you can’t get another driver if you’re far from the compound. This actually happened to me once. Thank God the company driver who was off and visiting a friend was a kind man, so he came to pick me up after I had tried to reach the personal driver for over an hour with no response.
        For me, reading, writing and watching movies were my relaxing activities. I would have liked to get out and explore more of the cultural history and landscape of the cities but the company didn’t try to foster this, at least while I was there. After all, that’s one of the reasons I decided to travel to other countries. Maybe they listened and things have changed.

      • Thanx SO much for the response. Our company transportation is quite similar; making extra stops at times. And since some of us opted to take the transportation allowance instead, we have those irritated teachers when some stow-aways jump on the bus.

  2. Interesting. I’m teaching in Abu Dhabi at the moment and it’s like a much, much milder version of Saudi, but still some of the same issues. It’s very likely that I got fired from my previous job due to the rampant gossip. (I wasn’t deported though, and was able to find another job pretty easily.) And I’ve heard stories of taxi drivers taking advantage of single females, although I haven’t personally experienced much beyond stares when I’m wearing shorts or a dress. A friend got kicked out of the mall for wearing shorts. Which all sounds very mild compared to your list. Granted, Abu Dhabi is an insanely Westernized city and makes most of its money off of Westerners, thus they allow us to get away with far more than the probably want. Outside the city, it’s much different. I would never be able to handle living there.

  3. I live in a small town in the desert in UAE and there are a few women who live here who wear tight jeans, short-sleeved tops, and no headscarves. But I sure wouldn’t want to be in their shoes: they are treated poorly. I have also seen a foreign woman in knee-length shorts.

  4. What a hot mess! Most of which is a misrepresentation of what a Muslim country should be, in my opinion. You should come to Oman and they need to return your Bible! I hope what you’re gaining from this experience is worth it. Blessings!

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