Tag Archives: Jeddah

Roland Rant.

Working in Saudi Arabia is difficult enough for the majority of expats in terms of lifestyle adjustments.  But teaching contractors really don’t make it any easier.  From my experience so far they are inefficient, lazy, incompetent and generally rude.

I was prepared for this by my interview for the company I work for with it’s head honcho.  He asked me nothing during the interview about my teaching skills, abilities, experience etc…  (Although he did seem interested in my  “knowledge” of Saudi Arabia, which was refreshing and boosted my ego somewhat).   It was obvious here that the company was pretty desperate for teachers.   The only interview question he asked me was:

“What would you do if you were in a bar in London and someone knocked over your pint?”

I paused, briefly thinking this might be a trick question about alcohol.  No, just because I’m in a bar in London, doesn’t mean I can’t handle a year without alcohol.  Hmmm…  So I gave an honest answer, and one which I figured would also happen to demonstrate I’m suitable teacher material (ie patient):

“Well, i’d firstly check to see if this person had noticed they’d knocked over my dri…..”

At this point I was interrupted.  “No, that’s the wrong answer”, my soon-to-be-boss stated.  “You’re going to be working in Saudi Arabia.  Arabs like strong leaders.  They like to be put in their place and told what to do, it’s the only way they’ll get anything done”.  (Or words to that effect)  He then cited Saddam Hussein’s gassing of a Kurdish village, and the fact that the village had been interviewed a few years later and stated they still supported Saddam, as proof that Arabs like strong leaders.
Yes boss, Arabs love strong leaders.  It has nothing to do with a history of western colonial support for these leaders, or the fact that the resources of the region allow these leaders to stay in power, or the fact that strong leaders are seen as able to challenge Israel’s power.  Oh and those revolutions last year challenging those strong leaders?  Let’s just ignore those.  My boss had demonstrated his alpha male qualities from the very start.

Anyway, I was very keen to work in KSA, and it seemed most teaching companies who worked there were just as bad, so I took the job.

Generally working life has been pretty easy.  I work at a great little college, and my Saudi coworkers and Kuwaiti boss are great, and the hours aren’t too bad.  Dealing with my contractors, though, has been a nightmare.  Every month I have to leave the country for visa purposes.  Because it’s cheap, we are sent to Bahrain, often on 2 days notice.  The security situation there obviously isn’t great, but it’s not this that I mind…in fact it makes it more interesting for me.  It’s the fact that our flights are booked so late in the day that we fly at ungodly hours.  I’ve been here for 8 months and I’m yet to receive a shred of overtime payment.  My paycheck is often late.  Our salary isn’t broken down, so I have no idea if it’s correct or not.  We are yet to receive any visa or travel expenses. Contacting my boss is a nightmare, he never answers emails about simple queries.

My point here isn’t to moan about minor things.  It’s to highlight that there’s nothing I can do about any of these problems.  Saudi labour law is sketchy at best, and our contracts are probably not worth the paper they’re written on.  If I even suggest that I’ve spoken to the other teachers about the matter we could be changed with sedition.  The other company who contract teachers at our college have just told them that they’ll be stuck in KSA for the summer, with no work to do, and under the terms of their visas they’ll be unable to leave.

This is clearly nothing compared to the abuses that migrant workers from less developed nations face in the Kingdom, and there’s even less that they can do, as they will often have no contract, no passport, and often no means of escape.  My main contact with migrant workers has been through Filipinos.  The nurses as I know tend to be marginally happier than the male workers, janitors and gardeners who work at my college.  They live in a run down old tenement block nearby.  They get around one week holiday a year.  They are constantly borrowing money from us teachers.  Most of the day they are out in the sun.  When they aren’t, they’re being bossed around by Saudis.  I went on a beach trip with some Saudis, and two Filipinos came along to help out.  Basically working all day, ferrying food and drink.  They confessed to me that they didn’t know if they were going to get paid.

Again, they have no awareness of their rights, and whether these rights exist or not.  This subject has been written about extensively elsewhere (see this recent HRW article: http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/04/10/saudi-arabia-step-aid-migrant-workers)  , I’m just pointing to my experiences at the hands of what are essentially western contractors, buying into the Saudi way of doing things.

To finish something I hear someone say almost every day: “It’s no wonder they’re short of teachers”

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Interview and musings.

I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by the lovely people at Our Other Sisters, a fascinating blog exploring Arab Feminism.  You can read it here: http://ourothersisters.com/2012/02/29/saudi-arabia-through-western-eyes/ but I suggest you explore the rest of the site, where you can find much more informed and interesting opinions than mine.

Since I was interviewed, I went for dinner with a couple of Saudis, and the discussion turned to Saudi women driving. All three of us agreed that Saudi women should be able to drive.  However, my two friends were of the opinion that it would be difficult to implement.  They stated that it would be dangerous for three reasons:  
Firstly, unleashing such a large driving force on Saudi’s chaotic roads would cause…well….chaos. 
Secondly, they were concerned for women themselves.  They expressed the opinion that women would become targets for men oggling them (ignoring the fact that half the population have blacked out windows), and perhaps worse. 
Thirdly, they fell back on the old argument that women are terrible drivers.  Something that, I was told, we could all agree on.  (All except virtually every scientific study conducted) 

Clearly the first and last arguments are clutching at straws, the car-population wouldn’t just double overnight.  Although there might be plenty of male drivers out of a job.
And the second argument is just men telling women what’s best for them.  Akin to “if you don’t want to be raped, stop wearing short skirts”.   It’s down to us men to change our behaviour.  Why should a woman have to worry about driving around?  Sure, she probably will have to worry about being oggled, but a) that happens anyway in KSA b) how else are we going to change that?

Anyway, I feel there are plenty of people more qualified to refute these arguments.  I merely aim to present them.

In other news, I’ve started private tuition of a Saudi girl.  I think I’m more scared of her than she is of me. 

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Scared?

After Hamza Kashgari was forced to flee Saudi Arabia for his comments on the Prophet (peace be upon him) last week, two strands of thought occurred to me.

The first was purely selfish.  Is anything I’m saying controversial?  Unlikely in cyberspace – not sure anyone really cares.  But in the classroom?  We do have to be careful about what we say.  Obviously calling-a-teddy-bear-Mohammed levels of stupidity aren’t likely, but my colleagues to tell me about some of the things they do in the classroom and therefore my second worry their futures (the turnover rate at our college is extremely high, and we often don’t find out why…more on this later).  You never really know who you are teaching.  Rumours abound that X is the son of a Prince or the Y is a member of the muttawa.  Often this is unlikely, but the chances are there will be a couple of students with Wasta.  One prime suspect is a student who should be getting straight As, but due to his attitude (superior, disinterested, disruptive) he often gets kicked out of class.  Combined with some cheating, this got so bad that our co-ordinator and his teachers decided to make him resit the Elementary level.   Miraculously, with no discussion, he re-appeared this term in the level above this.

What you say in front of such students is an issue, but it becomes a problem if a connected student is a hard line Salafi.  Some teachers will play music (introducing students to the unheard-of Beatles), some will discuss what they do on their holidays (meet girls, drink alcohol).  I have been guilty of discussing similar topics, but not talking about my own actions.  The danger lies in how you talk about such subjects.

One of my colleagues (the one who was surprised that his students – many of whom consider music to be haram – hadn’t heard of the Beatles) recently had his room raided by the Muttawa and had his laptop confiscated and thoroughly searched.  A call to the Canadian embassy was met with a sigh and he was told that unless he had been arrested there was nothing they could do.  The colleague in question has publications on Islam, and is a well known academic, but is extremely careful about his behaviour in Saudi Arabia.  I’m not even sure I am as careful as him, which makes me worry again.

(On a side note, my flatmate recently left his wallet and passport in a taxi.  The following day it was miraculously returned to him by the Sri Lankan taxi driver who scoured the area where he picked my flatmate up asking people for clues as to his whereabouts.  Upon returning the walled the driver said he had taken it to the British Embassy and was told that there was nothing they could do…they refused to even hang on to it.)

I also realised this week that questions are possibly more likely to get me into trouble than answers.  If I answer a question about my girlfriend or my religion honestly then there’s not much the Saudis can do, or would want to do, unless I’m flaunting my beliefs.  After all, I have the right passport.  If I start going around asking questions about the political, religious, social or economic situation then I am more likely to arouse suspicions.  A new exhibition “Edge of Arabia” opened last week in Jeddah, and I went along.  In my opinion it was the most controversial of any exhibition I have been to in Saudi Arabia, and so – after a brief chat – I asked one of the curators how easy it is to get something like this shown in the Kingdom.  His demeanor suddenly changed and he practically denied there was anything revolutionary about the work on show.  Eventually he admitted that all work which goes on public display is vetted by the authorities, a process which often takes about 2 months.  I’m not entirely sure how some of the work passed the test.  But, Jeddah is a bastion of Saudi liberalism, and I am constantly surprised and pleased with the baby steps to reform which are occurring in the Kingdom – and I increasingly think King Abdullah deserves some credit for this.  If you’re in Jeddah, I’d urge you to go along.  I have enclosed one (unrepresentative) photo below, (if you know the artist, please comment) which sums up my experience of the Saudi postal service), but the other work on show is highly diverse and often more shocking.
In other news, I’m currently reading “Journey into America” by Akbar Ahmed.  Aside from containing some terrible anthropological methods, some arrogant views and some downright offensive views the book is quite informative and entertaining.  Then again, it’s probably nigh-on impossible to go to America, speak to a bunch of random people and not come away with something full of spice.  However, another problem I have with the book is the way it looks down it’s nose at Salafis.  The “literalist” interpretation of Islam, as Ahmed terms it, which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia is often cited as the root cause of troublesome relations between the West and Islam.  He is very much of the opinion that Salafis (in America) fail to integrate and foster cross-faith initiatives, and this view undoubtedly influences, and is influenced by what he sees or hears about Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.  Everyday experience in Saudi Arabia teaches me differently, and Muslims here are very open to discussing religion, very welcoming, and do not fit the picture painted by Ahmed at all.  This may not be the case amongst Salafis in America, but perhaps this suggests the problem is not the literalism, but the context.
So there.

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Muttawa’d!

There is a sense that King Abdulaziz might be concerned about his legacy, his image, or might just be getting soft in his old age.  Previous posts have alluded to this.  Today he replaced the head of the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice due, some claim, to them becoming too aggressive.  The new head is, reportedly, a reformer and a liberal (by Saudi standards).

I saw the Muttawa in action for the first time last week, seemingly arresting a gentleman who was attempting to recreate Speaker’s Corner near the Corniche.  They had the police to back them up and seemed to be doing everything in a civilised manner, just asking him to move on and go home.

This week, I also expressed to a friend of mine that I didn’t want to buy an electric guitar in case I got Muttawa’d.  Obviously this was slightly tongue in cheek, but he pointed out that even if I was engaged in some extremely provocative behaviour the Muttawa wouldn’t care because I have “the right passport” (i.e a White Man’s passport).  I’m aware that I am treated differently and less likely to get into trouble, but amongst the expat community you hear stories of westerners being deliberately targeted.  Often this is for downright stupid behaviour, for instance alcohol-related crimes or (in one example) advertising a rooftop Christmas party with a poster in the lobby of your hotel.  The recent case of a westerner being arrested for displaying New Year’s balloons is less-obviously idiotic, but most people I know managed to avoid celebrating New Year…it’s really not that difficult.

Lots of the moaning by Westerners about how they are treated in Saudi Arabia is the kind you would read in the Daily Mail.  Ok, I’m sure things are different in Riyadh, but here in Jeddah it only takes a small adjustment (mainly alcohol-related) to avoid getting into any kind of trouble.  For women it’s a less minor adjustment, but most of the encounters with the religious police described on blogs seem to be due to attire.  Now, the clothing I see Western women wearing compared to their Saudi counterparts is positively scandalous!

My point here isn’t that Saudi Arabia is some bastion of liberal values, or that life here is easy (especially for women).  It’s that  westerners should look around them before complaining.  Try living as a Bangladeshi in Saudi for a few weeks, or as a Filipina cleaner.  Or even as a Saudi.  Most Westerners have a choice about coming here, they know what to expect, they know the rules.  It’s not hard to play by them, especially when you’re earning mega-bucks and probably propping up the people that make those rules.

We should also question the sources of our stories.  Many horror stories I hear of how the Muttawa treat westerners (NB: undoubtedly their treatment of Saudis is, at times, terrible) are second or third hand…and often just read somewhere on the internet.  In England, I wouldn’t listen to anyone quoting the Daily Mail.  Should I listen to those who quote unverified internet sources?

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Evidently chickentown

the fucking view is fucking vile

for fucking miles and fucking miles

As we sped down the coast at 160 km/h in our freshly dented Mazda3, I realised that the song on the mixtape was chosen to mirror an opinion of Saudi Arabia.  What fucking gets me fucking down isn’t the city, but the attitude of the expats within it.
The driver hates Saudi Arabia with a passion.  He likes to drink, smoke, take drugs, sleep with (and sometimes pay for) women, and eat unhealthy food.  These were actually amongst the things that John Cooper Clarke was berating as symptoms of industrial decline in Britain.  Apart from eating and smoking, most of the things the driver likes do to cannot be done where we are.  He finds this difficult to accept, and isn’t alone amongst expats in moaning about this.  None seem to recognise this as a strength.  I’m not going to judge those who need to drink all the time, or those who pay for women (actually, maybe I should judge these people)…but to have a go at a country and it’s religion when you are it’s guest and earning money from it is beyond the pale.  Some of my Saudi friends have also expressed similar views to mine, and many find it unusual to be hanging around a westerner such as myself when most just stay in their compounds or even in their hotel rooms.

My new office mate described all Arab students as “the same” the other day.    He thinks they are dirty so he doesn’t shake hands with them, and refuses to eat food outside shiny restaurants.   He has expressed opinions that they are rude and would not adapt to western life so he doesn’t understand why they’re learning English.  Westerners are clearly much more polite.

I realise this view isn’t unusual, nor am I the first person to be writing about it, but it’s so extreme here.  Moaning about everything…the restaurants closing at prayer time, the lack of women, the lack of freedom, the lack of alcohol, the lack of pork, too many cars, too much litter, too smelly, too much homoeroticism.  The most annoying thing is, I’ve started to moan myself about the lack of entertainment.   Our trip at the weekend was a let down in terms of what we wanted to see.   We tried to track down the rock carvings in Taif, only to be shown a two year old sign advertising camel racing.  The national park was a building site and the museum in Taif was closed.  But we entertained ourselves in other ways which were equally enjoyable, and there’s beauty in even the worst looking building site.  But the day after, as we drove down 80km of litter-covered beach I began to despair.  We eventually, miraculously, stumbled across an ice-cream truck.  Some light at the end of the tunnel!

‘Ureed Wahed……Ice cream min fadlak’

‘No Ice cream’

I should have known.  But still, I was pissed off.  Why would you not have ice cream in a baking hot country, on a beach, in an ice cream truck!?  Undoubtedly I was influence by my colleagues’ constant moaning.  I probably shouldn’t hang around with such people, but firstly I don’t have much choice.  Secondly, they aren’t all bad people, and sometimes it’s just “banter”…but when it permeates every conversation it stops being banter.  One shouldn’t expect the sort of entertainment we are used to in Britain.  We shouldn’t expect to drive around the corner and find a fishing village with slot machines, a fish and chip shop and a pub.   We should appreciate Saudi Arabia for what it is, and realise that – despite it’s wealth- it is still a developing country.

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Veils and cars and soft rock and roll.

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived was that people are prepared to talk.  Not living in Saudi Arabia, and getting your information from a limited array of sources, one certainly gets the impression that the Muttawa are everywhere, listening to every word.  Undoubtedly Jeddah is different to the rest of the country and my experiences here are limited (and often limited to the private quarters), but my expectations have certainly been counfounded.

Where I have had a chance to chat to Saudi shopkeepers (who are somewhat few and far between), I generally try to ask them what they think about Saudi Arabia and Jeddah.  When you ask this question, there is generally a one-two second pause, an intake of breath and a rolling of the eyes.  Those over 35 say something along the lines of “some good things, some bad things”.  Like everywhere I guess.  But when speaking to the younger generation, the pause doesn’t happen.  Instead there is usually a chuckle followed by a resigned story of how dull life is here.  Sometimes people will go further and criticise people in power.  Mostly the younger generation will express their desire to leave.  Clearly shopkeepers are not an accurate cross section of society (for a start, they’re all men), and nor are their responses likely to be unbiased when speaking to a Westerner who has just walked into their store.  However, my point is that people aren’t afraid to speak.

My students do provide a more accurate cross section of the younger generation.  Some turn up in giant GMC 4x4s, show you pictures of their important family members and somehow manage not to get kicked out of the college despite constantly turning up late.  Others come from poorer backgrounds, some have little experience of city life and there are students who seemingly rely on the college and it’s accomadation in order to survive.  I don’t know my students that well, it’s true, and I can’t accurately gauge what their backgrounds are.  But the fact that I don’t know them well makes it all the more surprising what they come out with.

I had been told (by some of my more obnoxious teacher friends) that the way to ingratiate yourself with the students is to talk about sex, cars and rock and roll with them.  I thought to myself ‘surely that’s a way to get yourself fired’.  However, I quickly discovered that, whether you want to or not, the pupils will talk to you about these things.  If even a half-chance presents itself, the students will start talking about Angelina Jolie or their girlfriends.  Certain members of class also repeatedly ask ‘teacher, teacher, do you drink alcohol?’  Ask them where they would like to go on holiday, and the answer is, amongst a very select few, along the lines of ‘anywhere I can drink alcohol and see women in bikinis’.  Some go a step further and start talking about drugs and even offering you drugs.  Of course, this could be a joke, and is certainly said in a jovial manner…but there’s definitely something lurking under the surface.  This ‘something’ is seemingly limited to what we, in the west, would consider ‘soft’ drugs.  But I have invigilated an exam where one of the students (not mine, I hasten to add) was struggling to stay awake and upright, and furthermore was clutching his arm a fair bit.

Again, my point isn’t whether this is bad or good behaviour, or whether it is even as prevalent as I am making out.  The more controversial topics here are only touched on by one or two students out of every 30.  My point is that some students talk about sex, drugs and rock and roll amongst a group of people (and a teacher) they can’t be certain they can trust.  Their criticism of authority is much more restrained, however, and when politics enters the conversation the atmosphere suddenly becomes more uncomfortable as people go silent and shift and squirm in their seats.  If I ask (often the most uncontroversial questions) about anything that has happened in the Middle East in the last year, an opinion will not be forthcoming.  The majority of students will, however, react positively when asked what they think of the progress of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. 

 Of course, the other area where some students virtually leap out of their seats in anger is with any mention of the USA.  While certain students certainly want to go there one day, developing a wholehearted love of the place is unlikely.  As for Israel…I’ll have to come back to that.

 

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