Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

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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Propaganda and anti-semitism.

Last night I went to see a film in Jeddah. This, in itself, is unusual as there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia (although there is talk that they are in the pipeline). It was on the roof of the Jeddah Cultural Exchange Centre” (http://www.jcec.com.sa/) and was also organised by the lovely Susie of Arabia (http://susieofarabia.wordpress.com)

The film was the Aramco Brat’s Story (http://bratstory.com), which had been billed as a look at expats at Aramco, and their attitudes towards Saudi Arabia, and whether perceptions of the kingdom are true. This, it was, for about 20 minutes of the film…the rest could’ve been anywhere and was basically a look at American life in a compound. This was actually kind of interesting to me as I have never set foot in a compound. As expected, life didn’t appear to be too different from life anywhere in the west. Perhaps because of this the Americans interviewed didn’t have a bad word to say about Saudi Arabia. Admittedly I agree with the idea that western perceptions of the kingdom are wrong, but anyone who believes things are as wonderful as the director makes out is clearly deluded.

The most hilarious part of the film came when an all-american blonde stated: “I think being brainwashed is just…um….really….stupid”. The director claimed he wanted to present an unbiased opinion of what KSA is like (unlike the news networks), yet ended up with a sickly sweet homage to America and Saudi Arabia (including pictures of Bush and King Abdulaziz together, set to cutesy piano music).

The film, as well as being a very interesting propaganda exercise by whoever payed for it, also gave me a chance to meet Susie…who is basically a Jeddah-celebrity. She informed me that, while I was away in Lebanon last week, the King had passed a decree allowing single men into malls (providing they behave themselves). This is actually quite a radical step and although it’s difficult anticipate good behaviour, the best way to learn is through trying. Much like the idea of women driving, the only way for men to get used to it is for it to happen (see my previous post). Susie and I agreed that the King is doing good things, step by step, and challenging the religious establishment. We just have to hope he stays in good health long enough to see things through.

In other propaganda news, I’m currently reading The Arab Lobby by Mitchell Bard, a response to the Israel Lobby. I feel I should point out somewhere that I in no way agree with the contents of this book, and if any muttawa find it on me I am not a supporter of Israel! I think this ranks as the most ridiculous book I’ve ever read…consisting of ways in which Arabists have influenced the US government to side against Israel. The argument against this should start and end with a simple look at Israel and the support and power it has been given by the US. The book does, however, have a point to make about the US-Saudi relationship…but it is not a new point.

The other ridiculous element of the book is the belief that everyone in the Arab world and every lobby group for Arabs is Anti-Semitic. NO! They are anti-Israel! That said, there are many Arabs who are genuinely anti-semitic. Bard argues against the ridiculous notion of the Arab lobbyists that the creation of Israel would result in the hatred of the Arab world (I’m yet to get to the point where he realises that this has happened, that the Arabists were right, yet ignored, and his whole argument falls on it’s face).

When I first came to Egypt several years ago, I was slightly shocked to see how many copies of Mein Kampf were on sale. I, myself, own one but this doesn’t make me a Nazi. Yet you never see it displayed in London bookshops, or hear people talking of their respect for the Nazis. One of my students once said “I love Hitler. What can you tell me about him?” I told him that he had killed 6 million Jews in horrific circumstances. When I realised that this was the reason why my student loved him, I explained that a) Israel probably wouldn’t exist if Hitler wasn’t around and b) if my student had lived in Germany in the 40s he, and his family, would’ve been on the train with the Jews of his town.
He went on to say that he still loved Hitler but he “didn’t know why”. Bard suggests brainwashing takes place in the Saudi school system. I have no idea whether this is true, and not many of my students express any admiration for the Nazis.

To bring things full circle, Bard does make the valid point that many oil companies were (and still, indirectly are) supporting discriminatory practices of the Saudi Kingdom   (although some would later go on to challenge them) including….being banned from hiring Jews.  Funnily enough the Aramco Brats story didn’t mention this part of their history.

“By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise” – Adolf Hitler

(PS – I am NOT a Nazi)

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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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It is, indeed, Jummah

As a follow up to this morning’s post, I’ve just discovered that Amnesty are putting pressure on Malaysia not to return Hamza Kashgari to Saudi Arabia.  Worth a read: http://amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/death-penalty-fear-tweeter-facing-forcible-return-saudi-arabia-malaysia-201
As for this video, words fail 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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I think I’ll spend my money on……

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/12/28/the_prince_of_twitter?page=0,0

It’s the end of the year, and on a different note, one of the saddest news stories of the year for me was the splitting up of REM.
So:  

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