Tag Archives: saudi

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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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……


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.

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I’ve been away for a couple of weeks, and unfortunately missed out on all the Hajj fun.  Although my students have been taking great pleasure in telling me how many sheep they sacrificed.  My arrival back to SA was massively easier than last time when I had to wait 5 hours.   However, it’s taking me a while to get back into the swing of things here.  If you fail to do so, it can feel like you’re imprisoned sometimes.  But I’m getting there again…it just takes a while to learn to enjoy yourself in different ways to what we’re accustomed to in the west.

Anyway, here’s a link which is interesting (if you’re interested in SA)http://csis.org/publication/saudi-youth-unveiling-force-change

I’m not entirely convinced by some of the interviewing.  Firstly, the article says marriage is being delayed by financial constraints.  Not only is this something which would be nigh on impossible to ascertain by interviewing people, but in the west the opposite is generally accepted as being logical:  as people get more comfortable they marry later.   Amongst the even more unscientific sample of my students there is still an eagerness to get married.  They are very confused about how someone my age (28-35) can be unmarried.  The article also later links the higher education of women to the higher marriage age, implying a different causation.  This is not to say that education and wealth are the same thing though.  As the article makes clear this is one of the main problems in SA (and much of the developing world) – education with no opportunities (40% of 20-24 year olds are unemployed).

The article also anticipates the proposed limits on foreign workers (who currently make up over 80% of the private sector) which will come into play next year and should lead to more chances for Saudis to progress within the private sector (although will, according to Citi bankers hurt the economy)

The idea that limited opportunites and changing social ideas are a recipe for protest is perhaps overstating the case though.  My students and some of my fellow teachers believe this is unlikely because of the complacency of much of the younger generation.  Even without great jobs, many of them will live a reasonably comfortable life.  Or is this a biased opinion of those who wish to excuse students’ behaviour or paint a particular picture of Saudis?

Incidentally, the other point which made me question some of the research methods was the interview question to which 84% of women and 65% of men responded affirmatively: 
“I feel that I have the courage and the strength to overcome all the challenges that might be
associated with the working life of women."

I’ve had some training in research methods, and though I’m no expert, I know that this isn’t the best way to gauge whether people feel happy with the progress of women’s rights.
My limited experience concurs with the idea that young Saudis are different and have got differing views about the state, their lives, and the world to the previous generation.  However, I also get the feeling the article is expecting something that might not be forthcoming.  It also seems to want something that may not be desired by many Saudis.  Witness, for instance, the way it talks about Saudi society valuing conformity.  This is a generalisation in my mind, and one which implies conformity is a bad thing.  Could it not just be that individuals desire similar things?  Or that people put society before themselves?  It’s desire for “bold, independent thinking” which (it says) can be driven by international actors seems to stem more from wanting societal change than helping the workforce (precisely how many people who work for large private firms engage in any bold, independent thinking?).  Paradoxically, helping the workforce get jobs may impede any such desire.  Although it would also change the social contract which may affect society’s demands (both areas the article neglects).

I’ve already gone off on a massive tangent so I’ll cut my ramblings short here.


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“A great victory for Saudi women”

The week started with national day, which appears to be an excuse for people to paint their cars green (pictures below) and drive around in them shouting and waving flags. Oh, and part of the population gets a day off.

But the news that dominated the week was the King’s “historic decision” to give women the vote in municipal elections, and stand for the Shura Council. The Saudi Gazette (one of two extremely mundane English Language newspapers here), presented this as rooted in the rules of Allah’s Shariah and the Prophet’s Sunnah, and part of the way in which Islamic societies such as Saudi Arabia have elevated women’s social status and given them “equal spiritual status”. Of course, this would contradict the western view of the progress of women’s rights under the Saudi interpretation of Sharia law, but who am I to say whether that’s accurate?

For various reactions see here: http://xrdarabia.org/2011/09/28/the-kings-speech-reactions/

The good news for women was seemingly contradicted within a couple of days when it was announced that Shaima Jastaina was to be sentence to 10 lashes for driving without permission (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/29/saudi-women-living-contradiction). This would be a punishment not even doled out for the driving protest last year, and has thus been seen as a reaction by judges to Abdullah’s expansion of the vote. Within two days though (again), Abdullah had overturned the ruling.

Quite where this will lead – and whether it is a preview of the sort of political wrangling, infighting and overruling of decisions which many believe will follow Abdullah’s passing – I certainly have no idea. Nor do I have much access to the sorts of blogs which I would normally steal my ‘opinions’ from. However, if you’re in London and you’re interested in Saudi Arabian politics, I would highly recommend: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/middleEastCentre/events/2011/Madawi%20Al%20Rasheed.aspx

Not that I am advocating any views which may be held in the course of the lecture.
Nor am I arguing for or against the expansion or cut back of women’s rights.
Nor am I saying that Abdullah will pass any time soon.
And I’m certainly not saying I agree with anyone who says the succession of power will be anything other than simple.

On a lighter note:

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