by Feb 22, 2021 | Expat Life, Intercultural Skills, Middle East|
“Saudi Arabia changed my life”. Not in the way that you might think, though I’m sure it is true for many people who live here. For me, Saudi Arabia opened up a new world of opportunities.
When my mom, living in small-town rural Pennsylvania, told friends that her daughter was living in Saudi Arabia, they literally gasped. I may have had a similar reaction years ago when I first heard about other friends who had lived and worked there.
But curiosity always gets the best of me, and I was pleasantly surprised as I listened to their middle east stories.
As it turns out, there were several people in my network, from different countries around the world, who were born in Saudi Arabia, or had lived and worked there for a period—and loved it.
They had only positive things to say. I heard many praises: “amazing people, safe place, delicious food, great facilities, abundant career opportunities, wonderful memories,” and more. All would jump at the chance to go back.
When my opportunity came in 2016, to work in Saudi Arabia as a communication skills trainer for the staff at KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology),
I decided to take the leap of faith and GO. I ended up spending four unforgettable years in the Big Sand Box, and the results were life-changing. Here are the biggest reasons:
You don’t love a place for its beaches, landscapes and buildings—no matter how beautiful they are. What makes you love a place is the people, and the memories you have with them. In the first few months of working in Saudi Arabia, all my Saudi students and colleagues went out of their way to help me feel at home.
They called me “sister” and asked me every day how I was settling in. They told me that if I ever needed anything—at any hour of the day or night–just ask them.
I really felt that if I was ever in need, they would jump to my rescue.
In my life in Saudi Arabia, I could also feel there was a deep sense of pride for their country, and they really wanted me to be comfortable there. This was like a warm fuzzy blanket of comfort that every expat needs.
Saudis are flexible and easy-going, and know how to make every work day fun. They never get stressed out or angry. If they do, they don’t show it to anyone, since there is a strong cultural value of “saving face” or not embarrassing people. If they are not pleased with something, they will not say strong words to anyone’s face.
They find a way to say it in a polite and gentle way, so that people understand, without having their feelings hurt.
This way, the harmony in the workplace is always preserved, and you feel that you are working in a safe, non-threatening environment.
Is your culture getting in the way of your productivity?
As a relationship-oriented culture, Saudis are great conversationalists and will never turn down the chance to share a coffee and a good chat. They are loyal friends, and if some time passed between seeing a female friend, she would roll out the red carpet for you, showering you with kisses, sometimes seven or eight of them—on alternating cheeks!
At the end of the first course I taught at KAUST, many students showered me with lavish gifts—and I felt so utterly undeserving! Sure, it’s common to give gifts to teachers at the end of a course. But I had been teaching for more than 15 years and had never received such thoughtful gifts as I received in Saudi Arabia.
Students actually remembered things I had casually mentioned in class — like I loved to rollerblade but couldn’t bring my blades with me to Saudi — so one class gave me a set of brand-new rollerblades.
In another class, one student used to bring his Nespresso machine to class on special occasions, and shared coffee with everyone.
At the end of the course, they gave me a brand-new Nespresso machine, so that I would remember our times together.
It’s not just about gifts, though. It’s more about how they treated me: the hospitality and concern for my well-being, and their enthusiasm about coming to classes. It was about how they frequently brought food to class to share. It was about how they taught me about their culture and their history.
It was about how they explained Islam to me in a gentle and non-pushy way.
I understood their deep love for their faith. I admired their discipline in praying so many times per day, then fasting for 30 days straight in Ramadan! (By the way, students never accepted my offers to modify the intensity of classes during Ramadan. They insisted on proceeding as normal, giving presentations and even taking exams while fasting!)
I also saw a wonderful sense of community among the Saudi students I was teaching.
It was the first time I saw in a classroom that students did not want to compete. It’s very common for teachers to put students into groups to play games, in order to reinforce and practice certain concepts. However, I found the Saudi students always wanted to help the other team get the right answers, instead of scoring against them!
Thanks to this unique window into the culture, I learned so much, opened my mind, and broadened my horizons. To say it was a pleasant surprise would be an understatement.
As a teacher, your job is to impart knowledge to people. The reality is that most of the time you end up learning more from your students, and being in Saudi was no exception. Due to the nature of the students I was working with, I can honestly say I had some of the BEST teaching experiences of my entire career there.
Saudi Arabia is a society that relies on its expatriate workers.
Over half of its 9.7 million workers are from other countries. As an institution that attracts talent from all over the world, KAUST has between 110 and 120 nationalities represented at any given time. It was the first time in my life I had met people from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and many other countries!
Since I thrive on discovering other cultures and learning about them, it was a goldmine and a playground for me.
Saudi Arabia is a place that is hungry for knowledge and the contributions from foreigners.
They have a sense of appreciation for people who come from other countries to live and work there. They are also extremely flexible and understanding with foreigners and never expect you to mold to their cultural norms.
Of course, whenever living in a foreign country, it’s important to understand the host culture and respect it. But contrary to what you might have heard, Saudi Arabia is not a closed culture at all. They are curious, interested, and appreciative of people’s unique experiences and skills. They understand we are different and don’t expect us to change.
They do encourage you to take part in the festivities, such as delicious Iftar meals to break the fast at sundown during Ramadan. Yum!
Saudi Arabia is a place where things are growing and changing.
Due to the “Vision 2030,” a series of initiatives launched by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the focus is now is to wean off dependence on oil, and invest in its best commodity: people. The result is the upskilling of its population through new universities, and countless other education and training institutes.
At KAUST, our facilities are world-class, spacious, modern, high-tech, and carry the beautiful flair of Arab architecture. It is on the Red Sea and has its own beautiful beaches, restaurants, and recreation centers. In addition to having a great physical environment to work in, it is possible to grow and achieve more than what you were hired for.
Besides being a communication skills trainer, I was also a certified cross-cultural trainer.
I suggested including this subject in the course offerings, and they agreed. I am so grateful for the opportunity to contribute and develop my skills there.
Later on, when I was seeking a fresh change, they offered me a different job, which came with a great deal more challenges. I find it remarkable when an employer allows you the chance to grow, learn something new, and contribute in a different way.
In fact, I had the chance to develop and hone countless skills throughout my time in Saudi Arabia. All in all, it was one of the most impactful professional experiences I’ve had to date.
Let’s face it: one of the most attractive reasons to work in Saudi Arabia is the high tax-free salary.
In addition to the salary, there were numerous benefits which made it a no-brainer when it came to deciding whether to relocate your life across the globe. Due to this opportunity, I was able to fulfill many lifelong dreams that previously had been just remote possibilities.
On a personal note, aside from all the professional reasons, something happened which was beyond my wildest dreams. On the day I arrived in Saudi in July 2016, with suitcases in tow, I was going through a painful breakup. The taxi driver who came to pick me up at the airport was friendly and chatted to me the whole way.
At one point he asked me if I was married. I told him, “no, I’m not,” and prayed that he would not pursue the topic any further, since it was a delicate subject at the time.
He only said, “I will pray for you to find a husband.”
A few weeks after I arrived, to my utter surprise, I met the love of my life.
This was something I never imagined. We got married in 2019. My life is now 1000 times better than before.
From time to time I would see that taxi driver, so one time I asked him, “Have you been praying for me? Because something amazing happened…”
Without missing a beat, he replied, “I always pray for you, Cheryl.”
Needless to say, when it comes to my experience in Saudi Arabia, I have much more to be thankful for, beyond the economic and professional reasons.
All of the amazing things that happened while working and living there further reinforced my belief that living abroad enriches your life in countless ways, and leaves you a changed person forever.
Despite whatever image this country may have, I can tell you now from personal experience that most of what you have heard is completely false, or grossly exaggerated.
Moreover, the country is going through rapid changes.
Women in Saudi could drive as of June 2018. Concerts, open-air entertainment and movie theaters are now allowed. The country is spearheading several mega-projects like the new smart city NEOM, The Red Sea Project, Amaala, Qiddiya Entertainment City, and more. There are also numerous incentives in place to motivate foreign investors to open up shop in this transforming, growing economy.
All in all, this is how Saudi Arabia changed my life for the better and it is in a way that I never expected.
If YOU are looking for a new adventure, Saudi Arabia has countless opportunities. If you are interested in learning more about how to find a job or open a business there, contact me for a free consultation.
Connecting businesses to the world