Like a great many teachers, my application to teach in Saudi Arabia was made on a whim. Facing another year of professional uncertainty, my credo was: ‘apply and see what happens’. I was more than a little surprised when within a week, and without any ‘official’ interview I’d been offered a teaching post at the largest female only university in the world on the edge of Riyadh. A year on, after circumnavigating my way through the extensive highs and lows as life as a single woman in KSA I feel that it is time to pass on my experiences, especially as Saudi related advice can be thin on the ground, and rarely constructive; in this area of EFL horror stories abound. Indeed, once I made my decision to go, I struggled to find a single constructive anecdote to guide me, which only added to my anxiety; the reality, however, was not exactly as I’d imagined.
The application: Agency vs Direct Hire
Unbeknown to me, my application to work in Saudi was made through a teaching agency. I had no idea at the time that the random click I made on the best worded vacancy offering ‘exotic adventures in the desert’ was in fact the same offer being advertised not only directly through the university, but also through at least four other agencies on the same job site (www.tefl.com).
Being employed through such an agency was a decision I came to regret. Given that Saudi is now a vast employer of English teachers, particularly of single females, wide ranging salaries and conditions abound. The best offers are, almost certainly, directly from the universities and schools; agencies swallow up wages given directly to them from the institutions, calling it ‘administrative fees’, this was up to a thousand pounds a month of difference between myself as an agency employee, and a ‘direct hire’ co-worker: hugely frustrating, especially as co-workers could be newly qualified teachers, and sometimes even those with no formal teaching qualifications whatsoever.
As always, the British Council is a safer option regarding employment, but if there are no vacancies, the universities and state run schools are a close second. Neither are perfect, and both can be stressful and frustrating, but on the whole they require a certain standard from their teachers, and are more likely to hire legally and provide Iqamas. I encountered teachers from a variety of backgrounds and qualifications in Saudi, but for the best salaries and university positions, 3 years plus experience is preferable, as is a degree in English and a CELTA, particularly for North American teachers.
The average teaching salary in Saudi varies enormously from 10,000 to 18,000 SAR ($2,600 – $4,800) per month. With eight years of experience, I was still at the lower end of this range, in which qualifications and work history are supposed to count, again the repercussions of agency employment. Amazingly, nationality was also involved in the process of allocating wage, with Brits and Americans receiving the most, and South Africans a more paltry sum by comparison. Again direct employment with your institution leaves much more room for negotiation. Of course, any income you earn is always tax free whilst in the Kingdom, but research needs to be undertaken in order to ascertain whether or not you will be taxed on anything you earn back home. Taking everything into consideration, however, KSA is still one of the only countries where teachers can make enough money to save. In reality, your only expenses will be food costs, taxi costs or any travelling or personal shopping which are fair, and not dissimilar to back home. If you can last, it is a place where you can make enough money to put a deposit down on a property back home, or pay off tuition fees in a relatively short period of time.
The whole package:
Besides wages, the employment package on a whole is something which influenced my decision to take up work in Riyadh, as such, it should be mulled over, and considered with care. Institutions and agencies will try to hurry candidates: don’t be rushed. It is difficult to source staff willing to transfer to the Kingdom, so you do have time to negotiate and think it through. My own university was recruiting non-stop, and was always chronically short staffed. Packages should normally include: first class medical/dental insurance (for you and a number of your dependants should they be accompanying you), free accommodation (if you are lucky this will be in a secure compound, but alternatives include hotels and apartments, or a contribution to rent your own (note: in Saudi rents are paid a year at a time, so it is difficult, unless you have vast reserves of cash, to pay up front for a year, also, given the life you will have there, you may be hesitant to pay for a year, especially if you are unsure as to whether or not you are staying that long). Employers should also offer a return air fare for you and your dependants; school fees are an additional offer to those coming with children, and transport to and from work each day (or a small contribution to taxi fares). There is no public transport in Saudi Arabia so if you come without a husband brave enough to tackle the roads, a taxi will be a daily occurrence.
The visa process to enter Saudi is neither short nor simple, but should be initiated by the employer. One of the primary tasks candidates face is sourcing and taking part in a medical which includes chest x rays, and giving blood and urine samples. Normally the teacher in question is required to pay for the testing on the day (between £700 -£1000) of which they are supposed to be reimbursed upon arrival in Saudi in the first pay cheque. However in my case, due to an administrative mishap, and as a show of faith, my agency agreed to pay for my medical. Although initially this seemed generous, it in fact meant a long wait for an appointment to be organised, paying for a 400 mile trip to London (with a day’s notice) plus accommodation expenses, and enduring an unpleasant face-to-face medical experience which in theory could have been undertaken by my own doctor. If you have to organise this yourself (as a British citizen), Harley Street Visas in London offer a professional service, a female doctor (request this) and the option to ‘rush’ the administering of the visa to one week; the standard wait post medical could be up to a month. American citizens have to source the testing of their own blood, urine, and stool samples (the latter not required for candidates coming from the UK) according to their own pocket. Upon arrival in KSA, make sure you have your x rays and medical certificates to hand, they may be requested, especially if arriving around Hajj time in the autumn.
Having the right kind of visa is of the utmost importance. Before accepting a contract, ensure your employer will be providing you with an employment visa with the possibility to obtain an Iqama (work permit/I.D card). You will need your Iqama for everything, from buying a sim card to entering a compound. As of spring this year, the Saudi government began a major crackdown on visa fraud and any workers found without valid visas or Iqamas were imprisoned, or if they were lucky, deported. A large majority of illegal workers went into hiding, before making their way to their embassy for help. Given the size of Saudi’s expat community (30% of the population) this affected businesses significantly. As such, if you are coming into the country under the sponsorship of a spouse, legally you are not permitted to work, and would need sponsorship, visa and Iqama under your employer’s banner: be aware.
A final word on the issuing of legal documents. My decision to take up work in Riyadh was based on a specific request to my recruiters; I would not come if my passport was taken from me (this does happen), and unless I was given a multi entry visa (giving me the legal ability to leave and enter the Kingdom at will for a 6 month period). Whilst they assured me both of these conditions would be met, the latter did not materialise. I kept my passport other than for five anxious weeks waiting for my Iqama to be processed, but I was not issued a multi entry visa. In fact I had no exit visa at all, meaning I was stuck in the country unless my agency gave in and relinquished said magic piece of paper. Again, this is not uncommon. It wasn’t really until this moment that it dawned on me that my liberty had been curtailed. I couldn’t leave the country without someone else’s permission; accepting this was a challenge and my own coping method was complete denial. I shut my ears to the stories of friends begging to leave, having to pay enormous amounts of money to buy themselves out of their contracts, and others running away in the middle of the night after receiving a visa for weekend travel – just enough to get them to Dubai or Bahrain where they hopped onto the nearest plane out of the Middle East. Should something bad happen at home, you have to accept that you are at the mercy of your sponsor. Therefore if things pre Saudi are turbulent for you you may want to defer your travel plans until a more settled period of time, if that’s not possible a multi entry visa should be a high priority, make sure it is written into your contract.
Where to go?
Most jobs in Saudi are centred in its capital, Riyadh, or on the red sea cost city of Jeddah, and the two are renowned for being quite different in terms of lifestyle. In a conservative country, Riyadh is known as being one of the most stringent in its enforcing of Sharia law. This means the Hai’a (more commonly known as the Muttawa or Religious Police – employees of The Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue) are often out in force, usually hunting down women who are not sufficiently covered, or with men who are not blood relatives. Usually they are content to bark at foreign women for showing their hair or a little too much skin (neck or face), but occasions do arise when they go beyond the call of duty, hounding women out of shops, malls and restaurants, even detaining and holding them for several hours for being in a car with an unrelated male driver. Strangely, their favourite locales seem to be malls, so when shopping it is always best to be aware. Men, surprisingly, are not completely free from this unwanted attention, and those in shorts, or wearing certain colours, or having certain haircuts could also face the wrath of the Mutawa.
Jeddah on the other hand is well known for being more international and relaxed given its history as a busy port over the centuries, and as such, being home to a bigger variety of cultures. Teaching colleagues there often remarked on their being able to walk about in merely an Abaya, with no need to cover their hair or face. Jeddah is also famous for its diving and snorkelling, and the coast has access to private beach resorts where you can swim and sunbathe, at a price of course. The temperature is less forgiving than Riyadh however, with extremes of humidity along with its high temperatures. Riyadh is, by contrast, located in the middle of the desert, and therefore has humidity generally around 6 -10% making the hot weather more bearable.
A final location option nowadays seems to be the cities of Al Khobar and Damman on the Persian Gulf, neighbouring Bahrain. If for you the adage of location, location, location is apt, being close to the Bahrain border may be a more suitable option. Bahrain, although just a 30 minute drive from these two cities, has a much more ‘normal’ way of life if you are a westerner. Free to walk about without an Abaya, you can socialise with male friends, drink alcohol and drive. Of course, caution must still be taken, it is under Sharia law like the Emirates, but in comparison to Saudi, particularly in terms of rules and sanctions on women, it’s Disneyland.
Another area which causes significant anxiety among women travelling to KSA is of course the dress code. It is the law in Saudi to wear an Abaya in public, this is a long, loose fitting black cloak covering from neck to ankles. If you leave your house without this and are caught, you face imprisonment, and embassies are in no rush to break out their fellow countrymen and women if you are caught blatantly breaking the law. However, if you come from a cold climate, the putting on of an Abaya before leaving the house is as familiar as putting on a long coat, the length probably being its biggest hindrance. Under your Abaya you can wear whatever you want, although work will confine you to a long skirt or dress and long sleeved blouse or top. Do not bring a work wardrobe of trouser suits, you will get next to no wear from them.
If in a conservative town like Riyadh, a hijab will also be a daily encumbrance, again there being a law meaning women must cover their hair to enter government buildings such as universities or schools. Most women cover their hair with scarves, normally black, but more coloured ones seem to be acceptable if worn by a foreign woman. You do see non Saudi women out without their hair covered, but, in my own experience, this seemed to attract negative attention, and I personally felt more vulnerable. You are open to criticism from Saudis both male and female, and on more than one occasion I was targeted by the Mutawa. In the end I felt it was simply not worth the anxiety, and I submitted to wearing the scarf, despite the discomfort it brings in the heat of the summer.
The Niqab, or face veil which leaves just the eyes uncovered, is the final piece of modest outer clothing worn by Saudi women. If you are non-Muslim and a foreigner you do not have to wear this, it is perfectly acceptable and legal to be bare faced. However be warned, if you have the physical characteristics shared by Saudi women, particularly the skin tone or hair colour, you may be more vulnerable to the Mutawa who will take you for a Saudi and therefore Muslim, and could come down all the more harshly upon you. The Niqab does have its benefits: appearing in public incognito and stopping relentless questions from taxi drivers, but that of course is not its purpose in the eyes of the Saudis, and most will question your need to wear it if you do decide to don it in public unnecessarily.
Try to pick up an Abaya before arriving in KSA for peace of mind. A huge range is available online, on Ebay, and in local Middle Eastern shops and communities. Shukr is also a great website for good quality, modest clothing. The airport in Riyadh and Jeddah are international, therefore you can fly in without one, but to exit you must be covered. If this is not possible long, loose fitting skirts or dresses which cover the skin, or a long jacket or cardigan will do until you can obtain one.
As a woman in Saudi Arabia I had very little contact with Saudi men other than on the occasional official capacity such as at the airport. Gender segregation exists everywhere, some malls will not allow entrance to single males, and seating areas in restaurants are arranged into ‘family’ for women and families (including men if part of a family group), and singles, i.e. bachelors. Women should ALWAYS go to the family section, many of these will have private booths enabling women to uncover their hair or faces while eating with their husbands and children. Queues are also gender specific, if waiting for a coffee at Starbucks the same rule applies, girls are in the family line, boys without wives, mothers or sisters must go to the singles counter. Shops and banks may also have separate entrances for men and women, or even separate branches. I banked using a female only branch (Al Rhaji) and found it enormously professional, and peaceful. Gender segregation can, on occasion, lead to unpleasant experiences, therefore it is often easier to adhere to it to avoid potentially upsetting circumstances and unnecessary stress.
Many people, particularly those who are single or in their twenties and thirties worry that there will be no opportunities to socialise or interact with the opposite sex at all in KSA. This is not the case! The expat community is booming in cities such as Riyadh, and mixed gender social occasions and parties are numerous and go on, naturally, behind the closed doors and high walls of secure compounds.
Saudis are big on family and spend significant amounts of time with relatives and friends, or out in the desert having barbecues and picnics. Other than this, shopping and eating out seem to be the two national pastimes and in cities such as Riyadh it is easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of malls and restaurants, all with familiar brands and branches from home. However, as mentioned above, if you are looking for more interaction, compound parties are a weekly occurrence and with a bit of networking can be located and invites sourced. I was prepared for boredom in Saudi and came with ample amounts of dvds, books and activities to keep me entertained. In the end my friends and I were often hitting two parties a weekend, and we made great contacts enabling us to visit different compounds, many of which were the epitome of luxury having restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and even cinemas and theatres.
Outside of this, determined expats have created their own clubs and societies; you can join the local amateur dramatics, be part of the Cineclub, join the choir, go off roading, or become a member of a private gym. Embassies also organise expat friendly nights such as film screenings, party nights and celebrations (such as New Year), and cultural exhibits and bazaars. In truth, there is no end of things to do in a big city like Riyadh or Jeddah, but the key is how determined you are to find them. Networking is the key to making your ‘wasta’ or connections. Once you have established connections within the different nationality groups your inbox will always be full of invites. If upon arrival you are unsure where to start, Internations are a great organisation who have regular mixed meet ups in restaurants, organise trips to the desert or places of local interest, and provide a forum promoting community interaction. Social networking sites such as Facebook are also a great place to source local ex-pat groups. The Hash is another alternative, and in Riyadh was the place to socialise and make friends. Internationally the Hash is a running club, but in Saudi it was more a weekly desert hiking club. All kinds of people join in given the easy, medium and difficult level optional routes, and many stayed around for barbecues and post hike socialising round a desert campfire. There are some precautions to socialising in Saudi, however. If you are caught with Saudi nationals at a party where there is alcohol or any other compromising materials, you will face instant imprisonment or if lucky, deportation. Nationals are not permitted entry into most compounds and even some embassy events, and they are forbidden from joining the hash given that it is an event which allows men and women to interact, and women do not have to wear abayas.
There is no public transport in Saudi and next to no pavements or useable walkways, it is a country built for camels and cars. Riyadh is a city of vast highways which seem to endlessly streak across the desert, meaning having access to a driver is a necessity. Of course, women with husbands willing to drive are at an immediate advantage. However, if in Saudi as a lone female, a reliable and above all, trustworthy driver is worth his weight in gold. Again, this is a ‘wasta’ situation where having varied connections can help you find a suitable driver. In my own social group, we shared three drivers and called them up whenever necessary. The drivers in turn had reliable friends and family members also in need of work, who would be available should one be busy. Hailing a cab, although sometimes a necessity is not ideal and if I ever had the choice to use a trusted driver, I did.
In retrospect, I feel truly privileged to have been able to enter Saudi as it is only a select few who manage to gain permission to see inside the magic Kingdom. It is a fascinating culture to observe, and despite the challenges that occur, if you are prepared for all eventualities it is possible to work, save and make friends in an almost normal fashion. It is also a great base from which to explore the Middle East, and what adventurous EFL teacher could refuse?
By Gemma Archer
If you have any questions for Gemma or have worked in Saudi Arabia and would like to add some additional advice for prospective teachers please leave your reply in the comments section at the bottom of the page.