Going to the desert – life as an English teacher in Saudi Arabia
When I took the CELTA and dared to dream of the many foreign lands I would travel to with my qualification, Saudi Arabia was not on the top of that list. In fact, it wasn’t even in the top ten. That was over three years ago, and still I live in this hot, sandy and conservative country. I’m sure you know about the financial benefits, but what else is there? Why did I stay?
Well, for a start; Saudi is not for everyone. I have seen handfuls of young men and women who have come here and left soon after, or been miserable because they either had misinformed expectations of Saudi Arabia, or had read ‘tax-free’ rather than ‘conservative home of Islam’.
Saudi is an unusual country – It is oil rich and very conservative. It is a ‘dry’ country, without alcohol. Also the two sexes are completely segregated, so there is very little interaction with the opposite sex, unless you live on a western compound (of which there are lots). And dating is forbidden. And what about those extremists – they live here, don’t they? Wow, still feel like applying?
Well, that picture is inaccurate. Dating and social interaction with the opposite sex is forbidden, but the expat population is large and lively, and if you do not end up living on a compound it is only a matter of time before you will meet someone who does and who invites you to socialise there. OK, so it’s not Phuket, but, if you want to socialise, with westerners or the locals, then you can and if you want a quiet life, then you can do that too. The people here are lovely and hospitable whatever your religious persuasion, there is sun all year round, and there are plenty of places to go and things to do if you are inclined to seek them out.
Institutions in Saudi Arabia put a lot of stock by qualifications rather than experience, and usually the Saudi company which sponsors the employees requires at least a BA (in any subject) and a recognised teaching certificate such as a CELTA or Trinity TESOL.
Finding a job
There are no shortage of jobs in the Kingdom; just look at any of the major TEFL websites:
I would advise doing a bit of background reading on any offers you get, for example checking out some blogs or forums. The process from application to being flown out can be very quick, for me it was about three weeks between first contact and landing in Saudi. There is a large youth population here, and a growing need to take part in the world-wide community, so there is a thirst for English, and therefore for English teachers.
Mostly, the jobs will be for colleges and universities, or working with workers who need English for the workplace. Expect to receive between 11,000 – 20,000 SAR a month (about £1,850 – £3,350). This salary often comes with added benefits such as housing and medical insurance, and is always tax-free.
The working conditions can vary greatly, Saudi is a rich country but that money doesn’t find its way everywhere. It is a land of contrasts and contradictions – Filthy rich and extremely conservative. In love with technology but desperate to keep hold of its traditions. Don’t be surprised to see state-of the-art technology, sat in its box in the corner of room because no one knows how to set it up, and plenty of computers, but restricted access to sites.
In general I have been treated very well in the workplace and have received my money, and bonus, as contractually promised, on time for three years. As with many other EFL companies all around the world; there are horror stories too, but these seem to be few are far between here.
Obtaining residency and opening a bank account
Your company will take care of all of this. It may be a slow process, and you may have to be flown into Bahrain first, where you will be processed and go though a medical exam and get your visa. Once in, the process of applying for the ‘iqarma’ (the residency card) will begin. Once you have the iqarma, you will be able to open a bank account and register for services such as internet and SIM cards. While you await the iqarma you will still be able to use the internet and get a SIM card, just you will not not be able to get a long-term contract with the operators.
Where to live
There are three main hubs in Saudi; the east, the centre and the west. In the east (where I live) you have Dammam, Khobar and Al-Ahsa, all of which are close to Dammam international airport and a short drive to Bahrain should you want a weekend away in a more open country with drinking and nightclubs. In this area there is the massive oil company Aramco which hires English teachers, often through contractors and probably have some of the best benefits you will find in the world. I have spoken to recruiters of packages at close to 100,000 US$.
In the centre you have Riyadh, the capital city, and like most capitals it has a large selection of restaurants, parks, coffee shops and as with most big cities, is crowded and a nightmare for traffic! The people here are more conservative than on the coasts but you still see a big mix of nationalities. It is in Riyadh that there are the most universities and less oil companies so here you are more likely to find a position in a more academic environment.
In the west is Jeddah; perhaps the most open part of Saudi. Jeddah has many things going for it including being on the Red Sea, which is great for divers and also has great private beaches, historic architecture, and a good selection of restaurants. Again, not many oil companies here (as far as I know), but lots of choice of colleges, English programs and universities to work for.
Life in Saudi
I cannot exaggerate how friendly and hospitable the people of Saudi Arabia are. As I write this I have been interrupted by a former student bringing round gifts for the teachers and admin staff with his smiling niece. Don’t be surprised to be stopped in the street and asked where you come from and which football team you support, or to be embarrassed at how often you have to turn down invitations to student’s houses. And if you do go to meet them for lunch (and you must eventually), you will not be able to pay for it. Students will think nothing of getting your watch fixed for you (as happened to me), taking your computer and fixing it (as has just happened to my colleague), or driving to you the nearest airport, 200 miles away in the middle of the night. I heard recently ‘for westerners, time is something to steal, for Arabs, it’s something to share’.
So, is it all great? No, it’s difficult at times. Although the people are extremely kind, it is difficult to integrate into local community, and sometimes the kindness from students is not unconditional – they may be surprised if you don’t increase their grades. The weather is less hospitable than the people – expect cold winters and oven-heat (50 degrees plus) in the summer, dust storms and flash floods. And the food? If you like chicken and rice or rice and chicken then you will be happy!
The biggest problem for me in this country is the bureaucracy; applying for work visas, bringing family across and getting the visa to travel in and out of the country. But, even in the time I have been here, these processes have got far easier.
The key here is to expect things to take a long time. Do not plan to come across and bring your husband or wife across within a few weeks. Assume there will be delays and problems with paperwork, because invariably there are.
What else is there?
Saudi is large country and in the north and south has many small cities and towns which are worth visiting, such as Tabuk and Abaa. There is also the historic Mad’in Saleh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mada’in_Saleh), similar to Petra, but without the tourists.
There are plenty of traditional souqs and shopping malls, if shopping is your thing. But, if you prefer more active pursuits, then there are water sports on the coasts and football in between.
Where I live, in Al-Ahsa there are caves which are great for exploring, historic forts, and more date trees than anywhere else on the planet
Saudi Arabia is not for everyone’s taste, I would suggest that it is for those who want to make a good tax-free salary, but are comfortable with a quiet and peaceful life. I am often reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s line ‘if you can wait, and not be tired by waiting’. Last week my friend told me Saudi requires ‘patience and flexibility’, he is right. Expect to have time on your hands, and expect a slow pace to life. I have been able to complete a master’s while being here, my neighbour has learnt to play the guitar, another has learnt Arabic. It is good for single people but maybe not for those who are looking to meet someone in a romantic sense. Perhaps contrary to most people’s intuition – it is a great place for families; there is virtually no crime and families are treated very well.
When I arrived in KSA, three years ago, my boss then met me at the airport and he gave me some advice, he said “You will not change Saudi, but it will change you”, and he was right, it has changed me, for the better. Personally, I came for the money, I stayed for the people.
By Richard Fielden-Watkinson
Images by Richard Fielden-Watkinson
If you have any questions for Richard or also have experience teaching English 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.