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This Saudi Life
30 May 2015

I arrived in Riyadh in mid-September 2012, wide-eyed and with various pre-determined personal and business goals, all developed after as much research as it was possible to undertake. 

It's now mid-August 2014 – a nano-second later in the enormity of a lifetime – and I returned home to Perth last week. No second year anniversary for me. The final count was 22 months and 16 days in the KSA. And, as I write, I'm reviewing all the character-building experiences that will likely stay with me for the remainder of my life's journey. 

Most of the glorious memories centre around the people and not the place: 
  • I forged close friendships and spent time crying, laughing, drinking, dancing, smiling, working, and cooking with some very special people; 
  • I hosted a charity drive where women came together to support abused women in Saudi;
  • I created a compound social club and set up a bar at home where Drew and I served our homemade spirits to our compound friends and neighbours;
  • I delivered home-cooked meals (along with other caring wives) to a friend's husband in hospital with bacterial meningitis;
  • I interviewed Saudis and expats for a family-focused newsletter and - in the process - made connections with diverse and fascinating people; and
  • In the last 6 months, I trained alongside four strong and inspiring women to get fit and compete in some mini-triathlons in Riyadh.
Thankful for the good times...
Throughout my time in Riyadh, I loved every second of what it meant to be an 'expat wife'. There is a saying that some chaps in Saudi love to quote: "When I die, I want to come back as an expat wife”. These men folk (mostly chippy blokes from the UK) believe their wives swan about all day with friends, spending money in Riyadh shopping malls. They are not mistaken; there are many who did fit that description neatly...but...

Depth of friendships and connections

The women I chose to spend valuable hours with were interesting, feisty, intelligent, industrious and determined to make their time in Saudi count for something. Yes, we met for coffee often but, while sipping our cappuccinos, we gave each other the encouragement we each needed to lead a positive life while in Saudi. Those meet-ups were our chance to escape the pressure-cooker mix of compound life and connect, listen and share. These women were career-focused before they became a 'trailing spouse' in Riyadh, and it was a hard transition for those who could not find work in their chosen field - or any field - because of Saudi Ministry of Labor policies that restricted expat women working in the Kingdom.
I did drink a lot of coffee!

Patience, tolerance and kindness
In Riyadh I had the chance to share my good fortune with others from very different backgrounds. Like many, I donated to a safe-house for Philippinas who had run away from their Saudi family employers after being subjected to physical and mental abuse. These girls have to wait as long as two years for new identity papers before they can even start the process of returning home and, while in the safe house, they need toiletries, clothes, underwear etc, which is all donated. 

Over 17 months, I also developed a very special bond with Alauddin Sarker, the Bangladeshi man aged 47, whom I paid to clean my house once a week. I helped him secure more work with other families on the compound and he confided that - as a result - he was able to save more than SAR 1500 (A$430) per month. Sarker has worked in Riyadh for 23 years and, during that time, he has focused on saving to build his own home. He travels home to Dhaka only every 2-3 years and so he only sees his wife for short and infrequent bursts of time. Sarker met my parents when they came to stay and he wanted to do all he could to make their stay comfortable. We shared home numbers on our last day and, when he heard about my Mum's heart attack in July, he used his mobile phone to make an expensive call from Riyadh to Perth to speak to Mum and wish her better. He humbled me with his kindness and his gentle soul; I think of him every day and hope that, somehow, we have helped him have a better future.   

Camping and the Saudi Dessert
Some of our finest memories are from when we camped in the desert and we learned from our fellow campers how to do it in style. This included BBQ quail, canapes, butterfly lamb, and of course (our homemade) gin & tonic with ice and a slice at sundown :) You just cannot beat a Saudi sunset...

I'm running out of space, but there are so many other highlights:
  • Being on the board of the Women's Skills Bureau (WSB)
  • Writing articles for expat newsletters and magazines
  • Working with Saudi businessmen in the marketing of a beautiful Riyadh compound
  • Walking in the Diriyah area of the Diplomatic Quarter
  • Attending Embassy social gatherings for gala dinners, AFL grand finals and business discussions
  • Attending the Chaine des Rotisseurs events and dressing up in gorgeous cocktail dresses
  • Being a member of the Riyadh Group for British Business (RGBB)
  • Supporting Alef International and Group Editor with consultancy and strategic advice
  • Sitting on the front porch for impromptu sundowners
  • Learning the history of the Al Saud family and how it all began with AbdulAziz and the approach to Wahabi islam
  • Whisky tasting nights and so much more...
But I must be honest about the challenges...
There were some elements to life in Riyadh that I enjoyed less. 

The poor, the women and the poor Saudi women
Millions of Saudis are very poor. It's not just the migrant workers (like Sarker) who struggle to make ends meet. The Saudi oil wealth is enjoyed by a only a few thousand royals of the Al Saud family, in contrast to a population of 7 million people, many of whom live below the poverty line and cannot afford even the cheapest of government low-cost housing. Women and children beg at traffic lights. A good Muslim should donate a percentage of their salary to charity, but we saw few lowering their tinted windows to help.

Widows and divorced Saudi women become outcasts from their families and often rely on a young son (if they have one) to become the breadwinner and the 'head' of their destitute family. Desperate women would accost us outside grocery stores and restaurants (on the odd occasion that we ate out). It was always a sobering experience.

I developed a healthy respect for the Saudi women I met through my network. They were generally an industrious bunch and many I met were serious entrepreneurs and savvy business owners. They represented the rich middle class who enjoyed a good life, but they still had to rely on male family members attending government buildings to process paperwork and obtain permits and licenses as women were not permitted to enter or conduct business directly with government employees.

There are small victories taking place for Saudi women every day in Riyadh; mostly directed and highlighted by women who have recently joined the Shoura Council, but also by female activists who aren't afraid to publish their criticisms of the King and his various ministries. I will continue to follow their plight from outside Saudi and I hope I'll witness greater freedoms for all Saudi women and girls within my lifetime. 
Compound bitchin'
I have never encountered such juvenile behaviour from grown adults as I did when living in different Riyadh compounds over 22 months. The worst offenders portrayed the ugliest of human spirits: mean, catty, cynical, narrow-minded and bullying. Mostly women, but there were also a few chaps who were happy to unleash their inner demons in public. They prowled the compound Facebook pages and found their prey by posting hurtful comments and gleefully enjoying the emotional responses from those they attacked. It was hard not to get sucked in by all the drama, but we looked the other way and kept ourselves busy with friends off the compound and outside the work circle. 

Dirt, rubbish and filth

Source: Saudi Gazette

Saudis don't seem to care much for the environment. There are no recycling facilities in the country and (odd, for a desert nation with oodles of sunlight) there seems little interest in solar power. People throw rubbish from car windows and children are given no education about taking care of their city / environment. One man we met from Phoenix, described Saudi thus "If the world needed an enema, Riyadh is where they'd insert the tube". 

General frustrations
Of course, culturally, Riyadh was always going to be a harder place to live than, say, Hong Kong or Singapore. The differences are huge and we knew this from the cultural awareness training that we were given before heading to the Kingdom. But - after the first year of settling in - I did find some things frustrating. The worst was the lack of access that I had, as a woman, to certain places. There were restaurants and coffee shops where I could not go because they were 'men only'. I could not join Drew at our bank branch because there was no family section and women were not allowed to enter where the men did their banking. On one occasion I waited in the car for two hours while he paid in some cash. That was another frustration; a complete lack of customer service. Restaurants, banks, car workshops, insurance companies, telephone providers; it would take hours and multiple visits and phone calls to complete the simplest of tasks.

Traffic and driving conditions
Although I was not permitted to drive in Riyadh, I was very happy not to be behind the wheel of any vehicle. The drivers on the roads were downright dangerous and the road infrastructure very poor in a lot of places. During the time I was there, however, some new roads were built and they were modern and helped ease some of the traffic congestion. I think the major issue was the 'lawlessness' of the drivers; there were no clear consequences for jumping a light or driving the wrong way down the street, and I cannot recall seeing many traffic police enforcing any road regulations. When approaching a roundabout, no-one waited to give way and warp speed seemed to be the preferred option. I asked Drew to describe his general feeling when driving and he replied 'fear'.

In summary, Saudi life was balanced but, on some days, the frustrations outweighed the positives. 

Until next time...