Being an expat teacher in Saudi: My story

In Community Blog, Halal Travel Guide, Saudi Arabia by Margie Tidjani

Reflections of a Muslimah convert Expat in Saudi Arabia

Many of us dream of packing up and choosing to start a new life and job abroad. Some of us never do…but there are those brave enough to take the plunge. This is a personal account of a British Muslimah mum-of-four who did exactly that.

Heart pounding, hands fumbling…shaking, mind and heart in emotional turmoil. This was my body’s response to my self-imposed adventure as I tried to get through security looking like a normal human being at Heathrow Airport.

Choosing to leave my job as a primary school teacher in the UK and teach in a British International School at a military base, somewhere in the desert near Kuwait and Iraq, was not a decision I took lightly. Being a desperately shy person, this decision to go forth into pastures new and far away took an act of courage and bravery almost beyond my capabilities. It was most certainly beyond any ambitions I might have held up until only one year before.

Looking back on that decision four years later I know now beyond any doubt that I not only made the right decision for myself, but that as a result me and my family have been truly blessed in many ways.

To uproot one’s life and travel far away from home, familiar surroundings and loved ones, requires immense courage. As I found myself taking a leap of courage and faith I was supported in my decision by all those who loved me. My family knew I needed to get away from my previous job which involved working from 7.30 am until 10 pm most evenings of the week, plus most of the weekend. And so, supported and encouraged by the love of my family I ventured into the unknown territory of an International school in Saudi Arabia. I found in this venture reserves of courage, independence, inner strength and self-reliance that I did not know I possessed.

My Journey Begins

Kingdom tower  in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Kingdom tower is a business and convention center, shopping mall and one of the main landmarks of Riyadh city

Upon arrival in KSA I was met by a friendly and courteous Saudi who had been sent to Riyadh to greet me. One of the first steps was to undergo endless fingerprint-taking at immigration. The Saudi gentleman showed me where to find the transport person who took myself and another expat teacher to the hotel. The next day a minibus arrived to take us to our final destination, which entailed a six hour journey through the Arabian Desert. Alarmingly, the minibus had a sizeable hole in its floor through which I could see the road racing away. The suffocating heat of the bus however led me to eventually choosing to sit in the seat above the hole as it created a lovely breeze! I did wonder at the same time what sort of place I was headed for if the state of the minibus was anything to go by…

My new home in the middle of the Arabian desert

What I found when I arrived surprised me to some degree and probably beyond my expectations. The apartment that had been allocated to me was spacious, clean, generously furnished and rent-free as per my contract. The Head Teacher at the school was welcoming and in spite of claiming to be Scottish, spoke with a beautifully polished English accent. The expat teachers at the school were from various backgrounds… South African, Sudanese, Egyptian as well as another UK expat. Helpfully, the children were taught the British National Curriculum in English, so all I had to do was the same job as in the UK, albeit in a foreign setting.

The Barakah of Time

Gone were the long, overworked, highly charged and stressful days of before. Our days begin at 7.15 am and end at 2pm. We’re expected to stay until 2.45 pm to mark books and organise the classroom.  I soon found that on most days I would be home by 3 pm. The rest of the day was then mine!

Time is a commodity not available to most professionals working in the UK. Here in Saudi I have plenty of it. I’ve been able to make regular use of the ladies-only gym and swimming pool. I would try to keep gainfully occupied by reading, learning Arabic and Qur’an and praying on time, a luxury I had not had in the UK. In Saudi Arabia, being the custodian and exemplar of Islamic culture, it is the perfect place to be reminded of the call to prayer. With the Adhan sounding for every prayer one is expected to stop what one is doing and go to pray. For a country that is often seen as regressive and old-fashioned, there is a lot to be said for encouraging workers to take time out of work for spiritual fulfilment.

…And its Trials

On the flip side of course, having lots of free time means it’s easy to feel lonely quite often. At times I would find the silence deafening rather than golden. And when one is a naturally shy muslimah one can feel alone, entombed within the excellent apartment provided for my comfort.

I found that within the communities that existed on the base there was no community for a white, middleclass, British Muslim woman. In other words, there was nobody like me there. I did not feel accepted by the other expat communities who were from Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, India, Philippines and Sri Lanka. I did feel that to some extent I was judged by the colour of my skin. This would manifest itself when I found out that from time to time I had not been invited to the parties that the other expat teachers had attended. It was their loss! Nonetheless one had to be strong, resilient and self-reliant. WhatsApp was a life saver! Keeping in touch daily with family kept me going. It did have its limitations though, as WhatsApp phone calls are not available in Saudi Arabia.

Dangerous Driving

4X4 car driving in desert sand dunes

As a single woman in Saudi, transport is always going to be an issue. Women are still not allowed to drive. Indeed…what woman would want to? The driving is horrifyingly erratic and dangerous. There is a high fatality rate in road accidents.

Saudi women get around the problem in one of two ways. They either hire a driver – yes, a Saudi woman is allowed to get into a car with a strange man – or they use their male children to drive the family car for them. One often sees young boys driving the family 4X4. Either way there is too much testosterone on the road! Perhaps if their mothers, wives, daughters and aunties were driving, Saudi men would drive more considerately. Road accidents are the main causes of death in the Kingdom, with 21 recorded deaths by road accidents per day.

Weekend getaways and pilgrimages

Kaaba in Mecca Saudi Arabia

On the military base buses are provided for ladies to both the supermarkets on the base and also the nearby town of Hafr Al Batin. In this town one can find and purchase almost anything. A coach was also laid on for us, gratis, for weekend trips to Riyadh and Khobar. These weekend trips provided relief from the monotony of working on the base. In Riyadh we enjoyed shopping in the malls which were a home from home with all the familiar brands. It is normal for a woman to hail a taxi in Riyadh so travelling around the city is very easy. Riyadh has many restaurants, familiar fast food chains and steak houses. There is a plethora of enjoyable things to do on a short weekend break. In the UK I had so much work to do at that I would never dare go away for a weekend…

One of the obvious benefits of being in Saudi is the proximity to Makkah, where Hajj and Umrah are completed by millions of pilgrims each year. Surprisingly, it is easy for a single woman to go on Umrah even without a male companion; I have been able to complete Umrah on numerous occasions Alhamdulillah (all praise be to God).

A constant in Saudi Arabia is the Adhan…it sounds wherever you are and reminds the heart and conscience that we need to fulfil our religious obligation of prayer. One night I was in Riyadh Airport, feeling very tired and thinking about what my next steps should be. Suddenly the most beautiful, evocative and moving recording of the Adhan sounded to mark the Fajr (early morning) prayer. This Adhan took me by surprise. In the midst of my worries about getting from A to B, this beautiful, even enchanting call reminded me that everything was going to be alright.

emirati women shopping in abayas

A Home from Home

Everything is available in KSA and food is much cheaper than in UK. This means that one’s monthly salary was not spent on simply paying the bills. I feel like there has been real barakah (blessing) in the money earned in Saudi – I’ve only needed to go the ATM about twice a month!

Stereotypes: Saudis in Audis?

Finally…there are the Saudis themselves. Contrary to the misinformation put about by Western media, most Saudis are not from oil rich families. Most Saudis are struggling to live up to their middle class aspirations and dreams. They are obliged to do the same jobs as the expats but are paid considerably less which must hurt. Some Saudis are very hardworking and conscientious about their jobs. However there are still too many who want to do as little as possible but wish to get paid the same as their expat counterparts.

My time working in Saudi Arabia has been priceless and has had so many benefits for me personally and professionally. It has brought home to me the importance of the five pillars of Islam, especially the prayers. That I can be an excellent teacher in a foreign setting. The new environment I found myself in has shown me the worth of my family who always stood by me, supported and encouraged me to go forth on this new adventure. For me now though, this life enriching episode is coming to an end….time to return home and spend time with the family. If I can do it, so can you…!