Adjusting to my Life in the Middle East

First off, I would like to thank you all for reading the Saudi posts and my other entries. If you stick with me, things will get better. The greater interaction I’m having on my blogs now helps. Your comments trigger ideas; especially when they are questions for me to answer. Funny how that works, huh? In the 11th part of my Moving to the Middle East series, I said if you had any questions on particular things I would answer them. Well, Sabina (who has a great blog by the way), had a question – What was the hardest thing to adjust to once you started settling into Saudi? I will try and answer it.

I had done all sorts of reading and research as soon as I was offered the position in Saudi so I would have an idea of what to expect. I didn’t just watch the news networks (always biased in one way or another). I went onto the Internet and read forums by people currently living in Saudi, particularly the region I was moving to, and I soaked it all in. I think it would have been monumentally stupid (and believe me, I have been known to dapple in the monumentally stupid) to not have any kind of idea of what I was getting myself into.

So I researched. And it gave me an idea. But it didn’t fully prepare me for what I was going to see, how I was going to feel, and it didn’t quite capture the day-to-day essence that living as an expatriate is.

There were lots of little adjustments I didn’t really think too much about beforehand but they ended up being difficult for me. One of them was the weather. The summers are brutally hot, sometimes upwards of 50 degrees Celsius. Being situated near the coast, there was often high humidity as well. The 30 second walk across the street from my apartment to the mall would see my shirt pick up sweat patches. Winters were fantastic. Mid-20s, little wind, usually a blue sky. I think we averaged around 10 days of rain a year. And I like rain. I really started to miss the seasons I would experience back in Canada – especially the colours that bloomed in autumn. In Saudi, all I saw was brown. Brown buildings and brown sand. I missed the reds, the purples, the oranges that would light up the trees back home. Sometimes I missed the snow too.

Despite my very out-going personality (okay, I’m a terrible flirt), I found it quite easy to switch that off when I got there. Even at the hospital, where most of used the same cafeteria and restaurant, and men and women mingled with little care, I would always just mind my own business. If a girl said “hello” or “good morning” I would respond in kind, but my face remained a shade past stoic so as not to offend or offer anything that might be construed as a sexual advancement. People have different ideas on what constitutes what. I thought it best to err on the side of extreme caution. And I was fine with that. I had the western girls on the compounds to relax around and see if I still had moves (hit and miss there I’m afraid).

The Saturday to Thursday workweek took some time getting used to as well. And when you factor in that I was at minimum, 9 hours ahead of friends and family back home in Edmonton, I would be sitting at my desk in Saudi on a Saturday morning knowing my soccer team back home was sitting in the pub after a game. That brought some depression if I’m honest.

But my biggest adjustment dealt with, for lack of a better word, time. For fear of generalization I will say that not every single person was like this, and maybe not everywhere, but where I worked, and a lot of the people I dealt with on a regular basis, this was the case for me.

I’m a very patient guy. I don’t get too emotional (unless I’m playing sports and then the hyper competitiveness comes out – the stories I could tell). I rarely, if ever, raise my voice. I don’t see the point. Staying angry is just a waste of time and energy. It won’t change anything. But there were many days when even my patience was tried.

I noticed it at the first meeting I had to attend. Scheduled to start at 9 am, half of the people arrived closer to 10 am, chatting on their mobiles or drinking a coffee they got from off the premises. No apology given. This was just the expected thing and that took a long time to get used to. Further to this, there is an abundant disregard for ownership of a task. No one wanted to be responsible. They wanted the credit, and did everything they could to get some, but they didn’t want the responsibility to do the task in the first place.

The major problem for me, and it still happens in Dubai but not to the same extent, is the wait it takes for anything to happen. Nothing is ever easy in the Middle East. You need paperwork and photos and passport and visa copies for everything. You submit them to the HR Department where you work and they deal with the proper government agencies to get stuff done. Only, they don’t operate on the same sense of urgency that you do. There is a word that I grew to hate when I was in Saudi. And it is a shame because it is a beautiful, and I’m sure when it was first used hundreds of years ago, it actually meant what it was supposed to mean – Insha’Allah. Loosely translated, it means “God’s will”. In other words, if Allah wants it done, it will be done.

I would go into HR to see about getting a visa in my passport. I would do all the online prerequisites so they had little to do other than grab my passport (my company in Saudi was one of many who would keep your passport in their possession – that doesn’t happen in Dubai) and send it with their driver to the proper Saudi authorities. I would go over early in the day so they had plenty of time to do it. I’d bring my receipt to show I paid for a visa, and when I asked them if it would be sent over that day, the 5 guys who worked in the office looked up from sitting around the same table sharing coffee and sweets and would say, “Insha’Allah.” Most of the time, they used the word as an excuse not to do work. And that bugged the Hell out of me. But yelling would solve nothing. I didn’t yell at people in Canada, I wasn’t going to start yelling at people in Saudi where the consequences could be much worse.

So, Sabina, after a very long-winded response, I think the general lack of wanting to do anything and the time it took to get stuff done was the biggest adjustment. I’m used to working with deadlines as a writer. When there is a blatant disregard for them in every sense, it was a little more than I wanted to take at times. Eventually though, you got used to it. You didn’t like it, but you got used to it.

25 thoughts on “Adjusting to my Life in the Middle East

  1. Welcome to our club 🙂 Especially with Government employees, it is always the case. You can never guess which way is right with them. After all these years, we are still getting used to it.
    What kind of holidays do you get there ?

    • In Saudi I got days off for Eid and Hajj, plus Saudi National Day in September.
      In Dubai I get more holidays – 1 day for the Prophet’s birthday, 1 day for Ascension Day, Eid and Hajj (both 2 or 3 days), UAE National Day, Islamic New Year, and Gregorian New Year. I do work on Christmas Day though.

      • Hmmm…Have you been to other places like Sharjah, Bahrain etc. How would you rate each of those places.

      • I used to drive across to Bahrain every couple of weekends as I could. Bahrain has theatres, alcohol, dance clubs. It was okay before the civil uprisings of the Arab Spring movement. Not quite as fun after that.
        Sharjah is everything Dubai isn’t. When the UAE went into recession, Sharjah was bailed out by Saudi so they have Saudi-like restrictions there. Women can drive and don’t have to wear an abaya while out, but alchohol is illegal (even illegal to transport it through Sharjah). It’s a cheaper place to live though.

      • Feel free to stop me anytime because I just can’t stop the questions that keep buzzing in my mind.
        Did you ever feel ‘enough is enough I just wish to get out of here forever’

      • Keep asking away. I don’t mind.
        After about 18 months I hit a low. I really didn’t want to be there. I was about to hand in my non-renewal of contract notice when the recession hit and people all over the world were losing their jobs. And my work in Saudi offered me a 30% raise.
        I was offered a few jobs between then and the time I moved to Dubai, but the money just wasn’t enough to get me to move from Saudi of all things. I know, weird.

      • Gee, this is sounding more and more like I am interviewing you 🙂
        What has been the most profound impact on a personal level that this place has had on you.

      • Interview away. For this one, I’ll need to write an entry. I’ve got an old one I wrote that I can adapt. You’ll just have to wait for it.

  2. Yeah, the time thing drives me nuts here, too. And I have a few direct reports — so when their stuff is held up in HR, I hear about it nonstop. Have you also seen that if you write 3 things in an e-mail they only pay attention to half of the first thing? Ugh.

    • One task per email is the only way to do things here. Such a pain but what can you do?
      Where are you based?

      • I’m based in Yanbu — three hours north of Jeddah. Been here for 3.5 years now. I’ve been across for a few short trips — Jubail, Khobar, Bahrain. And we vacationed in Dubai twice.

      • I know where Yanbu is. Never been there myself though. Only went to Jeddah the one time. I lived in Khobar so I went to Bahrain frequently. And as you know, I live in Dubai now.

  3. It’s not QUITE the same in Spain but the whole “take your time, move as slowly as you wish” thing is something that really frustrated me there. In some ways it’s nice because it’s very no-pressure, but it’s also painful when you actually need something done.

    • Spain has a very relaxed way to doing things but for the most part, it is okay. But when you really want something done, as you have mentioned, it is frustrating. Saudi was just frustating.
      And as always, ask away.

  4. The final sentence of this entry captures my feelings about living in Korea these days. I have a shorter fuse than you seem to, but I take no pleasure in getting mad about things, as it just turns you into a reactor. It doesn’t let you respond creatively. It’s a shame because a lot of things about Korean society are either hard to accept or tolerate; of course, compared to Saudi Arabia, it’s probably a walk in a park made of cake.

    • My fuse for stupidity is extremely short, but I’ve also realized where I am and just how much trouble I could get into should I let people see the short fuse!
      I’ve got a friend who spent 3 years teaching in Korea and she said much the same things you are now. But it is good to experience these things first hand.

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