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.