Flexibility, Authority, Obedience

Justin (55), originally from Romania, has been living and working in Saudi Arabia for 8 years. While he travelled across the world and started from scratch, he didn’t reprofile, but he stayed in his field, and now works as an assistant professor at a state university. We asked him about the transition and his experiences and challenges, both professional and personal.

CC2go: Why Saudi Arabia?

Justin: A matter of chance. I saw (on Facebook) that a good friend had relocated to Saudi Arabia. One thing led to another and… the rest is history.

CC2go: During the transition, what did you find hardest job-wise, what was the biggest challenge professionally?

Justin: Nothing was extremely difficult but there were several challenges, ranging from technical aspects like working with the Blackboard platform for the first time or switching to written-only exams to striking a balance between the need for academic discipline and students’ culturally ingrained tendency to see everything as negotiable.

CC2go: And personally?

Justin: Being most of the time away from family and friends. I also miss my comfort zone.

CC2go: Did you experience culture shock? If yes, could you tell us about it?

Justin: I have never seen a 12 year old driving an SUV in any other part of the world. Apparently, a father only needs to submit a document attesting to his son’s driving skills to the Traffic Police Department and, irrespective of age, the child can drive … Another example: Arabic is written from right to left, just like Aramaic, Persian or Urdu. However, that only refers to letters! Numbers are written and read from left to right, the way we do…

CC2go: What about personal interactions? In what ways would you say you have to communicate differently than in Romania?

Justin: All interactions are in English. Most personal interactions are limited by the interlocutor’s English skills. When the interlocutor is proficient in English, conversation is limited by taboo topics (politics, any other religion than Sunni Islam).

CC2go: How important do you think it is to learn the language?

Justin: No actual need. There is an anecdote about an American Professor who retired after teaching 20+ years at a Saudi University. His vocabulary at the time included two Arabic words: “salam alaikum”. This may be an anecdote but it underscores a fact of life: there is no need (for most professions) to know Arabic. On the other hand, knowing Arabic offers huge advantages in a variety of fields and situations: from being able to communicate with plumbers, bakers, electricians and other people with low levels of English but much needed skills or being able to read and understand signs, names of people and businesses to the chance of getting deeper knowledge of a very different culture.

CC2go: If you had to shortly describe your life in Saudi Arabia, how would you do it?

Justin: First and foremost, life is safe in Saudi Arabia. Many people live decades without even hearing about criminal activity, let alone experience it. It is family friendly. Healthcare is provided by your sponsor. Taxes do not exist (except for VAT). Entertainment in the Western sense does not exist (no alcohol, often no music, often no dancing – when it occurs it is men-only –, complete segregation of sexes, even at weddings, etc.). Entertainment here mostly refers to shopping (there are wonderful malls), eating (nice restaurants) and gyms (complete with swimming pools, saunas and jacuzzis). Because of all that, one can easily save most of one’s salary and focus on spiritual issues.

CC2go: What advice would you give someone who is preparing to live and work in Saudi Arabia?

Justin: Be flexible and be positive. One must understand that Saudi Arabia belongs to a different culture, with different values. The most important Islamic value (as seen in the most important Islamic celebration, Eid-al-Adha, commemorating the Abrahamic sacrifice) is obedience. The same is required from all expats. So the person preparing to live and work in Saudi Arabia must display a genuine love of authority. This love must be seen in a strong desire to learn all the new rules and apply them faithfully, without hesitation. In Western countries, challenging authority is a way of life and major source of income for millions of people. In Saudi Arabia it is the quickest way of having your contract terminated.

I will give an example of a new rule to be learned: during the Holy Month of Ramadan, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink anything until sunset. The same thing is required of expats in all public places. Violators are summarily deported.

Be flexible and be positive. Flexible, to give up the old mindset and adapt to new circumstances and positive, to understand that everything is perfect and, if, by any chance, there is room for improvement, it is not for the expat to initiate change.

If this is fully understood and accepted, the new expat will enjoy a long and fruitful life in Saudi Arabia.

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