It's a Two Way Street

It goes without saying that life is very different here in the Kingdom. Before I came I generally considered myself ready for emersion into a culture different than my own, but the world in which I landed takes the meaning of different to a whole new level. The shock that travelers and expats talk about hasn’t overwhelmed me as of yet (who knows what tomorrow, or next week, or the coming months may bring), but getting used to the way of life here is tends to put a strain on one’s patience.

Saudi society revolves around Islam. They follow a separate Islamic calendar which is slightly shorter than the Gregorian one the rest of the world uses so the months never quite match up, and their workweek is Saturday through Wednesday meaning everything operates on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.

Daily prayer is an essential (and mandatory) part of life here, and is held 5 times each day. Some days it’s a unique aspect of life that can be enjoyed and is almost exotic in a way. Just about an hour before sunrise the first call to prayer fills the air with a relatively peaceful chorus of monotone voices, sung almost in harmony, that reverberate through bedrooms. The rest of the day the calls to prayer serve as a reminder that Saudis follow a different work schedule, usually 9-11ish and then 4-7ish, and nothing is more important than their obligation to stop what they’re doing and head to the nearest mosque. Everybody else is left waiting for their return, literally, because nothing is technically allowed to function during prayer. Stores, restaurants, and most every other business close during prayer, leaving their patrons stuck outside waiting to get in, or locked inside waiting to get out. Non-Muslims who work for Saudis must wait patiently to finish whatever it is they’re doing because although they may be subject to an 8-4 workday, things here operate on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.

Saudis themselves are a mysterious breed of individuals. Living in a culture that went from nomadic and poor to twenty-first century urban and incredibly rich in just a few decades means that modern expectations must deal with old world mindsets. To Saudis, nothing is more important than the individual, and, as a general rule of thumb, that individual is themselves. Being a Saudi in the kingdom means getting what You want, and nothing should limit your ability to get it. Wanting to talk to someone means putting yourself at the front of conversation because You are the most important, regardless of who is there, and you deserve to continue to talk until you’ve made your point. Driving to the store means complete disregard for anyone around you because You have the most important priorities, speed limits be damned, and everyone else, including the police, can bugger off. ‘Waiting in line’ is something that doesn’t make sense to you, because your desire to have something means You come before everyone else and, therefore, you get to move to the front of the line. Being told No isn’t a problem because No doesn’t generally apply to You, so you get to do what you want anyway. Dependability isn’t something you should worry about because your time is only important to You, and other people should be smart enough to realize that they should feel honored if you choose to grace them with your presence. Unsurprisingly, working as a Westerner, with all its expectations and responsibilities, while under the control of a Saudi, means you learn to operate on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.   

This dichotomy creates chaos for those unaccustomed to it, but for those with the patience, or apathy, living in the Kingdom can be simplified relatively easily. This is done by converting to Inshallah. It's loosely translated as ‘if god wills it’ with if being the operative word. Get asked to do something and don’t want to do it, “I’ll do it when I can, Inshallah.” Now you don’t have to do it. Someone asks you to buy something, “Sure, the next time I go to the store, Inshallah.” Now your money is saved. Required to make a promise about something, “I promise it will be done, Inshallah.” Now your conscious is clear. I’m relatively certain most Saudis are unaware of Karma, but I like to think that their collective actions will one day come back to haunt them.

Until then, I say please and thank you when I talk to Saudis, I say excuse me when I interrupt a conversation or bump into someone, and I wait patiently in line no matter how many people budge. I minimize my negative waves with Saudis whenever I can, and Inshallah the hell out of everything else.