Up until today, relations between the Western staff and Saudi Administration were fairly cordial. Various Saudi Vice Presidents had been paying visits to the schools and were making a reasonable effort (by Saudi standards) to get things accomplished. They’ve been reaching out to the Western teachers trying to establish something akin to friendship, and generally trying to understand how things work in a typical Western school. Their success has been limited though, partly because of the awkwardness of how Saudis interpret friendship, but mostly because the primary interest of the Company is very different than the primary interests of the teachers. The good thing was that most everyone had at least been trying to make an effort at forming good relations. That all changed last night when a few of the teachers from the Girls’ School had an informal dinner with one of the Vice Presidents to discuss renewing their contracts.
Religious differences create interesting situations. This is true pretty much everywhere in the world, but its particularly interesting in places where well understood and respected human rights, such as having the freedom of religion, do not exist. Such is the case here in the Kingdom. Obviously, Islam dominates every aspect of life here, but it has much farther reaching effects than the outside observer might initially perceive.
Officially, the only legally recognized religion is Islam, specifically the Sunni sect, while everything else is banned. The King is the religiously appointed ruler, and his title is The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. A council of religious elders, The Sharia, advise him on legal matters, and the King’s word is final. It is taken as law with the same authority as those written in the Quran because of his supreme Divinity. The only holidays aside from National Day are Islamic holidays, and any outward display of celebration of any other holiday, religious or political, is strictly prohibited. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Armistice Day; they’re all technically banned, but so long as they’re celebrated or observed in private things tend to work out ok. Non-Muslims who are allowed into the country can practice whatever they chose in private (except Jews, who are banned from entering the country entirely), but they are strongly advised to keep their religion to themselves when out in public. In more conservative areas things like cross necklaces may be perceived as offensive and can be confiscated. I’ve never actually found or heard of anyone attempting it, but proselytizing is a definite no-no, and the punishments vary from deportation to death. As restricting as this is, it really doesn’t have much of an effect on day to day life for the average person, outside of the fact that everyone observes prayer time regardless of how inconvenient it is.
I’m close to clearing one of the last major hurdles in an important aspect of life here in Saudi. This process has been a few months in the making, but relatively soon I should be driving a car. Acquiring the ability to drive in most countries is a relatively mundane undertaking, with few hurdles other than getting your driver’s license and obtaining a vehicle. In keeping with the norm, gaining the ability to drive here in the Kingdom is quite the escapade.
The vast majority of people who move to the Kingdom to work are given a car by their company as stated in their contract. This was never negotiated in my contract because up until this point my company only hired women. Women are not legally allowed to drive here. My contract does state that I have access to a driver, but it isn’t all that convenient because I share him with the other teachers who live on my compound, all of whom are women. I’ve met a few people with cars who are nice enough to take me somewhere if I ask them, but it gets a bit awkward at times. More often than not I end up taking a cab, and as lovely as that usually is, I decided it’d be worth it to figure out how to buy a car.
Normally with undertakings such as this I’ve found that asking other expatriates usually provides a good starting point, but with this particular subject that hasn’t necessarily been the case. The majority of men I’ve met have company cars, and, since only men can drive, those with wives never have the need to buy a second vehicle. Most people come here with the intention of making as much money as possible, so buying a second vehicle for personal pleasure isn’t all that common either. In the end, most men I know have ample experience driving, but very few actually know how to go about buying a car. Thankfully, the Brit from school has some familiarity with this process, and has been kind enough to guide me through the bulk of this labyrinthine process.
The major upside to moving to strange new places is that everyone you meet usually has something interesting to share. I’ve all but given up learning Arabic, so the majority of the people I’ve met are western expatriates, most of whom hail from either the States or Great Britain.
They cover every gamut of society, and they’re generally very friendly people. Life on a compound is conducive to meeting new people, and the opportunity for socializing is quite large. The downside to compound life is the monotony of living in close quarters with the same people, most of which have differing priorities, personalities, and tastes. Not to worry though. The expat social network within the Kingdom as a whole is very large. A relatively uncomplicated system of emails, texts, and word of mouth will usually get you where you want to go without too much pain in the wallet. But, for its size, it can actually be quite daunting at times to find out exactly what’s going on. Finding out information about certain events can be a formidable task. People here are usually warm and welcoming to most of the people they meet, but it isn’t all that uncommon to find people unwilling to share information about upcoming get-togethers or generally viewing new acquaintances with a bit of suspicion. Having this sort of social code isn’t all that strange; most big cities or communities have certain cultural norms about holding gatherings and inviting guests. What makes it interesting here in the Kingdom is that everything is underground, and, although the likelihood of getting in trouble with the law is relatively slim, precautions are necessary to make sure everyone has a good time.
I’ve had fairly good luck in finding things to occupy my time, though most of it has been blind luck on my part. I’ve simply managed to meet the right people at the right time. Once I started mingling with more expats outside my compound I started making acquaintances with good connections that have been able to show me some of what the more discrete side of the Kingdom has to offer.
This past Saturday evening I was invited to tag along with a Brit friend to a British trade gathering for British Multinational Corporations at the British Console General’s house in Khobar. Interestingly enough, it centered on educational opportunities to enhance business opportunities, but it was clearly not the place for an American elementary school teacher to be hanging around. Thankfully, I had come straight from work and had a tie in my bag so I at least I didn’t stand out too much. When the Brit and I arrived we put his friend’s business cards in the name badges we were given, and set out to find a few people we knew. As a foreign diplomat’s place or residence, the police turn a blind eye to what goes on there. Also, foreign dignitaries and their convoys are not checked at border crossings, which means they can discretely import just about anything they’d like. The point of this little party was to establish business connections, but in reality most people showed up for the booze. It’s free and all you can drink, courtesy of the U.K. Taxpayer.
After finding our ‘employer’ in the crowd, we settled into a corner of the courtyard, befriended one of the waiters (with a healthy tip of course), and enjoyed more than our fair share of pints of real beer. We spent the evening talking about living here while avoiding all the small conversations random passers-by would try to engage us in. At the end of the night we bought a small bottle of whiskey off the waiter and continued on to the Brit’s apartment. Teaching first period at school Sunday morning was a little rough, but it was well worth the experience.