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Working in Saudi Arabia: ten things to do if you want to succeed (and ten things not to do…)

May 12, 2016
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View from Khurais Road, Riyadh

People sometimes ask me for advice about working in Saudi Arabia. I try and share my experience with anyone who asks, whether or not they’re from the same background as me  – a relatively privileged westerner. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve written quite a lot about the country and its people. It’s been a labour of love. The Kingdom has done much for me, and I sometimes feel that it doesn’t get a fair hearing in the western media.

There are plenty of books for people intending to work in Saudi. Some of them I find rather dated, which is not surprising given the pace of change the country is currently experiencing. Others tend to dwell on fairly superficial stuff – enough to get you through the culture shock. And some are far longer than they need to be. So in this post, I’m going to try and share a few of what I see as essential do’s and don’ts based on my own experience. If you are looking at the country for the first time, you might be surprised to find that much of what I’m saying here is common sense that might equally apply at home.

If you’ve come to this blog for the first time and you want to read some more about this fascinating country, try searching below on the phrase Postcard from Saudi Arabia. You’ll find a number of recent pieces on various aspects of Saudi society.

So without further ado, here are ten suggestions that might help you make a success of your new job in Saudi Arabia. Following them, ten more bits of advice on things you should avoid doing. They’re written from the perspective of a western professional, but many of them apply whatever your origin and background.

Learn some history: that you should learn something of the history of a country applies just about anywhere you might visit. History enriches understanding, and provides context for what you see and experience.

When I first went to Saudi Arabia in 1981, Robert Lacey’s The Kingdom was an essential companion. He’s since written an update (Inside the Kingdom). Both are accessible and sympathetic views of the country. Beyond Lacey, there are any number of books available, some of which are not available in Saudi Arabia. If you’re into novels, read the Cities of Salt trilogy by Abdulrahman Munif, an epic that traces the evolution of a fictional Arab kingdom from the beginning of the oil era.

Also take time to study the recent history of the country. The Kingdom’s ambitious 2030 Economic Vision promises to deliver far-reaching change in Saudi society. To understand the context, it’s worthwhile reading up on the factors that have led to the aspirations it contains.

If you would like to compile a reading list, you’ll find some reviews of books relevant to Saudi Arabia and the wider region under the Books tab in this blog.

Learn about Islam: not taking the trouble to learn at least something about Islam in its spiritual heartland is the same as coming to the UK and driving on the wrong side of the road – potentially disastrous. And no, we’re not just talking here about fatwas, jihad and religious police – all the stuff that makes headlines in the West. You don’t need a course on the subject, nor do you need to buy Islam for Dummies. Just do some browsing, learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, find out where the religion comes from and what distinguishes the different schools of thought. The rest you’ll pick up as you go along.

And if you’re curious about any aspect of the faith, just ask any Muslim. The vast majority, whether Saudi or not, will be more than happy to answer any questions you might have. And that includes the rather forbidding-looking guys with long beards, who, when you engage with them, often turn out to be delightful company. That’s been my experience anyway.

Reach out: in some parts of Saudi Arabia, people are more reticent than in others. Reticence is often mistaken for arrogance. My perception is that if you make the effort you can penetrate that wall of formality. Just as if you engage the stone-faced commuter on the train in conversation, there’s a good chance they will open up. But often you have to make the first move.

The best way to establish a connection is by talking about things you admire about the country. There’s no reason to be false or obsequious. Every culture has its good points, so share your impressions. Also open up about yourself. Self-deprecating humour goes down well, and so do stories from your life that chime with theirs – the challenges of bringing up children, for example.

Recognise boundaries: there are social boundaries in every country. In mine, you wouldn’t take kindly to being asked how much money you earn. In Saudi Arabia, especially in more conservative circles, it’s bad form to ask someone about their families, unless they volunteer the information first.

Likewise, don’t invite them to open up about the classic taboo subjects: sex and politics. These subjects are increasingly discussed on the internet, but people know that if they go too far they are liable to get into trouble. So caution tends to be a way of life.

Understand where you fit: you might think that you’ve been brought to the country to do a specific job – engineer, consultant, academic, whatever. With some employers, you might be wrong. You’re a resource, and if you’re a westerner, you’re a high-status asset, to be used for all manner of purposes.

The status of the westerner is not as high as it was, partly on affordability grounds, and partly because there’s plenty of expertise available from other parts of the world, now that the country has strong relationships with countries like Russia, India and China.

But many Saudis still value having a westerner on their staff because they believe that a khawaja, as we’re often referred to in the region, brings them credibility. So be prepared to be asked for advice that might sometimes be beyond your pay grade, and to be given projects that have nothing to do with your day job. As long as you don’t make claims of expertise you don’t possess, you will endear yourself by showing the flexibility to meet the needs of the moment.

And if you find yourself seriously out of your depth, don’t be afraid to use the magic words “I can’t do this, but I know someone who can”.

Another thing you should be aware of is that organisations are often not what they seem. You might find your name slotted neatly into a hierarchy that looks straightforward on first glance. Before long you might come to realise that the neat set of boxes and arrowed lines that appears on paper bears little resemblance to the real organisation, which is built around relationships and trust, rather than functions. This is especially the case in family businesses. Your superior could be a yes-man with little authority. Your subordinate could be a key influencer behind the scenes.

So when you’re bedding in to an organisation, take the time to look, listen and learn. Don’t make premature assumptions based on first impressions.

And last but not least, don’t underestimate your Saudi colleagues. There are some very smart people out there, and I’m not just talking about those who were educated in the West. Some just need the confidence to spread their wings. And that’s often where you can help.

Learn a little Arabic: you don’t have to be fluent, but at least learn enough Arabic to communicate at a basic level. Start with the traditional greetings, and then pick up the kind of words you will need for a taxi – left, right, straight on, next and so on. Words denoting time – today, yesterday, tomorrow, days hours and weeks – are obviously useful, as are the numbers, which are pretty easy up to ten, and then get complicated.

I once did a deal with my Egyptian assistant. We would spend each successive day for two weeks speaking only each other’s language. It was an unfair arrangement, given that he spoke more English than I did Arabic, but it certainly helped me.

Reading is tough, even if, like me, you’ve previously learned a language in a different script. One little trick I’ve used to pick up on the Arabic script is to take advantage of traffic jams by looking at number plates on front of you. The Arabic letters appear next to their English equivalents. Ten hours in traffic should be more than enough for you to pick up all the characters, even if they look different when strung together.

Learn the social conventions: you can get these from all the guide books or cultural briefings, so I won’t go into the taboos in any detail. But things like where to put your feet at a traditional feast, not shaking hands with women, Arabic coffee protocol and other conventions are worth learning. You won’t be cast into the outer darkness if you break them, because the Saudis are very tolerant of the clumsy foreigner. But they’re a matter of good manners. And the less faux pas, the more easily you will win their respect and trust.

Accept the contradictions: your Saudi colleague might speak perfect English with an American accent. You might assume that he’s studied in America, and therefore invites friends to his home every weekend for barbecues, where wives and daughters mix freely with guests outside their immediate families. You’d probably be wrong, at least in your assumptions about his lifestyle.

You might also hear idle chat about weekends in Bahrain and Dubai – of wine, women and song. Don’t assume that your colleague would tolerate such behaviour in his own country. You might also think less of him for behaving one way outside his country and another way within. Understand that in Saudi Arabia the guys-only culture leads a few men to do stuff abroad that might be frowned on at home, but as long as they don’t embarrass their families, they consider their indiscretions as adventures rather than mortal sins. In other words, what happens in Dubai stays in Dubai.

Be curious: Saudis are proud of their culture, traditions and history. Most will be happy to explain any aspect to you if you take the trouble to ask. I recently spent a good half-hour being given a learned lecture by a colleague on the art of camel farming. Much of it I’d heard before – the animals’ beauty features, the cost of keeping them and the joy they give their owners. But each recitation brings a few new vignettes.

Another time, a doctor at a workshop I was facilitating gave me a demonstration of ablution before prayers. He went on to share a number of practical reasons why the act of praying had physical as well as spiritual benefits. Conversations like these bring a deeper connection than anything you might share on the work front. And if you’re genuinely curious, you will have made a priceless bond.

Share your knowledge: the sooner you realise that you’ve been employed not only to do stuff but to show your hosts how to do it, the sooner you will win their respect and trust.

A long time ago, my Saudi boss at the time gave his team of westerners a talking-to about Saudization. The message was that those who most effectively eliminated their jobs by sharing their knowledge would be the people who would be with him the longest.

You will find many expatriates who don’t buy into the ethos of knowledge-sharing. They consider that knowledge is power, and that holding on to what they know is an essential job preservation tactic. Ultimately, though, I find that attitude to be unproductive. You might prolong your employment, but will you learn anything, increase your skills, grow personally? I doubt it. My personal philosophy is that every time I share knowledge, I end up getting something back. Maybe not immediately, but learning is a two-way thing.

And now, here are some no-no’s. 

Don’t play office politics: especially if you’re a westerner in a workplace largely populated with Saudis and other Arab nationals. Everyone gets caught up in workplace politics to a greater or lesser extent. But if you start playing games, you’re at a distinct disadvantage, especially if you’re new to the region, because you don’t know the rules.

If you don’t know Arabic and you’re unfamiliar with the cultural nuances, the chances are that you will make serious mistakes and end up alienating people you wouldn’t want to upset. Only a fool plays politics in an environment they don’t understand, so it’s best to steer clear of games of thrones. Just do your job to the best of your ability, don’t take sides and watch dispassionately as the smooth operators wield their stilettos. And quietly learn.

Don’t cross the red lines: especially those applying to the social media. If you’re tempted to post your opinions about a colleague, your employer or the latest decision by the government on Facebook or Twitter, be very careful. Saudis are extremely sensitive about personal insults. The government monitors the social media, and people do get into trouble for what they say.

One way to figure out what the red lines are is to read the local English-language newspapers. You’ll find plenty of opinion critical of the performance of government departments, or deploring anti-social behaviour. If you feel you must speak out, be sure to go no further than the local media do. And never, ever, ever, attack or insult an individual.

Red lines apply in your face-to-face interactions, too. You can talk to a local about crazy drivers, and he will probably agree with you that drivers in Saudi Arabia leave much to be desired. Make disparaging remarks about women in face veils, and you will be on dangerous ground. Topics such as the segregation of women, the female driving issue, the practice of Islam and other fundamental aspects of Saudi society are best avoided in the company of your hosts unless they bring them up first, and provided you discuss them in a constructive manner.

Don’t be surprised by surprises: or, to put it another way, always expect the unexpected. The reason for this advice is that even if you think you see the big picture, you probably don’t. Your boss, for example, is unlikely to share his complete agenda with you. If he’s inexperienced, he might not have a complete agenda. A broad set of intentions, yes, but not necessarily a fixed view of the way forward. Experienced managers will often be quite prepared to change their minds for no apparent reason. No matter how senior you are, they are likely to tell you only what they think you need to know, which might not be the same as the information you think you need.

This can be maddening if you’re not ready for it, which goes back to the advice about knowing where you fit. A key word in a typical Saudi job description is flexibility. In practical terms this often means stopping what you’re doing at a moment’s notice and getting on to something else. Immediately. In fact, yesterday.

Some people find this requirement demotivating, because they don’t feel they have any control over what they’re doing. In fact, there’s no harm in pushing back, and asking why the sudden change of direction, and warning of the potential consequences of delaying the task in hand. What response you’ll get depends on how autocratic the boss is. Sometimes you might even find that the person is expecting push-back. In reality, asking you to do something, and waiting for push-back, is his way of seeking advice without having to admit that he needs it.

It’s worth remembering that Saudi society is strongly hierarchical, and the person at the top of the pyramid might find it difficult to admit weakness or uncertainty. To do so requires him (and, increasingly, her) to trust the confidant, and trust builds up over years, not weeks and months.

Don’t make fun of your hosts: it’s the same the world over – most societies are happy to mock their own foibles, but don’t take kindly to others mocking them.

The Saudis have a great sense of humour. Ask them to illustrate what they find funny and they’ll show you videos on WhatsApp and explain the humour. Every Ramadan between 1992 and 2011, there was a TV program called Tash Ma Tash (No Big Deal) that got huge audiences. The program featured sketches poking fun at Saudi society. The subjects were surprisingly close to the bone: gender politics, pompous patriarchs, incompetent officials, the religious establishment.

It’s perhaps significant that the series was discontinued in the year of the Arab Spring. Since then, the authorities have been less inclined to look kindly on satire. Whether this will change in the wake of the 2030 Vision, which includes plans to set up entertainment and cultural centres, remains to be seen.

The humour is still there, especially on YouTube. But your hosts know the red lines. So laugh with, and not at.

Don’t spend all your money: I first came to Saudi Arabia when I was 29. My tax-free salary ended a decade of penury. It would have been easy to have blown the money on stuff: expensive holidays, cars, gadgets, clothes and so on. Even easier when there wasn’t much opportunity to spend the money while I was in the country. But holidays were a different matter.

But for one reason or another, I managed to hang on to a good proportion of what I earned, and when I came home nearly a decade later, invest it in a start-up business. But things could have been very different. As an expatriate, you never know when the days of milk and honey will end. A change of policy, a new person at the top, a misstep on your part, and bang, you’re out of work.

So even though saving or investing your ill-gotten gains is a smart thing to do in your own country, it’s especially wise for an expatriate. If you’ve been away from home for a while, you may find yourself less employable than you were when you first set off on your Arabian adventure. A cash cushion to ease your return can be extremely useful as you adapt to a less opulent lifestyle.

Don’t think you’ve made friends for life: I have met hundreds of fellow expatriates over thirty-five years of traipsing back and forth from Saudi Arabia. My wife and I made good friends and generally had a great social life. Whether it’s a reflection on us, or the transitory nature of some friendships, we can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people we met in the Kingdom with whom we are regularly in touch, and whom we see quite often.

There’s a wider circle we’re in touch with occasionally, but less than I would have imagined at the time. One of the reasons is pretty obvious. The people we knew came from all corners of the globe, so when we all left, there was no longer the proximity that sustains most friendships. Another was that being strangers in a strange land gave us a commonality of interest that dissipated once we returned to our own little patches. There are only so many reunions where you rehash the old war stories before you start realising that actually your shared past is the only thing you now have in common.

Don’t mistake a conversation for a fight: one of the cultural aspects of the country that takes a bit of getting used to is that loud conversations are not necessarily confrontational. They just sound that way. This is especially the case when you listen to a couple of Bedouin people talking. The absence of personal space between the two, the tone of voice and the volume of speech might give you the impression that they’re about to go for each other’s throats. Then you see the twinkle in the eyes, and the smiles break out, and you realise that they’re probably engaged in some form of negotiation, or just chatting about weather.

The lesson here is that in a different culture, you need to re-learn what you think you know about the art of communications, and especially body language. The language of emotion can be strikingly different from what you’re used to, so avoid jumping to conclusions.

Don’t assume you’re safe everywhere, or nowhere: there’s safe and safe. Take to the roads and you’re no safer than any other passenger or driver in a country that loses thousands of lives a year to road accidents. Walk through the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh and you’ll find areas with no pavements, open manholes and often precious few safe ways of crossing the road.

Read the advisories from the US State Department and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a Daesh member lurking around every corner waiting to blow you away.

Some people take these warnings very seriously. In 2008, five years after the spate of Al-Qaeda attacks on westerners, I worked with a number of consultants who insisted on spending every minute of their leisure time holed up in a plush, heavily-guarded hotel. They never went out, even on an occasional foray to a well-guarded shopping mall. When I drove one of them to another city 400km away, he refused to get out of the car at the gas station to stretch his legs for fear that someone might be waiting to take a shot at him.

That’s a long way from the life I lived in the Eighties, when I felt perfectly safe wandering around the back streets of Jeddah. Since then, street crime has increased. And yes, there are occasional attacks on westerners, and more than occasionally, armed confrontations between the security forces and armed insurgents. But I try and let common sense prevail. There are some parts of Riyadh I would avoid, just as there are some parts of London and Los Angeles. There is always the risk of opportunistic crime, whatever the motive. But I don’t let the fear of such an event dominate my outlook any more than I would stop walking the streets of central London or refrain from visiting Istanbul.

After all, bad luck comes in many different forms. You can only do your best to mitigate the risk. Bottom line: if you’re habitually nervous about your personal safety, stay at home. In my view, no amount of money can compensate for a life lived in fear.

Don’t lose your sense of humour: assuming, that is, that you have one in the first place. The best way to cope with the cultural dissonances you’ll encounter in Saudi Arabia is to be able to laugh about them. Laugh at your mistakes, your faux pas, and laugh at the absurdities (from your perspective) that you’ll encounter in daily life.

What’s the alternative? Get angry, get frustrated, lose your temper, waste precious energy raging at things you can’t change. Remember also that what might first appear absurd might have an underlying logic that becomes apparent with the passage of time. For me, watching hidden meanings unfold is part of the joy of discovery.

Don’t be a walkover: you’re an employee, not a slave. Act that way. Don’t let people take liberties with your willingness to fit in, to help out and be a good team member. Sometimes an ownership attitude leads employers to take the view that your time is entirely theirs. Unconditionally. The more you comply, the more they’ll expect your compliance.

I’ve often found myself working twelve-hour days and weekends. I do so when I judge it’s necessary. I’ve never clock-watched. As a consultant, I work what is usually referred to as a professional day. At times, that day stretches beyond normal limits. But in Saudi Arabia, as in other parts of the Middle East, attitudes towards time and productivity can often be at variance with the western compulsion to make every minute count. See my recent post, The Art of Hanging Around, for more on this.

Most Saudi employers treat their western employees with respect. They will always try to get the most out of you that they can, just as employers do in the West. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself with an employer who tries to push you beyond reasonable limits, make sure you have your own red lines that you will not allow to be crossed. If necessary, tactfully and politely stick to them. Or look for another employer.

That’s just about it.

Except to say that working in Saudi Arabia can be truly exhilarating, madly frustrating, deeply fulfilling, and occasionally soul-destroying. Whether you succeed or not largely depends on you, and also on how you define success. On whether you’re prepared to learn from the good experiences as well as the negative ones, adapt rapidly to change, and see every situation as an opportunity to develop your skills.

Good luck!

 

3 Comments
  1. interesting post

  2. Thank you very much, very inspiring knowledge, experience and especially your open attitude ❤

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