We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Saudi Arabia is a country full of expatriates. I come from the United States, a country full of immigrants. How great is that? I should feel right at home.

But there’s a big difference between an immigrant and an expatriate. In Saudi Arabia, there is no path to citizenship for foreigners. The only way to be a Saudi is to be born of Saudi parents. (It’s actually more complicated than that–you can read more here.) So the millions of non-Saudis who live and work here are not intended to be part of the cultural fabric. They are merely replaceable parts of the national infrastructure machinery, which runs to serve the Saudis.

Questions about living in a society so divided by gender are the first people have about my move to Saudi Arabia. I’ve found that the adjustments I tiptoe around on a more daily basis are those having to do with living in a society also divided by nationality, race, and class.

I am an expatriate. All my neighbors are expatriates. But when you read about “expats” in Arab newspapers, they’re not talking about Western executives and engineers. They’re generally talking about the foreign laborers who do most of the work you see done around you on a daily basis. Transportation, retail, food service, construction, sanitation, hospitality,  medical services…all done by foreign workers.

Foreign laborers at work at a construction site in Riyadh. Source: Saudi Gazette

I (just me, hobby anthropologist) trace the cause to two main factors. First, historically, the Arab aspiration has always been to delegate labor to others. Arabs lived for thousands of years as desert nomads, herding camels for sustenance and raiding trade caravans for income. (This is how Mohammed financed the early spread of the Islamic empire.) Among the takings from a raid were always slaves. No man did labor he could assign to slaves, and the higher your status, the more work was done for you. Slavery wasn’t officially abolished here until 1962, by royal decree. It was a we’re-all-friends-here gesture to the global community, but there was a lot of opposition from conservatives who were angered at the idea of giving Islamic tradition and Arab cultural ground to Western imperatives. Today, whether you call laborers slaves or just really poorly paid foreigners (there is no minimum wage, and $300 a month is not uncommon), the expectation is the same: “work” is done by “others.”

Second, money to pay other people to do the national work came pouring into the country during the oil boom years of the 1960s and 1970s. Millions–even tens of millions–of dollars an hour flowed into the national coffers, and a massive program of public works drew foreigners into the country to build roads, airports, desalination plants, oil refineries, schools, electrical utilities, plumbing, housing, and schools. There was more work than the population of only a few million at the time could possibly do themselves, even had they been willing. And besides, rapidly expanding government combined with tribal patronage provided ample jobs that Arabs could do with dignity.

And so expats are treated as a collective “other.” There is no need for cultural sensitivity or inclusiveness. Why should there be? “Others” are not intended to be included. Saudi society is hierarchical (as are the societies of many who come here), with a king and his tribe at the top, layers of status within that tribe, with other tribes and their own sub-families and individuals below that. And then there are the “expats,” freely referred to and ranked by their races and nationalities. Prejudice? What’s that? To the Saudi mind, rank is everything, and nationality is only one of many tools used to establish it.

Among the many Byzantine aspects of Saudi visa requirements is one identifying the title of the job for which you are entering the country, so job titles are fairly standardized across industries, with defined pay grades. One factor that goes into establishing your pay grade is your nationality. No lie. A friend reported going to his company HR department to see where he was within his grade, and the first question was, “What country are you from?” An American and an Indian, doing the same job, will get widely different salaries.

Maid at work in a Saudi home. Source: Albawaha

Maid at work in a Saudi home. Source: Albawaha

That mindset gives us this newspaper article from November, which dipped a ladle into a national conversation decrying Ethiopian housemaids and among a number of startling quotes came up with this gem: “I have hired maids from different nationalities but I should say Ethiopians are the most arrogant and stubborn ones. I did have two Ethiopian maids previously and both of them were too hard to handle and always spoke back to us, although we paid their wages on time.” Yup, a nation full of people discussing–aloud–the natural tendencies of the Ethiopian people. (An Ethiopian was quoted at the end, trying to assert that not all Ethiopians are criminals, but, well, she’s Ethiopian, so…judge for yourself.)

Filed under my “racists can’t hear themselves” tab is this article, headlined “Filipinos Are Highly Competent,” in which a fellow by the name of Prince Talal made a visit to the Philippines and thought he was being really gracious and complimentary when he said, “Filipinos are highly competent in terms of work and on top of that they are a very clean people.” Why, thank you, sir. We’ll just keep on working and washing and trying to be as good as you.

This all puts me in a place I find uncomfortable. The whole idea of class offends me. In my mind, work is the only place where the word “boss” is used, and it means “person to whom you report.” Public interaction happens on equal footing; the customer service agent may be a jerk but he’s not your inferior. (And, ahem, you may be a jerk yourself.) Home, then, is for family and guests. I can deal with a repairman–barely–because I don’t know the first thing about my furnace. But having someone take care of my personal stuff for me…eesh. Oh–plus I find being treated deferentially really awkward. Yeah, I’m a poster child for liberal guilt.

DIYBut I have to put that aside here. Because Saudis don’t do things for themselves, there is no DIY retail, no ready access to the things you need to do them. No Home Depot, no Lowe’s. No Checker Auto Parts. No JoAnn Fabric and Crafts, no home decorating centers. Things like lumber and electrical supplies exist, but they’re the province of carpenters and electricians, not home hobbyists. If you want something done, your only choice is to clap your dainty soft hands and have someone do it for you.

I’m adjusting. Slowly. We spent a good six weeks trying to get a replacement turntable for a microwave. Retail stores pointed us to the one service center in the city (street addresses aren’t a thing here, another reason why everyday folks don’t try to find things themselves). We eventually found it, but could never find it open. A neighboring shopkeeper eventually said the hours were 11-2 and 4-6. Ish. Excluding closures for prayer, of course, which within those hours would happen twice, at 45 minutes each. How is a professional person supposed to deal with this? Luckily, we had a friend who worked nearby and kindly agreed to stop in, place the order, go back to get it, then go back AGAIN to really get it after it didn’t arrive on time. About a week ago a neighbor posted a question on the community Facebook page about how to go about repairing a microwave. The first answer? “Call the compound electrician.”

Oh. Right. Have somebody take care of it FOR you.

I have a gardener, Hamoud, a man from Bangladesh who comes into my back garden four days a week to do the ordinary tend-and-tidy-up things I’m accustomed to doing myself. He’s a dependable, earnest, hardworking guy, and having him appear on my patio and give a cheerful wave in the window makes me uncomfortable, every time, especially if I’m sitting on the sofa. But I don’t have garden tools or easy access to garden supplies, and the compound’s staff gardeners contend hotly for the part-time moonlight jobs tending people’s private spaces. These are jobs they desperately want. They’re here to earn money, after all. We are the upper class, they are the servant class, and upholding our obligations to each other is the proper order of things. (Workers address Western couples as “Boss” and “Mahm.” Meant to be “ma’am,” but sounds like “Mom.” Both weird.) In short, if I don’t adapt myself to the local way of doing things and hire a gardener, I’m still a member of the ruling class, just a really selfish one.

I have a large tree in my back garden, thus:

You remember I live in Saudi Arabia, right? That big leafy tree, and the shade underneath it, are precious commodities. Within about a week of my arrival, Hamoud called me outside, pointed to the tree, and said something to the effect of, “This big tree. I cutting? Then two, three month, grow same-same.” WHAT?!? Cutting that tree? Replacing it with a seedling? Gardeners around here are pretty scissor-happy, and things routinely get whacked off without much concern for aesthetics, but this was going too far. Oh, no, I told him. No cutting. He shrugged his shoulder and said “No problem” in a way that said, “Okay, dope. You’re the boss.” He kind of gently prodded the issue a couple more times after that. When I asked about my thin lawn, he pointed to the tree. I pointed to the patio roof and bought grass seed.

I thought I’d carried the day until I noticed the way my flowerbeds were in perpetual shade, my tomatoes wouldn’t blossom, and my grass was showered with leaves every day. Then the light went on when I saw a pruned tree elsewhere in the compound. I talked to Hamoud that afternoon:

“This tree, when you say cutting, not cutting here–” (I made a slicing motion toward the base of the trunk) “–but cutting here.” (I pointed up in to the branches.)

Yes, Mahm.

Ahh. I would still have a tree. AND a garden, where I might be able to grow an actual healthy herb or two, as well as fun things I’d never been able to grow in Colorado. Saturday, as Steve and I were getting ready, in a leisurely fashion, to go on a leisurely souk-shopping trip with friends, the tree crew showed up. Two guys, a pair of loppers, and a hand saw.

2014-03-22 09.08.36This is the sort of chore that would ordinarily consume most of a Saturday for us at home, default DIYers that we are, and if there’s anything I hate, it’s gathering up, bundling, and disposing of cut branches. But on this Saturday, instead, we went on our leisurely shopping trip, had a wonderful time at the antique and Bedouin souk at Diriyah, (souk shopping blog post here), made the de rigueur Saudi souvenir purchase of a camel saddle,

2014-03-22 15.28.49had a leisurely long lunch on a beautiful Saturday (“Welcome, Boss! Welcome, Mahm! You’ll like our burgers!”), and came home in the mid-afternoon to this:

Job done. And not so much as a leaf in sight. This is how life works when “expats” do things for you. Learning to graciously let them do it is part of the adjustment of living here. It certainly adds a facet to my understanding of the way much of the rest of the world works, and why change related to class and power can be so stubbornly slow. Change how people vote? Sure. That comes up maybe once every year or two. Change how they think about each other and take care of their homes? That’ll take generations.

Hamoud is a common enough name that someday, I’m sure, I’ll meet another Hamoud who will look me in the eye, shake my hand, and call me Margo. Until then, I just have to get over myself and adjust to relating to the Hamoud I do know in the way he expects. In the universal local expression for brushing things off, it’s no problem. And really, compared to the whole baffling idea that we’re both in Arabia at all, how could anyone argue?

8 thoughts on “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

  1. Robby says:

    Wow, quite an interesting read! You have a gift for rhetorical flare that I am envious of. Of late, I have been devouring all the relevant information about expat live in the KSA that I can find.

    I recently finished up my Masters in Petroleum Engineering and Geophysical Science from Missouri School of Science and Technology. Since it wont be long until student loan payments begin to become a reality, I have been hitting up the job fairs. That led me to a rather unorthodox meeting/dinner/interview with hiring executives from Aramco in Saint Louis, and eventually the offers of a fairly lucrative 2 year deal, and the possibilities of living life abroad in KSA.

    Naturally, my family thinks I have lost my mind, and would much prefer to see me either running exploratory drilling somewhere in the Dakotas, or else on an offshore rig in the gulf. While I have had interest for these usual suspects, none has managed to capture my attention like this potential opportunity.

    The compound and villa they want to set me up in looks great actually. Way more space than I could ever possibly use being a single guy actually, it is just the fear of the unknown playing tricks on me brain. In the end, it might end up coming down to good old fashioned American greed. At the end of the day, none of the US drilling operations can pay me anywhere near the amount of money Aramco will, and this is not even taking into account the free accommodations, medical/dental care, and lack of Uncle Sam raping me in taxes.

    Thanks so much for putting out all this information online. It is a great resource for me, and you are a wonderfully expressive writer.



    • margocatts says:

      Thank you! I understand your family’s reaction–they’re as unnerved about the unknown as you are, I’m sure. I know a few people working for Aramco and they’re having wonderful experiences. Life in Saudi can be exasperating, but also incredibly enriching (and I’m not just talking about the money). If you want to email me and tell me which location they’re talking about for you, I might be able to put you in touch with a couple of people you can talk to about life on the ground there. Disclaimer: They’ll all be in families or couples, and the life for a single guy has its own long list of challenges you want to understand before you come. But still, I recently saw some list of tips for guys or some such thing, and one I still remember was “Given the choice between two options, always go with the one that’ll end up in the better story.” I think Saudi counts. There’s nothing to be afraid of here, and you’ll end up with experiences you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Good luck!


      • Robby says:

        Thanks for the reply. I do know they would like me to operate out of Dhahran, at least initially, which is the companies main hub of operations, and has a compound community of almost 18,000. I know it will be challenging being a single guy, but I am not one of those people that has to have a GF to feel as though my life has meaning. I am perfectly comfortable being single. I am actually a pretty introverted person just by nature. As long as I have an Xbox, a gym to work out at, and a laptop, I am a reasonably happy individual.

        I will socialize with people of course, but it takes a bit to get me out of my shell initially. Some people mistake this for rudeness, but it is just that I am relatively shy is all, especially around people I do not know very well. Still, it would be nice to have at least a couple of friends to be able to share my experiences with and converse with on a regular basis 🙂


    • margocatts says:

      Same as most foreigners who live there–work, in this case my husband’s. I’m glad to go home to the U.S. every time I do, but I count it a privilege to have the opportunity for an adventure like this one. Thank you!


    • margocatts says:

      Very! How easy it is to connect as friends depends on exposure, on whether you have Saudi coworkers or some other way to get to know each other, but interactions between strangers are respectful. Saudi culture is very class conscious, though, and expats who are seen as belonging to a servant class can be treated poorly.


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