|Laura has learned about a different way of life since moving from South Africa to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia more than two years ago. She gives us a glimpse into aspects of her life as well as those of the locals, such as the limitations on rights that people in other countries take for granted, the cost of living, and how being open-minded can help one adjust to the local culture.
Laura van Niekerk
-Where were you born?
Cape Town, South Africa
-In which country and city are you living now?
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
-Are you living alone or with your family?
With family, I have a 9-year old daughter.
-How long have you been living in Saudi Arabia?
Two and a half years
-What is your age?
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Saudi Arabia?
My husband was offered a job here, and we came for the attractive salary and benefits.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
It took a long time, and a lot of paperwork and checks, including medical certificate, police clearance, etc. My husband had to come here first, and then apply for us to join him, which took over 2 months.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
No, Bupa was offered as part of my husband's package
-How do you make your living in Saudi Arabia? Do you have any type of income generated?
My husband works for a joint venture between a South African company and a Saudi company. I do freelance writing from home.
-Do you speak Arabic and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I speak only little Arabic. Most people here can speak English, so you don't really have to learn it.
It is vital that expats respect local cultural and religious customs. Saudi is a highly conservative Islamic country and no other religions are allowed to be practiced here. Women of all religions are required to wear a black abaya over their clothes and in more conservative areas a black headscarf. If not, the religious police and even some locals may reprimand them. Women are not allowed to drive, and only about 7% of Saudi women work. Foreign women struggle to find jobs, which are badly paid and mostly either teaching or medical.
One third of all people in Saudi are foreigners, mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Africa, America, the UK, Europe and other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Women are not allowed to drive, so use drivers and or taxis or buses/limos provided by compounds. Most Westerners and foreigners live in gated and guarded compounds.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Sure, I miss them from time to time – especially the freedom. Here there are no movie houses, bars or pubs, etc. So driving/camping in the desert is a fun thing to do, or to go to the private beaches if you live by the sea. Expat parties can be great fun. Many foreigners travel internationally as flights are cheap from here.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
We're going to Mumbai, India in 3 months.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
We live in a villa in a compound. My husband's company pays for it, and it is standard practice for 'white collar' workers. We pay around Saudi Riyals 120 000 per year for the villa, which is fully furnished and has 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. The price includes water and electricity and all maintenance.
-What is the cost of living in Saudi Arabia?
Cost of living is cheap in Saudi. A can of Coke still costs only Saudi Riyal 1. Groceries would be around SAR 4000,00 a month, at the most, for a family of 3. There isn't much to spend your money on!
-What do you think about the Arabs?
The Arabs are courteous, but they rarely socialize with non-Saudis, or non-Muslims. Some people live here for years, and never even meet a Saudi.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Saudi Arabia?
Positive: lots of money to spend, or save. You make great friends with people from all over the world, who live in your compound. Peace and quiet. Good education for the children. The compounds are really safe and the children love it. Great restaurants, and the old souks are wonderful to shop at. Lots and lots of shopping to be done, in fact, and electronics are especially inexpensive.
Negative: you cannot walk down the street and have coffee at the corner cafe. Even if restaurants do have outside seating, women aren't allowed to sit there. Restaurants are all divided into family sections, and bachelor sections. So the sexes are segregated in every respect. No movies (everybody buys DVDs), no theatres, no alcohol, no pork, Internet is censored, and unless you are covered, people will glare at you. It's difficult to live here. And in summer it is really, terribly hot. Most people leave over the hottest months of July/August, when schools are closed, for cooler countries.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Saudi Arabia?
If you have a sense of adventure, and an open mind, you'll love it.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Saudi Arabia?
Google "Laura of Arabia" and " women24.com" for more info on Saudi as seen from an expat's point of view.
The website South Africans in Saudi & Middle East offers great tips on settling and living here.