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Interview with Carol Fleming – an American expat living in Saudi Arabia

Updated 2 Feb 2010

Carol Fleming is an American ex-diplomat who spent most of her career in South Asia and the Middle East region; she's also travelled to more than 75 countries. She has now been living in Riyadh for three and a half years with her husband, a career Saudi diplomat.

Read more about expat life in the Kingdom in the Expat Arrivals guide to Saudi Arabia, or read more expat experiences in Saudi Arabia.

About Carol

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: United States

Q: Where are you living now?
A: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Q: How long have you lived in Saudi Arabia?
A: 3.5 years

Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: Yes, with my spouse.

Q: Why did you move to Saudi Arabia; what do you do?
A: In this particular move, I followed my spouse, who is a 30-year career Saudi official and was returning to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after having been posted abroad at differing Saudi embassies.

About Riyadh

Q: What do you enjoy most about Riyadh, how’s the quality of life in Saudi Arabia?
A: As an American woman in Riyadh, I enjoy the additional opportunities I receive to be more active in social affairs, cultural affairs and independent employment opportunities. The quality of life can vary greatly depending on the circumstances which bring one to Riyadh and what kind of accommodations are provided.

Due to my marriage to a Saudi, I typically move daily between the expat community and the traditional Saudi life. I find my personal quality of life to be very satisfying. Anything I want or need is easily available in Saudi. It is easy to make friends with other expats, and I have been fortunate that I can broker introductions of expats to my Saudi friends. While perhaps on arrival and getting settled in, it may seem there are not many opportunities or much going on in Riyadh, but that is a mirage. One soon discovers that Riyadh offers many choices of activities such as opera, comedy shows, sporting activities, many nature activities, hashing, geocaching, fossil collecting, historical places of interest, golfing, etc. One can be busy with multiple activities each day if it is desired.

Q: Any negatives to living in Riyadh? What do you miss most about home?
A: Riyadh traffic can be very congestive, and of course, only men are allowed to drive. Therefore, for a woman to feel more independence and a sense of freedom, it is best if she engages her own private driver or at least has a reliable private limo (taxi) service available. Due to my marriage to a Saudi, Riyadh has become home. But when I think of the things I miss, it may surprise you… it usually revolves around food items that are not available or easily available in Saudi Arabia, such as marshmallow cream or smarties candies! Naturally, I miss my family and thankfully Skype, Magic Jack and Vonage all make communicating with home much easier.

Q: Is Riyadh safe?
A: Overall, yes. Like any capital city, there are neighbourhoods which should be avoided due to the reputation of petty crime and sometimes drugs. However, Saudi Arabia takes its commitment to the safety of its citizens and guest workers very seriously.

About living in Saudi Arabia

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Riyadh as an expat?
A: Within Riyadh, desirable suburbs include Mohamdiyah, Suleimania, Oleya. However, most expats prefer to live on Western compounds, which once within their borders are very much like a small Western town inside. The Western compounds are typically located outside of metropolitan Riyadh due to the large land mass needed for a compound. The compound, in addition to providing choices of housing (condo, flat, townhouse, villa), has additional amenities which can include pools, tennis, a restaurant, a fitness centre, billiards, golf, football/baseball fields, cleaners, a beauty salon, small stores.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Saudi Arabia?
A: Western compounds can rate from 3 to 5 stars. My favourite compounds include Arizona Golf Resort, Al Romozan and Kingdom Compound. However, there are many many compounds in Riyadh. The Western compounds can come furnished and equipped, so one can simply move right in.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Saudi Arabia compared to America? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: A Western compound can be expensive and especially due to the high demand. Presently, it is typical for a villa on a Western compound to rent for 175,000 SAR and up. Additionally, rent must be paid one year in advance. Most companies oversee the rentals of villas on Western compounds for their employees.

Q: What are the locals in Riyadh like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: Since I am married to a “local” I frequently mix with both Saudis and expats. It may take time for an expat to develop a true friendship with a Saudi to be invited to the home. However, once that invite is extended it will be a real treat as Saudis pride themselves on hospitality and making one welcome.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Saudi Arabia?
A: Very easy. And I would suggest before arriving in Saudi to join newsgroups to meet, connect and ask specific questions from other expats already in the Kingdom. And for an insider's perspective on crossing the bridge daily between the expat community and Saudis, read my blog:

About working in Saudi Arabia

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Saudi Arabia?
A: Not at all. My husband was my sponsor, so it was relatively simple to acquire a residency permit.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Riyadh, is there plenty of work?
A: Riyadh is a dynamic city with opportunities in many sectors. The most prominent being medical, education, banking, finance, training and defense.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: The typical work week is Saturday through Wednesday. Muslims will be given the opportunity to go and pray during prayer times, which fall during work hours. The work culture is more relaxed and most meetings will always start with an exchange of pleasantries and refreshments before business is discussed. And there will be more bureaucracy and red tape, particularly for ventures and projects. Prepare yourself to be patient and recognise projects and approvals may take longer to acquire.

Family and children

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: Private schooling is advised for expats. However, these schools, such as the American School or the British School can be expensive and have waiting lists. It is suggested to have tuition negotiated as part of the contract process. The Saudi schools are taught in Arabic, with Islam a large part of the curriculum.

Q: How would you rate healthcare in Saudi Arabia?
A: Overall healthcare is decent in Saudi Arabia. Most expats in Riyadh prefer Kingdom Hospital, which is a modern hospital based on American standards and practices. An expat can also be seen at the National Guard Health Affairs through its business centre. National Guard Health Affairs has one of the highest reputations for care and services in Riyadh. In addition, there is the Saudi-German Hospital; the Saudi-French Hospital; and the Saudi-British Hospital.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Do as much advance research and reading as possible to be prepared. Saudi culture is quite different from other countries in the GCC. There are restrictions that have to be abided such as women cannot drive; unrelated men and women in public together can risk being challenged by the religious police on the validity of their relationship (i.e., are they related?), segregation is practised in that all restaurants will have a men’s section and a family section. This is the same with banks. A woman must go to a woman’s branch of the bank to receive service.

I also encourage expats to not stay within the bubble of a compound or solely at work. There is so much to explore and discover in Saudi Arabia. Take advantage of the time and experience the culture. Go into the desert for a picnic and to find fossils; go to the horse races held at weekends at King Abdullah Equestrian Centre; explore the old souks in Deira. Greet your Saudi counterparts and let them know you’d also like to learn more about their cultures and traditions.

~ Interviewed February 2010

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