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Interview with Mandi – an American expat living in Saudi Arabia

Updated 18 Nov 2013

Mandi is an American expat who moved to Riyadh with her Saudi husband and daughter. There are many adjustments that Mandi had to make when she moved to the Kingdom, and she has found the experience of living in Saudi Arabia to be a challenging one.

Learn more about living in the Kingdom in the Expat Arrivals Saudi Arabia guide and read more expat experiences in Saudi Arabia.

About Mandi

Q: Where are you originally from? 
A: I'm originally from Midwestern USA

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

Q: When did you move to Saudi Arabia? 
A:  I first moved here in 2007, then again in 2011.

Q: Did you move to Saudi Arabia alone or with a spouse/family? 
A: I moved here with my Saudi husband and our daughter

Q: Why did you move; what do you do? 
A: I moved to Saudi Arabia in an effort to solve problems in my troubled marriage, and so I could remain a part of my daughter's life should my marriage not work out. This turned out to be not such a good plan.

Living in Saudi Arabia

Q: What do you enjoy most about Riyadh? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the States? 
A: I like that there are people living here from all over the world and being able to experience many different cultures in one place. Being a woman is a disadvantage in many ways, and for that reason, I'd rate the quality of life here as poor compared to my life in the USA.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 
A:  Negatives: I can't drive. I cannot work or travel without the permission of my Saudi husband. Employment opportunities are extremely limited for women and the salaries aren't great for someone without a degree and many years of experience, so I am not able to financially support myself. What I miss most about home is my independence and ability to come and go as I please.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Saudi Arabia? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The biggest adjustment as a woman is obviously the inability to drive. I cannot go anywhere unless I have someone to take me. Adjusting to life revolving around prayer times was also tricky. The biggest culture shock for me was people's behaviour. Pushiness, line hopping, horrible traffic conditions, no casual smiling or chatting with strangers, and a general "me first" attitude are all common behaviours. I still struggle with accepting these things.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular? 
A: For a city as large as Riyadh, the cost of living isn't too bad. Rent is outrageous, but utilities such as gas, electricity and water are subsidised by the government. Petrol is cheap. Local foods are cheap. Clothing is expensive since it's all imported. I always wait until I go home to do my shopping.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Riyadh? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: Public transport is disappointing. Taxis are the main mode of public transport and the only option for women. There are horrific buses that are used to transport labourers... I wouldn't get on one if my life depended on it. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Riyadh? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences regarding doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: My family and I are fortunate enough to be very healthy, so I haven't had to really find out if healthcare here is good or bad overall. I've had great experiences and not so great ones. I recommend finding out your doctor's nationality, where he/she did their training, where their degree is from, etc. It's quite acceptable here to ask about these things. Always get a second or third opinion on major issues. 

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Riyadh? 
A: Road conditions! The only time I ever feel unsafe here is when I'm in a car. 

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Riyadh? What different options are available for expats?
A: Standard of housing here depends totally on your income and what you're able to afford, as well as the area of the city you live in. Options include housing compounds, private villas, or apartments. Most expats will likely be placed in Western housing compounds for safety and comfort.

Q: Any areas/suburbs in Riyadh you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: I don't know enough about the entire city to recommend areas. If at all possible, insist that your employer place you in a compound and don't take no for an answer.

Meeting people and making friends in Riyadh

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women, etc.?
A: It's unfortunate to say, but how you're treated here depends totally upon your nationality, race and religion. White Westerners are typically treated very well, but people of colour, Western or not, may face discrimination. Locals are generally respectful to other Arab nationals as well. People of Asian, African, Indian, or other nationalities will most likely experience blatant discrimination and racism. 

Christians may be asked about their faith and why they won't convert, but it's just a general curiosity. People following other faiths or no faith at all usually keep their beliefs or lack thereof pretty quiet to avoid confrontation. Practising any faith other than Islam openly is against the law. 

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people in Riyadh? 
A: I think the ease of making friends here depends entirely on your willingness to put yourself out there. I made a lot of friends from my blog, from Facebook groups, and from work. Those who live on compounds should make an effort to be involved in social activities and should not be shy about meeting neighbours.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A:  I have mostly expat friends married to Saudis, but also have several Saudi friends as a result of working in a Saudi company. Compounds always have social activities as well as embassies. Facebook has many groups dedicated to expats in Saudi, and that's also a great way to meet people.

Family and children in Saudi Arabia

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: This is my husband's home country, so there was no problem for him. The challenges for trailing spouses would mostly apply to women following their husbands. Women here cannot drive and must wear the abaya in public. These things can be difficult for Westerners.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: My child adjusted well for the most part because she is half Arab. We do have some challenges with the language and with teasing from other children at school because she's "only" half Arab. Saudi can be rather boring at times with not many activities or after-school programmes, so that's also been a challenge. Those expats whose children are able to attend American or British schools probably will not face those same challenges.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions? 
A: Coming here as an employee, your children's education fees will likely be covered, and they will likely have access to the best private international schools. If you're coming here as the wife of a local, you'll have to pay the tuition yourself, which can be hefty. Most schools here focus on memorisation and exams. There isn't much emphasis on creativity, critical thinking, or hands-on learning. 

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: My advice to women considering coming here as the wife of a local is simple… DON'T. If you're coming here as an employee, keep an open mind and enjoy the experience.

~ Interviewed November 2013

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