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Interview with Jim V – an American living in Saudi Arabia

Updated 2 Feb 2010

Jim Veihdeffer is an American that has recently moved to Saudi Arabia to teach English.

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 Jim

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Arizona

Q: Where are you living now?
A: Riyadh (Malaz district)

Q: How long have you lived in Saudi Arabia?
A: 5 months

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: To accept a job teaching English to Saudi students

About Riyadh

Q: As an American, what do you enjoy most about Riyadh, how’s the quality of life?
A: The city’s mixed population of Saudis, Gulf State citizens, subcontinent and Western expats is delightfully gracious and warm. It is not unusual to strike up a conversation with anyone from a storekeeper to a security guard and have them invite you to sit down for tea and pastries. I think the most enjoyable aspect of living in Riyadh though is experiencing the adventure of a culture and lifestyle quite different from the U.S. And the very difficulty of getting into the country means that it’s an experience not many others will be able to have.

Q: Any negatives about living in Saudi Arabia? What do you miss most about home?
A: Westerners like myself typically miss the ability to mix freely with the opposite gender in public. This is a completely segregated society as far as genders go, except for life on the compound. But living on a compound also divorces the resident from the true life of the city and nation…which is what one really comes here for. The absence of any alcohol for Westerners and the lack of live public music or entertainment are both sorely missed by most non-Muslims.

Q: Is the city safe?
A: Riyadh is amazingly safe, especially considering the size of the population – over 5 million. The crime statistics may not be entirely reliable because civil and commercial crimes like robbery, breaking and entering, muggings, rape and so on may not be reported in the same way as in more open cities. But I have not for one moment ever felt in danger here from a personal crime. Being in danger from vehicles is another story.

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in the city as an expat?
A: I live in an apartment in the city, so my experience is unusual. I hear that the Arizona compound is considered one of the nicest. It seems that, as in most cities, the outskirts and suburbs typically have the nicest places. However, the Olaya St. area is also considered quite good in Riyadh.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Cost of living can be somewhat cheaper if one is budget conscious. Part of the lower cost of living is simply that there are fewer things to do and place to go. For example, your theatre and movie expenditures approach zero. Ditto for concerts. Ditto for comedy clubs. The price of electronics and household goods is slightly higher, but not a whole lot, than in the U.S., with less to select from in some cases. Food is typically a bit lower, as are restaurant prices. But, again, part of that is due to the fact that you never have a bar tab. In addition, there is no sales tax and no tipping, so you don’t have to add that to the price of a meal or a service.

Cabs are quite cheap, partly because gas is also cheap (currently about 60 cents/gallon.) Repairs and maintenance are a different story, since it’s very hard to simply find, say, a vacuum cleaner repair or a reliable computer repair place. Internet service is comparable to prices in the U.S. though the method of service and payment plans is quite different. My recommendation for home use is to sign up for a 6-month (or longer) WiMax-type plan (basically a router). For those on the go, a USB satellite-type system might be preferable. Mobile phones are cheap to buy but, as with mobile phones anywhere, a great deal depends on what kind of phone, what kind of features and what kind of usage you expect.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: The local Saudis are warm and gracious, however you are not likely to meet any or be invited to their homes unless you work closely with one or more. The work of the city, other than banks and telecommunications and the like, is done by Filipinos and people from the subcontinent.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: I find it easy. People are friendly and always want to know where you’re from.

About working in Saudi Arabia

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: It is an arduous, seemingly idiosyncratic process that typically takes several months with much frustration, particularly if you’re on a deadline (like for work) to arrive at a particular time. A visa can be obtained in less time, but it’s a good idea to allow for 3 months. The situation is complicated by the need to obtain airplane reservations well in advance and the real possibility that air schedules may change in the interim.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?
A: This is a moot point, since almost anyone who comes here comes with a job already in place. For spouses (women, that is), there is the possibility of work for nurses and teachers but not much else, unless you create your own entrepreneurial position in a compound.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: Work is totally dependent on the prayer times. Also, a lot of things get done (or not) depending on the political or family influence that one has. Also, Saudi culture is not big on “queuing” so a lot of times co-workers will simply move in ahead of you to get what they need done. My impression is that Saudis at a managerial or executive level work about as hard as someone from North America. But then, you’re unlikely to run into a Saudi worker at any level but managerial.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Prepare to be flexible, patient, push when necessary and be totally prepared to respect the Muslim culture and customs. However, don’t just take the word of anyone you meet. A great deal of misinformation is passed along from generation to generation of newcomers, much of it either plain wrong or simply misleading. Treat your life here as an adventure in learning.

~ Interviewed January 2010

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