Working in Saudi Arabia
An English Teacher's Mecca
Saudi Arabia has always been off limits to the casual traveler and thus a challenge to those who have gone to elaborate lengths to penetrate the country. Richard Burton, the translator of the Rubayat, learned to speak fluent Arabic, disguised himself as an Afghani doctor, and joined a caravan of pilgrims to Mecca.
Today's English teachers have an easier way into the Kingdom. The country's leaders recognize the essential role of English in their attempts to integrate with the global economy and are actively promoting English programs. Saudis learn English for career advancement, for pleasure, and for day-to-day communications with expatriate workers. ESL teachers work in Saudi schools and universities, in businesses, in the military, and in private homes.
To be sure, most of the available contracts are for men. It is next to impossible for a woman to arrange an English teaching job from outside the country. Women's colleges do hire from time to time, as do some of the larger corporations, but their hiring practices are opaque. Because of the special difficulties for unattached women in the Kingdom, companies that do hire women prefer them to be half of a teaching couple. Since there is plenty of local hiring for qualified teachers, if you are a female ESL teacher accompanying your husband to the kingdom you should be able to find work.
The demand for private tutors is high, and pays from SAR100 to SAR150 ($26-$40) per hour. Expatriate K-12 schools hire locally, with the best salaries and conditions offered by the British and Americans. Casual work at a rate of SR115 per hour is sometimes available with the British Council in Riyadh, Jeddah, or Dammam. Contract salaries for men range from adequate to generous. What makes them attractive, however, is not the base pay but the benefits. You pay no local tax on your salary and receive an end-of-contract bonus calculated on length of service. You are provided with furnished housing or with a housing allowance and pay no utility bills except for long-distance phone calls. Every year you, your spouse, and your dependent children receive airfare to and from home. Plus your family receives at least basic medical insurance and subsidized schooling. Goods and services cost a fraction of what you would expect to pay back home. If you need your house cleaned, your kids taken care of, or your meals cooked, you'll find someone more than willing to do it at a price you can afford.
All of this means that Saudi Arabia is a good place to save money. Adjustment, however, both on the professional and personal levels, can be difficult. Teachers of young Saudi men have described what they do in the classroom as "boy wrangling." Male students tend to be immature and unmotivated. Classes may be large, with up to 30 students, and maintaining discipline can be a real problem. If you don't have good classroom management skills when you arrive, you'll need to develop them quickly for survival. Don't expect to be able to motivate your students through creative classroom practice. Enlightened ESL methodology has not had much of an impact in Saudi Arabia, and you are likely to be locked into a curriculum and materials that defy your best attempts to liven them up. You may find yourself wondering why your employers went to the expense of hiring an expert like yourself (most recruits have a MA degrees) to teach such second-rate materials.
Learning to deal with local bureaucracies, including your own administration, can also be challenging. As in any country, the locals have their own ways of doing things, and you have little choice but to fit in. Losing your temper will only result in your losing face. Patience and courtesy, on the other hand, will open doors. The special difficulties of day-to-day life for expatriates in Saudi Arabia are well known: the need for women to cover up and the restrictions on their movements, the lack of cinemas, the censorship, the ban on alcohol, the heat. These can be annoying at the best of times and deeply frustrating at the worst.
An open mind and a positive attitude will help you to survive. You may even find that you are enjoying yourself. There are compensations(and a surprising number and variety of diversions) available once you plug into the expatriate circuit. Trips to the desert, diving in the Gulf or the Red Sea, exploring historic ruins, shopping, crafts, sports, or simply enjoying the lively social life of the expatriate community: these are all activities that can make the time pass pleasantly. Saudi society itself can be quite difficult to penetrate, and your contacts are likely to be exclusively with those of your own gender. If you are lucky enough to make Saudi friends, you'll find them to be charming, hospitable, and generous people who will be proud to share their culture with you.
If you can make the adjustment, a contract in Saudi Arabia offers you the chance to step out of the rat race and to get ahead financially. A few years in the Kingdom will enable you to pay off your student loan or mortgage or to put together a nest egg for your retirement. It's also a unique opportunity to visit a fascinating country that is still off limits to most travelers schools and universities, in businesses, in the military, and in private homes (see sidebar for list of employers and agents).
JILL KOOLMEES is a lifetime traveler. She currently lives in Riyadh, where she and her husband teach English.