Teaching English in Saudi Arabia
For Men Only, There's a High Demand
After three years of teaching in Thailand, I was tired of the red tape and low wages for TEFL teachers in the Land of Smiles. Moreover, I wanted to use the teaching experience I had gained in Thailand to land a well-paying job elsewhere. So when I saw an ad on Dave's ESL Cafe for Saudi Arabia, I responded and ELS Riyadh eventually made an offer.
But before going to Saudi Arabia I had to return to the U.S. to obtain a work visa from the Saudi embassy in Washington. My parents were happy I was home for a visit but less than enthusiastic about my next destination. The U.S. State Department had just issued a travel warning for Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi embassy issued my work visa in March 2003, and I departed for the Kingdom forthwith. As our plane approached Saudi airspace, I was given a customs form upon which "Death to Drug Traffickers" was inscribed in big red letters. Meanwhile, the flight attendants were serving the last alcoholic drinks to expats. An amiable Saudi from Jeddah sensed my nervousness and tried to assure me that I would be okay in his country.
After staying in a hotel for a couple of nights, the other two new instructors and I moved into a spacious villa and began teaching.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq, which began a few days after my arrival, had little impact on us. A few American missiles inadvertently landed on Saudi soil, but Riyadh was untouched by the hostilities. My students were cordial and respectful as always, but one did grill me about why my country decided to attack Iraq.
The relative tranquility of life in Riyadh was shattered on May 12 when terrorists bombed three residential compounds for foreigners; several dozen people perished—including nine Americans. On the day after the bombing one of my students, apologized for the atrocity by his countrymen. In the wake of the bombing many Americans left. Most stayed, but the assault underlined the need for vigilance. My company changed its transportation arrangements by alternating vehicles used to transport teachers to and from work. Other foreigners were virtually confined to their fortress-like compounds, where the vast majority of expatriates in the Kingdom live behind high walls and guarded gates. The compounds, small islands of Western culture, offer social and recreational activities; however, they can become cultural prisons because their residents have little incentive to socialize with the local community.
Although Riyadh, the capital, is a fairly nondescript city, the vast country does have numerous attractions. Jeddah is the most cosmopolitan city. Located on the Red Sea, Jeddah has some great museums and one of the best souk (markets) in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia's Nabatean ruins are comparable to those in neighboring Jordan. Hiking and camping in the country's enormous deserts are popular among many expats. Despite its conveniences and good salaries, many expatriates have a hard time adjusting to life in Saudi Arabia; the cultural chasm between their homelands and Saudi Arabia is too great. The entire country observes five prayer times every day during which stores and restaurants are closed, so shopping and dining out can be problematic. The climate can be enervating. Censorship is widely practiced—both on the Internet and in print media. Nevertheless, at least six million expats live and work in the country, including about 35,000 Americans.
The demand for native-speaking English, male teachers is strong. Colleges and language institutes offer generous tax-free salaries, paid transportation and accommodations, and other perks.
If you decide to teach in the Kingdom, you will have to land a job before going there because there are no tourist visas for Saudi Arabia. You can find plenty of job ads on the Internet. Dave's ESL Cafe and other web sites frequently list positions for Saudi Arabia. Employers are looking for well-educated males who have at least a couple of years' experience. Contract length may be as long as two years.
Admittedly, Saudi Arabia isn't the world's safest country for Westerners. The State Department has warned U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel there. But in fact there is no utopia for EFL instructors: in some countries crime is a greater risk than terrorism.
Scott Zimmermann has taught EFL in South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. He wrote "TEFL Training in Thailand" for the January/February 2001 issue of Transitions Abroad. He is now academic director at a language institute in Louisiana.