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Interview with James – an expat who lived in Saudi Arabia

Updated 10 Oct 2019

James Ynson was born in the Philippines, raised in Australia, and lived in the USA for 14 years. In September 2017 he moved to Khobar, Saudi Arabia in the hopes of challenging himself to do something out of his comfort zone. After two incredible years in the Kingdom, he is now back in Australia. Check out his blog to learn more about his life in Saudi Arabia.

Read more about expat life in Saudi Arabia in our Expat Arrivals Saudi Arabia country guide.

About JamesJames_Saudi.jpg

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in the Philippines, raised in Australia, and studied and lived in the US for 14 years.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I recently moved back to Sydney, after living in Khobar, Saudi Arabia for two years.

Q: When did you move to Saudi Arabia?
A: I moved to Saudi Arabia in September 2017.

Q: Was this your first expat experience?
A: No it wasn’t.

Q: Did you move there alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved to Saudi on my  own.

Q: Why did you move; what did you do there?
A: I moved to Saudi Arabia as I wanted to travel and challenge myself to do something out of my comfort zone. I worked as a health and physical education teacher and sports coordinator at a private Saudi school. 

Living in Khobar

Q: What did you enjoy most about Khobar? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: What I enjoyed most was the simplicity of life in Khobar and the city’s proximity to nearby Bahrain for regular weekend getaways. The quality of life is a lot different to Sydney. There really isn’t much to do in Khobar other than go to the mall, work out at the gym and try different restaurants with friends. When you compare quality of life to a place like Sydney where you have beaches, lakes, beautiful weather, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, bars, parks etc. there is no comparison. 

Q: Any negative experiences? What did you miss most about home?
A: The Saudi drivers are crazy! Driving in Saudi has made me a more alert and patient driver. Cars will cut you off with no signals, drive on the shoulder of a main highway, honk their horns a millisecond after the light turns green, drive the opposite way on a one-way street, and speed through the streets with recklessness. Eventually, you get used to the madness, but when you first arrive, this will be one of the first things you notice – so put on your seatbelt and hold on tight. The thing I missed most about living in Sydney, other than my friends and family, were the beaches and hiking trails. There are beaches in the Eastern Province but they’re not Sydney beaches. To be fair, not many places around the world have the beauty of Sydney beaches. 

Q: What were the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life there? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: When I first arrived, I was really frustrated figuring out how to plan my day around the prayer times. Five times a day, stores and businesses close during prayer time so that employees have the opportunity to practice their religion. Many times I was left outside of a store or locked inside of a store waiting for the store to re-open. Once you live in the kingdom long enough, it just becomes part of your day and you figure out how to navigate throughout the day; however, it took a while to adjust. I’ve travelled a fair bit before moving to Saudi Arabia, so there was no real culture shock other than the extreme heat I felt when I first stepped on Saudi soil. 

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Saudi Arabia?
A: Living in Saudi Arabia gives you the opportunity to save, pay off debt and live comfortably. Companies that employ expats typically pay for their accommodation and utilities. Hence, a lot can be saved with limited expenses. I found that consumer products were about the same price to Australian prices. Though, I did notice how cheap bottled water was compared to Sydney prices. In Sydney, you can pay up to 2.50 AUD for a small cold bottle of water. Whereas, a small cold bottle of water is about 40 cents in Saudi. 

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Khobar?
A: There is no public transportation service in Khobar. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Khobar? Did you have any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: I found that many of the nurses and clerical staff in hospitals were Filipinos, so the customer service was always pleasant, punctual and professional. However, in my experience, when a consultation with a doctor was needed, I found their treatment, diagnosis and professionalism was sub par. For example, a couple of times I went in for a dental appointment to get a cleaning and check up. Both times the dentist asked me to open my mouth, looked inside and said everything was perfect without even cleaning my teeth. Thoroughly unsatisfied, I couldn’t wait to come back to Sydney to get a real cleaning and check up. Before visiting any hospital, I recommend you talk to colleagues and ask which hospital they recommend.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Khobar or Saudi Arabia? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Apart from the crazy drivers on the streets, I’ve always said Saudi is the safest place I’ve ever lived. That may seem like a far-fetched statement but you can’t believe everything you see and hear from Western media.  

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Khobar? What different options are available for expats?
A: Usually, Western expat teachers are provided secured accommodation in a compound. These compounds are typically filled with other expats from different professions. My accommodation was great but was not in a compound. Instead, I lived in a two bedroom, fully-furnished apartment by myself in an apartment complex made up of other expat teachers who also taught at my school. 
Another option for housing is to decline the accommodation that is provided by your company, and use the money that would pay for the unit and find your own accommodation. Most expats do not exercise this right but it is an option. 

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: The cities of Khobar and Dammam in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is highly recommended if you’re going to live in Saudi Arabia. These two cities are close to Bahrain making it easy to get your “Western fix”. The cities in the Eastern Province are known to be more lenient and progressive towards the Saudi Arabia 2030 vision. 

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Was there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Did you ever experienced discrimination in Khobar?
A: I thoroughly enjoyed my interactions with the locals. As long as you make an effort to learn the customs, attempt to speak the language and respect the culture, the locals will acknowledge your efforts and greet you with a warm smile.

Much to my surprise, I observed a definite hierarchy of social class. This was evident by the wide margin of salaries and preferential treatment towards Westerners. Typically, if you have a college degree from the West, then you are higher on the social-class ladder than someone with a college degree from the East. For instance, there is a huge variation in salary packages, living arrangements and other benefits that are provided for expat employees. Examples of preferential treatment for Westerners include not having to wait in line at the bank, not having the same extensive search when going through security checkpoints and being treated more favourably in the workplace. 

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Prior to moving to Saudi, I researched different social groups. I made friends easily as I joined a gym, a basketball team and a desert walking group through Facebook. I also found InterNations, a website dedicated to bringing together expats through social gatherings like para-sailing, scuba diving and exploring. Don’t be afraid to join these groups as most organizations love having new members join the group.

Q: Did you make friends with locals or did you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: Outside of work, I would regularly socialise with a group of locals at the gym where we played basketball three times a week. However, my main group of friends were expats.  They were the ones I would travel abroad with, invite over for dinner and try new restaurants with. The advice I would give to expats looking to make friends with locals is to be open minded, accept and celebrate cultural differences and learn a bit of Arabic to get by. You will be invited many times by Saudi colleagues to join them for dinner and meet their families – do not decline opportunities to learn and get to know the Arab culture through the comfort of their homes.

Working in Khobar

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: The process for me to get my work visa was a bit complicated as I was dealing with two Saudi embassies (Washington DC and Canberra). There were numerous times I almost gave up on the idea of moving to Saudi because the bureaucracy was painfully frustrating. I would recommend using an immigration consultant to make the process easier. 

Q: What was the economic climate in Khobar like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: As an expat teacher looking for a position in Saudi, I recommend using International Schools Services or Search Associates websites for teaching positions. These websites open up a list of schools looking to hire expat teachers. The websites will provide information regarding salary packages and vital information about the school. Though, it is my understanding that more and more schools are starting to hire locally as the vision of 2030 seeks to employ more Saudi men and women in the workforce.  

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in the city or country? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Working in a segregated school was an experience to remember. Trying to work collaboratively with the female side of the school was challenging as limited time was allotted to meet with female teachers. Compared to schools in Sydney, there seems to be a greater emphasis on work-life balance in Saudi. Hence,  most teachers would arrive and leave at the exact contract hours and not have much interest in leading extracurricular activities. 

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Khobar or Saudi Arabia?
A: My advice for anyone looking to move to Saudi for work is to be patient. There will be so many head-scratching moments, times you will feel annoyed that nothing makes sense, and other times where you will think “what am I doing here?”. Once you find your footing, life in Saudi Arabia opens up opportunities to travel to nearby countries and meet expats from all over the world. The life in Khobar is simple and it enables you to live a comfortable lifestyle while making it easy to save and pay off debt. Lastly, open your mind to new experiences, immerse yourself in the culture and accept everything that is different. You do this, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be an experience of a lifetime as the country moves towards a more open-minded 2030 vision. 

► Interviewed October 2019

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