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Interview with Angela – an American expat living in Saudi Arabia

Updated 11 Nov 2013

Angela is an American expat who moved to Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea town of Yanbu with her husband and daughter in 2012. Despite having to make many adjustments to life in Saudi Arabia, Angela has approached the move with a positive attitude and made the most of her Middle Eastern experience.

Read more about Saudi Arabia in the Expat Arrivals Saudi Arabia guide or more expat experiences in Saudi Arabia.

About Angela

Angela - An expat living in Saudi ArabiaQ: Where are you originally from? 
A: Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.  Lived there for eight years before moving overseas.

Q: Where are you living now? 
A:  Yanbu Al-Sinyah (Industrial City), Saudi Arabia

Q: When did you move to Saudi Arabia? 
A:  My husband came in July 2012 and my daughter, Abby, and I arrived in November 2012.

Q: Did you move to Saudi alone or with a spouse/family? 
A:  Spouse and family.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do? 
A:  My husband was offered a job with SAPL, Saudi Arabian Parsons Limited. The offer was very good and our daughter was young enough that we could still travel before she was in school. It was an opportunity to show her the world and other cultures.

Living in Saudi Arabia

Q: What do you enjoy most about Yanbu? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country? 
A: I love the location. We are right on the Red Sea and there is amazing snorkelling and beaches here. The weather is always sunny, so we spend a lot of time outside. There are many parks and areas for family recreation where we have picnics with friends and the kids can run and play.  

The quality of life is hard to compare. It’s a completely different culture and area of the world.  Here it is more of a developing city with lots of construction and growth. The Industrial city itself is only around 35 years old, so it is still very traditional. It’s a whole different way of life here, so comparing it to Raleigh, NC, is hard; both areas have their own unique cultures.  One thing is that the Saudi culture is very family oriented. We spend more time here as a family than we ever have before doing more traditional activities (picnics, games, parks, etc.). We are not as busy running to and from work or practices as we are in the States.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 
A:  You take the good with the bad. Obviously, family and friends are farther away and we don’t get “home” as much to see them.  

I do miss convenience. Here, you can find just about anything, if you know where to look. At home, we would run to Target or Walmart if we needed something. Saudi has many smaller, specialty shops so it can be an adventure to find a certain product you may be looking for. 

Housing here is different as well. We live in town, so we do have a large yard that we’ve worked on to make it more like home, but living in the desert it takes a lot of work to grow a garden.  Not the same as in North Carolina where there were a variety of plants available and easily purchased. Here, we have a select number of nurseries and the plant selection is limited given the climate. Also, housing here is older and the style is different. A lot of stucco and tile are used, so for me at least, it’s not the traditional neighbourhood or street that I’m used to.  Each house has a high wall so the women can walk freely without their abayas, so block parties and neighbourhood BBQs are out here.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A:  There was a lot of culture shock when we first arrived. Here, women’s rights are very limited. We do have to wear an abaya (long black dress) and we cannot drive. This was a huge shock for any lady coming from America where we are a bit more independent. It’s a big adjustment to learn to rely on taxis or your husband for a ride to the grocery store or to the mall, as in America I would hop in my car and go.

The abaya hasn’t really phased me though. I like that I don’t have to think about what I’m wearing each day or even if I’m having a bad hair day. I can throw on a scarf as a hijab, cover with the abaya and be out the door in about 10 minutes.

Prayer times are another adjustment that takes some getting used to. Everything revolves around prayer, so during those times, stores, restaurants, well everything, shuts down. You have to really plan your shopping and outings and watch the time closely if you want to get something to eat or just run an errand. It certainly has made me a more organised person!

Q: What’s the cost of living in Saudi Arabia compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular? 
A:  The cost of living here is almost even with the States. You pay a bit more for some things, but others are less expensive. For instance, I am willing to pay more for some imported food, such as fresh pasta or whipped cream when it’s available, but in general, groceries run nearly the same as in the States. For a family of three, we spend roughly 100-150 USD per week, which is what we averaged in North Carolina.  

Gas is obviously much cheaper here so we’re more likely to take a road trip or just go for a drive in the afternoons. We pay around 0.45 USD per gallon here. This is one nice advantage.  

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Yanbu? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A:  There isn’t a lot of public transportation. Women rely on taxis and it is ok for you to take a taxi if your husband is unavailable. There is a bus system, but it is very time-consuming and, given the route, taxis are inexpensive and certainly more convenient.

A family car is needed. There is a lot to do in the area, however, you must drive for nearly everything. At weekends it’s good to get out of town and go to the beach or to Jeddah, however, these are about two to three hours away. Also, there is so much to explore in the desert with camel farms and camping available for the more adventurous.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Yanbu? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regard to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Healthcare is more affordable. We’ve found that medications and prescriptions are much cheaper here, along with doctors’ visits and care. Medications and prescriptions here are comparable to those in the States as we are able to get most all our prescriptions filled here as necessary. There are dentists and eye doctors as well, so it’s all available.

The care is similar to the States as you find a doctor you feel comfortable with and you see that physician. Yanbu is small so if anything more pressing is needed, many people travel to Jeddah for care or return to their home country. However, we’ve found the quality of care here good and reasonable in price.

We have used both the Royal Commission Hospital in the city when my daughter was dehydrated from stomach flu and Al-Ansari Hospital for her paediatrician visits. Both are good with Al-Ansari being a private hospital.  

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Saudi Arabia? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Honestly, I feel safer here than I did in America. I don’t feel threatened or worried about attacks or kidnappings here, even less so than at home. People in Yanbu are generally friendly and expats have been in the area for years, so they are more accustomed to seeing different cultures here. People are educated and most have travelled overseas for their education, so I find that many people here understand the Western culture and are accepting of us. 

That’s not to say you don’t use common sense here. You still should be aware of your surroundings, not walk alone at night or walk down a dark alley. There is crime here, but in comparison to what we experience even in Raleigh, North Carolina, which I consider a safe city, it is very low.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Yanbu? What different options are available for expats?
A:  The standard of housing here is different. The houses are older, so those offered to expats are not new construction. Most are ranch-style homes. They have been renovated, but due to the climate and the harsh weather conditions, they are not necessarily quality constructed homes.  They are acceptable and with a little work and effort, it’s easy to make them your own.  

There are two compounds in Yanbu, Arabian Homes and The Cove. Arabian Homes is more established and actually located in Yanbu Al-Bahr or the downtown area. The Cove is newer and located on an inlet in the Industrial City.  

It depends on the company you work for here in Yanbu. Some pay for housing in Arabian Homes or the Cove or others give you a stipend to rent housing in the community. We live in the community as the company my husband works for provides housing in the Royal Commission.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in Yanbu?
A: I think each has its good points and bad points and it’s up to the person as to where they want to be located. I like living in town. We have a larger yard and our fence provides the privacy that I like. Our neighbours are Western, Saudi and a mix of cultures, so I really enjoy the area.  

In the compounds, there is more of a neighbourhood feel and most homes are townhome or apartment construction without the yard. But you do have more recreational activities and women can go freely on the compounds without an abaya.  

Both have their advantages; it’s all in what the person expects from the expat experience here.

Meeting people and making friends in Saudi Arabia

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: This is Saudi Arabia, so there is discrimination towards women and religion. This is an Islamic country, and although it is understood that many expats are not Muslim, we are not free to practice or display our religion here.  

Also, women are considered a lower class here, somewhat. We must have a guardian in the country with us at all times and our husbands are responsible for us. 

However, I feel that the Saudis are very open to Western culture. Through the internet and television, along with their own travels and education, they understand that our cultures are different. We do get stares in the stores, but we are different. My daughter and I both have blonde hair and blue eyes and I typically do not cover my head when we are out, so we’re not what they are used to. Very rarely have I ever felt threatened or worried by these stares. I really think that most are curious because we are different.  

I’ve found almost everyone to be very friendly, and the Saudi culture is fantastic for children.  Abby is greeted and shakes hands with everyone. People are happy to say hi to her and smile when passing. Much friendlier than what we see in the States.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people? 
A: I was lucky in that before coming to Saudi I met some women online who were already here.  Once I was here, I accepted every invitation to go shopping or for coffees or breakfasts. I met some amazing women who introduced me to the local women’s organisations and my network grew from there. 

We all understand that we share one thing in common. We are all living overseas and away from our homes and our families. We rely on each other and I’ve found most women and families here to be very welcoming as we all understand what each other is going through. The women get together on a regular basis for meetings and crafts, cooking lessons and just to shop, so it’s a very tight-knit community and easy to make friends.

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:  Most of our friends are expats, but that being said, they are all from different cultures and walks of life. I have friends from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Canada, Finland, Scotland, the UK etc.  There are not many true Americans or Western expats here, so it’s a big melting pot really. I do have some friends and met some ladies who are local and they are amazing as well. 

There is one women’s group here that is open to any women, expat or local. It’s great to meet people and share our cultures. There are lots of social groups for the wives that we partake in and once you arrive in Yanbu, it’s easy to seek them out.

Working in Saudi Arabia

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit for Saudi Arabia? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A:   Visas and work permits can be a challenge here. There are no “tourist” visas given so you must have a purpose when entering the country. My husband’s initial visa (business visa) took around three weeks to process, but his permanent visa, residency iqama and family visas took three to five months on average. It is a long drawn-out process with extensive medical and educational requirements. Families looking to move here should expect an average of five to six months of separation from the time the husband begins the process until the families are able to join.

Please note I’m speaking about husbands only as the majority of expats here are men. There are some women; however, they are fewer due to the strict labour laws and restrictions on the employment of women in the Kingdom. This is changing, however, as women are being allowed to work in more and more fields.

All of our processing was handled by my husband’s employer. This is the most reliable and fastest way to process visas here.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Yanbu? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A:  The city is growing and there are many projects planned in the coming years. The major corporations hiring here are Parsons (SAPL), Worley-Parsons, Aramco and Exxon. Expats wishing to look at Yanbu should contact one of these organisations as these are the primary overseas companies in the city.

Family life 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:  I am the spouse that did the most adjusting and yes, there is a lot of adjusting that comes with moving to Saudi Arabia. You give up a lot of your independence and freedoms to come here. I am not able to wear what I like. I must be conservative in hairstyles and appearance. It is not acceptable for women to drive, so you learn to rely on others. In the same sense, I had worked and been independent before and after meeting my husband. Because of the culture here, I gave up my job and became a stay-at-home mom, which is a whole new career.  

I have learned to manage my life though and relax a bit more. The housework is on a schedule, I do enjoy not having to race around and run errands. I try to schedule trips together. However, this is not a vacation. I work harder here than I ever did as an office manager working 60 hours a week. Here, it’s 24/7 with activities for the family, get-togethers with friends, housework, gardening, etc. There’s always something to do. I think this experience makes you stronger as a woman, wife and mother as you will learn things about yourself you never imagined.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A:  Our daughter was two when we moved, so the change for her was a bit easier than for me.  She misses her dog, her cat, her grandma and her pop-pop. But, that being said, she spends more time with her mommy and daddy, which is a bonus. She left preschool and started spending time with me at home. Her father used to travel for work on a regular basis, but now is home every day for lunch and every night, so for her, family time is a bonus. 

We do travel a lot on holiday so she actually recognises that we have three “homes.”  We kept our home in North Carolina where my husband’s family is; we spend about three months during the summer with my parents in Pennsylvania and then we have Yanbu. So for her, home is where the family is. She’s learned so much about the culture here and other cultures from our friends. She is beginning to learn Arabic and is open to speaking to anyone and everyone. The adjustment for her was minimal.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions? 
A:  I can only speak to preschool which my daughter began attending this year. It is good. She sings songs, learns her letters (both Arabic and English) and is learning the traditional things that she would in the US. She has learned to colour in the lines and right and left, along with her colours and shapes, etc. She does attend one of the two international schools in the area and we are happy with the progress she’s making there. She loves the school and is happy to go in the morning, so for me, it’s worth it.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A:  Stay flexible and learn to laugh. You have to learn to go with the flow as you never know what this life will bring. Nothing is what you expect and you have to take the good with the bad and not focus on the fact that it’s not “home”. Make it your home. Learn to laugh or you will go crazy! You have to learn to find humour in things, and enjoy the experience without having expectations. What will happen will happen, and life is ever-changing!

~Interviewed November 2013

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