21 July 2016

Margo Catts - Expat in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Margo Catts - Expat in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Margo Catts is a 54-year-old writer and editor who live in Riyadh, which is the capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia. Originally from the United States of America, Mrs. Catts moved to Saudi Arabia due to her husband’s work assignment, and has been living in the country for 1.5 years.


Mrs. Catts noted that while living in Saudi Arabia can open your eyes to witnessing the rapid changes that the country is undergoing and expressed the difficulty she had in getting her immigration materials arranged. “Because I came into the country at a land crossing, my photo and fingerprint weren't taken as they usually are with airport entries. Getting those things done through another channel was very difficult, and ended with me alone in a room jammed with Arab women, no English signage, and no one spoke English,” she said.


She also pointed out the challenges of living in a country with numerous restrictions. “The constraints shift by custom rather than municipal code, by edict rather than legislation, and can therefore seem arbitrary and illogical,” she noted. “In public, you're expected to find and conform to the Saudi cultural norm, no matter what your own may be.” She also addressed the difficulty of finding entertainment as a woman, as women living in Saudi Arabia are limited from driving, associating freely with other people and from conducting business on their own.


Like Mrs. Catts, it can be surprising to find yourself in a situation where your immigration materials are incomplete, which may cause problems during the relocation process. Expats who want to avoid this may consider getting the aid of professional immigration services which can help them go through the right motions when it comes to following the rules and procedures present in the country you will be relocating to. Additionally, female expats who are living in Saudi Arabia may want to consider joining several clubs and associations to make them feel more welcome and at home while living overseas.


Find out more about Margo Catts experiences in Saudi Arabia in her full interview below.


Q: Where are you originally from?

A: The United States


Q: What made you move out of your home country?

A: A new job for my husband brought us to Riyadh, and since my work is portable, it was easy to come along.


Q: Where are you living now?

A: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia


Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: The work assignment was here.


Q: How long have you been living in Saudi Arabia?

A: 1.5 years


Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had

when you were new in Saudi Arabia?

A: Getting my immigration materials sorted out. Because I came into the country at a land crossing, my photo and fingerprint weren't taken as they usually are with airport entries. Getting those things done through another channel was very difficult, and ended with me alone in a room jammed with Arab women, no English signage, and no one spoke English. (It's a longer story than that—the blog post is here: http://margocatts.com/2013/09/30/a-journey-aboutalongamid-immigration/) 


Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance was particularly difficult in Saudi Arabia? What was your experience with these?

A:  I guess my answer to the last question means yes, double yes! Immigration arrangements can be very difficult. Matters are complicated by the way Saudi Arabia is a closed country with sponsorship laws governing who is and isn't allowed to enter and work. Then there are the tests and paperwork that have to be done in the home country in addition to the paperwork that has to be done in Saudi Arabia. Many employers have specialists on staff (Saudi citizens) to take care of the Saudi-based things for you as much as possible, and to accompany you when it's necessary for you to do business with government offices directly. Health insurance particulars vary widely depending on the employer, but arranging for health insurance and receiving care are generally pretty easy.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: I am here with my husband, but without children. We have both adjusted well. You trade time at home with family and old friends and things you love for new friends from around the world and experiences you could have no other way or place. Appreciating the unique opportunities of expat life is what makes it a rich experience.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialize with other expats in Saudi Arabia? How did you manage to find a social circle in  Saudi Arabia?

A:  If anything, I think the expat community in Saudi Arabia is closer than in other places because we tend to live in compound communities together. Women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, so we travel together by bus to shop or go on outings, and the shared experiences and time together make it easy to connect. We share the same restaurant, pool, gym, and community areas, so we see each other a lot. Also, because there's very little traditional entertainment in Riyadh, we come together to make our own. Connecting with Saudis is harder. They are warm and gracious hosts, but tend to keep to their own family and social groups. Rules that forbid the mixing of men and women also make it difficult to socialize freely with Saudis.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: In Saudi Arabia, entertainment options are limited, yet it's still easy to come up with a LOT to do. Dining and shopping are the only forms of commercial entertainment, and there are a lot of restaurants and malls. The desert offers outdoor recreation, with places to hike and to drive the dunes. You can look for shark teeth or Saudi diamonds or desert roses. There's world-class SCUBA diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea near Jeddah, or among the Farasan Islands just off the southwestern tip of Saudi Arabia. To the north are the ruins of Mada'in Saleh, a southern settlement of the kingdom best known for the ruins at Petra in Jordan.  And don't miss the Jenadiriyah festival in Riyadh in February! It's a celebration of Arabian culture with dance, art, handicrafts, and lots and lots of food.


Q: How does the cost of living in Saudi Arabia compared to your home?

A:  In general, it balances out about the same. Most food is imported, and packaged things tend to be much more expensive. However, produce and basics are subsidized, and in general tend to be a little cheaper. Housing is very expensive, but fuel is very cheap. A cup of coffee costs about the same as the U.S. and Starbucks will always be more! A meal in an inexpensive restaurant costs slightly more than the U.S. with dinners at U.S. chain restaurants (e.g., Chili's, Applebees, etc.) will be a dollar or two more than the U.S. A meal in an expensive restaurant costs the same or slightly less than the U.S., though substantially less if you factor in the alcohol you won't be drinking. No idea on cigarettes. As for wine...do you include the cost of the air travel? Alcohol is illegal, so it could cost you dearly. Your visa, perhaps, or a substantial fine. Go to Bahrain or Dubai for the weekend instead.


Q: How do you find the local culture and people in Saudi Arabia?

A:  The culture and people are fascinating, but some of the chasms between Western and Eastern thought are so deep that people on both sides can't even recognize what they are. Many Saudis spend time living in the West and understand Western ways far better than the other way around. Living here for even a few months will pay a lifetime of dividends in understanding the world we live in. One on one, Saudis are warm and gracious to a fault. They want to be sure you're comfortable and cared for. But the culture is also insular, and the social rules are not intuitive to a Westerner, so casual mingling is rare.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Saudi Arabia?

A: Most Westerners have an instantly negative reaction on hearing where I live, but the advantages are many. It is a privilege to live in a country that so few are allowed to enter, to see things that most people in the world never can or will. Saudi Arabia is undergoing rapid change, and being an eyewitness to what they're going through, and the struggles they face, is a better education than you ever got in high school. And as I mentioned earlier, the opportunity to make friends from other countries around the world is unmatched. As for the disadvantages, the restrictions on women are burdensome—not being able to drive, to associate freely with others, to conduct business on their own. Entertainments you're used to are probably unavailable—there are no movie theaters, no concerts, no bars or clubs, no place to run or cycle or walk freely, no spectator sports other than football (soccer, and for men only), no places to play sports of your own. In Riyadh, at least, the traffic is bad enough that it's often not worth the trouble to go out at night at all. Workplace frustrations, as well, can be considerable, as Western expectations about how work should be done collide with Saudi expectations of how people and problems should be managed.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes?

A: Of course! But times between visits seem to go quickly.


Q: How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Living in the day of widespread Internet is a boon. Facetime, Google Hangouts, and Skype can make the distance disappear, and Internet phone service means you can talk overseas as easily and cheaply as you can call across the street at home.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A:  Eventually we end up back in our home country, but what happens between now and then we don't know. For now, we're here!


Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: Frustrations with the restrictions on individual freedom. We are accustomed to living in a multicultural society where differences are supposed to be immaterial and the society is glued together by adherence to law. Here, we are required to conform to cultural custom and extremely conservative religious interpretation rather than law. The constraints shift by custom rather than municipal code, by edict rather than legislation, and can therefore seem arbitrary and illogical. In public, you're expected to find and conform to the Saudi cultural norm, no matter what your own may be. 


Q: What tips can you give other expats living in Saudi Arabia?

A: As in any country, be adaptable. Expats who resent and complain about the Saudi way will be frustrated and unhappy, and will not last long. Those who open themselves to discovering wonders and delights in difference will find (no surprise) wonder and delight. For each thing you can't do, there's something else you can, something you can do here that you can do nowhere else. Throw yourself into them!


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about your host country?

A: It's essential to follow local news in the English-language newspapers. Follow Arab News, Saudi Gazette, Al Arabiya, and Gulf News on Twitter and Facebook. As for blogs, the gold standard is Blue Abaya (blueabaya.com), which is a treasure trove of what to do, how things work, cultural commentary, and insider wisdom. Susie of Arabia (susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com) is the chronicle of an American woman who has lived in Saudi Arabia for many years. Under the Abaya (undertheabaya.com) is the very raw and honest journal of an American woman that has followed her separation from her Saudi husband and the struggles of being a single American mother in Saudi Arabia.