Ask the Guy in Saudi Arabia

I find my life here quite unremarkable. But I have been in Saudi Arabia for a decade now, and so I suppose I am something of an expert. Still there is much I do not know about this place.

Since interest in Saudi Arabia and the Arabic world is at an all-time high, and since there is so much misinformation out there, please feel free to ask what you will. I will do my best.

What was the difference you found hardest to get used to? Does it still bother you? Doesn’t have to be anything big. I travel pretty frequently to Mexico, Central America and Germany and there are always little things that get on my nerves every time.


Well, I flippantly tell people the only thing I miss are baked goods from Enteman’s. But that is just being glib.

I have been an expat for most of my working life. I like the US, but do not want to live there. Besides nowadays, the world is only a plane ride away. Every year phone calls get cheaper, the internet better. In truth I feel no further from ‘home’ than I would if I lived in California.

So, no most things do not bother me. Not all people can deal with different cultures, for some reason I can.

My friend told me that all of the palace guards are Pakistani. Is this true? Is this significant? My friend’s father was a flight engineer on Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Whadda do in Saudi? Also what’s the attraction? Most people that live abroad for more than a few years tend to have something that keeps them interested. Culture, romatic opportunities, the money, career, language study, scholarship in something. What’s your big draw and I suspect it isn’t inertia.

[for me, one big thing is that 25 years after I started to study Chinese, I still get a kick out of speaking it with the people here]

Apparently as an anti-coup measure, we have a number of police forces here. The guys in the white cars with blue stripes are traffic policemen. The ones with brown stripes are the criminal police. The green stripes are ‘prevention police’ (that is what they are called in Mexico, they guard stuff). The ones with red stripes are the Royal Guards.

Do not mess with them. All jobs that require you to carry a gun are reserved for Saudis, including the Royal Guards. Still I suppose the King might have a close-in bodyguard of Pakistanis or whatever.

The Pakistani presence here decreased many years ago when the Pakistani government refused to segregate their Shias from their Sunnis. At that point the old Pakistani Brigade here in the Kingdom went away.

(Sorry China Guy, I did not see your post.)

Actually, most Westerners here are odd birds. I suspect I am not the only normal one here. They money is good, I like the weather, but I suspect the root of it is some sort of psychological malfunction.

Arabic culture (or at least its Saudi variant) is not welcoming of outsiders, further it is not especially interesting to outsiders. I know of one American who is serious about studying the language.

Romance is largely out of the question of course.

So all in all, I suspect I do remain here in fact out of a lot of inertia.

Why Saudi? What drew you there? Did you intend to live in that area, or was it just, “I want out of the U.S., don’t care if it’s Upper Volta or Mars. Just want out.”?

Why is romance so out of the question? I know about the religious prohibition on marrying outside the faith, but surely there must be a few possibilities. I know of plenty of interfaith relationships. What would happen if you asked a Saudi lady out on a date?

Well Saudi women were until very recently prohibited from marrying outside The Kingdom let alone outside The Faith. Further asking one out would involve talking to one, which is nearly impossible.

Next dating is not done here. Marriages are arranged by (and in) the family. The man’s father asks his brother is his daughter is agreeable. If the answer is yes, a price is set and paid. The marriage itself is a legal, not a religious thing.

Marwan, a guy in my office got a deal. He married his cousin for only about ten thousand dollars. She is still in high school. We give him an endlessly hard time about it.

Oh, as for how I ended up here, I answered an ad in the Washington Post. It was during a difficult period of my life and I was just eager to get out of the US.

I notice you didn’t respond to China Guy’s question about what it is you do in Saudi. Was that an oversight or can you not say what it is you do?

How often do you catch flack for being an American, Infedel etc?

Oh, I am an English teacher. Nothing interesting really (today we dealt with the Simple Present and the Present Progressive!). Not worth mentioning.

In the office we have a truce. The with the First Gulf War, many Westerners left. As a result the Saudi government realize how critical we are, if only as a symbol. So anyway we avoid general discussions of difficult issues. The London explosions were not mentioned today for example.

If a student mentioned such a thing in class, I am under orders to report him to the Colonel at once. (Heck after 9-11, we had ‘undercover’ security guys in our classes spying on the students.)

So anyway aside from a few religious leaflets I get each week, we avoid politics and religion in the office.

How’s the food? In South Asia Muslims are (IMO) the best cooks, and their food is excellent.

(I hate to admit it, but I generally avoid Arabic food. Too much cardamon. On the other hand, I have become a great cook here.)

Funny dinner story. We were at a wedding party and one of my Palestinian friends was behind me in line. I grabbed a piece of lamb from the table and Ibrahim asks me if I want the tongue. I say no, he grabs the sheep by the head and twists it somehow and pulls out the tongue.

We went back to our carpet, I put my right hand in my pocket and had a grand old time.

As you may remember (I emailed you once, a while ago) I lived in Saudi as a kid in the mid-1960s. At that time, we lived in a walled compound with other Americans. Do you live in a compund like that? And now American or other non-Saudi women about? Don’t want you to be lonely!

Yes, I live on a compound with machine-gun totting guards on all sides. More than half of the inmates are non-Westerners. It is a security thing, the thinking is that people will be less willing to attack a compound with lots of Arabs.

Or not.

The Arabs seem to like the pool. The kids play in the shallow end, the adults smoke at pool-side, The ladies swim in full abias.

Still, there is no friction between us at all. One big happy and all that.

(Excuse me, it is bedtime here. Sunday is a school day for us.)

What’s a typical day like for you in Saudi?

Well currently I am doing the afternoon class, so I come in a bit later than usual.

Up at 4.30, off to the pool for a predawn swim. Back to the villa, make breakfast, kiss the parrot a few times. Check the internet.

In the car at seven, after everyone else has left, so I drive to the base with no security vehicle. It is a half-hour drive. I have an iPod. Show my pass to go through three security checkpoints, sometimes they make me open my trunk.

Park in the sun shelter, walk to the school. At my desk by about seven-thirty. School starts at 7.45, but I am reviewing tests this cycle. At One-fifteen I teach a class of senior NCOs preparing for their annual test. Finish at two.

Back in the car, after everyone else has left. Tomorrow I have to go to the hospital to do some blood work, that will take half an hour plus drive time. I will get some fresh food for the parrot while I am in town.

Back in the villa tomorrow by about four or sooner. Crank up the internet. Listen to Car Talk on the satellite radio. I think I may roast a chicken tomorrow.

Nothing special.

(Excuse me, I do need to go to bed now.)