Friday, October 7, 2011

Arriving in Saudi Arabia

The plane was a bit late in landing at Riyadh. At immigration control I stood in a queue of about 50 people for about an hour with absolutely no movement. Then a military type in a colonel’s uniform who had been strutting around the entrance hall all night barking instructions waved me to a much shorter queue. The immigration control is by far the most slapgat I have seen. The officials slouch in their chairs sleepily, then wander off to go chat with their buddies in the next cubicle, let their cigarette smoke drift into your face and very obviously discuss you in Arabic with their buddies.

I got out of the airport at about 4am and was met by Mohammed (there are many Mohammeds here) who took me to my accommodation. It had 4 bedrooms, 3 of which had 2 beds. On a few of the beds there was a sheet & pillow slip set – 1 sheet and 1 pillow slip. The sheet was about the same length as the mattress so tucking it in was out of the question. Also, the edges weren’t hemmed so they were unraveling. Both bathrooms and toilets were encrusted with dirt, as was the kitchen. The rubbish bin in the kitchen I threw out with the rubbish as it stank like week-old road kill.

The next day Mohammed took me shopping – luckily it was a “singles” day so we were permitted into the mall to do shopping. "Hyper Panda" in Riyadh is very large and modern and you can get about anything there. On “family” days no singles are admitted to the malls. The temperature in Riyadh is about 40 during the day dropping right down to about 30 at night. Happily aircons abound, including one in each bedroom.

The school is an impressive building – very modern and clean. The academy itself is very bound by rules and everybody is called “mister” – Mr Gregory, Mr Mohammed, Mr Achmed… The whiteboards in the lecture rooms are smartboards – electronic and computer controlled. The different coloured pens are actually dummies and you can even write with your finger if you like. You can also scroll up & down, save sheets and recall them, and the textbooks are also on the computer. Very impressive.

Everyday at 12pm and 6pm is prayer time. The devout gather in the lobby and face Mecca and the prayers are piped through the PA system for about 20 minutes. All the shops and malls also close for the duration of prayer time.

The first few days I had a couple of “remedial” classes to teach - these are students who missed classes and need to catch up. Then on Monday evening at about 20h30 Mr Ayman told me that I would be flying to Al Bahah in the morning and the driver would pick me up at 5h30. Also, 4 other guys would be sleeping at my place that night and flying with me in the morning. I stayed awake till 12am and when no one had arrived I went to sleep. Just after 1 I got a phone call – the first guy was waiting outside. I helped him carry his stuff up 2 flights of stairs and after half an hour went back to sleep. An hour later the next traveler arrived (these are all Egyptian English teachers and had travelled about 500km in a cab to get to Riyadh).

When my alarm went off at 5 I wasn’t feeling too chirpy. Anyway, we got to the airport and after some discussions with airport officials regarding baggage weight we took off for Al Baha. Al Baha airport is small – 1 runway and the plane has to make a U-turn to get to the terminal.

We were picked up and taken to the university, which is very large, with lots of construction going on and in the middle of nowhere. We were introduced to herds of people and then left to our own devices for the better part of an hour. Then Mr Reda told us that he wanted us to start teaching immediately. This was not a popular idea with us. We were all dressed in casual clothes, needed a shower and were knackered from lack of sleep. He kept on at us and I asked him if he’d like me to unpack my suitcase is the sandy parking lot to find my suit and wrinkled shirts. Eventually he gave up and sent us home.

Home is like a double block of flats – one block for married couples and the other for singles. I share with an American (Tim) who is health conscious and very into cleanliness (for which I am grateful - the place was spotless). The other is Sam, a young English guy. The flat has an entrance hall, lounge with flat screen TV and couches and chairs, kitchen with a gas cooker and fridge and there is also a washing machine. My room also has a “sun room” which eventually I intend to make “nice”.

The shower head is broken and Sam had rigged something with a wire hanger. The first time I showered the whole thing fell down which distressed Sam when he went to shower the next morning. Also, the toilet leaks if you don’t close the tap and the remains of a previous explosive movement seemed to be embedded in the porcelain. So yesterday I used a brand new hanger and made a more stable arrangement for the shower (I also put in a request to get it fixed), fixed the toilet and bought a toilet brush to clean the toilet.

We are also over the road from a mosque and just before 5 in the morning the first call to prayer rattles the windows. This is followed up with further mournful chanting at about 5h20 for a further 20 minutes. No danger of oversleeping here…

Downstairs we have a large recreational area with Wi-Fi, a pool table and a table tennis table. All that's missing is the fridge stocked with Amstels.

The university (men only) is about an hour away from our accommodation and a bus collects us at about 6h30 and brings us back again about 17h00. There are about 100 TEFL teachers on contract at the university and they are recruiting more. There is a very large contingent of Egyptian teachers. A bus is also available to take us into town (about 10km away) for shopping twice a week… singles and families on different days obviously.

The first day was chaos. Nobody knew what classes they were teaching, no teacher’s guides available, students wandering around aimlessly… I was told to go to lecture room 2123 and start teaching. When I asked for copies of the relevant books, what level the students were at, pens for the whiteboard and directions to the lecture room I was told to just go there and start teaching! So after wandering around for 15 minutes I found the lecture room and my students and gave a class. There was no white board to write on as the room was equipped with a smart board which was not yet functional. So instead I had to write stuff on sheets of paper and hold them up for the students to see. Loads of fun. I believe the smartboards will soon be functional. I can’t wait - I can’t teach without a board!

Anyway the next day I was given my office and tomorrow I get given a laptop – for school and personal use!

There’s a few South Africans here –a good bunch of guys. It’s nice to have compatriots to talk to. There are places worth visiting around here but transport is a challenge at the moment – unlike Chachapoyas nothing is in walking distance here, but I will sort something out. We are in a “mountainous” area (Peruvians would laugh at that description) and there are forests and mountain passes that are worth a visit.

We will get to them.


  1. Dear Gregory...what a story. I currently live in South Africa with my husband a two daughters and we have been offered lecturing positions at Al Baha. I am trying to get info regarding Al Baha but totally lost...nothing on line! Would you be able to assist me with any info you may have? Relocating with 2 little kids is not an easy decision so I want to find out as much as possible!

    I would appreciate any help I can get.

    1. Hi Vicky

      Al Baha has a population of about 430000 and it's a clean little town. If you are coming to work for Al Jazeera you'll probably end up living in Al Musa which is about 20 km from town. There's no public transport but the company provides a bus to town twice a week. Accommodation and utilities are free (with Al Jazeera).

      The are two good supermarkets in Baha and you can buy most things here. There's a good variety of shops but very few (no) good restaurants. I'm not sure what the ladies wear whilst at work but the rest of the time you'll be wearing an abaya so you needn't be too concerned about fashion :)

      There are plenty of recreational opportunities if you enjoy surfing the internet and walking around the neighbourhood. If you enjoy movies, pubs, clubs, music, swimming, tanning, singing and such... well that's too bad. You can, of course, do all of that in the privacy of your flat, except for having a drink. Booze is illegal here, but I have heard that people make a home-made brew with fruit juice.

      If you spend time in a larger town like Tief or Jeddah (probably the most liberal town in KSA) you will have access to malls, some of them really very good. The Red Sea mall compares to Sandton City. Remembering, of course, that if the family wants to buy fast food, the men and the women need to queue in seperate queues. Likewise with the banks - there are seperate branches for men and women. There's a great fear that men and women will strike up a conversation and we all know exactly what that would inevitably lead to!! Skande!!

      Of course you and your husband would teach at different institutions.

      There's no tourist industry here and tourists are not catered for. However, in Jeddah and Riyadh there are western beaches where you can have a normal day at the beach, sans beers.

      There are also compounds (only the bigger cities)which are walled off areas where foreigners can live "normal" lives - normal dress, mixing of the sexes, socialising, home-made booze and pubs... basically a western oasis complete with decadence and depravity. They tend to be pretty expensive though, but with two of you working it may be an option.

      I think most people come here for the money as KSA pays well - that being the only way to lure foreigners into what is really an alien society. The perks are also good so one is able to save every month. The work is easy but infractions are punished by salary deductions.

      I don't know what it's like in the married quarters, but amongst the males there's a fair bit of negativity and whinging, rumour mongering and general gloominess and bitterness. I don't know if that's a result of having lived here or if KSA attracts that type of individual. However, if you know what to expect you can mentally prepare yourselves and stick it out for a year or two and save a fair bit of money.

      Of course if you convert to Islam you may decide to stay for life. You are never more than a couple of hundred meters from a mosque and prayers are broadcast loudly through the PA systems (perhaps the assumption is that the almighty is hard of hearing). Certainly none of that stuff in the bible about saying your prayers privately.

      I did my homework before I came so I knew what to expect - a rather grim, dour and austere society. The people, however, tend to be friendly and helpful.

      Did you read my other blogs about KSA? They will give you some idea. If you look at my FB page (gregoryjgrove) you'll find a few photos that I've taken.

      Feel free to email me if you want more info or if you have specific questions. In fact, if you give me your email address I can pass it on to some of my married colleagues who can maybe give you another POV. My email addy is gregoryjgrove at gmail dot com.