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Monday, May 27, 2013

Contract Negotiation Advice for Teaching in Saudi Arabia

I admit it.

When I got my contract to work in Saudi Arabia, I was completely intimidated by it. Despite having taught English for years and had dealings with teaching contracts in Chile and Thailand, I was at a loss  about how to think about, and what to negotiate regarding my contract to work in Saudi Arabia.

It felt like a totally different kettle of fish, with more serious consequences if I decided to quit once there, since you can`t just hang out and be a tourist in Saudi Arabia: the only way in is with a work contract of some sort.

I had a lot of doubts, which were exacerbated by the negative opinions I heard from a lot of people back home strongly opposed my going to Saudi Arabia due to the status and treatment of women there.

Regarding the contract, First of all, I was suspicious that the English side wasn’t a direct translation of the Arabic on the same page. 

 I didn’t have a clue about the going wages and if the offer was a good one.

And I worried that the contract wouldn’t be honoured anyway, in terms of accommodation and vacation pay and other details.

I had read in some online forums that there might be a ‘contract switcharoo’ once I got there, as has happened to teachers working in other parts of the world, where the contract signed before coming was not the same one you were pretty much forced to re-sign once there ( or risk having to pay their own flight home to escape the ‘new’ contract parameters).

It turns out that none of these problems materialized, and none of my fears came true.

In fact, only one point of my contract wasn’t honoured exactly as I anticipated: accommodation.

My contract was honoured in terms of salary amount paid, paydays, vacation days, hours worked in a day and week, and the basic agreement for work duties.   The flight was paid for by the company without me needing to buy and be reimbursed later. 

I stayed in company housing, so my accommodation expenses were magically taken care of for me each month and I didn’t have to pay out of pocket for anything.  However,  the accommodation was not everything I was led to believe I would recieve. I wasn`t alocated a studio apartment. I was given a room in a hotel (a hotel made recently into a quasi-apartment).

The suite I wound up living in wasn’t exactly as I expected, but it was better than most people were given, I soon discovered. And my situation was bearable, since I wasn’t miserable like some people were because of sharing with flatmates they couldn`t stand ( I was glad I stuck to my guns and insisted on living alone), or upset by living in a hotel suite without a proper kitchen ( my suite had a big kitchen and separate prayer room /living room and separate bedroom so it felt like a real apartment) , or  feeling 'imprisoned' in compound instead of living freely in private apartment of their own choosing.

While I was basically satisfied with how my contract was fulfilled, with time I realized later that there were some finer points that  I wished I had negotiated harder for  before signing the contract. 

Below are the points I think you should try to negotiate or at least seriously consider before blindly accepting a contract:


I accepted the first dollar amount I was offered. I felt a bit irked once in Saudi Arabia, when I heard others talking and realized that I had years more experience and better training and qualifications than most, and yet it sounded like others with far less experience and training had successfully negotiated a higher wage than I was getting. Just because they played a bit of hardball.

I naively had thought that the recruiting had seriously considered my education and qualifications before making me an offer, but in fact they just gave me the standard offer they offered to every native English speaker. It was still heaps more than I was earning in South America, so I wasn’t unhappy, just irritated.

I would strongly suggest trying to talk to people who have worked in Saudi and recently returned home to get some accurate wage comparisons in order to get a sense of the going rate. Online ESL teacher forums  (e.g. Dave’s ESL Cafe) can be a good source of this information.

Also, have interviews with a number of recruiters and see which gives you the best offer. They are competing with each other, and this could work to your advantage if you play your cards right.

Don’t just jump at the first offer like I did! They need about a thousand English teachers each year (the turnover rate is stunningly high and there has been a massive expansion of the English program for Saudi men and women in recent years) so you have room to negotiate.

Multiple Entry Visa

It is completely up to your employer whether you can have a single or multiple entry visa. 

(This is permission to leave the country during your time off.  Some companies allow multiple entry visas and others do not.)

I had been planning to travel to the surrounding countries during my vacation times, but in fact I wasn’t allowed to for two reasons:

I had a single entry visa and this is the only type the company allowed me to have
 as a Canadian, it was proving really difficult to get re-entry visas, so there was no guarantee that you could return to work when planned, so the company ruled that Canadians could not leave for the duration of their 1 year contract.

So, the mulitple entry visa is  and important negotiation point to work out in advance of signing the contract and arriving in Saudi.

Vacation Days
It turned out that your time off varied according to the place (university) you are assigned to work. It would be a good idea to try to pin this down in advance. I highly recommend trying to plan out your holidays and destinations according to the seasons before you agree to a particular contract, and ask which vacation days are flexible and which are mandated by the contract with the university, to ensure you get a chance to see something of Saudi (and/or other countries) while you are there. The religious holidays really affect what you can do on your vacation time, since everything shuts down for a lot of them and ground transportation is difficult at the best of times.

I discovered that because I had not adequately planned (hadn’t splurged on guide books before I went, and didn’t splurge once I arrived to pay for a tour  or two that caters to women who want to see sights within Saudi), that I missed the best time of year to see some of the most interesting places (winter). Then, when I had time off due to religious holidays, and time to think about it, there wasn’t room on the tours I was interested in, or there were no tours being offered at that time of year. Plus, I wound up having to teach summer school, so I didn’t get the time off I expected in the end anyway, so I should have planned to tour around soon after first arriving.

I signed a contract and stipulated that I wanted to live alone, and I didn’t regret that decision one bit. I found that I needed the time away from other women ( I was working with 130 other female English teachers under cramped staff room situations and we were all packed into close quarters on the vans provided by the company for transport), and relished the time alone in my suite at night. Single women were encouraged to live with other women upon arrival, but you can say no, especially if you have something in your contract about your wishes.

Some people liked their flatmates and some hated them, which you can expect when strangers are paired together under extreme living conditions.

Be forewarned that you may be housed in a hotel ( apartment hotel) instead of an apartment. The only people I knew who were given apartments were married couples, when both spouses were working for the same company.

The company I worked for offered the option to live independently, outside of company housing, which means you were given a living allowance if you chose to find and live in your own apartment. Many people had to wait a long time to be reimbursed for these expenses, however, so be forewarned that you may have to pay up front and not get reimbursed as expected.

You also can pay for your own transportation ( taxis) out of the living allowance, and it seemed possible to live quite decently on the amount provided, based on what I saw of other teachers’ apartments and heard from their stories.

I noticed that contracts are a very personal thing, and that some people always felt ripped off and others just happily went along with what was offered and provided.

I was more in the latter category and wasn’t fiercely disappointed, in large part because I got my own apartment suite which I really wanted and needed, and loved that I didn’t have to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed for accommodation or transportation to and from work or other company outings.

I found that I got what I asked for by asking politely and being calm and firm ( e.g. getting my own private apartment suite in the hotel). I saw some very cold reactions from Saudi people to anyone who flew off the handle or demanded things  and made a scene ( e.g. in banks, in mall stores, and I heard about two people who had terrible fights in the HQ of the company, and had their contracts terminated on the spot and who were subsequently flown out of the country within 24 hours as a result).

What Wasn’t Up For Negotiation

Negotiating the number of days worked and hours worked is usually not a possible negotiation point since the recruiting company has contracts with different universities and institutes with these points fixed in those negotiations. The best you could do is be flexible about where you worked, in order to best match your holiday wishes. Also, the transportation by mini-van is arranged for all, not on an individual basis, so you have to go with the flow and regular work day hours for the place you agree to work at or are assigned to work at. The best you can do is try to get assigned to a place that offers hours you find acceptable and that  you get accommodation close to your workplace to minimize commuting time.

My Recommendations

Knowing what I know now, I would negotiate (professionally) harder about the points listed above. The worse that can happen is that the recruiting company says no and revert back to the original offer. Remember that you are dealing with a country of very shrewd negotiators and businessmen and women (although you will not see the women working in public), and that patience is a virtue.

The biggest thing I would do differently would be to try to get hired directly by the university or institute instead of going through a recruiting company, which is much easier after doing a round of work there and knowing the language and systems and making contacts with people and getting noticed. The university administration will approach individual teachers that get good reviews. It’s not easy to approach them directly.

I hadn’t realized that the recruiting company would continue to be completely responsible for me once I arrived and throughout my work term, and that it wasn’t a temporary arrangement, so I was completely dependent on them to provide for my needs, they could refuse to let me take time off, and they had a bigger role in my security and safety (e.g. safe transport to and from work) than I had realized going in.

One last note: if you find your contract is not being honoured and you are in a vulnerable and unstable situation, you do have legal recourse. Of course, first try to work it out with your employer. But if you are not satisfied, you can approach the Saudi ministry of labour for help. There are laws that are intended to help foreign workers. After talking to my friend who worked for the Saudi Ministry (he was a Saudi citizen) about this, I learned that the Ministry is not against helping foreign workers, but are often powerless to help and stop situations that are unfair to workers simply because they don’t know about them.

Your own country’s embassy should be able to provide assistance and advice too. In the case of the Canadian Embassy, you may need to be very proactive to seek this help out. I didn’t get a reply to emails and never managed to call at a time when a real, live human being was able to pick up the phone. So,I’d recommend a personal visit  to the embassy during open hours to reduce the chance of a wasted trip, although all you may be able to do is make an appointment for another time.

Read my upcoming post on the diplomatic quarter for more information about this fascinating part of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Some Things  Will Still Be Outside of your Control No Matter What Your Contract Says

Some things changed on during my work term that I could never have predicted at the outset 

For example, the company decided to ask us all to re-sign contracts after a few months, and all of a sudden required people who didn`t have TESOL certification with 100 hours of observed teaching to get this qualification or face having their contract terminated in short order, something that didn`t affect me since I had CELTA designation already, but which upset and completely changed the lives of more than half of the teachers I was working with, since they suddenly had to scramble to find and pay for certfication courses and some had to go home and apply for a permanent work visa all of a sudden, (which for Canadians took months to secure).

Also, it was surprisingly problematic and stressful to renew temporary work visas, which I hadn`t anticipated, thinking it would be easy to do for at least the first year of my contract. Please read my next post about your Visa options so you can feel that you are in a better position to decide what you want to do, and what is realistically possible.

I hope my advice is helpful to you and provides some insight into the contract process and that you wind up with a lucrative contract you are happy with.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

How did you find a job in Saudi Arabia?

This is a question I’m often asked.

 In fact, I found my job teaching in Saudi Arabia very easily. 

I just posted my resume to Dave’s ESLCafe and recruiters flocked within hours.

I also browsed the list of jobs posted on Dave’s ESL cafe and read up on the forum postings and on blogs about teaching in various countries in the world . I applied for 2 positions but didn’t receive a response from either.

After receiving emails from recruiters and agreeing to an interview by one by Skype, I sent my resume and scans of my original certificates (degrees, CELTA designation) to the recruiter.

I had as many questions for the recruiter as he did for me, I think. While he didn’t answer any questions about what it was really like to live in Saudi Arabia or culture type questions, he readily referred me on to other people who were teaching in the middle east, and one who was currently working in Saudi Arabia.

I was wary because I had read that people currently working for the company would not be in a position to give any negative comments, in case they lost their job over it, but the people I talked to still gave me useful information, which turned out to be accurate, although a rosy spin on the situation. 

For example,I remember talking to one teacher currently working in Saudi who told me, in a very thick southern USA accent that she actually loved wearing the hijab because she she never had to worry about what her hair looked like. She just wrapped her hair up in it in a minute, and went out the door. Wardrobe decisions are quick and easy in such a conservative environment. Once I arrived, I discovered the same thing. Except for how hot they made feel, I didn`t mind wearing the abaya or a hijab much at all.

I had also asked to speak to people who had worked for that company who had finished their contracts already, but was never given any names of people not currently working for the recruiting company.

As a result, I found my own sources of information as well as what the recruiting company offered me. The best sources of information I encountered were people who had lived for years in the Middle East, usually working for oil companies, not as teachers, who had returned back to Canada. They gave a really accurate portrayal of the cultural living scene, but of course, since they weren’t teaching English, they couldn’t give me insights into that aspect of the culture and work situation.

(Check out my eBook on this topic,  ‘’Teaching English in Saudi Arabia: Strategies and Class Activities’’ for more information on this particular topic).

Although no one said they had a negative experience that I talked to, all cautioned me that it was a hard place to live, and everything they told me turned out to be true.

In retrospect, I was glad I talked to as many people as I did  because I seemed to have been well prepared and wasn’t shocked by anything. I had also lived abroad before, and knew how to adapt to living in a new country. As a result, I seemed to adapt better than a lot of my teaching colleagues. (I was only surprised by how things went with the recruiting company and at work. Everything about the culture turned out to be exactly as I expected.)

If I were to do it again, I’d read more about the muslim culture ahead of time and try to meet with Saudis living and studying within my own home country.  

As an aside,  you might also appreciate reading Sarah Ali’s eBook (link on the homepage of this blog) called ‘’Teaching in the Middle East Through Understanding Culture’’ and others on this topic.
So, basically, after I kept hearing the same things and advice over and over again, did some soul searching and decided I could live with it all, I decided to sign the contract. 

The recruiter said he would pass his recommendation to hire me and my application package on to the headquarters of the recruiting company in Saudi Arabia, who would then contact me directly and send me a copy of the contract they were prepared to offer me.

I received an email and a copy of the contract within a week. The recruiter told me he was annoyed that it had taken so long, and said he had contacted them on my behalf. He had hoped I would get a contract offer within 48 hours apparently.

I had no idea, really, what to think or what to look for once I received the contract.  It seemed quite straightforward and thorough, but not overly complicated or difficult to understand in terms of the language used. It seemed reasonable and above -board. I still felt like I was going in blind. I asked for the opinion and confirmations of the visa expediting agency , I went through to get my visa 
  (who didn`t raise any  red flags, but weren`t really in a position to anyway), and the Saudi Embassy in my country, who outright laughed at some of my questions.(It wasn´t that my questions were that far off base, just that I was asking the wrong people, people who weren´t in a position to comment, or who were men that weren´t interested in my concerns as a woman. )

I learned a lot after I arrived and worked there for a few months, and discovered the reality of how the contract worked in the 'real world'. In general, things were as stated in the contract i signed. I was grateful for this after I heard stories (often horror stories) from people working for other companies that sounded like they treated their employees quite poorly.

Still, there were things I would do differently when negotiating a contract, if I were to do it again. So I’d like to recommend that you read my post on contract negotiating tips for more advice about my experience and what I learned and can recommend to others as a result so you don’t feel this way too.

Please also read my post about work visa options (pros and cons of each type) since this can form a part of your contract agreement.

Some of the Things I Learned

One thing I hadn’t realized was that my contract was only with the recruiting company, so I would always be working for the recruiting company for the duration of my contract, not for a University directly.

This had implications. At times this led to some tension and discrepancies between what the company was willing to do, and what the university wanted teachers to do. 

It also meant that the recruiting company was 100% responsible for you and your living situation, not the university. This had plusses (they provided paid accommodation and some transportation options for shopping and social activities outside of work hours) and minuses (for example, they controlled paydays, wages, holidays,required that you ask for permission to travel on holiday, and could require you to move to a different institution than the one you want to work at, and you had limited choices of accommodation, depending on when you arrived and what was available; the company I worked for did not have a big compound living situation for expats like some big companies provide for employees, which could be an advantage or disadvantage depending on your personality).

The company website had photos of the accommodation included with the contract and other information about the company and what new teachers could expect from the company. Only the married couples I met were given this option. The 'singletons' wound up living in hotels ( made over to be 'apartment hotels'). Check out the accommodation options thoroughly and ask a lot of questions, and compare with other companies, to make sure you are comfortable with the situation before signing the contract. Once you are there, your options are limited to what you agreed to beforehand. Switching companies once you are there is a hard thing to do.

Once I had a signed and counter signed contract, it was a done deal. Next came the application process and waiting game to get my Visa arranged and then my flights booked.

A day after I signed my contract, I received nice welcome emails from the recruiting company headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with lists of next steps to take to get my work Visa, flight booking instructions (to be paid for by the company), and what to buy to prepare to live in Saudi Arabia (with special notes and links about the culture and special instructions for women about buying abayas, such as the Canadian Muslim online store ). 

They didn’t give much information about what to bring to help prepare you to teach so I highly recommend that you get and read my eBook ‘’Teaching English in Saudi Arabia: Strategies and Class Activities’’ to help you know what to expect, in order to help you prepare to teach in this part of the world.

Also, please read my upcoming posts about what to bring with you that your recruiting company may not mention, or that you might not otherwise hear about, that will make a big difference to your quality of life in Saudi Arabia in the short and long term.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Some Insights into Middle Eastern Morals and Values from Sarah

Sarah Ali has written a book titled, “Teaching in the Middle East through Understanding Culture.” ( see link to the right on the homepage).

 It explores the slight nuances in culture throughout different
countries in the Middle East.

 It gives tips for new teachers who are not familiar with the Middle East and the culture. Below is a excerpt explaining religion.

“There are certain morals and values that differ from Western values. In the Middle East spending a lot of time together as a family and making sure that no shame is on the family through misconduct is very important. An example of a gross misconduct in the Gulf and certain religious families in Turkey would be a family’s daughter seen out on a date with a man. There is a lot of shame involved in this as a woman is supposed to remain a virgin until marriage. Dating is not an acceptable behavior in most families and marriages are frequently arranged. Drinking alcohol is forbidden among orthodox Muslims as it covers the mind therefore affecting the ability to pray. Although, there are many Muslims who do not practice the religion and can be seen doing contrary. Additionally, Istanbul is much more liberal and you will see groups of young men and women spending their time in cafes or going on dates.”