Pages of the Oasis

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.


  1. Thank you so much for this article! I am literally taking notes - I'm waiting to discuss details of a contract in KSA and this has opened my eyes to a lot of things I should ask about before going!!

  2. You're most welcome! Best wishes!

  3. This is good advice for any expat position in any country. I've worked expat overseas before, but not for a few years. Currently looking at a possible Saudi slot, and found this to be a great review!

  4. Hi Marianne,

    I am a woman interviewing now with several companies in Saudi. I find it a bit hard to work with recruiters but have not had luck with direct hire. Do you have an opinion on good schools or companies to work with? Unlike Asia, where I have taught for 4 years, I find it hard to get good info. Thanks for your insights and any thoughts on good places to start in Saudi would be SO helpful. :)

    1. I only heard that the university people would approach those teachers that had been recruited. The other person I met was hired from abroad in answer to an academic job ad, and he had experience teaching in the Middle East before. I don't know if his previous connections helped him find out about the job, but I suspect so. I agree that it is hard to get 'hard' info. Most things in Saudi happen through personal contact or connections with locals. I am sorry I can't help more.

  5. Hi Marianne
    Thank you for writing this article. I am in the process of negotiating a contract in Riyad. I have received an offer and delicately asked if there was room to negotiate the starting salary. I am waiting for the answer at the moment. Are you available to speak with me on Skype? I would really like to speak with someone who has some experience in Saudi Arabia because this is my first time to work overseas.


Thanks for commenting!