Pages of the Oasis

Monday, June 24, 2013

Things to Do To Help You Get Settled In To Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Here are some suggestions about things you can do to help yourself feel settled in and comfortable quickly.

How to Get the Lay of the Land

This country operates on word of mouth. Ask the hotel  receptionist / building manager, and hang out in the lobby of your hotel or apartment or in staff rooms at work to meet people and talk to anyone and everyone to find out all you can about tips and tricks for surviving and thriving in Riyadh, where to go and where to shop and what to do for fun.

Get a cell phone. More details about how to do this in an upcoming post. 

   Find out the local prayer schedule

It changes a few minutes everyday. Prayer time will affect your life even if you are not Muslim since everything shuts down during prayer time. You need to plan your outings around prayer time to minimize your frustration and downtime spent waiting for shops to open. Cell phones bought locally usually come with an app installed that tells you  prayer times (and is instantly understandable even if the app is in Arabic).

Bring a Book
I found it was useful to always have a book with me when for prayer time to end, when waiting for things to re-open after lunch, or when stuck in traffic. There is a lot of 'downtime' in Saudi Arabia, and unreliable access to the internet.

 If you are a fan of reading and books, a bookstore that carries English books is Jarir Bookstore (  However, they don`t have a vast selection of English fiction, so you may want to bring books with you from your home country. By the way, Jarir Bookstore is a great place to get all your stationery and teaching materials and has a good selection of electronics and office equipment.
Advice For Women: Stock up on Abayas Soon After You Arrive

If you are a woman, make sure to stock up on a few abayas since sometimes you may want to send abayas out for laundering and may not get them back immediately. Or, you may want to change abayas frequently when it is really hot outside.  

It`s easier to buy once you are there since you can see what is in fashion (and it may be hard to find abayas for Saudi Arabia outside the country- every country is different in terms of fashion and acceptability.  You will wear abayas and hijabs everyday, so it’s worth it to find ones you like. Go to the markets (souks), not the malls, to get abayas, hijabs and niqaabs.  The markets have more variety and are much less expensive than the stores in the malls.

Find the Nearest Mall
Find the malls nearest your home as soon as possible.  This is a good bet for finding an ATM, and you’ll need to go shopping once a week, so you might as well find out the best places to go and where to find the best deals.

Make Friends With Someone With An Iqaama / Residency Status for Saudi Arabia

To send money out of the country, get a cell phone service contract, internet plan, and make other large purchases, it is extremely helpful to have someone with an iqaama go with you, and sometimes, make the purchase for you.

Get Your Financial Life Set Up

After you find an ATM ( or a few) that accept your bank card from home, you should figure out how you can send you money out of the country (unless you like stuffing your mattress).

To do this, find out where  Enjaz or Western Union is. Actually, it`s best to find out where a few of them are. These are easier to use than bank services. By the way, the Western Union website is blocked from within the country, so you have to go to outlets in person to transfer money. 

It is extremely useful to know someone with an Iqaama  or Saudi ID who can go with you to cash cheques and help you transfer money out of the country. Some banks and Western Unions and some Enjaz outlets get very sticky about allowing you to do this if you have a renewal stamp on your passport temporary work Visa for some reason. If one place refuses to serve you, y recommendation is to  just go to another one. A place that worked one month may refuse to serve you the next. 

Before you set out, ask around for advice about where to go since the Jazz and Western Union outlets are franchises and the service atmosphere can vary dramatically from one place to the next.
It`s helpful to do this before payday at work, when everyone else is scrambling to figure out how to cash their cheques and send money to their home bank accounts.

Find the nearest Decent Restaurant that Delivers  

Make the rounds of local restaurants and pick up  thier fliers with phone numbers and delivery / service hours. This is a take-away culture, and even McDonalds delivers, which is nice when it is hot outside.

Find the Nearest Health Clinic and Pharmacy

Find the location of the nearest health clinic, go there, and pick up a card / pamphlet that has their location  in Arabic (with a map) and phone numbers listed, so if you get sick it’s easy to get yourself the help you need. It’s much easier to hand over a card or pamphlet in Arabic to a taxi driver than try to communicate  in Arabic / English when you are really ill. For the same reason, find out where the closest and best pharmacy to where you live is so it`s easy to tell the taxi where to go.

Get your own Internet Access

Access to the Internet is not as easy as in a lot of other countries, especially for women (women are not allowed to use cyber cafes, and it’s hard to find cyber cafes anyway). Note: Sometimes you need someone with an iqaama or permanent residence to set up the service contract for you. Your passport and work visit visa are enough to purchase hardware (cell phones and computers and TVs).

Don`t Waste Time: Get Out and Join Classes and Do Group Activities Immediately

Because of the heat, it can be tempting to settle in by staying home and resting. But beware: being a homebody which can quickly lead to getting in a rut and getting depressed. I highly recommend forcing yourself to get out and meet as many people as you can as quickly as possible. If you start a routine of social outings early on, it`s easier to get started and keep it up. The people you meet will make the different

Go to the Hash House Harrier`s outings (one of the best ways to meet expats from around the world)(ask around for a local contact person who can give you the details)

Go to Concerts and Reception Events offered by the Embassies  (check embassy websites, get on email lists, go to the Diplomatic Quarter and look for fliers and posters and ask around)

Take Classes  (ask for newsletters circulated around the expat compounds for class offerings and check out the 'links' section on this website for ideas of how to get patched into the local network of your choice). 

 Go to the Diplomatic Quarter One Morning

Visit the Diplomatic Quarter to connect with your Embassy, and greatly improve your quality of life.  See my upcoming post on this topic for details.

Getting familiar with this area, its services, and upcoming social and cultural events offered by the embassies there can make a big difference to the quality of your life, (especially for women, since you don’t have to wear your full abaya and hijab and niqaab while inside the Quarter and can enter all buildings freely).  Also, there are green spaces where you can walk around freely, a cafe,  a post office and a gym for women. It is an oasis in more ways than one.

Those are my top recommendations.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Things to Bring With You to Saudi Arabia

Although shopping is a national hobby, more like a national sport, in Saudi Arabia, and you can get some great deals since there is no tax on anything, they don`t have the same selection as you are probably used to.

There were a number of things I didn`t find in the stores in Riyadh, or not easily anyway, that I wished I had brought with me.  

Here is what I wish I had brought with me:

Raincoat or breathable waterproof windbreaker - I arrived in Riyadh in wintertime (Feb) and it rained everyday for about a month, drenching downpours in the late afternoon, instantly flooding the streets, and once we were caught in a hailstorm and rainstorm on an outing to the desert organized by the hash house harrier group, and I didn`t see rainjackets or outdoorwear for sale anywhere.

More exercise, workout, yoga, belly dance and dance exercise CDs and videos

Exercise wear for women (including running and hiking shoes- hard to come by in Saudi for women since exercise isn`t generally an encouraged hobby)

Music (mp3s) (couldn`t download things easily once there due to connectivity issues and blocked sites)

Accurate Maps of Riyadh or GIS based apps (Google maps wasn´t accurate or as detailed as I expected and I found I needed something in hand to show taxi drivers and others I wanted to meet up with). Print maps in English are hard to find once you are in Riyadh.

Guide books about Riyadh / information about travel companies that spoke good English and that women could book trips through. Surprisingly, tourist guides were hard to come by once inside the country.

Professional blouses and suits and outfits - it could be hard to find professional attire, let alone in western sizes for women, although it was easy to find long skirts and T shirts and casual wear or super fancy dresses and lovely dress shoes).

Teaching books / teaching activity materials, or digital files / scans of them. Stationery supplies were easy to find at Jarir Bookstore, but there were few teaching activity books or libraries for teachers where I found myself working. Digital scans of books work best since books are heavy to transport.

Saudi Arabian Arabic language learning materials (not just 'Learn Arabic', since very country there has quite a few dialectic differences). Learning as much Arabic as possible before I went would have been a great idea, especially since I had trouble finding materials that were basic enough for me once I had arrived. Since absolutely everything about the language was new to me, I really appreciated the kind of books for kids where you trace the letters following the dotted lines.

Fiction books in general – books I wanted to read for pleasure and about Saudi Arabia/muslim culture. Saudis are very sensitive and a lot of books were not available inside the country that you could easily find outside the country. I never had success buying anything from Amazon – either the site was blocked or the connection timed out before I could complete a  purchase.


Photos for posters and wall hangings (you can print out photos or make them into posters for your walls at local Kodak stores, but downloading photos once inside the country was problematic if the files were big since the connectivity was not great).

Things I was glad I had brought:

- Some teaching activity books and teaching materials (you can get whiteboard markers, paper and printers  at stores and photocopiers at stationery stores, but blu tack /non-adhesive gum, photos, images, and the white plastic film you can put on the walls and write on, then peel off and take with you, were hard to find). I didn`t see any decent teaching activity books for sale in bookstores in Riyadh and there were no libraries with a wide variety of books like I was used to back home.

- My favorite recipes (scanned to digital files from my favorite cookbooks)( I was impressed by the variety of 'international' food and ingredients at the supermarkets like Lulus Hypermarket)

- Some music

- Photos (saved to hard drive; accessing online galleries and downloading often proved problematic),

- A lot of exercise Cds and home workout routine info  (weights and exercise equipment could be bought once in Riyadh)

- Fiction novels ( but I wish I had brought more since I couldn`t access Amazon to buy any once in Riyadh and the local stores didn`t stock fiction I was very interested in)

- Hiking boots, running shoes if you like to jog,  walking shoes, a good wind breaker, sunhat, and outdoor clothes for hiking and desert outings ( they don`t have a lot of outdoor clothing stores, especially that stock things for women)

- Casual clothes and pants (they mostly sell skirts and dresses for women in Saudi, and they carry sizes for short and small people)

- Guide book for the region (they were hard to find in the stores in Riyadh)

- Things to give as little gifts. The Saudis are very generous and gift giving people. 

 Things that are easy and relatively cheap to get once you are in Riyadh:

- Electronics such as cell phones, TVs, cameras ( no import taxes on anything! Check out outlet stores and big distributors like Extra for good prices)

- Shoes

- Women´s dresses and skirts

- Household things and kitchen appliances and TVs and technology in general

- Jewelry

- Perfume

- Food in general (except pork products, as you would expect when in a Muslim country)

A Couple of Other Tips:

Make some local contacts (maybe made through or other international agencies) before arriving to make it easier to meet locals that speak good English and get answers your questions about what to buy, and where to buy things if they are available locally.

Set up a mail forwarding service (e.g. so you can ask people to send you stuff from home that you realize you can`t live without and desperately need. The general mail system was terribly slow and unreliable. None of my postcards sent from Saudi Arabia ever arrived at their intended destinations elsewhere in the world.

Pick a mail forwarding service that  allows you to confirm where to have things sent once you are physically in Saudi Arabia and know which courier outlet is closest to your home. You never know what courier or mail outlet might be closest and most convenient for you until you arrive and are assigned accommodation, and few buildings have street numbers or door to door delivery anyway. Best to use a mail forwarding service`s office address. The next best option is to use courier services like Fed Ex for all mail deliveries.

Bon Voyage!


Monday, June 10, 2013

Getting To Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, And The First Few Days

So here is how things went and the journey of actually getting to Saudi Arabia.

I had to submit a proposed flight plan reservation, but did not have to pay for it.

The recruiting company made and paid for my flight booking and accommodation after I received my signed and counter-signed contract.

I accepted the first flight they offered, and as a result spent over 43 hours in transit, which made for an overly exhausting journey. If I were to do it again, I would have asked for a new flight itinerary with fewer stopovers (2 not 4) from Canada to Saudi Arabia, and would ask for flights that didn’t make me get bounced through the United States since the airports, security and customs are such a hassle if you do, and since I was crammed onto very cramped airplanes across the USA. 

By the way, the international flights were much more comfortable, and the Cairo Airport was a dream of modern, friendly, clean and organized efficiency,  with inviting food courts and boutiques, to my surprise.

In the restroom in the waiting area for the flight from Cairo to Riyadh,Saudi Arabia, I put on my Abaya (the black cloak covering), since all of the women were in full cover. A very nice lady in the bathroom helped me get the hijab (hair veil) pinned correctly, and warmly welcomed me to Saudi Arabia, in excellent English, saying it was very good that I was going there.

Remember to bring some small change with you (Riyals, or SARS as they are abbreviated on money exchange boards) to tip the porter since the ATM only doles out big bills. 

A person from the recruiting company met me at the airport (about 30 minutes late, but he did show up at last). 

In retrospect, I should have called the company HQ to confirm I was enroute before leaving Cairo so there was a better chance I wouldn’t have to wait at the airport terminal.

Also, it would have been easier to call from Cairo, where many people spoke English, since once I arrived in Saudi Arabia, it was difficult to know how to use the phones to tell HQ that I had arrived since nothing was easy to understand, and there wasn`t as much English around. So I wound up paying for some food from a restaurant kiosk so I could access a wifi connection they offered in order to try to use email to alert the company that I had arrived and was waiting for a pickup.

Although many signs in the airport (and on the streets) are in English, the reality is that very few people speak and understand English, so be prepared to make your way using Arabic. 

TIP: I’d have to say that the best way to prepare to teach in Saudi Arabia is to learn as much Arabic ( the Saudi version) as you can before you arrive. It will really help ease your transition and settle into the culture.

Since I didn`t know any Arabic, I felt very isolated and powerless while waiting (and hoping) for my ride from HQ to materialize. I was extremely happy to see a smiling young Saudi man holding a sign with my name (misspelled) on it come up to me in the waiting area and boldly shake my hand, saying welcome in English. (Men nearby  were shocked and some actually hissed when he shook my hand.)

I was driven to a hotel and asked to make an appointment to go in to the headquarters to finish some paper work the following day. I was told that a shuttle mini-van from the company would come to the hotel to take me to headquarters, and that I just had to ask at the front reception desk for times. 

Little did I know that the hotel was not a temporary overnight accommodation until I was settled into the studio apartment included in my contract deal. It turned out that the hotel was to be my long term home. 

It had recently been turned into an apartment-hotel situation, and was almost completely filled with teachers working for the same company (both men and women housed in the same hotel, but not sharing rooms; only married couples roomed together). 

I was assigned a private one room suite with a makeshift kitchen  (a  strange set up with a 2 burner hotplate, drink mini-fridge and narrow counter on the way to the bathroom). The room had a big bed. There were also sofas with no legs (more like cushion pads sewn toegether to make a long seat), lining the walls. The small windows were covered in an opaque white filmy vinyl that let in light but didn`t allow anyone to see out or in. There wasn`t much of a view ( just endless sand coloured unadorned cement buildings amidst sand), so I wasn`t missing much. The air conditioner took up a lot of the window space. It made the room quite dark.

The next day I go up and wondered how one went about getting breakfast. I asked at the reception desk, and the very nice Egyptian receptionist ( who had basic English and understood more than he could say) offered to order out and get a traditional breakfast for me from a local restaurant. This was a relief.

I later discovered that this was in large part because women weren’t allowed to sit and eat inside the restaurant. Take out food is the normal way of life here.

I’ll describe the food in another post since it was unlike any breakfast I had ever had before in my life, and worthy of mention!

I phoned the recruiting company headquarters from the reception desk, and the receptionist spoke enough English that I was able to make arrangements to come in to the office later that day, and to arrange transportation.

At the headquarters, I waited about an hour before I could see someone to talk over my contract and have my official orientation.

I was asked to sign a different version of the contract so that there was a copy with two original signatures on it, and not factsimilies. I was suspicious, I admit, and combed through the two documents, the one I had brought with me from Canada and the one they presented to make sure there were no changes . There weren’t any changes.

I was offered and accepted an advance on my first paycheck to help pay for food and household necessities.  I was grateful for this since I hadn’t seen any ATM machines near the hotel, and didn’t know how easy it would be get access to money during the first month. (Turns out there were international cash machines at the mall- at every mall.)

 I was introduced to about 5 people who worked for the company, including the person I had been speaking with about my flight and Visa requirements and processing details. When asked about whether I liked the accommodation, I asked how long I would be in the hotel, and when I found out there were no studio apartments available, and that this could be long term stay, I asked if it would be possible to have a different room with a proper kitchen. The manager instantly got on the phone and made a complaint to the hotel, or so it sounded to me, since Arabic sounded quite harsh to my ears.

Whatever he said worked. When I returned to the hotel, they instantly showed me a full apartment suite, with a huge kitchen, separate prayer / living room and decent sized master bedroom.

I lucked out with my suite, since it was so big and had so many separate rooms, and also since it had quite a few windows that let in natural light  into the living /prayer room and my bedroom (covered in filmy white vinyl, but a source of natural (filtered) sunlight nonetheless).
The bathroom was interesting. It was tiled from floor to ceiling, and had a toilet, a sink, a spray nozzle beside the toilet and a shower head mounted high on the tiled wall. There was no separation or walls between the toilet area and where you stand to shower. It actually worked quite well as a shower, although everything tended to get wet until I got used to it ( the toilet sink and towels on the hooks near the door). It sure was easy to clean up, with the spray nozzle thingamajiggy.

I had been given the rest of the week, about 3 days, to get over the jet lag (which was the worst of my life, and actually lasted for 2 months.)( I’m not kidding. 

I started work on Saturday, which is like Monday in this part of the world since the days off are different.

It was very handy to have a few days  off to get oriented, buy some food and kitchen things,  find the nearest Mall and get settled in. It was easy to meet English speaking people (other teachers) from around the world by hanging out in the hotel lobby. Talking to others was the best way to find out what to do, how to get settled, and where to find things. See my upcoming posts for more tips about how to get settled into Riyadh.

 So that’s how I got to Saudi Arabia and started working there.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

About the Work Visa Options for Working in Saudi Arabia

After you have a signed contract offer, you can - well, you must - apply for a work Visa. 

You can’t enter the country without one.  Spontaneous tourism isn`t allowed in Saudi Arabia.

There are 2 work visa options:
  • Temporary Work Visit Visa ( has to be renewed every few months)
  • Iqaama - ongoing (2 year) work Visa

The Iqaama ( pronounced ‘’ee kam  ma’’) is a 2 year commitment to work.  It is the proper Visa for long term work. 

The temporary work Visa is another legal way to work in Saudi Arabia, although it is intended as a temporary solution, just as the name says, which means 6 months or less in reality. The idea is that after a short period of time you will apply for an Iqaama to continue working in Saudi for a year or more.

I read a lot online about the Visa situation and discovered a a lot of misinformation out there. Yes, indeed, the temporary work visit Visa is indeed a  legal way to work in Saudi Arabia.Some online forums said it was an illegal way to gain entry, but it`s not, as I heard confirmed from the Saudi embassy personally (both the embassy in Canada and in Riyadh).

The temporary work visit visa offers the benefit of allowing the worker to quit if they don’t like the work or work situation with no loss of face, and the worker never needs to surrender their passport to their employer, which is what happens with the Iqaama Visa. 

Giving your passport to your employer is standard procedure in Gulf countries apparently. Personally the idea made me feel very nervous so I wanted to be sure I wanted to stay before applying for an Iqaama. Also it takes much longer to process, more expensive and more involved to apply for, and receive an Iqaama.

Another benefit of  the temporary work visit Visa is that it allows the employer to terminate a work situation without a lot of hassle too. 

So, really, it is a win / win situation, really, a way to test the waters for both parties. I feel this is perfectly reasonable. 

The trouble with going on a temporary work visit Visa is that you have to renew it periodically. And it may not automatically be renewed ( especially for Canadians, I soon discovered from hearing other teacher’s stories). Sometimes you can submit your visa for renewal to the company and they do it for you. 

On a regular basis, you need to leave the country and re-enter to renew your temporary Visa, . Sometimes it is not renewed (I didn´t know that when I decided to go for a temporary work visit visa and before I arrived in the country.)

I decided to get a temporary work visit Visa since I balked at the idea of being tied to a place I might not like enough to want to stay for 2 years, and because I didn`t want to give up my passport to the safekeeping of my employer before I knew them, and decided if I could trust them.

Although time consuming, it was actually a fairly straightforward process. There are agencies in your country you can go through to get this done, for a fee. In fact, I don’t know how you would do it otherwise, unless you were perfectly fluent in Arabic.

There is a list of things you need to get ready to send off with your application form, like photos, a medical certificate of good health, money orders and copies of your contract. But it’s fairly standard stuff and not hard to get together.

The hard part is the wait to have things processed, especially if you are a Canadian.It took 6 weeks to get my passport back with the appropriate Visa inside. Some other teachers said it took less than 24 hours in their respective countries, like the USA or England.

Temporary Work Visit Visa renewals were less straightforward.

While I was working there, I knew some some people got their passports back with a ‘final exit’ date rather than a renewal date stamped on their passport. This was how they found out their services were being cancelled, it is a risk if working under a temporary work visit Visa, not the Iqaama. 

Others found themselves spending months in a foreign country like Jordan waiting for the Visa to be renewed, rather than spending a weekend, or week, doing this. So, for that reason, hoping to work for a year with a temporary work visit Visa has more risks than you might suspect.

Another aspect to consider: if you decide you want to stay longer term, for at least a 2 year term ,switching from a temporary work Visa to an Iqaama, it’s not instant or easy to do from abroad.

First you need a contract offer for that length of time (2 years at least). Then you have to apply for the Iqaama from your home country, and wait there while it is being reviewed and processed. 

This means that it’s not easy to do if you are already in Saudi Arabia, working for a set number of days / hours / months on an existing contract, and a serious expense to plan for.

This process took months for some Canadians I know. On the Embassy website, they caution you about this,( and so it’s a good idea to keep working where you, as in, in a different country, are until the details are finalized).

I don`t regret starting off with a temporary work visit visa but hadn`t anticipated how long it would take to secure in the first place, and that it wouldn`t neccesarily be sufficient to last the duration of my contract. As a result I had months of waiting in Canada, where I would up taking a temporary job while I waited, and faced mounting stress about not being able to renew my visa for the entire year I had planned on staying in Saudi Arabia, and  not having sufficient fund to see me through until I found another job in the event that my temporary Visa wasn`t renewed as I had expected. Still, I would have been less happy applying for an Iqaama before having set foot in the country and knowing I would like it enough to stay for 2 years or more ( which I didn`t decide to do in the end).

In any event, I would suggest going there with your eyes open, and a lot of money held in reserve in case things don`t work out as you anticiapted, and you wind up waiting for a Visa or leaving Saudi for Visa reasons (or other reasons) you didn`t anticipate at the outset. 

While it`s true that you can make a lot of money there, especially if you stay long term, it is a big, life-changing move to make and not something to be taken lightly!

I hope this helps you decide which Visa you want to apply for and gives you useful information so you can make plans (and alternative plans) that help you have a successful experience that is as low stress as is possible.