Road to Riyadh: a British Muslimah in Saudi Arabia

British Muslim Sarah Ayub emigrated to Saudi Arabia last year. Here she recounts the highs and lows of life in the kingdom.

Fed up with the injustice of austerity, and feeling that my life had stagnated, I made moves towards change. Moving from my home town London to the Saudi capital Riyadh was my way of escaping the gloomy and seemingly never-ending recession which engulfs Britain.

Why Saudi Arabia? Well, I wanted drastic change and you don’t really get more drastic than Saudi Arabia. But there was another major motivation – money. I’d soon be teaching at one of Riyadh’s top universities, doing less work than I was used to, but earning more than I ever did in London.

When I arrived in Riyadh, I immediately doubted my decision to move there due to the incompetence of my employer in arranging basic things like accommodation. Thankfully, the major hurdles were overcome pretty quickly, but the general lack of professionalism and poor work practices, I realised, are accepted as part of life here. Unless you have ‘wasta’ (connections in high places), things tend to move very slowly.

Venturing outdoors

Abaya-clad and with my hijab securely fastened, I began venturing outdoors in what’s said to be one of the most conservative cities in Saud Arabia. It must be the resilience I developed from London life which made me immune to the brazen stares and the insults hurled at me from men driving by in cars. It’s frowned upon for a woman to be outside unaccompanied by her male guardian, although I’m not sure that justifies being labelled a ‘prostitute’.

I learnt that wearing the abaya wasn’t really a deterrent to the glares of testosterone-fuelled men who hardly get to see females in a society which is heavily segregated. Rather, one of the greatest advantages of wearing the abaya was that it hid my bulging stomach, which had succumbed to the gluttonous lifestyle in a country where nobody walks – except to get in and out of a car.

“So what do you do for leisure here?” The answer I always got was “shopping.” There are malls everywhere, full of western (mainly American) brands. I remember thinking “the Saudis love American culture more than the British!” Perhaps this also has something to do with the alarming obesity rates.

Work life

I found work life slightly farcical when I realised the amount of ‘wasta’ the students had when it came to fudging grades. Then there was the “cultural sensitivity guide.” This tells foreign teachers not to discuss things like mixed-gender situations, psychology, homosexuality (ironic since I’m convinced there are at least two lesbians in one of my classes), music, leaving home, religion, politics and of course, women driving. “So basically, we can’t discuss life” is what I remember thinking after I finished reading it.

I found the overly-sensitive protective pampering of Saudi students highly ironic when two of mine insisted on discussing Kim Kardashian’s body. I soon learnt that Saudis can more or less do what they want. The rules are just there for the foreigners.

During my first conversations with a Pakistani taxi driver, he enthusiastically warned me, “never trust a Saudi and never get in a car with a Saudi driver!”

Upon the advice of friends, I never even revealed to my students that I’m originally from Pakistan. “They’ll treat you like one of their housemaids if you’re Asian,” I was told.

Religiosity

Some of the warnings I received were slightly over the top, and thankfully, I haven’t experienced any racism yet, but that may be because I look more like an Arab. Who knows? One thing I did notice however was the Saudi obsession of knowing where you’re from.

The notion that all Saudis adhered to strict Islamic law was disassembled the more I met, worked with and taught Saudis. I believe Islam exists here predominantly as a cultural facet, rather than a force which shapes the culture and the way people behave. Or perhaps it just feels that way living in Riyadh – a modern capital city which sprung up on the backs of cheap labour so fast that culture never took root. It was only once I travelled outside of Riyadh that I grasped some sense of culture. Without doubt, my journey to Mecca and Medina was the highlight in every respect.

In some ways, living in Saudi has re-affirmed my preconceptions about the place, but has also changed some of them. Aside from the annoyance of seeing the king’s face on buildings and billboards, I welcome things like the absence of relentless advertising, the life-style of constant work and endless debt. In that sense, my experience has made me re-think my life in London, although I would hardly herald Saudi as a non-consumerist society. It’s just less obvious, unlike the contradictions between overt symbols of religiosity and superficiality.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the 5 Pillarz editorial board.

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