BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


Saudi Arabia: Not the “Dreadful” Place Some Would Have You Believe

By Debra McRoberts and Neil Hugo
Saudi Arabia: Not the “Dreadful” Place Some Would Have You Believe

The press around the world presents the same picture of life in Saudi Arabia, one that portrays westerners as unwelcome and targeted, one in which women are oppressed in every aspect of life and can only go out with their father or brother, and even then only with their full face covered. While the culture of Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly very different from much of what you have previously experienced overseas, the picture described above does not accurately portray life in Saudi Arabia and certainly does not explain why, in some of the international schools, teachers stay for over 20 years!
Debra McRoberts, an American teacher at the Advanced Learning schools in Riyadh, says that “Teaching in Riyadh, despite a host of job offers in other countries, was my choice for two reasons: a Moroccan visit in my youth that enchanted me with music, spices, and rugs, and more importantly, because I cannot travel as a tourist into Saudi even if I wanted to. Saudi Arabia is closed to tourism, protecting its ancient fossil-laden lands and rich culture. Life in Riyadh, along with these preserved mysteries, are why I stay and continue to thrive in my home-away-from-home.”
In light of the world’s tensions, it is easy for the media to make generalizations about who is and isn’t to be trusted and for teachers looking for an overseas posting to dismiss job offers in Saudi due to perceived safety concerns.
Debra notes how her family and friends also hold such views about safety in Saudi: “Rarely does an email or letter from the States end without the closing, ‘Be safe.’ I feel very safe. Whether I’m walking the streets, shopping in the malls, traveling to the desert, or dining in any range of restaurants, I find Saudis to be genuinely kind. Women shyly meet my eyes as we pass and if I smile and say ‘Hello,’ or the Arabic greeting, ‘As-salaam ‘alaykum’ (may peace be upon you), I am always greeted with a big smile and lots of questions about family, children, my work in Riyadh, and where I am from in the States.”
For women, it is a challenge getting used to wearing an abaya, the black full-length outer garment. Debra says that she didn’t like wearing her wool school uniform in Wisconsin, and she didn’t like being told to wear nylons at work in northern Wisconsin, and equally, she doesn’t like wearing an abaya. She conforms, however, to be polite, to put others at ease with her presence, and to build relationships. Additionally, some women actually enjoy being able to go out with an abaya covering whatever they happen to be wearing; it is an item that is becoming a real fashion statement for some, with more and more decorations and variation in colors appearing in the market.
Saudi families make friends for life. Once you’ve shared tea and food with them, you are always welcome. Debra has experienced this often. “They have invited me to grand weddings, even dressed me with their jewelry, dresses, and make-up for these lavish affairs. Saudi fashion is alive and thriving here, with palatial malls throughout Riyadh. Coming from a Midwestern background, this is more foreign to me than the language and customs. I’ve even had school colleagues whisk me aside before parent teacher conferences to do my make-up, add sprays of designer perfume, and even go so far as to find another top for me so that I was dressed up for meeting the parents. I felt like a million bucks after this ten-minute classroom make-over.”
Riyadh means “high land” and a drive out of the city (often in groups, naturally with men driving but no signs of fathers or brothers for foreigners!) you descend through the beautiful looming rock mountains into the deep wadis (valleys) strewn with greenery after the rains. You can see camel packs and their herders riding atop their Arabian horses or camels, wrapped in colorful scarves that billow in the breeze. They wave as they caravan the camels up the wadi, making a classic silhouette along the dune peaks at sunset.
As you hike the ancient seabed, you can sometimes discover arrowheads, shark teeth, petrified coral, desert roses, and Saudi diamonds. The landscape is a living history of water patterns petrified into the ground, sedimentary layers uplifted, exposed, and obvious, and rifts where the Arabian and African shields have collided. An adventure to the desert (without abaya) can include camping, but always involves a campfire and barbeque, even if just out for the day.
Day-to-day life reflects life anywhere and involves getting up, going to work, shopping, socializing, and taking part in leisure activities. Riyadh offers all you’ll need to have a full social life and enjoy leisure activities, with the exception of cinemas (however, a number of the embassies hold film nights). Societies and clubs exist and are easily accessible. Drivers are readily available for women to get around at a very reasonable cost and many schools provide transportation to and from work. The weather is beautiful for most of the year and only the summer months get extremely hot, but the compound pools help you to keep cool.
Of course, work takes up a large portion of your time and, being the reason you are here, is critically important for your happiness. Debra teaches Grade 4 and notes, “Young students here are no different from your students elsewhere, with many reluctant to write, uneasy having to stay seated, more interested in socializing than in handing in homework. Being in a relatively small class and bringing a different perspective to education means that you can be part of shaping the future of this great Kingdom.” Debra has worked at two schools in Riyadh and is now at the Advanced Learning Schools (ALS). “Being part of the ALS team is very exciting, as the school is preparing to build a new, state-of-the-art, purpose-built school for 1,600 Saudi students. We come to know ourselves through discovering another culture.
“I celebrate testing boundaries for myself and for my students. It’s why I’m teaching overseas, to dispel misconceptions that separate me from other cultures. I form my own thinking, which allows me to promote and support the independent thinking of my students. We meet boundaries in our minds or in our actual lives and we strive to turn these into bridges, to better enjoy a symbiotic relationship of sharing and discovery—the epitome of working overseas.”
Saudi is emerging at a ground-breaking speed. From anywhere you stand in the city, there are cranes actively visible building financial districts to rival those of the world’s biggest cities, a high-speed rail system to automate travel and aid in the eventual tourism endeavors, along with schools and science centers to give the population an international education. Where else can you find a civilization that is closed to the world but open to you?
There is a saying in Riyadh among the expats who debate whether or not to stay. Someone always asks, “Are you sure you’re through with Riyadh?” The expat doesn’t understand the question, until sure enough, a year later, they’re back. There is a luring quality to joining others in a land that is nothing like what you expected or were raised to believe. This is why we travel, to expand our minds and hearts into the unknown. “Saudi has opened mine and I’m forever grateful.”
Debra McRoberts teaches Grade 4 and Neil Hugo is Superintendent at Advanced Learning Schools, Riyadh.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.



University Visits in a Post Covid World?
By Robbie Jefferiss
May 2021

A Ferry Crossing from Love to Loss and Back Again
By Kathleen Naglee
Apr 2021