A Saudi Life: An Expatriate Family Surviving The Real Saudi Arabia

By Two Monkeys Travel - Contributor May 18th, 2016 Posted in Destination, Inspiration and Love Stories, Travel Blog 5 Comments

Let’s start with an introduction. I’m Mart, a British expatriate and my wife Mirasol is from the Philippines. Our son Rafael is just five years old. We call him a ‘Brit-Fil’. We usually live between our home on Siargao Island in the Philippines and the fishing town of Cromer in England. However, a fairly lucrative teaching contract brought me to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia just under one year ago. My family followed a few months later.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the best reputation around the world as a family friendly destination. The media’s portrayal of religious police chasing women down the road for not covering their hair or frequent executions by a sword with heads rolling in ‘chop chop square’ hardly encourages one to bring their family to the Kingdom. Those Western expats who do so tend to live inside secure compounds that resemble Florida more than the Middle East.

Inside the complex’s residents are immune from the strict Wahhabi sect interpretation of Sharia law. They can wear what they like, talk to whom they choose to regardless of gender, and even brew alcoholic beverages if they so desire. This is not the Saudi Arabia I brought my family to. Instead, we live in an apartment block surrounded by a community of Saudis, Filipinos, Indians and Pakistanis. In short we live in the real Saudi Arabia and, for the most part, we really enjoy our lives here.

A Saudi Life: An Expatriate Family Surviving The Real Saudi Arabia
Relaxing together in Baher Villa compound, Al Khobar.

We live in a small city in the Eastern Provinces just 10km south of the Saudi-Kuwait border crossing. It’s a coastal city with a long, beautiful corniche, a white sand beach, a small mall and numerous restaurants and retail units. Some people think it’s remote, but in reality, it has everything you need on a day to day basis. Many expatriates consider only the three main cities of Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam as acceptable locations to stay in Saudi. However, whilst they do have a large number of western compounds and modern facilities, they are also fairly expensive and crowded. Living in a smaller city has many advantages including being friendlier, cheaper, quieter, and easier to get around.

To get around, we walk a lot, which does attract some attention as women are often invisible in Saudi. Sometimes Saudis offer us lifts, but we politely decline as we really enjoy walking a few kilometres every day in perfect winter sunshine. For longer distances we rely on a driver with whom we have a contractual agreement to ferry us to and from larger cities, the international airport in Dammam, and the far end of the city where the best beaches lie. Neither my wife nor I have the ability to drive a car, but it really doesn’t stop us doing anything we want to do.

For the first few months, we lived in a beautiful apartment overlooking the Persian Gulf. It was such a joy watching the sunrise every morning before work through the large bay windows in the lounge. This coastal apartment was within a short walk to a public beach and numerous cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately, my company recently moved us to a less desirable, but more secure, apartment near the downtown area. It is equally comfortable, but without the stunning views. The public beach is now a long two-mile walk away, but the fish market is just around the corner.

A Saudi Life: An Expatriate Family Surviving The Real Saudi Arabia
Sunrise view from our apartment window in the Eastern Provinces, KSA.

In terms of activities, we make the most of our coastal location. We spend a lot of time on the beach. Beach picnics are so relaxing and fun. When there are small waves my son surfs, when there are bigger waves I surf. Nobody else in Saudi surfs so we have the waves to ourselves. Also, we go to small malls where my son enjoys fairground style rides and my wife goes shopping. Sometimes we hang out at a coffee house. We eat out a lot, especially at a seafood place overlooking the sea that serves fresh fish. Saudi isn’t an expensive place to live, everything is subsidised, so eating, drinking, shopping and having fun is affordable every day.

A Saudi Life: An Expatriate Family Surviving The Real Saudi Arabia
The only youth surfer in Saudi Arabia: our 5 year old son Rafael.

Nearly all expatriates in the Kingdom are only here for the money. Salaries are tax-free and additional benefits like free housing, electricity, water, health insurance and transportation to and from work make saving easy. We’re trying to save enough money to renovate our small guest house on Siargao Island in the Philippines. I teach English at an oil and gas training facility and my wife keeps herself busy cooking and homeschooling our son. We’ve been here for just under one year and hope to stay for another two years.

Saudi Arabia becomes far more acceptable when you are with your family. Suddenly when you try to cross the road, some cars respectfully slow down and wait for you to pass. Men working in small stores offer your son free smoothies or sweets. The quiet family sections of larger restaurants offer you a private area to eat and drink. You can mix freely with Saudi families on the beach or at playgrounds and parks. Nobody is suspicious of a family and you feel welcome everywhere as a result.

A Saudi Life: An Expatriate Family Surviving The Real Saudi Arabia
The sun sets over a mosque dominated skyline, KSA.

The best thing about living in Saudi is we’re together and happy in what many people consider to be a complicated country. Whilst money isn’t everything, earning a salary that makes anything possible does improve our lives. When my wife and I worked in England together, it felt like we were running to stand still. Saving money was quite difficult. In Saudi, it’s possible to save ninety percent of your income. Alongside renovation plans, we intend to use part of our savings to travel through several countries in the Middle East and Europe next year. The worst thing about my life here is teaching students who lack motivation. It isn’t an easy job, but I feel fortunate to have such well-paid work despite the challenges.

A Saudi Life: An Expatriate Family Surviving The Real Saudi Arabia
Corniche seafood restaurant – our favourite place to eat fresh fish, hummus, bread and chicken.

The biggest advice we’d give is to avoid preconceptions, get out a lot, and embrace the new culture. Saudi Arabia is a very family friendly place and the locals really like when families come to live amongst them. Try to get outside as much as possible as the weather is incredible for at least seven months of the year.

A Saudi Life: An Expatriate Family Surviving The Real Saudi Arabia
My wife embraces Arab style make up and clothing in the Kingdom.

For women, it’s better to embrace Arab fashion rather than resentfully adorn the abaya and hijab. My wife loves hijabi fashion and blends in well with the local style.

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About the writer:

Mart Howell was born into a Royal Air Force family in England and, since birth, has never lived in one place for more than four years. His love of surfing inspired two decades of travel to thirty-five countries in Asia, Americas, Africa and the Middle East. He is currently with his family in Saudi Arabia, teaching English and saving money to fund further global adventures. He blogs about Saudi life here saudi-season.blogspot.co.uk

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5 thoughts on “A Saudi Life: An Expatriate Family Surviving The Real Saudi Arabia

  1. Your son rocks! I can’t believe he can surf that young… it’s absolutely awesome.

    (And your wife is very pretty! I’m a woman, I can say it!!)

    I was reading your posts because I’m always curious to see how expats and immigrants live different countries around the world. Culturally speaking, I think I would have a very hard time fitting into this part of the world–not because of Islam (which I find interesting) but because of the most conservative rules and the role of women.

    Out of curiosity, how do people (expats and locals) see you as a multicultural family? Are they surprised, accepting…?

  2. I’m thinking about moving there for similar reasons to yourself. There are a few countries on my current opportunities list, but all of them are very different from the UK where I’m from. As I’m a female, I’m interested in your wife’s experience, although I will be moving with my husband. Did your wife wear a hijab before moving to KSA? I have been interested in the fashion for a while and willing to embrace it ‘when in rome’ indeed. Does she have any advice with respect to fashion, and what is acceptable/not acceptable?
    Also you mentioned that you spent a lot of time on the beach having picnics and surfing. Did your wife get in the water? Are there any protocols with just being on the beach that I should know about? I took is as given that a burqini/modesty swimsuit is needed to swim.

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