Debunking Myths

I am always surprised when people ask whether you are safe in Saudi Arabia. Saudis do not have the right to bear arms, the penalty for murder is public beheading, and the society is generally not as influenced by the violent entertainment which is prevalent in the Western world. So when I point out that, apart from being in a region of the world where there are currently two wars being fought (maybe more, depending on what you consider a "war"), most of the women and men we have recruited report that, on a day-to-day basis, they personally feel much safer in Saudi Arabia than they do in Toronto, or Atlanta, or any other North American city. They feel they will not be shot on the street, have a child grabbed, their home broken into, their purse snatched, etc. Although Saudi Arabia has other social practices alien to Westerners, random violence against strangers on the streets is a real rarity.

Contrary to common belief, you don't earn zillions of dollars in Saudi Arabia. This doesn't stop people from trying: One man, a laborer, asked for a job at $1,000/day. A department manager (who earns $140,000) asked for $465,000 per year (plus a house with several more bedrooms than he has family members, a maid, etc.). Another person, a doctor, asked for housing with "a baby grand piano, not an upright." The reality is that, with a few exceptions, the salaries for middle-management and staff-level positions (non-MD) are approximately the same as one would earn in the USA or Canada. But they are significantly higher than are salaries of non-MD health care staff in the UK and Western Europe. The major financial benefits are the tax-free status, paid housing, and significantly more holiday time. The major non-financial benefit is having a life-enhancing experience.

Americans regularly ask whether Arabs, Saudis, or Muslims "hate Americans." Yes, Arabs and Muslims in general are hostile to the foreign policy of the United States as it relates to the Middle East, particularly America's official, unquestioned support of Israel's actions towards the Palestinians and their uncaring attitude towards the plight of the Palestinians. But on an individual basis, the Saudis admire the can-do attitude, the openness, and the professional expertise for which Americans are known. Many Saudis do post-graduate training in healthcare, in business, and in management in the United States. Person to person, Saudis welcome Americans. (And yes, you must drink at least one glass of the special cardamom coffee when it is offered, which, I confess to is not to my liking — I prefer the glass of syrupy sweet mint tea.)

Another common question, particularly from women, is "Am I restricted to my housing compound?" Absolutely not. You can travel freely throughout Riyadh, Jeddah, and the other cities. Really, mosques are the only public place women and non-Muslims are forbidden from entering — but occasionally one may be invited in to see the mosque outside of prayer time, as three of my staff were several years ago. Also, men are not allowed to enter women-only shopping areas, bank branches, etc. And in Jeddah, there is a beach that is restricted for the use of people from Western countries. And yes, Western women can travel alone - they don't have to be in the company of a male relative.

People are often are under the mistaken belief that Saudi Arabia is backward technologically. However, Saudis love their electronic gadgets; they are avid watchers of satellite TV; they were early adopters of the internet; and it's not uncommon to see people, like gunslingers of the old west, whip out two cell phones when a phone starts ringing.

But perhaps the greatest misconception is that women are oppressed. In Saudi Arabia, education is strongly encouraged, and currently, as in many Western countries, women make up a greater percentage of university graduates. In many ways, attitudes are only a few decades behind those of Western countries, where up until the 60s, women were expected to marry right out of high school, have families rather than careers, dress modestly, etc. It sounds like the current situation of many Saudi women, doesn't it? So while it's true that many women in Saudi do stay home after having children, it's also true that many Western women would love to, but, financially, couldn't possibly. (As one Canadian nurse who worked in the Kingdom says, a Saudi woman told her that she felt sorry for her!) And women can now drive, and are no longer mandated to wear an abaya.

Helen Ziegler

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