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Career Networking: What Would it be Like to Live and Work in Saudi Arabia?

The idea of living and working in a country other than the one you currently live in may be both exciting and overwhelming. Where do you start? How do you search for a job? What information should you include on your résumé or CV? How much should you expect the job to pay? How will you know whether the job will pay enough to cover your expenses when you don't know how much things cost in that country?

This article is part of an occasional series of career networking articles constructed from interviews with employers who have advertised jobs with TESOL. The information in each article reflects one employer's view of living and working as an English language teacher in a particular country. The views and opinions expressed in these articles are not indicative of all employers or all experiences. The employers' views in this series are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of TESOL.

Career networking is a valuable benefit of TESOL membership. Although the information in this article reflects the view of only one employer, it may help you decide if Saudi Arabia is a potential destination for your next dream job. If you like what you hear, but would like to hear other opinions, come to TESOL's Job MarketPlace, where you can network with recruiters and job seekers who can share their insights and help you get started.

Institute of Public Administration (IPA), which has locations in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam, Saudi Arabia, recruited teachers at the 2004 Job MarketPlace in Long Beach, California, in the United States, and will recruit again at the 2005 Job MarketPlace in San Antonio, Texas, also in the United States. Paul McClure and Bandar Al-Hejin, recruitment coordinators as well as English language instructors at the IPA, agreed to share their thoughts with Alison O'Neill, TESOL's career and student member services coordinator, answering questions about living and working in Saudi Arabia. Mr. McClure has lived in Saudi Arabia and worked for IPA for 13 years. Mr. Al-Hejin is from Saudi Arabia and has worked at IPA for 8 years. Together, they provided the following insights:

What kind of information do people normally include on a CV or résumé for a job in Saudi Arabia?

Generally speaking, there is no particular preferred format for résumés for teaching jobs in Saudi Arabia. Employers often have a special application process and, in that case, the résumé is usually submitted after the application process.

A résumé normally includes the age or date of birth of the applicant, as well as a recent photograph. It is also common for employers to request the nationality and religion of the applicant, because the embassy needs this information to process visas. It is usually assumed that the religion will correspond to a major, well-known religion. Responses such as "freethinker" or "spiritualist" are not often accepted for the purposes of visa processing. Generally speaking, the religion is expected to correspond to one of the major religions associated with the applicant's country of origin. Situations in which an applicant is a member of (or has converted to) a religion not normally associated with his or her country of origin tend to delay the visa issuance process.

Inclusion of the marital and family status of the applicant is typically requested as well, because this determines the type of housing provided for the successful applicants. There is usually both "single status" housing and "family status" housing available.

How are ESOL jobs in Saudi Arabia compensated, and how are salaries quoted?

Salaries are usually quoted and paid monthly. This is typical of the Persian Gulf region in general.

What kinds of benefits do ESOL jobs in Saudi Arabia usually include?

Housing, return airfare, a transportation allowance, and an education allowance for dependent children are common benefits. Some jobs include insurance and some do not.

What is the typical academic schedule in Saudi Arabia?

The academic year runs from September to June. Summer is considered to be a holiday or vacation period. Jobs at IPA are typically 12-month jobs with 45 days of vacation. IPA, like most schools in the Arab world, offers two vacations during the contract year: one at the end of Ramadan and one during the annual pilgrimage. Teachers typically work 9-10 months, 5 days a week. The workweek is Saturday through Wednesday; the weekend is Thursday and Friday.

The school day at IPA mirrors government work hours, which are 7:30 am-2:30 pm. IPA faculty members are government employees and are expected to be at work during government office hours. This is not necessarily true of universities where the faculty members are not government employees. Universities as well as the IPA may also have evening classes in addition to their daytime schedule.

The best time to look for jobs in Saudi Arabia is before April, for the academic year that begins the following September.

What are housing costs like in Saudi Arabia?

Furnished housing is often included as a benefit of the job. Utilities are usually included as well. Otherwise, housing costs range between 15,000 and 25,000 Saudi riyals per year for a three-bedroom unit. Rent is paid 6 months at a time. At IPA, housing is included in the contract package for expatriates.

What surprises people who are new to Saudi Arabia? What do they like or dislike?

People are surprised to find that many of the stereotypes are not true. There are some sensitivities with respect to the role of women, but these tend to be exaggerated as well. Men and women do typically have separate facilities though, which may take some getting used to. Women also need to become aware of when and where they need to wear the abaya and headscarf.

People are sometimes surprised to find that Saudi Arabian students are well versed in Western and popular culture. People sometimes think of Saudi Arabia as being isolated, when in fact the media enables students to become very familiar with popular culture. Satellite television makes available many popular channels and programs in Saudi Arabia.

Something that people typically like is that the short workday leaves teachers with quite a bit of free time. There is a lot to do in Saudi Arabia, especially outdoors. There are many opportunities to visit the desert and go camping. There is also excellent scuba diving in the Red Sea. Expatriate teachers often form tennis and other sports clubs, and Saudi teachers sometimes join these as well. Swimming is popular, and the IPA facilities in Riyadh have swimming pools for teachers.

Another advantage of working in Saudi Arabia is the opportunity to travel within the country as well as the surrounding region. Saudi Arabia is a good jumping-off point for travel to places that might otherwise be expensive and time-consuming trips for expatriates. Popular travel destinations include Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and North Africa, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Cypress, and Italy, all of which are reachable with relatively short flights. Although they are a little farther away, India and Nepal are also popular. It is necessary to get an exit/re-entry visa to leave Saudi Arabia and return, but in the case of the IPA, the institution does the footwork in obtaining it.

If the exit visa process deters you at all, it is important to remember that Saudi Arabia is a big country, about the size of the area of the United States east of the Mississippi River. The culture, landscape, and even the cuisine of Saudi Arabia are quite varied, so travel within the country holds a lot of interesting options. Dammam, on the east coast, is only about a 4-hour drive from Riyadh, and the Red Sea resort of Jeddah is a short flight from Riyadh, or about an 8-hour drive. There are mountainous regions in the southwestern part of the country as well, with a high desert climate and landscape similar to that of northern New Mexico in the United States.

One thing that many people don't know about Saudi Arabia is that there is a wide variety of food options, especially in Riyadh. Franchises such as Starbuck's, McDonald's, Hardee's, Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Burger King are all there. Italian, Indian, Chinese, French, Korean, Turkish, and Japanese food, including sushi, are also widely available.

Something to be aware of is the fact that there are no bars, pubs, or nightclubs in Saudi Arabia. Alcohol is illegal. This is sometimes hard for people to get used to, especially if they come from countries where this is an important part of socializing. There are no cinemas either, although DVDs are widely available.

Do you have any special advice for someone considering working as an ESOL professional in Saudi Arabia?

Some people have an idealized vision of how they will be received as English language teachers in Saudi Arabia, or anywhere else for that matter. When things don't turn out the way they hoped, they sometimes post negative things on popular online chat sites for English language teachers. They sometimes attribute their bad experience to a particular institution or the country as a whole, when, in fact, the experience was actually unique to that person. It is important to take these accounts with a grain of salt when you read them.

As a word of advice, public demeanor is very important in Saudi Arabia. If you have any questions about what you should or should not do, or whether something you are accustomed to doing will still be an option for you as a teacher in Saudi Arabia, it is best to check with colleagues who are veteran expatriates where you will be working.

Lifelong friendships can be made when you live and work in Saudi Arabia. It is a wonderful opportunity, but the opportunity is what you make of it.

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