Voices of the expatriates among us


Expats in Saudi Arabia generally keep to themselves and are often tight-lipped about their hosts and their traits and behavior. Saudis on the other hand often hold themselves and each other in high esteem. They indulge in this self-flattery often to the point of perceived arrogance. But is this really so? Are they truly deserving of the praise that is seemingly heaped upon them by their peers?

To find an answer, one would have to ask expatriates. They could be a measure of our success or failure. Not the only measure, mind you, yet still one that could be a yardstick by which we could gauge ourselves.

Now most expats here are those who have come to work. They are here for a purpose and they have a schedule. Once that is over, they will head to other directions. However, while they are here, they do see and observe. But in the interest of continuing their employment status without interruption, they tend to hold things to themselves.

But what if we were to learn of some of their genuine thoughts about us, our culture, or just about anything else to do with us? And what if their thoughts were spoken without fear of recrimination or deportation through an exit-only visa? In this context, I have gathered a few contributions of some of our resident expatriates after much assurance that their identities would not be revealed.

I begin with one who wonders about our perception of time. She asks, “Why does time mean something different here than anywhere else? Having been raised to be punctual, I pride myself on being on time. Since moving to Saudi Arabia, I have realized that time is handled completely differently. First of all, time is measured by prayer calls and not an actual clock. “See you after Maghreb!” you catch yourself saying.

“There is no such thing as inviting Saudis to dinner at 8 p.m. and expecting anyone to arrive before 9 p.m. After arriving for a 10 a.m. meeting (5 minutes early) I was extremely discouraged to note that only one of the 20 attendees arrived on time. The meeting began at 10:20 a.m. Is there no consideration for the value of time? Although I have learned to tell time by their clocks now, I still miss knowing what to expect!”

Another expat refers to the “shrug of helplessness” I brought up in a previous article, adding: “I’ve come to hate that shrug, a mute response to any query requiring an intelligent answer. I get the “shrug” frequently, from bored and disinterested salesmen, clerks or staffers. It is a spreading phenomenon, on the verge of becoming an epidemic.

“I see the ‘shrug’ constantly from housemaids who have absolutely no control

over their young charges. I have witnessed near anarchy at a local

McDonald’s, not a single parent in sight, children running everywhere, food

being tossed around like so many pizzas. The scene was disturbing - the toga party in the film “Animal House” was tame by comparison.

“Because of the ‘shrug’, behavior that should never be tolerated goes unchecked. Children are packed into automobiles, riding with limbs hanging from open windows, or even worse, standing with heads protruding from the sunroof. Are seatbelts simply a nuisance? Drivers so small (young) they still need several years to see over the steering wheel should never be permitted on the roads, and yet I see it all the time. The public here is dominated by a lack of professionalism, a disregard for the rules, and permissiveness for the inappropriate.”

Another writes about her gourmet experiences at several Saudi weddings. “When approaching the buffet table at a beautiful Saudi wedding, please note. First, do not bother to use the cutlery, hands are more appropriate. Second, never stand in line. Pushing your way through will guarantee you more of the shrimp (whole, no bits). And last but not least, always remember that some feel that the napkins on the table are only for decoration purposes.”

Another adds, “You ask a Saudi colleague to come to your house for dinner. His response is “Inshallah”. What does this mean? Inshallah - God willing? Inshallah - Yes? Inshallah - No? Inshallah - Maybe? Inshallah - Yes, if nothing better comes up? Inshallah - No way man? Inshallah - No, but I’m too polite to tell you?”

It is unfortunate that these expatriates have never met any of the many diligent, moral and ethical Saudis. Perhaps then, their views might have been different.

— The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena