Becoming a Successful Career Woman in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

(I originally published this article in Matador Abroad, June 2010.)  

“I never wanted you here,” he said. “When they asked me I told them that you were all wrong for the job.”

My heart skipped a beat. I stared dumbstruck at the bits of frayed, brown mesh office carpet, the afternoon sunlight filtering in through the windows of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Administration building where I worked.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Administration building where I worked.

It was November, 2000. Just days ago, my husband, Bishara, and I had left a nearly idyllic life in Washington, DC, where we had shared a five-bedroom home complete with the requisite American white picket fence, to come to Saudi Arabia.

Our flight from Washington Dulles airport to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia lasted nearly 20 grueling hours, taking with it our two beloved apricot poodles, our 43 pieces of luggage: our entire life. Five words threatened to make our journey half way across the world meaningless. I peered at Abdullah, the man whom I had looked forward to meeting as my new boss, in his crisp, white thobe and ghuttra, searching his cherubic face, trying to comprehend his words without letting my emotions get the best of me. Was I prepared to let my hard work be squelched by this soft-spoken bureaucrat?

Relocating to Saudi Arabia was not a choice that my husband and I had entered into lightly. After spending seventeen years in the urban grind of the nation’s capital, I began to notice a kind of restlessness in my life.  I had a happy and fulfilling personal life with my husband and friends, and I enjoyed my job and co-workers, but I couldn’t shake the notion that I had reached a plateau; I felt as if I were standing at the edge of an imaginary shore like a sailor’s wife, willing a familiar ship to appear on the horizon.

I wrangled with guilt in feeling compelled to step out of this perfectly fine existence. While dating Bishara, a Christian Lebanese national born in Jordan, I became acquainted with, what seemed to me, the enigmatic and esoteric region of the Middle East.  I remained curious about that part of the world after we married, always intrigued when Bishara talked about his childhood and experiences growing up overseas. My yearning – like a low-grade fever – for a cultural adventure caught up with me in late 1999 when I felt particularly drawn towards the inscrutable Saudi Arabia.

There was no denying the effect that even the mere mention of the Kingdom had on me; my mind turned over images of white washed palaces, cobble-stoned streets jammed with merchants’ carts, and regal women enveloped in black gliding silently through airy plazas. The pictures flickered by like scenes from a film not yet completed. As I shared my feelings with Bishara, his normally merry eyes clouded and his forehead tensed. “Saudi Arabia, why Saudi Arabia?” he asked.

I could not articulate exactly why, I just knew this was the place I needed to explore at this juncture. The more I turned over the possibility of starting a new life in this mysterious country, the more enthusiastic I felt.  Newfound energy replaced my restlessness and eventually swayed my initially reluctant husband.

I thought, perhaps naively, that finding employment might be the toughest hill to climb in making this life transition. For nine months, my husband and I worked feverishly to secure jobs in Saudi Arabia. After an initial trip to the Kingdom with the US-Saudi Business Council in February 2000, Bishara was fortunate to meet a Saudi sheikh who kindly promised to secure a job for me first and then Bishara, as Saudi work restrictions limited my job prospects to academe, hospitals, and women’s banks.

True to his word, a week after Bishara’s phone conversation with the sheikh we received a call from King Faisal Specialist Hospital, a highly regarded medical institution in the Middle East with a well-trained staff, requesting my CV.  Two weeks later we were notified of my new position as head of a recently established department in the finance office.

My initial excitement was short lived, replaced with administrative headaches: innumerable phone calls to management at KFSH about the details of my employment contract and salary, figuring out the logistics of bringing our two miniature apricot poodles with us, repeated trips to the doctor for the required medical tests, and supplying the hospital with criminal history reports, visa forms, and family records.

I began to think our new life in Saudi Arabia would never materialize. Whether by the sheer force of my determination or from a series of lucky breaks, I nevertheless found myself thousands of miles from the only home I had ever known, meeting my new employer.

“Abdullah,” I began, finally finding my voice. “I came here to be a team player, to work hard and assist your department to be the best it can be.” A flicker of remorse passed across Abdullah’s face. “Well,” he retorted, “I really don’t think you have the appropriate background to be part of our group.”

With my resolve building, I persevered. “Abdullah, I am interested in learning and I’m a quick study; I’m sure that any weaknesses I have can be overcome.”

Abdullah fixed me with a stern, quizzical look and then abruptly turned his back, striding down the corridor. I remained rooted to the spot, unsure as to what had just transpired. Several minutes passed and neither Abdullah nor another superior appeared to politely “escort” me out of the building; I began to realize my job remained intact and let out a thin sigh of relief.

There was never a time when I wasn’t conscious of being a professional, working woman in Saudi Arabia. The Middle East and its customs have received a tremendous amount of attention in the last eight years. I admit to my own curiosity and apprehension before traveling to the Kingdom, turning over in my mind myths and rumors I had heard about the strict rules and regulations imposed on women.

Though they most certainly meant well, friends and family had no shortage of opinions and (I would soon learn) erroneous or sensationalized facts about the “tragic” plight of women in the Kingdom. I was determined, however, to start my new life with a completely open mind and to learn as much about myself as well as the culture through this new experience.

I took small, calming breaths as I strode along the office corridor on my first day of work. To my surprise and relief, two young Saudi women readily greeted me, offering me cardamom coffee, a popular drink with a pungent, spicy, sweet taste, which served as a welcome pause from my early frenetic days in the Kingdom.

Dining Hall at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh)

Dining Hall at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh)

My Saudi male colleagues were cordial, but less familiar, tendering me gentle handshakes and steely reserves. This reception left me a bit perplexed as I was accustomed to casual greetings followed by the requisite “small talk” typical of American working environments.

In the weeks that followed, I became pleasantly surprised to notice that this seemingly restrained working relationship with my Saudi male co-workers gave way to an almost familial association; I was referred to as “sister,” which afforded me a certain level of respect. In time, even my boss, Abdullah, became a good friend and almost a brother to Bishara and me, helping us through some harrowing personal trials and perilous situations.

In my first few weeks at the hospital I found myself learning more than just my new job; the aspects of work I had taken for granted in the U.S. suddenly became completely novel. Professional etiquette, for instance, took on a whole different meaning in this new workplace, and I had to relearn a diverse set of protocol just to fit in.

At times, I found myself treading lightly around cultural and traditional roles for women and men and the appropriate interactions between the two. If I were one of a couple of women at a meeting with a predominance of men in attendance there was no particular code of behavior; I felt comfortable sitting where I liked and freely expressing myself. Women, particularly Western expatriates, were also allowed more informality when interacting about work-related issues on a one-on-one basis with a Saudi male workmate.

It was important, however, that the discussion center on work and not track into the personal realm. On other occasions, such as the time when we welcomed a new Director of the Finance Group or when a collection of men and women in a conference room celebrated the retirement of a fellow colleague, tradition dictated that women and men remain segregated.

It was during these instances that I found myself making a conscious effort to respect the customs of my host country. There were moments when I instinctively felt like walking over to a Saudi male co-worker clustered with other male cohorts on the far side of the room to discuss a particular professional matter, and I had to pull myself back. During these occasions, I felt particularly nostalgic for the easy circulation between my male and female workmates in the U.S.

My role as supervisor to Arab men, including Saudi and Lebanese nationals, also required some mental adjustments on my part, leaving me more than a little curious and anxious.

Similar to my workplace persona I assumed in the States, I felt it important to convey through my statements and actions that I was a team player and a professional. If there were issues with my Arab male subordinates having a female American boss, these sentiments were left unexpressed verbally or otherwise.

My male Saudi teammate, Saad, was smart and exceedingly polite and respectful. Our working association evolved into the more traditional supervisor/subordinate relationship, making it less familial than the working relationship I shared with my Saudi male peers outside of my group. I also contended with the matter of my Lebanese subordinate, who had worked for a couple of prominent American companies in the U.S., and regularly solicited Abdullah for my job. Fortunately, I’d encountered a similar situation several years earlier with an ambitious subordinate when I was a finance manager with a U.S. government agency.

The responsibilities and complexities of management seem to transcend cultural or gender divides. In both instances, I found myself focusing on promoting a balance between the team effort concept, and maintaining clear lines of authority.

In addition to the inherent “ups and downs” in any workplace there were some obvious differences between America and Riyadh, such as their Saturday to Wednesday workweek, the laws that restricted women driving to work (or elsewhere for that matter), and the scent of bakhour (incense) wafting along the halls.

Other, less transparent, customs left me slightly bewildered. I quickly learned, for instance, of the male Saudi habit to let doors close behind them, regardless of who trailed, as they stepped briskly through the halls of the hospital complex. In time I realized that even women did not hold doors open for each other.

My husband explained that Saudis presumably wished to avoid any gestures possibly construed as flirtatious or inappropriate. Ironically, though I regularly asked men in the States to step through a doorway before me in an effort to reinforce the notion of gender equality, I found myself missing this common western courtesy when moving through the corridors of KFSH.

Another practice I learned to quickly incorporate was using the phrase, “inshallah,” or “if God wills,” into my daily speech in both social and professional settings. Expatriates learn of this neologism within days of arriving in the Kingdom. “Inshallah” follows many expressed thoughts, wishes, queries, and responses. The phrase is so common it becomes entrenched in the vernacular of the ordinary expatriate.

“Can we meet today at 1:00?” “Inshallah,” comes the response. Or, “Do you think we can have that report finished by the end of the day?” Without hesitation, the reply is “inshallah.” One day when my husband and I were rushing back to work after a medical appointment, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowded elevator.

The elevator stopped on the second floor and a gentleman outside asked if the elevator was going up; several of us responded automatically, “inshallah.” It wasn’t long before I found myself saying “inshallah” in meetings or in the course of workplace conversation.

Despite my sometimes steep learning curve in becoming acclimated to my new place of employment, the days slipped by rather quickly until I could hardly remember my daily routine working in the States. Though my schedule had a similar rhythm of deadlines and meetings, the work hours were enjoyably punctuated with gratifying moments of downtime– not the same kind of grab-a-cup-of-coffee-and-stand-around-watching-our-watches-chatting kind of moments I knew too well from my own and friends’ professional experiences.

Arab corporate culture allows you, encourages you in fact, to take time out of your day to devote to connecting with one another on a more convivial level. Usually this happens, I discovered to my ample enjoyment, over soothing mint tea or cardamom coffee served with dates or Arabic sweet pastries.

Coming from a corporate environment less concerned with this aspect of professional development, I failed to realize how vital it is to truly slow down in the course of the day until I worked on my first large project for the hospital a couple of months into my contract.

In January, 2001, the team I supervised became responsible for a new automated budgeting process. Despite the frantic pace and frustrations intrinsic in implementing any new process, it was rare for a day to pass without being offered Arabic coffee.

One afternoon, my head buried in a stack of reports and my thoughts distracted by a presentation looming the following day, a female Saudi co-worker popped her head through my office doorway.

“Michele,” she called. “Please come by my desk, I made some mint tea this morning that I would like to share with you.”

My first impulse was to decline: there were final preparations for my big financial presentation the following morning; how would I be able to finish everything with this impingement on my critical work time? However, I understood the importance of human interaction in the Arab workplace, and I knew that refusing this sort of invitation was considered rude.

I summoned a smile and reluctantly followed my colleague to her partitioned office. As I stepped inside, I encountered another woman already seated in the corner, dressed in typical hospital attire for Saudi women: a long skirt that fell below the ankles, her blouse positioned high on the neck, a black scarf adorning her head, and a long white lab coat completing the ensemble.

I barely had a moment to find my own cup when the women broke into animated banter. Conversation about our current financial project was interspersed with more casual talk about their children’s schooling or what the housekeeper might prepare for dinner that evening.

The chitchat and aromatic mint tea lulled me, as it would do in the future, into an appreciation of this particular instant in time; I realized that there were life issues just as, if not more, important as the tasks at hand in the daily work grind.

I was finding I had much to learn in this exotic and fascinating land; my first days and months of employment at King Faisal Hospital had been an “eye opening” experience teaching me not only about the importance of “people time” in the workplace, but about a culture and lifestyle that had been built upon centuries of tradition and customs.

. . . Part Two will follow!

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6 comments on “Becoming a Successful Career Woman in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

    • Yes, it did move me off the plateau. My time in Riyadh was a wonderful and “eye opening” experience. I greatly enjoyed the culture; the Saudis were very warm and generous and showed us considerable hospitality. Thank you for visiting my blog!

  1. Dear Michele and Bashara:

    Thank you for another wonderful Musing . Hoping you will have a lovely Christmas and New Year.

    Love,

    Carol Smith

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