© Suehyb AlKhatib
I am very pleased that Abdullah has agreed to contribute a post about his own story of a culturally mixed life in Saudi Arabia, and the potential marriage implications.
I first met “NidalM” as a commentator on Qusay’s excellent blog Precognitive (highly precognitive and cognitive both!). NidalM’s wit and intelligence, shone through his comment on Qusay’s post, “Saudi Asstronaut” about the plight of Mazen, the Saudi divorcé boastful about his sexual exploits in Jeddah on a LBC programme.
Since he weathered well a comment of mine on his vocabulary, I was inspired to check out Abdullah’s blog, NidalM Photography Blog, a subset of his professional photography site NidalM Photography which includes a striking portfolio with photos from the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
Now his blog is a must visit! Truly wonderful photos and commentaries on life and his trekking adventures in Saudi and beyond (to Kenya too)!
Abdullah is 23, born in Pakistan, but raised in Saudi Arabia since the age of 1 month. Both his parents are Pakistani, although his mother was raised partly in Tanzania. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering from Saudi Arabia's prestigious King Faud University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), and a Master's degree in Financial Engineering from the prestigious University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He currently works for a Saudi investment company, and does freelance photography work part-time.
I was pleased to discover what a good writer he is in a longer format, and happy to have him contribute his 2-part personal essay, Part I below, and Part II in the next post.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin The Ambassador Bridge linking the US to Canada
I sighed as I looked at the US border protection officer dissecting my passport. I drove the 4.5 hours (plus another hour for "border patrol") from Ann Arbor to Toronto, to visit family, literally every weekend while studying at the University of Michigan. And yet every time, the same exact thing.
"Where did you say you were from again?", the officer asked me.
"Pakistan, like my passport says", I replied with a blank face. It never helps to have a personality at international border crossings.
"But it says here your visa was issued in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia", he gives me an accusing stare.
"Right", I replied, "that's where I live".
"For how long?".
"20 years", managing to put my best smile in.
"20 years?! Doesn't that make you a Saudi then? You look like a Saudi to me [I sported a goatee in those days]. Do you speak Arabic?"
"Uhh, yes I do. But I'm not Saudi. I just live there."
That pretty much sums up every conversation about my origins I had in the United States (that and whether I was related to Rafael Nadal). It would seem that a Pakistani, living his entire life in Saudi Arabia, and sporting a very American accent, is too much for a lot of Westerners to comprehend. I don't blame them. Things are rarely very simple in Saudi Arabia.
© Suehyb AlKhatib, Me with a goatee!
I was born in Karachi on a cold winter's morning in December of 1985, a day after Christmas. A month after my birth, my mother would move permanently to stay with my father in Saudi Arabia. For the next 20 years of my life, I would be raised as a Pakistani amongst Saudis, visiting Pakistan for a few weeks every year. It's a strange life, living in a foreign country and visiting your home once a year.
Only, it wasn't really like that.
The truth was, I always felt like a visitor going back to Pakistan--arriving at the airport to huge fanfare and being paraded to relatives' homes; months filled with endless dinner invitations, weddings, and sightseeing; hugging it out with the grandparents; and catching up with cousins. It was all very amazing, and yet all very wrong. It wasn't real life, just a very long vacation. I hate to admit it, but I would always breathe a deep sigh of relief reaching home in Saudi Arabia. To my young and very naive mind, Saudi was home.
Saudi Arabia wasn't an easy change for my mother either, at least at first. Raised jointly in Tanzania and Pakistan, she was used to being very social and sociable. In a strange country, with few friends, and even fewer opportunities, as a woman, to go out and meet others, this was literally torture for her. She tells me stories of how she spent her first two years in Saudi without doing anything but wait for my dad to return from work. "Worst two years of my life", she tells me, "and I'm glad it didn't last long". At 1 year old, I guess I wasn't much of a conversationalist.
© Turki Shoaib. I recently went to Kenya. And part of my reason for going was to see the places my mother had toured while growing up. She always described a life of endless safaris and meeting amazing people.
All that changed when my dad accepted a teaching position at one of Saudi Arabia's leading universities. We moved into a university compound, and my mother made dozens of friends literally overnight. And I grew up in a melting pot made up of University professors, and their families, from every corner of the globe--ranging from Saudis, Pakistanis, and Indians, to Americans, Canadians, and Brits. The white kids tended to stay to themselves. To be on talking terms with one was the epitome of "cool". As a nerdy kid with an eyepatch, I just didn't make the cut.
© Mohiuddin Ahmed :D Me and my younger brother back in 1992. We had one good pair of eyes between us :) Arrrr... pass ye grog!
Growing up in this compound, it was always us (expats) versus them (Saudis). We fought over who got to play at the playground, who got to walk where, and so on. We had to deal with a lot of racist remarks (especially the Desi kids), but I admit we did take it too far sometimes as well. As we grew up and went to university, the cultural differences were more subdued. The foreigners tended to be coming from a more multicultural and competitive background, hence we tended to perform better. This meant respect from Saudis, many of whom would work with us on projects. We all learned. We all loved it. I got a job straight out of uni, and was promised a scholarship to be sent to the US. All these made me feel like I could call this place home--perhaps.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin. King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. Where I grew up, studied; and, dare I say it, the one place in the world which comes the closest to 'my home'.
But then, the walls seemed to suddenly close in. Working in Saudi Arabia turned out to be completely different than the fairy-tale childhood I had. As a pre-requisite to working here, I had to transfer my Iqama (residency permit) from my father's sponsorship to that of the company. And that brought with it a chilling set of consequences. You are not free to switch jobs, not free to leave the country (even to Bahrain to catch a quick movie) unless your employer agrees. Should you and your employer get at odds, they can cancel your Iqama, and you are required to leave the country, within a months notice, even if you had been living there for decades.
© Abdullah Mohiuddin. The iqama might be a handcuff in disguise, but sometimes the people running the iqama system make mistakes. Invariably, hilarity ensues. If you can read Arabic, I am not born on the first of July, and am not an Electronics Engineer. They also transliterated 'Male' into my name there.
You are also required to work longer hours than the locals. And for a lower pay. In Saudi Arabia, the pay scale is as follows: Saudis and Westerners at the top, followed by Arabs of other countries. Then come nationals from South Asia, and at the bottom of the list, are nationals from non-Muslim developing countries like the Philippines. This is actual government policy, not something from observation, and is implemented in the payment system of most institutions. This includes companies known worldwide for their exceptional HRs, such as P&G.
While I have no qualms with my own employer -- they have been remarkably accommodating with exit/re-entry visas, even so far afield as Kenya, as well as my full ride to the University of Michigan--the stories that I do hear sometimes give me pause. I've given 20 years to the country (to be honest, taken more than I have given), but all it would take for me to be expelled would be for me to lose my job. In a way, it feels very unfair to be treated differently from people I've studied alongside simply on the basis of a passport.
Incidentally, this policy has resulted in a new practice among Saudi expats, especially in the South Asian community. That is, they will always look to complete their educations in the United States and other western countries and seek to obtain the citizenship abroad. With the new passport in hand, they return to earn triple to quadruple of what they would earn previously. Given Saudi's policy for never naturalizing its expatriates, most of this money that will never enter circulation in Saudi and most likely be sent 'home', to the detriment of the country's balance of payments.
The reasoning given behind all of this is, of course, Saudization. In an effort to improve local employment figures, political moves have been taken to appease the masses. The problem with Saudization is--as any economist could tell you--it doesn't work. In the short term it increases employments of locals, sure. But over the longer term, those benefits vanish due to lowered incentives for the locals to work hard (less competition = less effort). Many international companies will not open full-fledged offices in Saudi Arabia, simply because it's both too expensive to hire locally, and the level of performance of local hires does not measure up to what they have in other Middle Eastern offices (mostly in Dubai), which are composed mainly of expats. This means many Saudi jobs are now being 'outsourced' internationally = fewer jobs, defeating the whole purpose of Saudization, and causing an overall loss to the economy.
That's not to say Saudi's aren't capable! It just means that there aren't enough qualified professionals to meet the requirements of the industry. You can only have so many bankers, engineers and doctors. Once the smartest and brightest are hired (usually by the multinationals/ARAMCO), the remaining companies are forced to turn to less and less qualified individuals (which incidentally hurts local businesses more than international ones). The normal reaction in an open market would be to tap into another talent pool (i.e. internationally). Limit this, and you hurt your economy.
How does one fix these issues? Well, here's an answer from a financial engineer and an armchair political analyst (the best kind!!). NATURALIZE YOUR EXPAT WORKFORCE. If someone is so important to a local company that they've employed them for 10+ years, it's a safe bet that keeping them around in the country would be a good thing. Not only does it increase the talent level of your workforce (you now have more talented Saudis), but with a definite avenue of naturalization, the now locals will spend more in Saudi, and will not take their money with them as they leave. There's also a psycho-social component. Children of successful people have advantages both intrinsic and extrinsic to be successful themselves. You probably want them around as well. This is a process that has worked well in the US, Canada, and the UK with high educational and career achievements among 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants (and is also the reason why you pay them exorbitant sums to come work for you).
Of course something like this is easier said than done. The topic of giving out Saudi citizenship is a real can of worms.
Abdullah has given us much to appreciate and reflect on already, before opening that can of worms.
Your comments? Your thoughts? Any bicultural/cross-cultural experiences to share?
Coming next...Part II--From Career to Courtship