I’ve got lots on my plate at the moment, but first I need to get a few things off my chest. I can hardly believe that I’m writing this a relatively short time after deciding that coming to Oman was a serious mistake. In barely a week a few things have made me think that perhaps it’s not so bad after all.
The thing that has affected my mindset most was a blog of a fellow teacher from Liverpool who spent a few months in Saudi Arabia back in 2012/13. The blog is no longer available online but she emailed me all the posts. The read was hundreds of pages long and certainly one of the most detailed and vivid stories I’ve ever read in my entire life, as well as very entertaining at times, though I don’t think it’s actually the best word to apply here due to the fact that the content was also thoroughly depressing. By the way, I think this colleague of mine has such an engaging writing style, such sharp wit and such great intelligence that in all fairness, she should be a prolific writer by now.
The blog was about her own as well as her fellow teachers’ experiences in Saudi as well as UAE and by sharing it with me, she wanted to express her sympathy with regard to the predicament I was in caused by my living in a GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) country. I was to find some solace in reading about other expats’ truly horrific experiences and it was supposed to help me make the decision to run for my life. Instead, it resulted in me thinking: “Thank God I’ve ended up in Oman and not either KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) or UAE (United Arab Emirates)! My life here is heaven compared to those countries!”
To be honest, I have never been particularly interested in going to KSA due to their reportedly religious fanaticism (despite the apparent recent changes), but I have considered going to UAE, even very very recently. I was supposed to have an interview in Dubai this week for the position of EAP Tutor in the branch of the University of Birmingham, which is where I’m currently doing my PhD. I’ve never wanted to live in a big city again, let alone Dubai, but the job looked good, plus this university is basically quality assurance: I would likely be doing things the way I’m used to doing them in the UK, both as a student and a tutor. However, once the word that I was considering it got out, I started receiving advice from various teachers currently working in UAE or their friends warning me against going there due to appalling treatment of foreigners there, Westerners too but particularly Asian ones, which shocked me, really, because the overwhelming majority of residents in that country is expats with Emiratis constituting only 20% of the total population. Anyway, I thought that for a change I should perhaps acknowledge other people’s experience, plus UoB is only hoping to establish itself there and there may not even be a position even if I were successful, plus I didn’t really want to live in Dubai in the first place. As a result of all this, I decided not to attend the interview and reading my friend’s blog only confirmed that I had made the right decision.
The blog was divided into weeks and with each week’s account, I grew increasingly anxious and towards the end some of the stories made my hair stand on end. Although some situations did ring a bell, such as communication problems and lots of red tape, I really must say that Omanis seem to rather be doing their best in dealing with us and on the whole, are quite helpful. The only thing that is really getting to me at the moment is the perpetually delayed salaries, complete lack of communication about the situation (unless you ask yourself which I, contrary to anyone else, am doing all the time), which is caused by fear of losing face (which is my opinion is a paradox because it does just that) and simply pretending that everything’s just fine (by most people in charge but not all, I must say). On its own, it does seem like a massive issue, but in the context of what I’ve read about working in other Gulf countries, it’s really a minor one. Perhaps it’s helpful to keep in mind that my fellow teacher was there in 2012/13, so things might have or are improving, but radical changes are not really implemented overnight, so I’m not entirely sure it is better to work there now. The things that have made me reconsider my attitude towards Oman and which are certainly not the case here are as follows (in KSA):
- taking your passport away from you on your arrival in order to prevent you from doing a runner (which is a common occurrence) and not returning it to you for a very long time despite continuous requests (in Europe they always teach you not to ever give your passport to anyone, so I remember being petrified when I had to leave my passport at a Consulate of Pakistan in Manchester to get my first visa and then at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad to extend it);
- you are not allowed to leave the country at all for the first 90 days and after that, unless you get an exit visa (and your passport back), which isn’t so easy to obtain and which means that you’re basically stuck there no matter what (there was a story of a teacher whose mother was dying but she wasn’t allowed to go back home, not even when the mother eventually died);
- you are most likely to be live in a compound surrounded by (often barbed wire) fences and share a flat with fellow teachers (here in Nizwa everyone is given a separate flat even if you’re just a single person);
- when out and about, female teachers must wear abayas, i.e. black garments covering the whole body, as well as hijab, i.e. head covering, and if they don’t, they are approached by the religious police and threatened with prison (in fact, my friend quite liked the abaya and the hijab, but I don’t think I would appreciate being forced to wear it, and I’m a Muslim – I think if I ever do, it will be my choice);
- at the time, but this is not confirmed by one of my current fellow teachers who worked in KSA at approximately the same time as the blogger teacher (perhaps it depends on a place?), females couldn’t have a meal in a restaurant on their own – they were allowed to order food and collect if from a window designated only for them, but not actually sit there and eat it;
- the turnover of staff was enormous due to the fact that teachers were constantly being fired for what we’d consider a non-offence, e.g. asking students to sing a Saudi national anthem because in their version of Islam, music is not allowed – I wonder why they even have an anthem in the first place! (Not sure if you remember but about 1.5 months after my arrival in Oman, I was asked by a couple of Omani students to actually learn to sing their anthem for the Omani Day celebrations);
- having to be constantly relying on taxis (which would often fail to show up) to get anywhere as women weren’t allowed to drive (well, technically, they still aren’t as the ban is being lifted in June this year; apparently though, a lot of Saudi women have cars in the neighbouring Bahrain and get to drive them there; I don’t know what I’d do here in Oman if I couldn’t drive);
- not bringing in your family, e.g. husband and children, despite stipulations in the contract (but who’s there to enforce the contract?) – there was a story of a woman who spent several months separated from her family back in the UK because they weren’t bringing them in (this is still an issue here though – a working man can sponsor his wife and children, whereas a working woman cannot sponsor her husband – that’s why there was an issue with B.’s visa; surprisingly, this is not the case in UAE or Qatar as long as the wife is a high-earner);
- even if you hand in the 60-day notice but want to leave before your contract ends, you still face heavy financial penalty (two months’ worth of salary);
- as for religious fanaticism, there was one story which particularly shook me: my friend talked about a book written by a Saudi (female) doctor, who gave an account of a surgery on a 70-year old woman who despite being in an operating theatre and under general anaesthesia, still had to have her whole head veiled, which was being enforced by her son who was present in the operating theatre making sure that his mother’s dignity (!!!) was intact and shouted at the doctors to adjust her veil if it slipped from her head…
Now, not all the things I have listed here were necessary the reason for my friend’s misery, there were others and more personal ones, but they would definitely have been unacceptable for me, hence my picking on them. Also, I’m currenly working with quite a few people who have previously worked in KSA and who might have had a slightly different (read: better) experience (mostly ‘slightly’ though), but they are all male teachers and one of them even told me that female teachers don’t have a life there. Having said that, one of my female fellow teachers has worked with a woman who actually liked it over there (at the same university as my blogger friend), so might it be a matter of perspective? Perhaps, it also has something to do with an agency that recruits you. In the Middle East it’s not very common to be employed directly by the university (though it’s the case with me), but agencies who often greatly differ in their approach to foreign staff.
All in all, I have realised that despite a few issues in Oman, we really are far better off here than anywhere else in the Gulf. In the view of the above, B. has even called Oman ‘the Europe of the Middle East” and there might actually be some truth to it.