Saudi Arabia is a mysterious country to me. I hear about it in the news regularly, but firsthand accounts of what the country is actually like is difficult to find. Visas are hard to come by for casual travelers. Often they are only issued for business and religious visits. And all visas require a sponsor.
It’s really the last great unknown place in travel. I’ve heard that getting into Somalia or North Korea as a traveler is easier. This is why I jumped at the opportunity to live there. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
The Middle East, Oil and Me
It all started with one email. A recruiter contacted my fiancée Rosie about a job for a company in a city on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. I won’t mention the city’s name or the name of the company for privacy reasons, but their name was well-known to me.
Immediately after reading about the opportunity, we realized it was something we both wanted to explore further. She emailed the recruiter back to get additional information. A few days later, we got it. Her job would include about $150,000 a year, two months off with some paid travel, housing would also be paid and there would be opportunities to see the country.
The offer was too good to pass up. However, there was one problem. What about me? Rosie was offered a position, not me. I’ve dealt with the visa application process during my time as a background investigator so I knew many people who moved abroad with their spouses. But that was always for Europe. Saudi Arabia does things differently.
Family Visa vs Single Visa
We did our research on this. In order for me to join her, Rosie would need a family visa, not a single visa. That visa is offered only to higher-paid valuable positions such as the position she would be hired for. Upon further reading, we noticed that another stipulation needed to be met. You need to be a man.
I spent hours searching forums, blogs and government sites trying to see if there is a loophole to this provision. The closest I saw was one site claiming that someone in the interior ministry would have to sign off on it. And that was just a rumor as far as I could tell.
Rosie emailed her recruiter asking her about it. The recruiter said she would look into it. Weeks went by with no response. Just at the point when we figured the job offer had passed, Rosie got an email. The recruiter told her that a family visa was possible so she should continue in the process.
We were excited. Hours were spent looking into life in Saudi Arabia. We researched what customs, laws, safety and food were waiting for us. Confident of a job offer, we debated what to do with our house and cat for the duration we were there.
In the meantime, Rosie was mailed a package from the company. Inside were pamphlets about where she would be working, the compound we’d be staying in and a link to a site about life there. Some of the documents even had an Arabic translation to them.
It Was All Planned Out
Rosie and I spent hours planning our time there. There was a lot to consider. First of all we decided to spend no more than two years there. It was long enough to see the country, visit neighboring countries and save up money.
We decided to rent out the house instead of selling it and have someone take care of our cat while we were away. That way we would return to our life when we came back.
Our time in Saudi Arabia would be spent mostly on a compound for foreign workers. It was described as similar to an American suburb. And the numerous videos we saw of it on Youtube verified that claim. The only difference we saw was that the compound was gated and guarded by armed guards. Safety is clearly important.
Everything Falls Apart
The next two steps for Rosie would be a video phone interview and a meeting with company representatives in the US. Her interview was conducted by people she would be working with and went really well. It was an eclectic group of people from all over the world including Ireland and the Philippines.
However, our doubts about getting a family visa only grew. Our research failed to come up with one verifiable instance of it ever being issued to a woman. Rosie even contacted someone she knew who had worked in Saudi Arabia and she said the same thing. Our dream seemed just about over.
A large package came in the mail several weeks after her interview. It was a formal conditional job offer. We looked through the documents and noted that it was still only offering single status. At that point, we knew it was over.
The only thing we have left about our experience is disappointment. We both wanted to live in a culture few people even get a chance to see. It would have been an amazing journey. Rosie’s contact who lived there said it was a very fulfilling experience.
Of course we don’t blame the company or the recruiter for getting our expectations high. We did that to ourselves. Although it is important to note that the pay originally offered by the recruiter was higher than what was offered and housing wasn’t paid. But we realize that getting female employees there must be a difficult process so making higher promises is just a way of getting their foot in the door.
We did have one other final option to consider. We could both have moved to Bahrain and Rosie could have commuted over a bridge connecting that island-country to Saudi Arabia. The place where she would have worked is just over the border. But that would have required her to commute at least 45 minutes back and forth every day. Plus, she would have had to hire a driver since women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. That was just too much.
In the end, we both learned a lot about Saudi Arabia from our research. I got such a detailed view of life there that I can imagine what living there would have been like. And until they open their country up a little more, it might be as close as I’ll get for awhile. At least the country isn’t as mysterious as it once was to me.
photo credit: Shabbir Siraj