How I Almost Moved to Saudi Arabia

by STEVE BLOOM

Masjid Nabawi (Prophet's Mosque)

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.

Disappointment

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

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Comments

  1. How disappointed you must have been to have all those plans fall through! It would have been so cool to live is Saudi for a couple years. We’ve been in similar positions – my fiance and I looked in to moving to several different places before we started the US visa process to avoid the separation. We came very close a few times, to the point of looking at apartments online and stuff, but always ended up disappointed in the end. It is NOT easy to relocate to another country on an employment visa.

    • It really can be difficult to get into another country through an employment visa. When I was a background investigator, I got paperwork for people relocating to Europe on business (Switzerland Mostly). The documents had to have official courthouse stamps on them for the entire family including children as young as four. It took a long time. Plus, I was only one step in a lengthier process.

  2. Dang! How cool would THAT have been? My husband and I have talked about this several times as he’s had some international offers, but in the end, most of them were for long-term and we just couldn’t spend 5+ years away from family and friends. We’re such homebodies. So interesting that it all broke down because she’s a woman too!

    Oh well, that just means you’ll have an even more interesting and exciting opportunity to come your way now!

    • Five years really is too long a time to relocate to a country you’ve never been to. In this Saudi Arabia offer, we could have stayed as long as we wanted or left after only a few months.

      The next opportunity could come at any time, but it will probably have to wait until school is all completed.

  3. This is a big bummer. Sorry to hear that this won’t be happening, what an awesome adventure that would have been. I know friends who have had similar heartaches regarding the relocation process.

    I agree that hopefully this just means you will have a better opportunity happen right around the corner!

    • I keep hearing that the relocation process is pretty tough to get through. This process took several weeks to get through and would have probably taken several more if we hadn’t stopped it.

  4. Saudi Arabia is pretty much off limits for a female tourist… that’s why I so want to go there!
    For now, I just saw it from the airplane, and I found out there are volcanos there… which I didn’t know, so it’s better than nothing :)
    I felt your disappointment while reading, I would be so mad!
    Anyway, it would be interesting to read what you found out about lifestyle etc there. As you said, it’s such a “mysterious Country”!

    • I didn’t know they had volcanoes there. Most of the things I learned were cultural such as how the religious police work and the limits set on women. Both music and alcohol are banned. However, young locals in some areas will blast music from their cars, but turn it off if they see the religious police. Alcohol can easily be found in the compound since foreigners make it there. Technically it is illegal, but the religous police cannot enter that area at all to do anything about it.

  5. im sure there’ll be another opportunity that will come your way :-)

  6. i agree with Flip
    am sure you can find another good opportunity :)

  7. It’s really disappointing when situations like these happen due to policies. No one can blame you for planning your future to make sure everything falls into place. At least in the brighter aspect, you got to learn more about a country. More opportunities for you guys! 😀

  8. It must have been sooo hard to come thisclose to moving to Saudi and then not be able to do it! I never thought about Saudi for a second in my life until I moved to Sharjah, UAE. People in the neighoring emirate of Dubai seem to be very interested in the Saudis. It seems like they kind of look up to them and try to emulate them. I am not positive about this, though. Saudis do evoke quite a lot of emotion from the people of the emirates, both positve and negative. For example, if someone behaves badly, people often say they must be a Saudi. I became really curious about this country and now I really, really want to visit! I doubt if I’ll ever get to, though. I didn’t know it was harder to go there than North Korea! People in the Persian Gulf have told me “You can go to Saudi!” They don’t know how 99% off limits it is for us.

    • Hi. Im on the same boat. I’m married to a Saudi man. However, we are not together, he lives in his country and I live in mine, for 9months now. So, we decided that one of us should migrate. My husband’s career in Saudi is very unique, and we cannot find him a job here in my country that will pay as much as what he is earning in Saudi, or the pay here is way very low than what he is earning there now, plus salaries there are tax free. So, we decided that I be the one to migrate or go to his country for a few years, until we can save enough money, and be together, and then go back to my counry to put up a business. However, like what you said, its not easy to get a visa. I had several option: 1) Family Visa. We are married here in my country, and our marriage is not accepted in Saudi, hence we need to marry there, but marrying a foreigner there requires permission, from the King I think, etc.etc.etc, which means it will be hard, as my husband said, but possible, although it might take time. Hence, if we’re not married there, I cannot get a family visa/resident visa, therefore I cant live there. 2) Work Permit+Resident Visa. I looked for a job in Saudi, and because of my credentials, i got 3 offers in a week’s time. Which made me so excited. I can be with my husband and at the same time, continue my career, and earn , tax free ( pay is not far from what i earn now, but its tax free ). However, it is not enough to get a job offer. Saudi Arabia does not give visa to female professionals, unless its medical or domestic, that’s what the company who’s hiring me told me. And i’m an engineer. They say I can get a house maid visa, but work there as an engineer. My initial reaction is…’hell, no’. I’ve worked hard to be in my position right now, i’m a currently a manager in my field, and i have 12 years of experience as an engineer. Then, they said, they’ll give me time to think about it. Until now, I’m thinking about it. A house maid visa is quite discriminating, or is it just my ego talking. You see, when you have a house maid visa, i cant go in the same line or area as my husband in the airport. And i read, house maid’s doesn’t have regular privileges in the airport etc. Moreover, I’m not yet sure how often I can be with my husband, specially that he will not be my sponsor, and we’re still not married in Saudi. ( Note that females require male sponsor to be in Saudi, females, can’t leave without the permission of this sponsor ). 3) Business Visa. My third option is a Business Visa. This one is easy but expensive. I can go to Saudi as a a consultant in a company , who will sponsor my Business Visa, validity i think is 3 months. so i have to go back and forth from Saudi to my country and back to Saudi every 3 months, which will be too costly for the company. We havent found any company in Saudi who will give me a Business Visa yet. Right now, every option seems vague. I love my husband and I want to be with him. I dont mind the culture issues, forget the freedom that i have now, I can wear hijab and abaya, and stop driving, just to be with him. I even converted to Islam. But, with all the issues I mentioned above in getting a Visa, I think I have no choice but to stay here in my country and wait for him until he’s ready to mary me in Saudi or until he’s ready to settle here in my country.

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