Saudi Arabia: GMarie, An Expat Who is Making the Most of Her Stay in the Kingdom

Questions for Gina

 

It is a pleasure for American Bedu to have the opportunity to interview Gina, an extraordinary American in Riyadh who is thriving on life in the Kingdom!

 

Gina, first of all, thank you for the interview. 

 

Would you please share a little bit about yourself with American Bedu readers such as where you are from and what you do.

I grew up in New Jersey but now make my home in South Pasadena, Florida. I am a U.S. Navy disabled veteran and I have a daughter who is 23 and two grand-daughters; 2 ½ year old and 15 months old. 

How long have you been in Riyadh and what brought you to the Kingdom?

I arrived in Riyadh in September 2011. I was working for Veteran Affairs in Orlando Florida and accepted a Supply Systems Analyst position with the U.S. Army here in Riyadh.

What prompted you to apply for a job in the Kingdom?  Curiosity?  Adventure?  Desire to live in the Middle East?

I was always curious about what it would be like working abroad and experiencing other cultures. I have friends who are in the military or retired that had served in this region, enjoyed what the Middle East had to offer, so they supported my decision.

What did you know about Saudi Arabia prior to your arrival?  How did you obtain your information?  Did your expectations of Riyadh and Saudi Arabia meet or surpass the reality?  Why or why not?

The information I gathered about Saudi Arabia came predominately from friends who were in the Army or Navy and were on orders here. I knew I needed more information from a civilians’ perspective, so I surfed the internet and found two websites that was very helpful for me:

American Bedu:     http://americanbedu.com/

Susie’s big adventure:    http://susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com/

Both sites prepared me with enough information for transitioning to the Middle East smoothly and stabled my anxiety that you get when you move to a new place. I had a sponsor from the Army to facilitate with administrative things, but the websites supplemented that.

Please share some of your favorite experiences you have had since arriving in the Kingdom.

A few of my favorite experiences:

   1. I learned how to play golf. I initially started receiving instruction from my friend JW on the driving range. I heard JW was a pretty good golfer (72) so I asked him if he didn’t mind teaching me how to hit the ball properly and teach me the game. I paid for lessons at Dirab Golf Club here in Riyadh. My instructor was from Korea and his name is Ivan, who is one of the best golfers in Riyadh. I am fortunate I had him as my instructor in the beginning stages of learning the game of golf.

2. I visited one of the woman only spots called Altamutaka Woman’s Spa. This is a “freedom” in Saudi to be abaya-less outside of the base. I then realized that my question was answered as to who in the world is wearing this high fashion when you go to the malls in Saudi Arabia if all women were covered head to toe?! Inside this spa, under the abayas the woman were wearing all of the latest fashions! The place was beautiful! There was artwork on every wall, a music library, and a wall as tall as the four levels of the spa that had water cascading down it. There was also a fitness center, hair and nail salon and showrooms with designer clothing to purchase and daycare center!

 

3. My friend Bruce came to visit me in Riyadh!  Bruce and his wife Florence were my neighbors in Florida but have recently moved to Capetown, South Africa to set up their new chiropractic practice.
My receiving visitors here at Eskan are not easy task. As soon as I knew Bruce was coming, I contacted our security folks on my compound to find out what he required in order to gain access to this military compound. I was informed that he would need a copy of his Passport and igama to be sign in. He soon found out just how many restrictions I had, not just being a woman in Saudi but also as far as receiving guests.

I had to find an Arabic interpreter on post to translate to Bruce’s cab driver how to get to Eskan Village and had to get a male, my friend JW to sign Bruce in at the gate with the Saudi Army then once through, the Air Force guards as well, Bruce was finally able to come on post! I had a spaghetti dinner with my homemade sauce prepared which made all of the “red tape’ Bruce had to go through, worth the trip.

 

Have you had any embarrassing experience or faux pas that you’d care to share so that others could avoid the same?

When I arrived in Riyadh, I got on line right behind a male who was in front of me on the plane, the “needle scratched the record”! The whole place had an awkward silence!! I immediately realized that I had gotten on the wrong line and was not where I was supposed to be as a female; all the way to the right with all of the others. With several dirty looks in my direction, I hurried to the right line.

When it was my turn to approached the customs desk, I handed the officer my passport and visa then began to inform him that my sponsor was waiting for me pass the baggage area, he cut me off and told me to, “Go sit down!” I guess that was my punishment for forgetting my place as a woman in the Kingdom!

 

They say the duration of a child who is being chastised with “time-out” is based on age, so I figured 49 minutes in time-out would be way to long for a punishment. So after about 15 minutes, which much apprehension and my heart beating quickly, approached the desk again. This time, I quickly told the officer that my sponsor sent me an email that he was waiting for me, that I work for the U.S. Government and that I was on a Diplomatic visa. He gave me the once over, stamped my passport and sent me on my way. Scary stuff!

 

As a single African-American female in Riyadh, how easy has it been for you to get out and about?

One of the things that have and is a good point with being with the U.S. Army, I can dispatch a vehicle and driver and go anywhere in Riyadh. We must always follow the two-man rule, so with the driver (who counts as the second person) or another female, if I go to the mall, it is easy for me to get around Riyadh. One of the things I notice was the stares I received around town. So I asked my friend, Ablah, what she thought it was. She said, two things; my hair (I wear mid-back length dreadlocks) and just being uncovered. So, I cover out in town now, just to blend in and take away some of the attention.

Have you had the opportunity to meet and interact with Saudis?  Please share how your interactions have been on both a professional and personal basis.

I found out that other than working at my office at Eskan Village, I also have a desk at National Guard Health Affairs King Abdul Aziz Medical Hospital.  My customer is the National Guard Health Affairs (NGHA) contracting department. I am the liaison between my department and NGHA Contracting.


All of the men in the Contracting department wore white thawbs, ghutras and aqals.  The women are in black abayas, jilbab and a boshiyas.  At first, I felt like an outsider but my sponsor ensured everyone, as he introduced me, that I came well equipped with the qualifications to do a very good job for them.  With their approving eyes and assumingly warm smiles all focused on me, they instantly made me feel at home and like a part of their team! It was surreal to be in the same place where Saudi Arabia’s King is seen by his private physician, the CEO of NGHA, with whom I work for.

 

Have you made Saudi friends with whom you can travel or visit at each other’s homes? 

My friends in Saudi are Ablah, my unit’s secretary and CherryI. Ablah and her family are Jordanians and have lived in Riyadh over 30 years. Cherryl and her husbands are originally from Guyana but have lived in Riyadh for almost 16 years. Cherryl is a local hire as the Recreations Supervisor here on Eskan and her husband is with one of the oil companies. I have been invited to both their homes; Ablah lives out in town and Cherryl lives on a compound.

 

 

I understand that you also have an office at the National Guard Health Affairs.  What are your impressions of NGHA as compared to medical facilities in the United States?  What are the primary differences?

The medical facilities where I work at NGHA, I believe is “state of the art” considering this is the facility the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz utilizes besides receiving care in the United States for back surgery last October. As a Supply Systems Analyst, I review the purchases of medical equipment for the NGHA before it is purchased by U.S. Army Contracting and all of the purchases are typically comparable equipment in which I purchased for Veteran Affairs in the U.S. Recently, I visited the facility that the U.S. Army civilians use called, Specialized Medical Center (SMC) for golf elbow. These facilities were just as nice and equipped with modern equipment like NGHA. My doctor, which put me at ease, in a new environment, did his internship at Veteran Affairs in Little Rock Arkansas. He is from Yemen.

What do you hope to achieve and accomplish during your stay in Saudi Arabia? 

Saudi Arabia is one of those places where you have to be creative in finding things to do. So, this assignment enables me to receive plenty of on-line training in my field of Contracting, allows me the time and autonomy to move around Riyadh finding plenty of topics to blog and receive instruction by pros and near pros in the game of golf.

 

Which places do you wish to visit while you are in Saudi Arabia?

I would like to visit Jeddah to visit the Red Sea and Dammam to visit the Arabian Sea.

How easy has the transition been for you to adapt to the life and culture in Saudi Arabia?  Please explain your answer.

The transition and adaption to life in Riyadh was virtually easy for me.  

Do you feel that there are more or less activities available in which to participate compared to what you expected?

   Besides the typical shopping and dining out, I have experienced, more so than others here at Eskan Village,  that Riyadh have a lot to offer such as the woman only spas (Almutaka) and floors in malls (Kingdom Tower). There is several golf courses; two are 18 holes, bowling at the Intercontinental Hotel, horseback riding at Dirab Stables, diving in Jeddah and horse racing at The King Abdulaziz Track. I miss not being able to go to the beach as often as I used to, but I found I can do that Jeddah, I also miss going to the movies. But the multimedia library on Eskan does a great job of keeping up with the latest movies.

What has been the most challenging adaption for you and why.

The biggest challenge which I have accepted and adapted to in my work environment is that the Saudi do things in their own time. Americans move so fast at work and in our home environments. If I have a 30 minute meeting with the Saudi, 20 minutes of that time is spent socializing and discussing family or current events. Maybe the last ten minutes, we will go over work issues, maybe not. This has made me slow down and “smell the roses”, sort of speak. We now know each other’s families by name.

Do you think it makes a difference to be “an official expat” as compared to a “corporate/business expat” in Riyadh? 

I have not been experienced a difference in being an official expat and corporate expat.

 

Do you have any special advice for an African American or woman of color in Saudi Arabia? (whether she is American or not)

I have had several woman (i.e. military, official expats) contact me through my blog asking questions about things to do, but mainly about places to get their hair braided, acrylic nails, etc. I always advise the woman to either send a box of hair care products that they currently use until they get familiar with what Riyadh has to offer. I tell them to read up on the Muslim culture, so there isn’t a total shock to what we as Westerners have been either brain-washed or misunderstand about the Arab culture. I also tell them to not be afraid to go out and explore. My blog is proof that you can come here to work and still have fun. Recently, I had an Air Force Sergeant who was assigned a sponsor to assist with her transition to Riyadh from Washington D.C. She wrote the sponsor several times with no response later to find out that he was sent temporarily assigned to the States. Once she contacted me through my blog, I got in touch with someone I knew from her command and let them know they had a service person that was on orders, waiting for directions to transition. Her command was happy to that I made the connection.  I am glad that I was able to assist her.

 

Are you missing anything special from the States (not counting family and friends!) that you are unable to find in Saudi Arabia?

Other that visiting the beach as much as I did in the U.S., I have everything I need and have gained (i.e. friendships, camaraderie). So I do not feel I am missing anything, I am just a phone call or email away from family and friends in the U.S.

What do you think was the most important item you brought with you to Riyadh?

The most important item I brought to Riyadh is a good hair moisturizer! The climate is so dry and the water is hard on your hair. Importantly, I also brought openness to diversity; different cultures, languages and patience to the ways others do things different than Westerners.

I realize you live on a compound.  If you had a choice would you still elect to live on a compound?  Why or why not?

Living on the compound is mandatory working for the U.S. Army. But if I had my choice, I would not. I love to socialize with different people and cultures, and “living” outside the compound walls would allow that.

     Last but not least, please share with readers about your blog.  When did you start it?  What is its focus?  What is the URL?

My blog is called GMarie’s Page. My blog is about my transition from the U.S. to working and living in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. I started the blog (August 2011) when I found out I was accepted for my current position with the U.S. Army in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. I wanted one forum to communicate with my friends and family back home without writing and sending so many emails and uploading pictures with a slow internet service. Well it turned into more than just that. Folks can see that even in a place where the perception that women are oppressed and  the men treat women like “second class citizens”, I get to show and write about my prospective of my experiences here in the “Kingdom”.  I have developed a readership from several countries (i.e. U.S., Germany, Canada, France, Ireland, Russia, UK, India, etc). The URL is: http://gmarieflsblog.blogspot.com/

 

Thank you again, Gina, for taking your time and participating in this interview.  I wish you a wonderful time in the land of shifting sands and hidden treasures!

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4 Responses

  1. I’m an american and getting ready to work in Dammam. What type of clothes should I bring? suits, ties, long sleeve, polos?

  2. Great interview. I enjoy learning about people’s experiences in other cultures. It was interesting to read about her perspective on life in KSA. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Hi GMarie,

    Thank you for your service to our country!

    Abe

  4. So very very proud of Gina. I saw her grow up into young adulthood; she was always a go getter! Great questions and very thoughtfully and candidly answered.
    Cleta

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