Monday, November 26, 2012

My Decade In Saudi Arabia, Part One


Some of you may be interested in what my life was like while living and working in Saudi Arabia from 1990 to 2001.  For me that life proved to be a series of vast dichotomies, many of them realized only years later.  In my work, I confronted some of the greatest challenges I've ever encountered in my professional career.  And, through my success in overcoming these professional challenges, and excelling in my work, I found a reservoir of ingenuity and talents I didn't know I had!

From a personal perspective I now know that I literally put my life on hold for an entire decade, and all in the name of "job security"!  You see, it is virtually impossible for a westerner to live a normal life in Saudi Arabia.  Every facet of American culture is diametrically opposite to that of the Muslim culture.  Personal preference and personal freedoms must be subjugated to accommodate a culture where many of our western customs are taboo in the Muslim culture.

Despite having served 22 years in the Air Force, and having previously lived and worked in foreign countries, I was totally unprepared for the vast gaps that exist between the Western and Muslim cultures. Such mundane things as going to a bookstore and having the choice of any book ever published cannot happen in Saudi Arabia.  While Saudi Arabia offers huge palatial bookstores you will find nothing that features the image of a woman on the book cover.  You will not find a book that mentions the act of sex, or drinking...and certainly no book that includes the mention of Christianity.  One then, is limited to Erle Stanley Gardner "Perry Mason" mysteries, or Zane Grey westerns.

The same is true for music discs or movies.  As a result of these restrictions one values the Kingdom's active "bootleg" supply of western books and movies that adventuresome Western Expats (short for Expatriates, as we were termed) managed to smuggle into the Kingdom in a secret pocket of a suitcase.

Too, Saudi Arabia is able to maintain their strict Muslim culture by carefully managing how Expats are controlled and segregated from Saudi society as much as possible.  Western housing compounds are built to house the expats while they live in Saudi.  Wisely so.  Were this not the case, life in Saudi would be unbearable.  Within those housing compounds Westerners enjoy living in modern and well equipped and some even palatial homes.  We had modern fitness centers, resort quality swimming pools and tennis courts, fine dining facilities, ballrooms, small compound convenience stores and yes, even a library where one might find a bootleg copy of an American bestseller.

Travel within the Kingdom, for westerners, is severely restricted.  When one arrives in Saudi Arabia, and reports to his employer, he surrenders his passport and is issued an "Iquama" an official Saudi document that one carries with them at all times.  The document shows your occupation, your employer, your vital stats, a pic, and an expiration date.  You never forget this document because, should you leave it at home and are stopped for any reason, you automatically are taken to jail until your employer can identify and rescue you.  Should you wish to travel within Saudi Arabia, you must submit an official request weeks in advance and must carry any potential travel approval papers with you wherever you go.

None of this was known to me when I arrived in Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield in September 1990.  I arrived in Riyadh one warm evening and was amazed at the ultra-modern airport.  A sponsor awaited me and saw me through the one or two hour immigration process, then whisked me out onto a modern, well lit freeway, the pavement new and as smooth as glass.

After a half hour drive I am driven into a western compound and to my villa which will be my home for the duration of my work tour in Saudi.  As I walk through the foyer I am pleasantly surprised to see that I have been assigned a luxurious home, with plush carpets and marble floors and premium western furniture.  The home is furnished with a ridiculous level of detail.  There is formal dinnerware in the buffet in the formal dining room and casual dinnerware in the bright modern kitchen.  Every kind of kitchen utensils and appliances fill the drawers and adorn the counters in this home.  Stacks of new linen and kitchen towels sit at the ready.  All manner of cleaning appliances are also on hand.  A large television and VCR are housed within a large console in the living room.  The draperies costs more than my entire wardrobe.



As I walk through the house I find four bedrooms with King sized beds, all made up with bright new linen, tall dressers and side tables and large mirrors everywhere.  Within the four bathrooms I find huge bathtubs and showers, a premium toilet and a bidet!

All I need do is stock my house with food and cleaning supplies and unpack my toothbrush!  And go to work!

For those of you who may be interested in what my house looked like, someone has filmed the house I lived in on U-Tube.  Here's the link:

I am employed under one of the most secure employment contracts available in Saudi Arabia.  I have been hired as a Supply Manager under the U.S. governments Foreign Military Sales Program.  I was assigned to the Saudi Air Force Headquarters and am being paid to assist the Saudi government in procuring aircraft supplies in support of the Saudi owned F-5 and F-15 fighters.  This is a multi-billion dollar program which enriches the pockets of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas and Northrop and Lockheed Martin and a host of other U.S. Defense companies.

The Saudi work week begins on Saturday and ends on Wednesday (Thursdays are the Saudi Saturday and Fridays are the holy day).  Because I have not been assigned a company car yet, I am driven to work on my first day.  As we drive into downtown Riyadh toward Air Force Headquarters I note hundreds of pickup trucks loaded with family possessions heading out of town.  When I query the driver about this he smiles and says "they are fleeing the Scuds".  Indeed they were.  Thousands of Saudis fled Riyadh for safer regions because Sadaam Hussein had vowed to level Riyadh after having successfully invading and taking over Kuwait.  I later learned that Stormin Norman Scwarzkopf had declared that Iraqi Scud missiles could not possible reach Riyadh.  Apparently the Saudis weren't buying it...and they proved to be right!

(To be continued)


  1. Did the Saudi's build and maintain those houses for you or are the Western compounds built by the various American industries. That was a nice pad.

  2. That's a long story too Ken...but briefly, most of the Saudi princes have their hand in real estate. They build those compounds then have Saudi government officials mandate that expats live in them in each FMS contract. The one in this particular compound was "modest" by some standards. For example, my last home was a 5,000 plus square foot "palace" with five baths, five bedrooms, marble flowing throughout...and all for one person..."me". I understand the lease payments, paid for in the contract, not by me, were well over $100,000 per year per house and all going to further enrich the lower "royals".

    1. An amazing albeit weird way of life I would think. I'm also curious, why are you called an "expat". Do you renounce your citizenship to the US while there?

  3. BTW Ken, you saw no comments from me for the last ten days because I was away to Florida for a Thanksgiving vacation at my daughter's house. Got to get back to work soon on new blogs.

    1. Thanks, of course your missed here. I hope you had a wonderful holiday, we sure did out in sunny Kali.

  4. No, Ken, Expat is short for expatriate, just means a westerner working overseas...and the best part of it is that the first 80k is tax free!