By Nicole Donnachie
Hello! I’m Nicole and I wanted to write for Nina magazine because I believe in its mission of cultural exchange and knowledge-sharing, especially amongst women. I’ve enjoyed reading the wealth of articles on the site and hope that you enjoy my short description of my time working in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
Two weeks ago, I finished a seven-month stint working in Saudi Arabia. For Nina readers, that might be unremarkable. For me, however, it was something of an unexpected challenge. I was born in Bermuda, but now live and work in London, whose solid grey buildings and rainy days seemed radically removed from the sand-coloured office and dusty horizons of Al-Khobar. To be honest, before the opportunity came up, I never imagined that I would work in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, I decided to see for myself what Saudi was like. The first thing that you need to know about me is that I, rather self-assuredly, have thought of myself as an “expert” expat. After all, I have lived in Bermuda, Bahamas, England, Scotland, Zambia and the US. I’m quiet but adaptable and like to think that my ability to observe and respond means that I’m able to live and work anywhere. So, how about Saudi?
First off, Saudi is not Bermuda. At first, the obvious was apparent: in Bermuda, our skin is open to the sun and even men’s legs are bare beneath their pastel Bermuda shorts, where Saudis seemed distant, clothed beneath the folds of black abayas and white thobes. Bermudians are happy to raise our voices to have our pink sands, blue seas and smiling faces recognised on the world stage; despite these efforts, many of my colleagues in Saudi couldn’t quite recall where Bermuda was. On the other hand, whilst I was in Al-Khobar, Saudi was pushed onto the world stage several times, for: its royal line of succession, a flogged blogger, world oil prices, senseless bombings in nearby Qatif and the action in Yemen. I felt the world’s eyes too: violence in the region prompted extra security checks on the way into the hotel where I stayed and the compound where I worked. It was enough to make anyone feel a little bare and the symbols of privacy, from high walls to sectioned restaurants, made more sense in that context.
Nonetheless, with time, not everything seemed a world away. At work, where I was part of a team implementing a new computer system, the challenges were similar to other places where I’ve lived, including learning to collaborate with multiple vendors, balancing tight deadlines with a workable solution and managing a tight budget. Working with end-users or, the staff who will ultimately use the new system, was as rewarding as ever. I learned that, even when gathering requirements from someone who is fully-veiled, I can look her in the eye and a have a productive conversation about her work processes, where her current software is working with her, hiccups in the system and major flaws that need to be fixed.
The workshops that I led in Saudi also stretched and developed my skill-set in unexpected ways. First off, forget “cloaked and removed,” both men and women were very happy to speak up and share their honest opinions. Secondly, getting to know the attendees, quickly revealed that Saudi was more open than I’d imagined: I worked with colleagues from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Ireland, Pakistan, the US, India, and, of course, Saudi. I felt privileged to work closely with cultures from around the world. In fact, “global” working practices still applied: I needed to pay attention to what people were saying, observe non-verbal cues to get a sense of how a team functioned, understand what people’s frustrations at work were (paying attention to the ones the new computer system might be able to resolve!) and push to reach consensus on new processes, where needed. By that point, it felt like there were two Saudis: first, the one in the media and amongst the ruling elites, but, also the one that I knew and shared with the colleagues that I worked with each day. I don’t condone all of the actions of the Saudi state, but I do appreciate the people that I got to know in that country.
Furthermore, some of the “newness” of my time in the Middle East opened my mind. Once a week, I hopped into an online classroom to study elementary Arabic with a sharp, smart Egyptian woman. As a teacher, she challenged me; I loved stretching my mind enough to grasp new letters and sounds in a remarkable language. Although I was studying at a beginner’s level, I gained an appreciation of the beauty and complexity of Arabic. It helped that I knew something of the importance of Arabic script too: having marvelled at the use of writing in Arabic art both many years before I ever travelled to the region and, once in the Middle East, in the airy, gracious Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. The tastes of the Middle East will also travel with me. I love flat-bread, shwarma, fattoush, hoummus and mouttabal. Those tastes are also inextricably linked in my memory to a trip to Jordan that my fiancé and I took when he came out to the region to visit me. Here, on the way to Petra, we sat in a small restaurant, alive with music, savouring roasted aubergine with hummous and watching the warmth and joy of our fellow diners. Most of the restaurant was part of a party and, drinking just Coca-Cola, we saw incredible delight on the faces around us. I felt at home in Jordan: the warmth of its people was reminiscent of the joy of my friends in the Caribbean.
I’d like to end my article by reflecting on that warmth. I found it in the sincerity of almost every exchange of Salaam Alaykum and Wa-Alaikum-Salaam, in dates and Arabic coffee in the foyers of the UAE, in the patience of end-users as I talked through the functionality of their new system, and in the incredible send-off that my colleagues gave me when I left Saudi to get married (see the picture of the wedding cake!). Whilst I now know that I am yet to fully earn my stripes as an “expert” expat, I won’t forget the region’s ability to surprise me. I’m glad that I rose to the unexpected challenge of seven months in Saudi.