Saudi Arabia: Anticipations of an ESL Teacher

Keith is an American English teacher.  Most recently he was teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Columbia, South America.  He has also been a music teacher and is an avid fan of music and its history in all parts of the world.  Keith is now contemplating taking a position teaching English (EFL) in Jizan, Saudi Arabia.  It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to interview Keith and discover what led to his interest of considering a position in Saudi Arabia and how he is preparing for the position.

Thank you Keith for the opportunity to ask you a variety of questions and share your experiences with others.  To begin with, what drew you to investigate TEFL opportunities in Saudi Arabia?   Did you know someone from Saudi Arabia or someone already teaching there?

First of all. let me thank you for this opportunity. Your efforts improve relations between Saudi Arabia and the West were an inspiration, and the information I found on your site was instrumental in me considering the position in Jizan.

To answer your question, I did not know anyone in Saudi Arabia, although I had one or two emails from a colleague before I decided on the job. What drew me to considering a move to KSA? I think it was a combination of factors. First of all, the Middle East has always held a special fascination for me; the mystique of the land and the culture is very seductive, if I can use that word. Of course, what little I know about it comes from movies, books and musical recordings; Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Lawrence of Arabia, and, oh yes, belly dancers.

Have you ever traveled to the Middle East region before?  What is your perception and expectations of living in Saudi Arabia?

I have never been anywhere in the Middle East. My perception and expectations are based, for the most part, on three things: First, the afore-mentioned highly glamorized version of the reality there, largely from Hollywood I’m afraid. Second, the overwhelmingly negative portrayal perpetrated by the American media, especially post-9/11. Finally, there is a very vague and no doubt naïve image beginning to take shape based on the limited research I’ve been able to do on the Arab world, on Islam, on the geography, and the people.

Overall, my expectations for living there are cautiously optimistic. I know that the climate will be a challenge, I know that there are cultural elements that will test my tolerance levels. I expect to feel like a stranger in a strange land, with all that entails. I am going there to work as a teacher, but I have no doubt that I will learn far more than I will teach.

What kind of advance research have you been doing towards learning about Saudi Arabia?  Do you feel you have a good understanding of its custom, cultures and traditions?

I have had no formal education on Saudi Arabia; my studies have been limited to a few recommended books and websites. The books are Saudi Arabia: The essential guide to customs and cultures by Nicholas Buchele (2008), and Understanding Arabs: A guide for modern times by Margaret K. Nydell (2006). On line, I have browsed through dozens of sites. Of those, probably my most-visited was Dave’s ESL Café, a website for people working abroad. And of course, American Bedu!!

Having said that, I do not feel that I have, or will have, a good understanding of the customs, culture and traditions until several months of being there, immersed. But since I have begun my inquiries, several people I’ve had occasion to meet have given me reason to be excited about what awaits me.

What do you believe is most important for you to know in advance before accepting a position in Saudi Arabia?  Why?

While it is always helpful to know something about the people, the culture, and the physical environment of a new place, for me personally I am most curious about my prospective students. As an English teacher, I will be spending the majority of my time with young Saudi men in a potentially stressful situation. I really want to know how they will react to foreigners, especially Americans. There is so much misinformation (propaganda, really) in the U. S. about Saudi Arabia, I can only assume there is also a fair amount of propaganda about the U. S. in Saudi Arabia. This concerns me as a teacher, because I will be trying to build a bond with my students, and without that bond my job will be much more difficult.

How has the media influenced or impacted on your consideration to work in Saudi Arabia?

Like so many Americans, I know most of what I do about the world from what is presented in the media. I try to be discriminating in my choice of sources, but more and more the choices are limited and the rhetoric heavy. Had the U. S. media been my only source of information about Saudi Arabia, I would never have even considered a move there. Fortunately, in the age of information we live in, there are a myriad of postings on the web, from which a strikingly different picture begins to emerge. I am beginning to believe that perhaps Saudis may not be so anti-American as they are anti-American policy. I am encouraged by this, and I am beginning to feel inspired to do what I can to present some of the best that America culture has to offer.

What kind of expectations do you have about the students you’d be teaching? 

As I mentioned before, this is a very important issue for me, and it is one for which, as of this writing, I have very little clear insight. I am expecting my students to be from middle-to-upper class families (all male, of course) with varying levels of exposure to the English language and American culture. My fervent hope is that they will be highly motivated to learn English for the opportunities it will afford them in their personal and professional lives. My fear is that they may in fact be simply there to collect the financial aid afforded them by the government, something which I know of first-hand after many years attending colleges in the U. S. I expect they will be curious, possibly suspicious, hopefully respectful of me if I show them the same courtesy.

What is your primary motivation to teaching in Saudi Arabia?

My primary motivation for teaching there is really a deep-seated desire to know; to experience the people and the culture first-hand. Yes, the pay is pretty good, and the experience valuable. But as I said before, I really am going as much to learn as I am to teach. As a teacher, and as a father, I need to know what is at the core of the devastating divide that exists today between the Arab world and the U. S. There are just too many questions about Islam, about the ancient cultures, about what it means to be a Saudi.

Beyond this, I have been a student of the drum used to accompany Oriental dance, known as the doumbek or darbuka, for about ten years now. I am really hoping that there will be some opportunity to share my love for the rhythms of the Middle East with some locals, as a non-judgmental, neutral sort of bridge between our cultures, from which I can begin to close the gap between us.

What do you wish to do and achieve while you are in the Kingdom?

My goals fall into three categories: professional, artistic and personal. Professionally, I want to bring the English language alive for those who want to learn it, which necessarily entails an effort to provide some positive insights into Western culture, I believe. Artistically, I hope to be touched by the spirit of the culture and the landscape, and grow as an artist and as a human being. On a very personal note, I am hoping to represent what I feel is the very best in my culture to the people I encounter, sort of an unofficial ambassador, if you will. Ultimately, I hope to return to the U. S. with an unbiased and honest view of the Saudis that I might share with those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions.  Are there any additional thoughts or comments you’d like to add?

It has been a pleasure to share my feelings with you.

In closing, I would only add that my underlying philosophy in everything I do is that people are fundamentally more alike than they are different. I suppose what I hope most of all is to have this belief resoundingly confirmed by my experience in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps in some small way take a step toward the healing process that the world must begin to embrace. If we are ever to see an end to the suffering violence that is dominating the headlines today, at some point the blame and the condemnation must be put aside, in favor of real dialogue, and thus real understanding, between cultures.

In closing, would you be amenable to a follow up interview after you have arrived in Saudi Arabia?


Thanks again, Keith and wishing you all the best on your upcoming opportunity in Jizan.


18 Responses

  1. Great interview. I love his attitude and his goals!

  2. Thanks, Susanne! I look forward to doing a follow up with him.

  3. I have been following American Bedu for quite some time now. I have also accepted an ESL job in Saudi Arabia and have many of the same sentiments. It’s great to hear other Americans so open to the Middle East. Fortunately, I have many friends from the Arabian gulf male and female. I think that provided a diverse and more accurate perspective of what I will be going into. However, even the thoughts of my Saudi friends are wide and varied. Goes to show that one’s own personal experience is so important to have a REAL opinion of any place in the world.

    Best of luck to you! Maybe I will see you there. lol

  4. Hello,

    This is a wonderful blog, I have been reading your posts for a while now and I appreciate how you help people gain a better understanding of my country. Thanks bedu!

    I am originally from Asir province but I lived all my life in Jizan (now “Jazan”). Currently I am studying here in the States. I think more western professionals will be coming to Jizan due to heavy government investment in the city. Keith will be one of the founding fathers of such community because of his great spirit and good will.

    There are three mega projects and many small ones that will boost the economy big time. Jazan economic city, Jazan University, and a new military base by the border.

    I have not heard of EFL, if this is a part of the university then I think you will be teaching my younger brother. small world hah 🙂

    If you have any questions, I will be happy to answer. I hope you enjoy your time in Jizan.

    Good luck!

  5. Good luck to you Keith. I hope you are able to contact some people who have worked in Jizan before you come. I think it is quite different from the main cities, we’re most of us ex-pats end up. Also, you didn’t mention if you are bringing any family with you. If so, there are probably different questions you might have.

    Everyone talks about religion here. All the time. After they explain to you about Islam it isn’t unusual for them to sort of expect you to want to convert. I’m guessing you’ll be offered a 2-year contract. You may well learn more than what you teach!

  6. Interesting article.
    I am applying for jobs in KSA. I got an offer a few months back but it was in my spam mail so it was to late to apply:(
    Although I have taught for a long while in the ME, I still find some of the logistical matters of KSA confusing, such as exit-visa. How easy is it to get? In past, I have heard conflicting information from friends who have worked there, to the common site Keith mentioned, Dave’s ESL cafe. I have made attempts to call the Saudi Embassy and get ‘mailbox’ either full or ‘I not available’. A simple anwser straingt from the ‘horses mouth’ would be helpful.

  7. Keith said he is a father, is he also a husband? Will wife accompany him? Her observations might be more interesting than his.

  8. @Jacey,

    What do you mean in regards to an exit visa? Do you mean to terminate your contract or to acquire one on fulfillment of your contract? Your passport is generally held by your sponsor but as long as there are no arrears or debts, it is generally easy to obtain the exit visa – on fulfillment of contract. If a contract is being terminated early then it depends on the reasons.

    Exit visas are usually obtainable in the event of emergencies.

    More difficult is for an individual to obtain a multi entry visa as they are more expensive and a sponsor does not want an employee to leave the country ostensibly for a short trip but actually to not return due to some kind of dissatisfaction without notice.

  9. I am very much looking forward to reading the follow-up interview!! With all the contradictory information out there about Saudi Arabia, I am also a bit intrigued and have been thinking of working there myself (although many of my family and friends think I’m crazy).

    It would be interesting to hear of the typical problems expats working in Saudi Arabia have encountered, typical working conditions for various jobs such as teaching English, and how easy it is to mix with the locals if one truly makes an effort to become involved in the community. How much does one typically learn about Saudi Arabia if one is working there living in a compound near the job? How easy is it to travel to neighboring countries while working there? Is permission needed from the sponsor to go away for the weekend? Sorry for all the questions. It is likely that some of these have already been answered previously.

    I hope you really enjoy your time in Saudi Arabia! I wish you the best with your career and in all that you do! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your perspective with us. 🙂

  10. Carol thanks…
    Just that I have seen good amount of expats from Al Khobar come from KSA on the weekends as well in the UAE.
    I have got family and friends in the UAE and thought it would be nice on my holiday breaks to go there thats all. I do understand that sponsors can reluctant giving exit visa, as it not common but not unusual for someone to do a ‘runner’

  11. I just found this blog -or more accurately; I just began to look for blogs on ESL teachers, opinions, and ideas regarding teaching in KSA. I have had several offers to teach ESL in Saudi and am now waiting to receive my work visa application # so I can send my package to the Saudi consulate for work visa approval.
    I have done SUBSTANTIALresearch about the culture, customs, and history of the Arabian Peninsula and feel as I am starting to understand Arabian logic and customs…a little bit! I will follow this blog and hope to be an active participant.

  12. My departure from the US to KSA is getting closer – and I find myself growing anxious to leave. I am anxious to begin this new phase of my career teaching ESL in Saudi Arabia. I EXPECT everything to be different…and am prepared to embrace the diversity with open arms. I have a skill set that is in demand and I will use my knowledge of ESL pedagogy to teach my students. As I am immersed in a foreign culture, it is my job to learn the culture so that I am able to connect with my students. After all, isn’t that what teaching is all about?

  13. Bob…you will never understand Arabian logic and customs until you have experienced it first hand…and then possibly not even then. It isnt something you can learn or understand merely by reading… isnt despite what some might like to claim…it’s one of those things where you have to live it to learn it. Good luck.

  14. What grade level will you work with? Private or public school or a language institute? Which city? It can also vary depending on those things. Good luck. It will be an eye-opening experience no matter what!

  15. Hi there,
    I was hoping you might could help me with something –
    I’m teaching at a private school in KSA & my profession is listed as teacher.
    My school says that the ministry won’t allow teachers to have multi-entry visas. I believe this is a lie in order to avoid giving them to us. Do you know of any resources that state that a multi-entry visa is available to teachers?
    Thank You,

  16. @Ethan,
    It might depend on your nationality. I would start by looking at the website of the Saudi Embassy in the country YOU are from and see what it might list as requirements for a working Visa. From there- if you still have questions look at the website or contact the Ministry that oversees work Visas which I think is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Good luck.

  17. Hi there,

    I was hoping that someone would be able to help me. I am from South Africa and hold a Btech: Degree, that is a Bachelor of Technology Degree. I also have a TEFL certificate and 2 years teaching experience at a Government Elementary school in South Korea.
    I was told by a recruiter that my Btech: Degree is not accepted in the Kingdom of Saudi.

    My wife is from South Africa as well and has a BComm Degree. She also has a TEFL certificate and 2 years teaching experience in South Korea. Her application has been accepted and now I am contemplating whether are not to proceed going to Saudi because I am concerned that I will not be able to find work if I come on my wife’s Iqama.

    Also i think that my wife has to go to Saudi first, then apply for me to come to Saudi and that apparently can take up to 3 months.

    Please advise?????

  18. I cannot comment on the Btech degree. However it is correct that it can take up to 3 months before you could join your wife in the Kingdom. Most employees who are there on a married contract have to complete an evaluation period before the process begins to apply for the iqamas of family members.

    Do not give up hope. Apply to another agency. Try looking and applying at Last but not least, you’d likely receive an opportunity for a local contract once you arrived. However, a local contract would not be the same as the expatriate contract or benefit package.

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