Anyone that knows me will attest that I am not a materialistic person. In fact, my husband has made no secret that this is one of the reasons he chose to marry me. To him, it was something that made me special. His friends were quick to warn him that I would change once I arrived in Saudi Arabia and would soon join the ranks of mall trawling housewives making a hobby of draining their husband’s hard earned money. “Not my wife” he had said -“No way, not me!” I echoed. Then I moved to Saudi Arabia.
I always used to hear that the lifestyle in Saudi Arabia differed completely from that of other countries, a reality that cannot really be prepared for and one that can only be understood once you have lived there. I have found this to be very true. Having been here for about a month and a half now, I’m beginning to figure out what I need to be happy here. They are simple things really; an active social life, a pleasant light-filled home, opportunities to learn new skills and having an area that I can go outside by myself and enjoy the outdoors in peace. In most parts of the world, these needs are easily and inexpensively satisfied but in Saudi, they come with effort and a hefty price tag. To show you what I mean, let’s discuss this further…
An active social life – A major barrier in having an active social life as a woman in Saudi Arabia is the fact that women can’t drive. This is less of a problem if you have your own personal driver but not everyone can afford this and according to government rules, if a woman is unemployed or does not have school-age children then she is not allowed to have her own driver. This leaves you to rely on taxi drivers which can work out ok if you find a good one but if you want to get out frequently this gets expensive. On top of this, some more conservative men are uncomfortable with the women in their life using taxi’s so this isn’t an option for everyone. This then leaves the man of the house as the only provider of transport which means that the women can only go out when he is home which is also the time he will be wanting to relax after a long day at work.
A pleasant, light-filled home – If you are renting and want reasonably sized windows with a view onto something other than a wall or an empty lot then I wish you all the best because in my experience they are few and far between. The Saudi obsession with privacy is very evident in the set-up of most furnished apartments. At one such apartment my husband and I looked at, there was a large tinted window that, for privacy, had been completely covered up with some sort of ugly silver masking tape. Did I mention that the window was tinted…as in no-one can see in… The result was an incredibly depressing, dark and gloomy space that makes you feel like you’re living in a coffin. Considering housewives like myself are stuck inside most of the time due to the aforementioned difficulties involved in getting out and about, most of our time is spent inside so this is a recipe for disaster or more specifically severe vitamin D deficiency (which incidentally both my husband and I already have) and depression. In my case, we could only find one apartment in our desired area that had natural light and street views but staying there took over half of my husband’s salary. This is despite the fact that it is a studio apartment, constantly smells of sewerage and if we want basic services such as new towels or our room being cleaned, we have to ask reception about a million times before they give do it. And when they finally do it they do a terrible job and their towels are stained and smell weird. But it was still better than the alternatives.
Need for an outdoor area to enjoy fresh air in peace – When my husband was apartment shopping, I begged him for one that had its own private roof. Such apartments are unfortunately a rarity so we had to go without. The only other way to have your own private outdoor area is to buy a villa or a house with its own ‘hoash’ (courtyard) but this was and still is out of our budget and most villa’s and houses are way too big for a childless couple like us. With the large size also comes a lot of cleaning because it’s pretty dusty here so things get dirty very quickly. This means that with a big house you either spend most of your time trying to keep on top of the cleaning or you hire a maid to do it for you. And of course we can’t afford a maid right now either. So this leaves me with nowhere for me to, both literally and figuratively, let my hair down and get some much needed vitamin D and fresh air. My husband is an Aramco employee so I do technically have the option of using Aramco’s park area (though of course I wouldn’t be able to uncover there) however this again necessitates having a form of transport because we do not live on Aramco camp grounds.
Opportunities to learn new skills – Here is where Aramco comes to my rescue again, this time with their numerous courses and classes. I have taken advantage of this privilege and signed up for Arabic classes 4 days a week beginning late April. However, once again transport is an issue. We have a taxi driver in mind to take me however, because he is not our personal driver, he can only enter Aramco camp when I am with him which basically means that he can take me to my classes but cannot enter camp grounds to pick me up and take me home. My initial solution was to just walk to the library and hang out there for a few hours until my husband’s lunch break when he could drop me home but the area where the classes are held is not near anywhere that I could hang out and pass time so I am basically stranded. At this point the only solution appears to be that my husband leaves his work to pick me up from class to take me to the compound gates where my taxi will be waiting then the taxi will take me the rest of the way. Yes, he will have to do this 4 days a week until such time as we have our own driver which at this point seems to be quite some time off. And yes, the taxi fares add up to be pretty expensive which is not helping our situation.
So, my friends, as you can see, this leaves us pretty broke. It cost us quite a lot of money to maintain our long distance marriage for those 3 years and then more again to bring me here to Saudi then of course more again when we had our wedding here. We just bought an apartment which was also expensive. We want to do hajj this year inshaAllah (very expensive) because we are hoping to start trying for a baby at the end of this year (also very expensive). And of course I need a driver asap and that is both difficult and expensive considering I do not meet the government’s requirements for the type of woman who can have a driver and on top of that my husband insists on hiring once specific Yemeni man he knows as our driver – a nationality that the government has banned from working as drivers in the kingdom. And yes, we are also in debt.
Honestly, I have no desire to work– I spent long enough working in a job I didn’t much care for back in Australia – however I do want to be able to contribute financially so we can get these money problems behind us quickly and be able to speedily obtain those things we need to improve our quality of life i.e. a driver. Unfortunately, the only real employment opportunity for me here is as an English teacher, an occupation I have absolutely zero desire to engage in. There is the option of running a small business from home and I am playing with an idea in that category but I’m not particularly convinced that the profit will be worth the effort involved and like nearly everything else, it requires the help of a driver.
As you can see, all of this has made me whiny and depressed and bored and demanding and even a little materialistic. But the thing that disturbs me the most is that it has made me ungrateful and impatient. Suddenly I want it all, I want everything I mentioned and more – immediately! I’ve always been big on travel but now that I am so close to the rest of the world (and that I’m going stir crazy here!), I am itching to go on an exotic overseas holiday before we start trying for a baby and I lose even more of my freedom. Of course we can’t afford it and it would be irresponsible to push my husband into doing it. Even if we could afford it, my husband has no annual leave left thanks to the Saudi government making us wait forever for my visa in Australia.
I guess I am having to accept that it’s not just me anymore, I’m really married and there really is a budget and there are responsibilities and you really can’t have it all and you certainly can’t have everything when it suits you. Basically overnight, before I’ve even turned 24, I seem to have morphed into a normal, boring adult and I’m not sure I’m ok with that. I certainly wasn’t prepared for it. I can just hear my mum making her favourite statement from when I was a teenager – “welcome to the real world!” Welcome, indeed!