Who are you?
I’m Gemma. I’m a 32-year-old oncology nurse from Leeds, UK.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
March 2012, I decided I was bored, stuck in a rut and needed a new adventure.I started looking half-heartedly into nursing abroad. One thing led to another and I ended up at an open day about working in Saudi Arabia. By some peculiar twist of fate, I was interviewed the same day and hired as a haematology nurse for one of the largest hospitals in Saudi Arabia. By August I was on a plane jetting off to my new life. In 2015 I exited Riyadh, travelled for a year and then went back to work in Jeddah.
What challenges did you face during your move?
The main challenges were visa related and because of working in healthcare a lot of medical papers and references. The whole process took about 5 months. Luckily, I was dealing with a recruitment company who managed a lot of the process for me. The main things were timings, I didn’t want to resign from my current role too early in case the whole thing fell through!
Eventually the main challenge became that of leaving my family, friends and life behind for the unknown.
How did you find somewhere to live?
Because Saudi Arabia is such a closed country with very strict laws most expats live in compounds. These tend to be resort style places with western living. So, you have villas and apartments, pools, shops, cafes and restaurants where expats live in a high security environment. This means they can have a high quality social life and live and socialise as they would at home. As a hospital employee, I lived in compound style housing for hospital staff and this was arranged through work. For the most expats’ housing will come as part of the employment package in Saudi Arabia. Compound housing can be extremely costly and as a result, the few expats who don’t get accommodation included with their employment package will live in local apartment blocks in various neighbourhoods.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Riyadh was full of expats. Loads of teachers, nurses, engineers, cabin crew… it was so easy to meet people. Being the capital of Saudi Arabia and the economic hub it was easy to find expat meet ups and parties and because of the nature of the environment everyone looks out for each other and you can quickly meet a network of friends.
Jeddah was slightly different, a smaller city with much fewer expats. This made it harder to network and fewer social things were going on. However, when you’re living in such a foreign country people quickly become friends and social life opens up.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
Being a nurse I had many interactions with locals. They were both colleagues and patients. In this situation, you really need to be able to speak even just a bit of Arabic (the native language of Saudi Arabia). The language barrier often strained relationships but generally, despite cultural differences the relationships were ok.
Working with locals sometimes proved a challenge, we would have different work styles, but these things you work through. Generally, the relationship with locals was positive.
What do you like about life where you are?
Moving to Saudi Arabia opened up a whole array of opportunities for me. It allowed me to travel, opened up my mind to new religions and cultures. Aside from this, life was easy. Despite the usual stresses of working long hours in a busy hospital with sick patients, life was simple. Long working hours balanced with sunshine, long holidays, great friends, weekends away and general explorations without the pressure of bills, rent and the rat race style of living a lot of us get used to at home.
What do you dislike about expat life?
The hardest thing about expat life is being away from family and friends. Adapting to being completely on your own and accepting that life is going on without you. Equally losing friends is a hard part of expat life. Both friends at home in your absence and friends on the road. You can meet so many interesting, likeminded people, but everyone is on their own path so it’s sometimes hard saying goodbye and accepting those friendships aren’t forever either. Expat life is very transient.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between life in your new country and life at home?
Saudi Arabia is the strictest Islamic country on the planet. It’s probably easy to see the big cultural differences. As a single woman alone in Saudi I had to adapt to wearing an abaya (a gown to cover my body), covering my head (if I was requested to do so), not drive (it’s illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia).
Living in a completely alcohol free (no bars) and entertainment free (no cinemas or theatres) environment took some adapting to.
What do you think of the food and drink in your new country?
I love Arabic food, I’m a complete hummus snob now! But it’s easy to get western style food anywhere in Saudi. As well as small local Arabic restaurants, there are hundreds of well-known Western restaurants and a huge fast food culture in Saudi. You can anything there (except pork!).
What advice would give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Do a lot of research! Speak to expats who have been in Saudi before. It isn’t for the faint hearted. I saw many people come to Saudi and leave very quickly. If you have an open mind and you’re tolerant and curious to learn about new ways of thinking, if you’re adaptable and up for a challenge then go for it!
What are your future plans?
Moving to Riyadh was one of the best decisions I ever made. Moving back and going to Jeddah opened up another new experience for me. I just left Jeddah and after 4 years in Saudi Arabia it was a difficult decision. I will miss life there but it’s onwards and upwards with plans for a bit of working abroad and a bit more travelling, we will see what the future holds, but I’m not ready for England just yet!
You can keep up to date with Gemma's adventures on Instagram.
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