“BAM!” I peer out my window, lurched from complacent tea-sipping at my desk. Though rousing, the car crashes just below my office window are hardly rare enough to provoke surprise; there’s at least one or two every day. Granted, the fact that people drive like bats on cocaine is the least of your worries when you live in Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom is a strange place, and this strangeness rests upon the coupling of a strict interpretation of Islam and a traditional Bedouin culture, on one hand, with dripping wealth, development and modernity, on the other.
The downsides of this mix are well known: women not being allowed to drive, religious police enforcing a dress code in shopping malls and medieval punishments for crimes like blogging. The absurdities are also notable, including the effort to separate men and women in public which has resulted in the irony of a male cashier being able to serve a female customer, while a female cashier may not serve a male customer (only families, including single women, are allowed in her line). Most confusing of all is that the separation rule is ignored at traditional souks, where people of either sex can sell items to anyone of the other sex. Go figure.
However, a multitude of negatives and absurdities does not preclude the presence of positives—in fact, it merely highlights their unlikely existence. Perhaps the most interesting positive outcome of the Kingdom’s unique culture is the Saudi attitude towards professional life.
The only thing that Saudis take almost as seriously as religion is work/life balance and family. Government employees are generally out of the office by 2:30 in the afternoon, while most in the private sector head home around 5. What about working from home? Not in the Kingdom—Saudis tend to leave their work at the office, where it belongs. On weekends, you can kiss goodbye any chance of reaching the average Saudi employee, and offices become ghost towns before and after holidays.
Speaking of holidays, did I mention that Saudis usually get a mandated four weeks of paid vacation a year (six weeks if you’ve been employed for more than five years), PLUS two extra weeks for religious holidays? I haven’t even gotten the chance to talk about the month of Ramadan, where business hours are severely cut back, or prayer breaks throughout the day! Mandated vacation applies to all levels of Saudi workers—the Saudis recognize that even poor people deserve time off.
For all of the problems associated with the Saudis’ intensely conservative ideology, their worldview clings to a time when the societal relationship with work was different—when work was shaped around life and relegated to its rightful, secondary place after God and family. Saudis are among the most religious people on earth, and to be religious in the Kingdom is to be a family man, to fast with your family during Ramadan, to take your children to the desert and teach them, to pause throughout the day for prayer and to read the Quran. It’s pretty hard to accomplish all this while writing emails on nights and weekends. In this sense, Saudi workers serve two masters, and the Almighty generally wins out over the employer.
Speak to any westerner in Saudi, and they will tell you that life in the Kingdom is actually pretty sweet when you have a family. Westerners are expected to work more than Saudis, but the pace of work depends on the Saudi pace of life, which is generally slower than in the west. Office life caters to family, and Saudis are even able to leave in the middle of the day to pick up their children from school, returning to the office afterwards.
Whenever there is an assignment, even an urgent or important one, a Saudi will most likely say that it will be done inshallah (God willing), acknowledging and accepting that something could always stop the assignment from being accomplished. Sure there is a budget to finalize or a memo to write, but it all depends on God’s will, on the unexpected, and on the demands in life that are more important.
Work in Saudi Arabia knows its place in the universe.
In comparison, many Americans go years without taking vacation and constantly forgo spending time with family to finish PowerPoint presentations. Who sounds absurd now?
The sustainability of the Saudi quality of life is uncertain. Underlying the economy are two crucial factors: oil, which has financed the Kingdom’s rocket-powered development, and a steady stream of cheap labor from South Asia and the Philippines, who work more intensive hours as everything from construction workers to office “tea boys” to accountants and consultants.
With oil prices plummeting, the Saudi government is developing new industries in the Kingdom and pushing Saudis to occupy more varied and active roles in the workplace. Future wealth will not come from oil or cheap foreign workers—it will come from Saudis toiling, like the rest of us, in a diversified and competitive economy. It’s unclear how such changes will affect the Saudi attitude towards office life, if at all. In the meantime, Saudis will continue to enjoy the unlikely benefits of a worldview based in centuries past.
On any given night around the Kingdom, you can spot Saudis sitting in the desert just off of the highway with friends and family, drinking tea and enjoying the moon’s brief prominence in the parched Arabian sky. These are the moments that they live for.
Life does not wait for you, and the work will get done tomorrow, inshallah.