Mumfessions: Living and Raising Children in Saudi Arabia
My closest interaction with Saudi Arabia happened a couple of years ago, via a law student who was interning at the law firm I worked. We would often grab lunch together and she would talk about how much she loved London. But when she spoke of Saudi Arabia, you could also hear the fondness in her voice. I looked forward to her stories, and many times I’ll catch myself wondering what it would feel like to live there - having grown up in a society that I considered quite different.
In today’s Mumfessions, Abubele Green, fondly known as Bubu puts some of our curiosity to rest. From the southern part of Nigeria—Rivers State, with three kids under five, she lived in Saudi Arabia for a number of years until recently when her family relocated to Grenada.
She shares a lot about her experience in this Middle East country: why she moved there, her misconceptions and culture shocks as well as raising kids and making mum friends.
On Moving to Saudi Arabia
My hubby (fiancé then) was working in Saudi Arabia. So, we did a bit of a long distance relationship until we got married and I joined him in Saudi Arabia to start a family. We lived there for about five years. Initially, the idea of living in Saudi Arabia did not go well with me because my impression of the country was that it was anti-christian, so there I was, a "church girl," doggedly scouring the internet for Middle Eastern culture just to learn how to adapt.
My husband said good things about Saudi Arabia, but it conflicted with what I was seeing in the media. Still, I was excited to join my husband. I learned about their conservative culture and realised my dress sense would have to change. So in Nigeria, I got outfits I thought were conservative enough (my hubby told me I didn't need to wear the black robe/abaya), only to get to the Saudi airport to see that I wasn't dressed conservatively enough for someone entering the city and not simply passing through. I got a lot of stares, but one sweet Arab lady sat beside me and told me how to get my dressing right. We went into a store straight away to be donned in my official abaya outfit. At the airport I could tell instantly that the people love to cater to foreigners; they were genuinely hospitable.
Language Barrier and Other Culture Shocks
Language was a huge barrier for me. I hardly socialized and if I did, it was most likely with hubby's colleagues and their families who spoke English. I learnt passable Arabic from my husband and in stores I knew very well, I would need less help picking things up. My husband was also mostly around to interpret. However, I learnt some key icebreakers—just good enough to strike a basic conversation—in Arabic for times I was alone. And when I got stuck, I would just show them a picture of what I wanted—after my umpteenth hand gesticulation.
The culture shock was immense. Their way of greeting was strange to me. They kiss a lot on the cheeks—even people of the same sex. I was particularly surprised to see men do it too. They could keep kissing side after side three to seven times in one greeting (I counted!). So I thought, "well, I could get used to this."
It was all daisies and dandelions until I spotted the real Saudi women; covered from head to toe. Even the eye peep holes were covered with a black sheer cloth; hands and toes too. I'd seen them on the internet but seeing it in real life was so surreal. Then I spotted men in white towels only, rolling up their travel suitcases. I was so confused. My hubby told me they were going for Hajj (pilgrimage). It was also shocking to see female-only, male-only, single-only, and family-only queues in public places.
I complained throughout my stay, but in hindsight, I miss the tax-free shopping, the nightlife, the Malls. There are so many beautiful malls, visiting them became a form of recreation, especially for women.
On Having Children in the Middle East
I had my first two kids in Saudi Arabia. Health care there was (and is still) top notch. I can't fault Saudi Arabia on that. They’ve got the infrastructure, facilities, and let's not forget, the "oil money." They always bring their A-game. The major downside was the language barrier, especially communicating with the auxiliary nurses and staff. Doctors and nurses spoke English well but sometimes, it was even tough to communicate because of their accents and some issues with context. Health care was free for me (from antenatal visits, delivery and postnatal visits, vaccinations—everything) because I was under my husband's health insurance and he worked at the same hospital too.
Connecting with Other Mums in Saudi Arabia
I made just one Nigerian “mummy friend.” In Saudi’s patriarchal society, you need your husband to take you around. Women weren't allowed to drive at the time (that law has been lifted since June 2018). This restricted movement for us because our husbands had to work. In all my stay, my friend and I went out together only twice. Once to a science school exhibition and then to a traditional Saudi-English wedding.Thankfully, we could return house visits since we lived in the same building.
On Popular Misconceptions
The misconception I had was that they are mean anti-Christians and socially backward. Boy, I was wrong. These people love life to the fullest. They’ve got the best of everything. The Saudi government makes sure their citizens are not lacking in anyway. If they see any Western franchise or pop culture they love, they pitch the idea immediately and make it happen in their land. (Take a cue, Nigerian politicians!)
The difference between Saudi Arabia and the U.S is just the dress culture; every other thing that doesn't ruffle their conservative laws (the reason explicit online content is blocked there) will surely be available. All the haute couture you can think of from New York or London Fashion week, are underneath that black abaya—they’re crazy about brand names.
Another big misconception is that women don't work. Although the average Saudi woman is asked to stay home, non-Saudi women resident in Saudi Arabia work on a work-visa status. As a foreign woman on a family visa, however, you cannot work.These work places are limited to a certain lifestyle. For example, women can only work in the female-only wing of a hospital.
As for religion, yes, there are fanatics but I never met one. Yes, there was no church in my city, but I heard there’s one at the British Commission as well as some others but I just didn't bother to check. Streaming live church services from the comfort of my home was enough. Bottom line: no one bothered us for being Christians, rather we benefited from their Ramadan feast.
Food Culture in Saudi Arabia
We had a family favourite called "Broast." It's very popular—fish or chicken pieces fried Kentucky Chicken style, with sides of chips and flat bread. Generally though, we weren't keen on their food, but we could eat if offered. Sometimes it was a hit, other times a miss. So, visiting Nigeria biannually to fill my luggage with all the Nigerian ingredients was one of my great goals. One time, a Nigerian immigration officer asked if I had a restaurant because I did not not leave out any ingredient. I just couldn’t afford to spare any, especially since the only African store I heard about was far away from us.
Their prayer times also affected opening hours—it was annoying but we got used to it and scheduled our movement around it. My favourite place was KFC (predictable, I know) but their chicken quad wrap was to die for.
My first Ramadan experience was horrible. I was pregnant at the time and shops would close all day till they broke fast at night. If I was lucky and hubby was available, we would drive to get groceries. If he wasn't, I'd have to stay home and accept whatever was available to eat. It was so frustrating.
On Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia
Family is everything in Saudi Arabia and laws are placed to preserve the sanctity of a marriage. Adultery isn't taken lightly. In upholding this institution, however, I think the woman has been treated unfairly. Men are free to move about while the woman is told not to drive and always have a male chaperon for fear of her philandering? She should be fully covered for fear of her attracting men? The women’s rights’ movement was in full swing at the time, and I was perplexed that some women kicked against their own liberation concerning being allowed to drive. It didn't make any sense why they still wanted to be bound.
While I admit it felt good having my man shop for groceries with me every time, the downside is that he wanted to get in quick and get out, while I'd want to read nutritional value charts on a milk tin. So, who would see freedom and turn it down?
I fell in love with dressing in the abaya, and loved that a variety of colours are becoming spread across Saudi. As a foreigner, I was allowed to have my face uncovered outside, and there are places where you can let down your hair (pun intended), but rules are stricter for the Saudi woman. I didn't want to raise my daughter (and son) there because, I didn't want her foundation to be based on abayas and Saudi rules. She needs to see life outside Saudi Arabia and get grounded in our faith. Saudi's educational system is solid but Islamic religion is a huge part of their curriculum. So, we had to leave.
Life in Grenada Vs Life in Saudi Arabia
We’ve lived in Grenada for almost two years now and we are so not complaining. If you spot an afro-curly weave amongst hairdos in a crowd in Grenada, there's a high chance that's me.
The difference between Grenada and Saudi Arabia is so vast. Let's start with spotting lovebirds—especially tourists—every other day, showing some PDA. Then, the dress sense. In Grenada, the bikini-clad lady in a public place owes you no explanation . People show a lot of skin and snug clothing is a thing, from adolescents to adult women.
Also, alcohol and partying. In Grenada, they call it "Jab Jab." From carnivals, to street parties and general lifestyle, alcohol plays a big part in their beverage collection. Although Saudis have a nightlife, Saudi Arabia restricts alcoholic drinks. You’re more likely to see a Saudi man puff on his hookah/shisha, but not drink alcohol.
Frankly, I love both countries. In particular, Saudi Arabia taught me a whole lot about hospitality; going above and beyond to spoil your guest. However, if I could choose a next country to raise my kids in, it would be The Netherlands. I don't know why, but that place calls me. Maybe it's the architecture, the vintage look, the courteous people? I hear it's expensive but I know I'll be rich enough to live there one day.
What I loved the most about this piece was that her misconceptions about Saudi Arabia were to a large extent, exactly that - misconceptions.
Thank you Bubu for sharing this insightful piece with us! Keep up with her lifestyle blog, Bubu's Boulevard where she curates articles when she’s not “pulling her hair from mommy meltdowns”.
Were you raised or are you currently raising your kids in a country different from your nationality? What’s your ideal country to live and raise kids?