American expat Susie has been a lot of things – police officer, travel agent, bank teller, teacher, chocolatier, airline reservationist, among others. She met her Saudi husband at the University of Arizona in the late 1970s. They’ve been together for more than 43 years, 30 of which were spent in the US, and they now live in Saudi Arabia. These days she does photography and writes about her life in Saudi Arabia on her blog, Susie of Arabia.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I grew up in a small town in Arizona on the Mexican border.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Q: When did you move here?
A: In the autumn of 2007.
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here with my Saudi husband and our son who was 14 at the time.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: We decided to move here because my husband wanted to return to his homeland. Even though he had gotten his US citizenship and told me that we would never move to Saudi Arabia, after 9/11 happened, he began to feel uncomfortable about being in the US. His mother wanted him back home and tried to convince him for years, until he finally succumbed. Later I found out that she had actually told him that she was dying, and that was what finally made him decide he needed to return home. So we actually moved here and retired, not to work like most people do.
Living in Jeddah
Q: What do you enjoy most about Jeddah? How would you rate the quality of life compared to America?
A: There are so many things to love about being here in Jeddah. Just to name a few, and in no particular order: the Saudi people, the food and restaurants, the Red Sea, the amazing public art, my husband’s family and the friends I have made here, the slower pace of life, the diversity of the population with its large expat community, the fascinating history and rich culture.
I would say my quality of life is probably a bit better here in Saudi Arabia than in the US. I am spoilt by my husband and have everything I want or need.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: I do miss rain and the change of seasons, and of course my family back home.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The first few years, I felt like I walked around with my mouth agape, in awe at what a different world it is here. Sometimes I still feel that way. It seemed like such a black-and-white society with no middle ground. I’ve come to see that it is much more complex than that.
Getting used to being ignored by men was difficult for me. I had to change my mindset to realise that their treatment of me was actually part of their culture and their way of showing respect to women. Gender segregation was also a tough one for me to handle.
My biggest problem initially was transportation – women could not drive here until 2018. When women were finally allowed to drive, it was rather anticlimactic for me. The advent of car services such as Uber had already made a huge difference for women. So while it was quite an exciting step for women’s rights, it didn’t really make a big difference for me personally. My husband is still concerned with my safety and doesn’t want me out there driving on the streets of Jeddah.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Saudi Arabia?
A: When we moved here in 2007, the cost of living was definitely way cheaper than the US. Over the years, prices and fees have increased, so while it’s probably still a bit cheaper than the US, the gap is not so wide now. Imported goods are outrageously expensive. Fresh produce and bread are still a lot cheaper here. Some restaurants are very expensive and others are quite reasonable. Housing is cheaper again after it had gone up significantly for a while.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Jeddah? What is your most memorable experience of using Jeddah’s transport system?
A: Women do not really use public transport here. It is mainly used by male expat workers. Women take taxis, use Uber, or families have their own drivers.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Jeddah? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Our experiences with healthcare in Jeddah have always been very good. My husband had to have a triple bypass about 10 years ago, and I stayed the entire time with him in the hospital. The bill was a fraction of the cost of what it would have been in the US, and we don’t have insurance here either. Several of my husband’s family members and friends offered to pay the bill. The hospital was IMC (International Medical Center) and I would highly recommend their services.
My personal healthcare experiences have been pretty good too. The only negative I can think of is when the doctors address my medical concerns to my husband and not to me directly. This is again due to the culture plus the fact that they are probably more comfortable speaking Arabic. But it’s been a problem because my husband tends to not immediately tell me what is being said, and I usually have questions he did not think to ask. The care that I have gotten though has been high quality and I’ve been happy with it.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Jeddah or Saudi Arabia? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Honestly safety has not been an issue for me, although my husband is concerned about my safety. He thinks that every man who sees me wants me, so he’s paranoid about my safety. After more than 40 years together, I guess the fact that he still feels that way is a compliment! I should probably be more concerned about my safety myself, but the truth is that I have felt safer here all these years than I ever feel back home in the US. Crime is much lower here and there is not the random violence like in the US. I’ve been to ghetto areas here in Jeddah, and I still feel safe.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Jeddah? What different options are available for expats?
A: There are many housing options available to expats here in Jeddah. There are of course gated housing compounds, specifically for expat workers. Outside the compounds, there are apartments and villas to rent. I’ve visited friends in compounds but have never lived in one. We live in an apartment building. Our apartment is much larger and newer than our house was in Florida. We have individual AC units in each room as opposed to the central AC we had in Florida. I also like that the bathrooms are completely tiled on the floors and up the walls, and that we have toilet spray hoses, which I love.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Since Jeddah is quite large, I’d recommend living closer to where your work is. There are many nice compounds in desirable areas all over the city to choose from.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Jeddah?
A: I’ve never really experienced discrimination here, but I know it exists, mostly against Asians and black people. For a while, back when Saudisation was newer (replacing expat workers with Saudis), I did hear of some intolerance toward foreigners, but never saw it firsthand. I do have to say that I believe this type of treatment is more rare here than it is in the US, as most Muslims are good and kindhearted people who live their religion in everything they do or say.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: It took me a while to make friends here. The internet was still fairly new and I hadn’t really tried to find groups or information online. I didn’t have a ready network like so many newcomers do nowadays. I’ve met lots of people through blogging and my Facebook group. I also joined a women’s breakfast group after a few years. There are just so many more resources available now than when I first came.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: My friends are mostly other expat women. I imagine it would be easier to make friends with Saudi women as coworkers or neighbours. They are very family oriented and most of them are very busy and productive.
Family and children
Q: How have you adjusted to your spouse’s home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: I’ve grown to love living here in Saudi Arabia, although it took me a few years to fully embrace it. I went through ups and downs before I came to peace with being here. The rose-tinted-glasses stage. The reality-setting-in stage. The everything-bothers-me stage. The acceptance stage. And a few more in between.
There were times when I felt like I had lost my identity here because Saudi Arabia is such a man’s world. I went from handling everything on my own in the US regarding our home, our son’s needs, shopping, etc., to feeling like a child dependent on my husband for just about everything. I think a lot of that had to do with him being Saudi though. I think it would be a different experience for trailing spouses moving here whose husbands aren’t Saudi.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: Our son was 14 when we moved here – and it wasn’t easy for him. He went from being an all-American kid to being expected to be a perfect Saudi boy literally overnight. He became depressed and didn’t do well in school here. He made some bad decisions at times, and truth be told, I worried about him every time he was out of my sight. At that time, things were different than they are now in Saudi Arabia – the religious police were powerful and the society was uptight. I think if things had been like they are now, it would have been a whole different experience for him. He lasted three years and then I felt I had to get him out of here for his own well being. He hasn’t been back since. I think he would be excited and happy about all the changes that have happened since his time here.
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: Al Balad – the oldest part of the city – is a fun experience every time I go. It feels like I am stepping back in time. The architecture, the people, the sights and smells – it’s all fascinating and overwhelming in a good way. We also like to go to the Corniche and walk along the Red Sea. And definitely going out fishing and snorkelling on a boat are some of our favorite things to do.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: There are many international schools, so it depends on the curriculum you want for your kids. They tend to be quite expensive, but the cost or at least part of it can be negotiated into your salary.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Jeddah or Saudi Arabia?
A: Don’t believe everything that you may have heard or read about this place. Being here is a totally different reality than what you may have learned about Saudi Arabia on the news. I do not feel oppressed at all as a woman. Quite the contrary, I feel highly respected. Saudis are the most genuinely kind and generous people on earth. They are fun loving, helpful, warm and truly make this country special and worth visiting. Don’t expect things such as customer service to be like what you are used to back home. Relax and go with the flow – and you will love your time here.
►Interviewed in March 2021