Expat Life in the Gulf

Rudyard Kipling, the famous English poet of the Empire, wrote that "east is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."  It may have seemed true when he wrote those words at the turn of the last century, but it's certainly not true any longer. In our rapidly globalizing and shrinking world, East and West are now meeting all the time - commercially, culturally, and also on the level of personal exchange. The expatriate is a good example of this meeting of two worlds.

The Western expatriate worker has now become a common feature in many Middle Eastern countries. Expartriate workers consitute a large percentage of the population in the Gulf and have contributed greatly to the development of their economies.
Coming to the Gulf from England in the mid-1970's as an expatriate worker was more of a leap into the dark than it is these days.  At the British Council briefing in London, a week before our departure for Saudi Arabia, we were advised on how to live in the most conservative and closed of the Gulf states - everything from schooling to shopping, driving to diving,  Ministries to mosquito cream.  Was the water safe to drink ?  Were there western-style supermarkets ? (in Jeddah there was exactly one, patronised by European and American expatriates).  Was there air-conditioning ?  Were there power-cuts (there were, frequently)? How would one's wife be expected to dress in public ?  What was expatriate life like?  So, armed with the reading list thoughtfully provided by the Council officials, we went home to pack.  It all seemed a bit daunting, but still exotic.  Then it was off into the Unknown.

Stepping off the Saudi Arabian Airlines plane in Jeddah was like opening the door of a sauna.  How were we going to tolerate the heat and humidity ?   We did, of course - just as we got used to most of the other new conditions.  You had to get used to the inefficiency, to the delays, to the red tape, to collecting the endless photocopies and passport photos that even the simplest bureaucratic chore seemed to require.  You had to get used to the smiling bureaucrat who would assure you, day after day, that your documents would be ready tomorrow.  You had no choice, really.  It became a case of "when in Rome", largely.  You had to be ready to adapt.  Some expatriates couldn't, and either left or else cocooned themselves in an enclosed expatriate bubble, bought the Daily Telegraph, hunted for HP Sauce in the shops, and kept the locals at a distance.  A pity, really, because being an expatriate in the Gulf should be a learning experience, and to learn you have to keep an open mind, if possible.   And it's not only the host culture you learn about.  You see your own one - and yourself -- more clearly, too.  It's as true today as it was in 1974.

Thirty years later, without ever having planned it this way, we find ourselves still in the Gulf, still enjoying it, still adapting (some things you never get used to), and still learning.  We're just up the road from Saudi in Kuwait, which in the mid-'70's was spoken of with some awe as a kind of Model Gulf State, far in advance of Saudi in most ways.  Since then we've seen two Gulf Wars and an invasion.  Things have changed a lot - the road systems are as good as any in Europe (although the driving may not be), the infrastructure is better, the hospitals have multiplied, the air-conditioned shopping malls continue to sprout, the city center is dotted with new high-rises, and the new international airport is on a par with most.  And there are still plenty of reasons for wanting to be an expatriate worker here, apart from the economic, of course - the sunshine, the temperate winters, the time you find for yourself (a luxury these days in most Western cities), and the absence still of the breakneck Western life-style.  So, with deference to Mr Kipling, West continues to meet East, and looks like continuing to do so for the foreseeable future.

Kenneth Williams was a participant in a survey conducted by Kwintessential on expatriate life in the Gulf. He kindly offered to write an account of his experiences as an expatriate and the challenges expatriates face when moving to the Gulf.

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