Teaching and Living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: A Woman’s Perspective

How to Thrive as an INTERLINK Teacher in KSA from a Women’s Perspective

Heidi OmaraThis article is based on an in-depth interview with Heidi Omara, Regional Director of the Women’s Intensive English Program of the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, an agency of the Saudi government.

Ms. Omara oversees multiple INTERLINK Language Centers on college campuses across the country. Her program is administered by English Gate Academy, the training organization dedicated to the enhancement of KSA’s female executives and managers.

Connecting with Ms.Omara was a top priority in preparing for my new role as head of teacher recruitment for INTERLINK’s Saudi programs.

I found that the majority of available information, both in print and online, about life in the KSA was often negative, biased, and presented through the prism of Western perspectives.

Ms. Omara provided a more balanced perspective of the realities of life in the Kingdom.

She has spent eight years living and working in Saudi Arabia and offers invaluable insight into what is takes to create a successful and rewarding teaching experience in this unique country.

Ms. Omara first came to Saudi Arabia in 1997-2001. After four years, she and her husband relocated to the U.K, but returned in 2010.
She witnessed first-hand the cultural changes that changed the country and continue to transform daily life for its citizens.


Realities vs. Rumors

“When I returned to KSA in 2010 after an absence of nine years, I came back to a different country. Many things had changed. Some of the things that people have heard so much about and the things that have created so much fear, particularly for females, are in the past.

For example, I can now go out unattended by my husband, whereas before I could not. Women in cities like Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam, are no longer required to be accompanied by a male when they are in public.”

This is not true in cities like Qassim, Makkah, Medinah, and many other places. But Ms. Omara believes that change is coming and inevitable.

There are oft-told stories of unpleasant and frightening encounters of harassment for those women who have had encounters with the Saudi religious police.

“So many of those negative experiences are a thing of the past. For example, they are no longer allowed to touch, detain, or interfere with women, Saudi or foreign, who they consider improperly covered. These days if approached, most women just thank them for their advice and continue with their business.”

One thing that has not changed is the importance of Islam in the lives of most Saudis.

“Religion does not stand in front of learning. But we have teachers with a variety of religious backgrounds who teach for us.

A teacher, Muslim or not, must be aware that Islam informs all parts of life in this country.

Omara said that there are some particular personal attributes that teacher need to have.

“These are not unique to Saudi Arabia, I might add. Teachers need to have patience and an acceptance that things get better over time. Sensitivity is an absolute necessity. An understanding and acknowledgement of people’s differences is so very important.

I would like teachers new to Saudi Arabia to recognize that a teacher needs to know that there are certain things that are just part of working here. Bureaucracy prevails here and lateness (or what seems in other parts of the world to be lateness), for instance, is just a fact of life.”

As for the classroom experience of the teacher, INTERLINK’s highly personalized, holistic approach guides every step of our process.

From interviewing and hiring, to placement and professional development of its teachers, INTERLINK is dedicated to ensuring that its students receive the best in English language education.

Teachers strive to meet the needs of the whole student, not only her intellect.

“You have to open your heart and mind. People who are ready to face and accept differences and not always compare are what we need in an INTERLINK teacher. We need people who feel blessed to be of service to others. They are the people who find teaching in Saudi Arabia to be a great and rewarding experience. What they’ll find are a very kind, very warm, very emotional people. But meeting and working with the students is particularly special. Teaching them is such a great and rewarding experience.  It’s just you and them for 21 weeks, with little or no interference. They’re learning English just from you. You form such a close bond by the end of the program. It is truly an amazing experience.”

Ms. Omara also emphasized that gaining experience as a TVTC instructor working in one of INTERLINK’s 23 Saudi centers is a definite asset to a teacher’s resume.

“After successfully completing a one-year contract in Saudi Arabia, employers here and elsewhere see this and know you are special. It shows you can survive a challenge.”

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