Q&A with Umme-Kulsoom Saiyed, an INTERLINK site director at the Madina Al Manawara Women’s Campus

A Day in the Life: A Q&A with Umme-Kulsoom Saiyed, an INTERLINK site director at the Madina Al Manawara Women’s Campus

Umme All CroppedThere is a lot of uncertainty on the part of many female applicants who are concerned about what life is “really” like for women who live and work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Who better to provide INTERLINK’s female applicants with an accurate picture of life in the KSA than our female, Saudi administrative and teaching staff.

A questionnaire was sent to a group of successful female site directors and teachers currently working throughout the country.

The following Q&A profile is with Umme-Kulsoom Saiyed, who currently serves as the site director for the Madina Al Manawara Women’s Campus, INTERLINK-TVTC.


Country of Origin: England, United Kingdom
Age: 34

Q: How long have you taught in Saudi Arabia?
A: From April 2012 – July 2013, I was an INTERLINK teacher in Jeddah, and from July 2013 to Present, I serve as the site director in at the INTERLINK-TVTC women’s site in Madina (Madina Al Manawara Women’s Campus)

Q: Please list all countries where you’ve taught:
A: The United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Q: When searching for teaching opportunities abroad, why did you choose to apply for a position in Saudi Arabia? 
A: I chose Saudi Arabia, as it was a country where I felt things had started to change for women. It was also a joint decision I made with my husband. It was a country we both felt offered things for our varied needs.

Q: During the application process, did you have any fears or reservations about Saudi Arabia? If so, what were your fears? Where did these fears originate?
A: I didn’t have any fears or reservations as I had visited KSA in 2011 for the minor pilgrimage (Umrah).

Q: After your arrival in Saudi Arabia, did you have problems adjusting to your new environment? If so, what were some of the obstacles you faced? How did you overcome these obstacles? 
A: I had to spend the duration of one month on my own in a new city without my husband. At first, it was a little scary but after building my confidence I was very independent. It helped that I was living in Jeddah, which is a very cosmopolitan city.

Q: When preparing to live and work abroad, expats read and hear a lot about “culture shock,” and how it’s to be expected to some degree anytime you live and work in a foreign country. Have you experienced “culture shock” in Saudi Arabia? Do you think “culture shock” is more acute in Saudi Arabia than in most places? 
A: The only real shock I had was learning of the exit visa and that we needed to obtain a visa to leave the country. I did panic slightly but then when I heard the reasoning behind this and the ‘stories’ of people out-doing companies I understood the bigger picture.

Q: How did you adjust and adapt to your new surroundings? What have you encountered that has required the biggest adjustment for you? 
A: Not being able to drive was a big issue until I encountered such a horrific car accident that now it is no longer an issue. It’s much safer to let someone more experienced drive the car. Being with my husband has helped me to adjust to a lot of things, which I think other people might find difficult.

Q: If there were ONE thing you wish you’d known before you arrived, what would it be? If you had to offer a new teacher only ONE piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Take off your ‘western’ hat and put on your KSA shmagh. You cannot try to make KSA the UK or USA. Once you appreciate this is a different country, living here becomes so much easier – don’t compare. Home is always going to be home!

Q: What do you like most about living and working in Saudi Arabia? What would you like to change?
A: I like the fact that women can push queues in front of men. I like the weather and I like the attitude of women here – they want change but they are working silently. Silent change is happening every day, and it surprises you. For example, walking into hospitals and having women receptionists or phoning for room service and a young lady answers. It’s still surprising. Women are becoming a greater part of Saudi society without it being advertised or exaggerated. They are simply integrating into areas silently.

Q: What has surprised you most about living and working in Saudi Arabia? 
A: The women outsmart the men hands down! Women are more ambitious and driven. Nearly all my students so far want more than their counterparts, either a job from home or to open their own business or to get scholarships. There is a hunger for education, and I was surprised by it – you don’t hear about this in the media or see it when visiting for pilgrimages.

Q: What is it like to be a foreign, female working in Saudi Arabia? How do you think your experience differs from your male counterparts, if at all?
A: It definitely differs because as a Muslim woman I have access to the two holy cities and also nine out of ten times get treated like a Saudi woman. Wearing the face veil, they can’t tell I’m not Saudi. So far, my experiences have been positive and enjoyable. I think my experience is not the same as most western Muslim men as they can be easily identified as non-Saudi. Like any country, local people will treat you slightly differently if they think you are foreign. In Madina, it means being treated like a ‘tourist-pilgrim’, which would mean paying more for items, etc..

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Saudi Arabia and its citizens? 
A: They don’t have aspirations and are just rich kids of oil-dripping parents. In reality we have poor, average, and rich students, and all of them have real aspirations that I have seen developed into realities.

Q: Since gaining first-hand knowledge, have your initial impressions and feelings about the country changed? If so, how and in what ways?
A: Yes. I am proud to be in a country that is giving so much help to its youth and wants me to be a greater part of this. Despite cultural barriers, such as not using social network sites at college or technology such as iPads…the female students are still pioneering into realms that are amazing.

Q: If you were interviewing/hiring foreign teachers to work alongside you in the KSA, what kinds of questions would you ask in order to determine the candidate’s suitability for the job and environment? What answers would be “red flags” indicating to you that the candidate would not be a good fit in that particular teaching environment?
A: How would you recreate a lesson you had planned if the college did not have Internet access or allow iPad’s, etc.? If the teacher cannot make on the spot decisions on how to change the lesson, then I would ask her to think about her decision to come here. These situations often arise when teachers have arranged lessons and things don’t work according to plan. They cannot have a mental breakdown over it. How do you feel about wearing a headscarf in KSA in temperatures exceeding 40C (104F)? If she cannot wear a headscarf covering all hair (outside of the college and home) then the sites she can work at are limited, as in most remote cities it is imperative to adhere to cultural norms and sensitivities.


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