Isaac Johnson: Living and Thriving in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This is the third in an ongoing series of INTERLINK employee profiles aimed at highlighting the accomplishments  of our current staff and providing insight to all prospective INTERLINK employees.

This article is based on an interview with Isaac Johnson, who shared his stories, insights, and tips for teachers on what it takes to succeed in Saudi Arabia.

unnamedWorking closely with Mr. Johnson, the new Country Administrative Director (CAD) for INTERLINK Language Centers/English Gate Academy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is a crucial component of my job as head of teacher recruitment for INTERLINK’s Saudi programs.

His institutional knowledge is invaluable. His professional dedication is laudable. But it’s his never-failing, positive attitude that makes working with him a pleasure and a lot of fun.

“Let’s do it!” is his calling card and constant refrain, usually preceding an assortment of (my) questions.

With a passion for travel and helping people learn, he lived in Mexico, Spain, South Korea, and Russia, before coming to Saudi Arabia.

“…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
–  The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost.

Mr. Johnson references Frost’s famous poem when explaining his reasons for coming to Saudi Arabia four years ago.

“Some people said, ‘It’s an impossible place to live,’ he recalled. “It’s like the Frost poem. The path less traveled- it’s the one that leads to the most interesting life. If you do what everyone else does, what does that show? You can be anybody. Anybody can be you.”

Mr. Johnson’s professional journey shows that he’s not just anybody. He’s somebody who now could probably write a ‘how-to’ book on living and working in the KSA.

During his tenure with INTERLINK/EGA in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Johnson has been a teacher, site director, regional director, and is currently working as country administrative director.

Currently based in the capital city of Riyadh, his new position as CAD requires him to travel frequently across the country to assist and supervise site directors and teachers at the 23 different INTERLINK/EGA sites across Saudi Arabia.

He is also facilitating the successful launch of a new partnership with a renowned educational institution, where INTERLINK instructors work with Saudi government employees in providing intensive English language training  in Riyadh.

He initially came to Saudi Arabia to challenge himself.

“I chose the KSA because it seemed really different and difficult; a new cultural experience which was not comparable to any other place on the planet,” he said. “Moving to the KSA was to test myself, to see if I could survive the challenge of an ‘impossible’ place to live in.”

And he’s stayed in Saudi Arabia for the rewards that accompany the challenges.

“One of the biggest challenges is probably communicating.  Most people say it’s difficult to communicate. Arabic is a challenge, but it’s a challenge I see as an opportunity,” Johnson said.

Studying languages is a hobby of Johnson’s. He’s fluent in English and Spanish, and conversant in Korean, Russian, and now Arabic.

“As long as you’re interested, learning is simple. I’m more of an auditory-learner. I’ll hear an Arabic word I don’t know.  I’ll go home and write it down, and then transliterate it on my phone. I’ll practice pronunciation on my own, then the next time, I’ll try the word in conversation,” he explained.

This leads to Mr. Johnson’s words of wisdom for those new to the KSA.

1. Stay Busy.  

If you don’t have a hobby, you probably need to get one before you arrive. Western-type entertainment diversions, such as movie theatres and nightclubs, are non-existent in the KSA.

He runs each morning from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m.

“No matter where I am, I can always be me. I can always run. I don’t need a special place. I just need shoes, or no shoes,” he explained. “It ends up being about 10 kilometers every day. But the key is not stopping. I run for an hour without stopping. The consistency keeps me sane. “

He’s also currently working towards his doctorate in business administration through the University of Liverpool.

“Working non-stop is important to me,” said Johnson, who holds an MBA from the University of North Carolina and an MA in International Management from IBS Moscow. “Studying for my doctorate occupies my time when I’m not at work.”

2. Accept Every Invitation.

“Say yes to everything. The best way to survive in a place is to learn about it. You can’t learn what you need from reading books or from others; that’s only partial living. The best way to learn about a place and really the only way to learn is to get out there and experience it for yourself. Even if the dinner is at 10 p.m., say yes.”

3. Be Patient. Cultivate Relationships.

“Patience is an essential ingredient for success here in SaudiArabia. Things do not operate here like they do in the West. Here, everything is based on relationships, and in order to be successful, you have to cultivate those relationships. It takes time to build trust.
“As a site director, I usually have had two administrative assistants who are Saudis. I had to build relationships based on trust with them. I cultivated these relationships by taking a genuine interest in the people. The more you get to know them and the closer you get to Saudis, the more you see how wonderful they are. Their values are second to none.”

4. Learn to Laugh at Yourself.

The best way to overcome obstacles is just to laugh. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Even if you eat with your left hand, it’s not like you killed someone,” said Johnson, in referring to the Middle Eastern custom of only using the right hand when eating.
He also recalled a time when he committed a social faux pas that was a bit uncomfortable, until he laughed at himself, which gave his hosts permission to laugh as well.
“The first time someone poured coffee, it was served in these little tiny glasses, and some old habits die hard. I raised my glass, and said cheers and tossed by mine back. Everyone was just looking at me.”

5. Be Adaptable

He’s found some components of the culture require big adjustments, such as the time for socializing.
“They socialize around prayer time. People generally stay up till 2 or 3 a.m. I’m more of a morning person,” he said. “But if you want to establish those relationships, you have to adjust.”

6. Take the Time to Get to Know the People of the KSA

“The best part of living and working in the KSA- by far- is the people. The more you get to know them and the closer you get, you see how wonderful they are. Their values are second to none.
Integrity and generosity is something that is so fundamental to the culture. It’s part of their history of being a nomadic people. They represent their entire tribe. If someone does something wrong, they bring shame to, not just their immediate family, but also all of their ancestors. It’s such an offense. It’s just avoided.”

He said that one of the things that’s surprised him most is the diversity of his coworkers.
“It was an unexpected surprise.  I have worked with many ‘expats’, but the people here seem especially well traveled and to lead very interesting lives.”


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