Riyadh Calling … Working Here

by on May 14, 2010 · 27 comments

in Culture, Riyadh Calling


Editor: Our friend John M Williams, currently working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as an English language instructor, and an former OBcean, sends an occasional post about life there. Here’s the latest.

by John M Williams / Special to the OB Rag / May 14, 2010

Let me set the stage. The school I work in is a remedial college designed as a feeder for King Saud University (KSU). My school is called the Preparatory Year Program (PYP). Students take courses in English, physics, chemistry, biology, math, IT and a group of business related subjects.

The organization is a little complex, but let me try. At the top is King Abdullah. Then comes the Ministry of Education. Next is KSU. KSU contracted with a Saudi company named Obekan. Obekan hired Bell, a United Kingdom-based English language teaching charitable trust associated with Cambridge University. Bell recruited teachers, created the administrative structure, and runs the school on a day to day basis. The role of Bell is rather like that of a middle manager; they have very little real power, but are the face of the organization to teachers and students.

About two months ago, someone, presumably a teacher, posted an email to all teachers griping about the inequities of the cover rota. Cover rota is Brit-speak for substitutes list. The author noted that the “brothers,” meaning dark skinned Americans or Brits who had either converted to Islam or had been raised in the religion and wore thobs, were favored and “never” appeared on the list.

The email bothered me because it seemed clear it was an effort to sow the seeds of discord between one group of teachers and another (though in practice, “the brothers” don’t constitute any sort of a recognizable group), and between some of the teachers and Bell itself; those things, and the obviously anonymzing signature of “Mr. Smith.”

More recently, everyone connected with the PYP, excluding administrators, cleaners, and security guards (that would include teachers of every subject, students, administrative assistants, technicians, and the food service guys) eagerly anticipated a week’s break scheduled to begin on April 17th, as listed on the annual academic calendar published at the beginning of the school year. I was certainly looking forward to it; a week to lay around, download music and films, watch some TV, sleep in, catch up on correspondence, and read. It would also be a week without the flurry of emails from multiple administrators telling us in minute detail how to proceed in this or that seemingly ever changing policy. Many guys had already purchased plane tickets, put down money to reserve hotel rooms, and made plans with family and friends. No one had an inkling that this traditional, though, apparently, non-contractual, holiday would not occur as scheduled or that there would be any problem getting paid for the week.

That is, no one had an inkling until three weeks before the vacation was scheduled to begin. At that point, KSU contacted PYP administrators with the news that teachers would be required to be on campus during that week.

Take a guess: (A) Every teacher was onboard; no problem; whatever you say; non-refundable tickets and deposits be damned. (B) All hell broke loose.

I mentioned earlier Mr. Smith because, even though at the time of his “brothers” email he seemed like a one-shot nut, following the cancellation announcement, a message from him appeared in the inbox of all English teachers (brothers included). He had, he said, created an anonymous email group which included us all. His intention, he said, was to provide a forum where interested teachers could anonymously post comments and opinions about the situation, and suggest responses or remedies for it.

This forum began operating on a Wednesday night, which is the end of the work week here. The emails began as a trickle, then he pace quickened. By Friday night, there had been about 200 comments.

Interestingly, given that this was an anonymous, teachers-only forum, Bell’s HR Manager put in his two cents.

The tone and content of the emails ranged from calm and reasonable to something appropriate for an old Hollywood film loosely based on the activities of the IRA. I asked whether anyone knew anything beyond what was obvious, namely that KSU had unilaterally canceled the vacation. “Why?” I wanted to know. “What are our rights? What are our obligations?” My last thought was that if, as was speculated, KSU was acting independently, then teachers, recruiters, administrators, Bell, and Obekan should all be allies. Others thought we should strike, sit-in, do a work slow down, sick out, fail to turn in attendance, have a group meeting on campus to determine a course of action. One guy took it upon himself to write a respectful petition explaining our grievances and, having asked us to read it, affixed our names to it before delivering it to the Dean. Only one guy said, “Count me out.” The more hot-blooded of the posters called him a scab and a coward. Threats were made. “I know who you are!” one said. One teacher included a closing to his email which hyphenated (in the way a drill sergeant would) the phrase, “En shala.” En shala means, “If Allah is willing.” It is used in the same way as one might say, “God willing, and the creeks don’t rise.”

There were also quite long exchanges about teacher’s rights under Saudi labor law and whether a Saudi company (Obekan) had the right to demand employee’s passports (Obekan did, and everyone who signed a contract with Bell complied.). Unfortunately, no one could say anything definitive about these issues.

The final email was again from Mr. Smith. This time he told how “gratified” he was by all that had been said (except for the few posts that didn’t rampage; he had his own list of the cowards).

When we returned to work on Saturday morning we were hustled into an impromptu mass meeting with the top Bell administrator, Dr. Abdullah. He told us that as a result of the content of the weekend’s emails (so much for secrecy) seven teachers had been suspended. He didn’t add that two had quit; we found that out later via the grapevine. He also said he had been working on a compromise with KSU since the cancellation had been announced.

A day or so later, Dr. Abdullah assembled us again to say that KSU had relented and would now allow those who had already purchased tickets to take the vacation without pay, and the rest of us would be expected to show up at school. He also added that our teachers’ email forum had almost wrecked his negotiations with KSU (Really?). Well, half a loaf anyway. Of course, those, like myself, who hadn’t spent money on airfare were a little miffed.

Then, Obekan decided that all Bell teachers could take the vacation and Obekan would foot the bill for three days of vacation, even though Obekan would not be recompensed by KSU, or they could come to work and get a week’s pay (which KSU would be covering). Hurray for Obekan! Sadly, as I said, I’m not contracted to Bell; my recruiter is another company whose acronym is ICEEL (International Company for English and E-Learning), and ICEEL wouldn’t pay anything for the week, unless we showed up at school ($750 for a week’s vacation in Riyahd? The garden spot?). Not only that, ICEEL wanted us to pay them what they would lose, in the event KSU wasn’t obligated to pay (meaning that the week off in Riyadh would now cost me $1500). Can I say, “CRAP!” So for a week, I got up, caught a cab, rode out to school, signed in, and chatted (about what a wonderful opportunity this is) or read, and then signed out. I got through four of Graham Greene’s novels.

Oh, and the suspended guys? All but two are now long gone. Mr. Hyphenate En Shala is still here, trying to find another job. He’ll have to leave if something doesn’t turn up this month. The other guy is the only one to survive; Mr. Respectful Petition is back at work.

But, hey! I am working.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

doug porter May 14, 2010 at 3:06 pm

nice to hear from you John. And, hey, at least you’re working.


JMW May 15, 2010 at 7:44 am

Doug: Hi, dude. Yeah, at least I’m working. Thanks for reading. See you soon.


urnmyart May 14, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Great article, glad you are holding up through of this chaos, can’t wait to see you in 51 days and counting…


JMW May 15, 2010 at 7:45 am

You good looking gal; do I know you? We’re getting close, now. Love you.


GM June 3, 2010 at 6:59 am

Hi John are ICEEL a good recruiter for example, do they pay on time, issue work visa’s (Iqmaah) and provide housing etc and having worked for them would you recommend them to other EFL teachers.




JMW June 3, 2010 at 11:18 am

As far as I can tell, the difference between KSA recruiters is in the contract. To my knowledge, they all fulfill their obligations. Read the offers and compare.
My contract includes salary, housing, transportation, medical insurance, visas, round trip airfare for the start and conclusion of employment, 30 days vacation, plus airfare with that.
I certainly have no reason not to recommend ICEEL.
How did you make the connection? If you’d like to expand the discussion ask the editor to give you my email address.


Joni P June 16, 2010 at 10:42 am

Hello there and thanks for the info. I’m seriously considering going to Saudi to teach and would love to hear more from someone who’s actually there!
Any info would be helpful…like what is it like for females? what is the alcohol situation for foreigners? what do you do in your fre time, activities, sports, swimming, dancing…?



JMW June 17, 2010 at 4:38 am

Hi. What’s it like for females? There’s a lot more expat males here than females; women can’t drive; and while it isn’t mandatory to wear an abaya, most women do in public.
Alcohol, social life, free time: Alcohol, well, of course, officially, there is no alcohol here at all. In reality, of course, it is readily available via the black market, on compounds, embassy parties, and as home brew. Recently, a friend of mine went home and at his farewell party there was what I’d call either vodka or white lightining (not sure what was distilled) and what is known as plonk – homemade wine. There’s a pretty lively social scene here comprised of private groups (Aussie club and such), dance clubs (salsa night at a compound), embassy parties and private get togethers. People play tennis, racquetball, and basketball. Some golf, I guess; there are courses. And, I’m sure there are pools; just don’t know anything specific. We’ve played poker and bridge. I’ve read more than 20 novels in six months.
If you’d care to make contact with a woman (or more than one) who is working here, ask the editor for my email and send me yours. I’ll check around and pass it on.
Are you considering responding to a particular job posting or just the general idea of working in KSA or the Gulf region?


Ennis S. December 13, 2011 at 6:45 am

Hi I’d like to get your contact info Joni. I’ll be there next month and would like to find out where the social scene is. I’ll live alone and would need to get out and be social from time to time. Thanks!


Ezz June 27, 2010 at 5:40 am

Hi all
Does anyone konw how to get in touch with ICEEL, their phone # for example. I was not home when they called me for an iterview, they told my roomate that they would call later , then nothing happened. Thanks for help


JMW June 27, 2010 at 8:32 am

Ezz: send contact information to me at “linetamers@gmail.com,” and I’ll return something or pass it along. But, don’t delay; I’m leaving in a week. Mike


Johnny July 4, 2010 at 6:37 am


I recently accepted an offer from ICEEL and will be starting in Sept, just got a few questions;

1) There are many other forums talking about bad working conditions at KSU (poor management and lack of resources etc), is this true, whats your experience?
2) I havent found any info about ICEEL online and this is a bit worrying, whats you experience of them are they reasonable people to work for?
3) What is the housing allowence all about? Becasue when it says three times your basic salary, what does this mean?

Great article, if your out there when i pop out maybe we could have a drink.



JMW July 4, 2010 at 11:36 am

Johnny, Hi. I think ICEEL if a fine company. They haven’t disappointed me. Housing is either provided along with transportation or you get a monthly allotment for each one and are on your own. I’ve shared a hotel room and used cabs and live on the difference. This article should give some idea of the situation at KSU. You can check through the Rag for additional posts I’ve written. I’m outta here. Try me later at linetamers@gmail. Thanks for reading and your comment.


GM July 27, 2010 at 8:53 am

Hi Johnny,

I have also been employed by ICEEL and will be starting in Sept 2010.
Have they sent you the visa yet?


Johnny July 27, 2010 at 10:30 am

Hi GM,

I recieved an email this morning regarding the visa situation. Glad to hear that im not the only one heading out to saudi! my email if you wanna chat before we head out johnny101@london.com

Hope that is ok


kunal July 27, 2010 at 12:21 pm

I am also heading out to saudi arabia in September can anyone please tell me about social activities you can do there.
Thank you
Kunal Nanavati


JMW August 5, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Kunal, Hi. I’ve done almost nothing socially, but my room mate led an active social life centered around sports, the embassy, expat groups, and salsa dancing. If you’d like more info, email me at linetamers@gmail.com. BTW, call me Mike.


GM July 28, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Hi Johnny

Will you be comming on a business or work visa?


LA August 4, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Hello All,

I’ve also accepted a position with ICEEL and I am wondering if I can get the female perspective on working in Saudi. I grew up in Canada and have never travelled to the Middle East. Are there any female teachers that I can contact prior to leaving??

Many thanks


MS August 5, 2010 at 5:17 pm

I recently interviewed with ICEEL, but I cannot find any information about them from former teachers. Did they pay for your airfare in advance? How is your housing? Are you able to get overtime pay? There is so much I want to know.


JMW August 5, 2010 at 7:05 pm

MS, Hi. ICEEL will schedule and pay for your flight upfront and send you notification. No money out of pocket. Provided housing is acceptable, not plush, but not horrid either. The only possible overtime is summer school and, from my observation, those slots are given only to Bell/Obekan contractees. If you want to know more from me, ask the editor to give you my email. Going through the blog is very indirect for me. Mike


Peter August 6, 2010 at 3:55 am

Hi – I am also considering working for ICEEL in Saudi and am interested in all things related such as housing, pay, etc. I will try contacting those emails above or you may contact me at pgobe2002@yahoo.com.



MA August 15, 2010 at 4:24 am

Hi, I recently accepted an offer from Iceel, I want to know more about the family status. Will my family follow me after three months? How much time does it take to issue the working visa after the preparotory period?


garylee August 31, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Good stuff about Saudi. Helpful info.


EFL2 September 8, 2010 at 8:10 am


I recently got back from working at KSU, I would not recommend going through BELL/OBEIKAN, too many problems and not enough solutions. I’ve got friends working for ICEEL and they are loving it, no problems what so ever.


onetwothree December 5, 2010 at 9:20 am

Hi EFL2. Could you write a little bit more about the problems that you encountered. Any advice would be appreciated as I am due to fly out in the very near future and work for the very same company.


varun October 19, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Hi Everyone,

I am varun from India and i got offer in Charter Global Inc as a Network Engineer at Riyadh. Could you please let me know what are the things i should know?
Thanks .


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