ESL Teacher Guest Contributions Archives

Saudi Arabia: Breaking the Curse of Black Gold.

Many years ago, the chairman of the First City Bank of Texas was visiting the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The topic of discussion was economics. The chairman asked the crown prince where he would prefer to live: a large country with a temperate climate, pristine peninsulas, islands, lush vegetation and abundant natural resources or a small country with no natural resources, sparse vegetation and an inhospitable climate.

The crown prince said – ‘the first, of course.’ ‘Well,’ said the chairman, ‘then you would be living in Mexico not Singapore.’

The crown prince nodded sagely before muttering ‘people’.

Indeed – people or the stock of human capital, makes GDP per capita higher in Singapore than the oil-rich Saudi Arabia. And this was perhaps the final thought that Dr Mohamed A. Ramady, associate professor of finance & economics at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, wanted to leave with his audience in his first lecture presented on Saturday 21 st January in the main auditorium of Al Yamamah College, Riyadh.

Titled ‘The Saudi Arabian Economy: An Overview’, the two hour lecture touched on many issues including privatization, the financial markets, WTO membership and globalization, the Saudi Riyal, education & training and future challenges and opportunities.

The lecture also highlighted the significant contribution Saudi women make in investments in the Saudi economy: 35% of bank accounts, 20% of corporate shares, 15% of private companies, 10% of real estate and 62 billion in bank deposits – in spite of longstanding social, institutional and legal barriers.

Publicly, women are also playing a more important role in the Saudi economy. The small economic delegation that accompanied King Abdullah to China recently consisted of female Saudi economists. According to Dr. Ramady, political observers in the kingdom have interpreted images of the women, broadcast on the national Saudi channel 1, as a sign of the growing trend towards the political, economic and social enfranchisement of women in Saudi Arabia. Of course, any change would be done in accordance with Islamic principles.

While there is no sign of the nearly 2 million barrels per day output that makes Saudi Arabia the world’s oil warehouse abating, Dr Ramady was keen to point out how oil dependency was influencing the type of society Saudi Arabia has become.

Some of the challenges that face the Saudi economy today include: a mismatch between the needs of private industry and the education & training of graduates, the volatility of the Saudi share market and its impact on consumer confidence, the restrained implementation of the Saudization program, privatization which is paternalistic and limited to 30%, low direct foreign investment in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Riyal and domestic monetary policy influenced by fluctuations in the US Dollar.

“So rich yet so poor” is a catch-cry often used to describe Saudi Arabia – rich in natural resources and yet poor in its capital stock of people. And people do make a difference. According to Dr. Ramady, per capita income in Saudi has not risen in the recent past and despite efforts to diversify the economy the country is still dependent on oil.

While the recent ascension of Saudi Arabia into the WTO has helped the government to focus on economic reforms to modernize the economy, Saudi Arabia is still regarded as a high-security risk by the international community. In fact, in a recent business environment rating Saudi Arabia was ranked 51 compared with the UAE at 13.

Wasta (nepotism) still has more currency in Saudi Arabia than professional or technical wherewithal. Most businesses are family oriented with a top-down, pyramid-shaped management hierarchy where capital raisings are internal, competition is with family members and accounts are largely unaudited. It was no surprise that the recent precipitous fall in the Saudi stock market index from 21,000 to 7,200 sparked suicides, disappearances and family disintegration.

Typically, a Saudi family business will have 3 sets of balance sheets: the Arthur Anderson accounts (largely meaningless), the tax department accounts (showing a loss, of course) and those accounts recorded by hand in ink stored in the family safe. According to Dr Ramady, what is needed for reform of the Saudi business sector is a larger public shareholder base, accountability and transparency – all of which would normally come with a public listing.

When Margaret Thatcher started selling off public assets in the 1970s she was using economics to achieve political goals. A middle class was created holding shares in public utilities and state assets. This made them stakeholders in the welfare of the country and it was hoped they would behave accordingly.

Similarly, an emerging Saudi middle class empowered with share capital in state assets and utilities would revolutionize Saudi business ethics and the prevailing two-tier class system of Saudi nationals and foreign national employees.

Presently, Dr Ramady noted, commercial transactions are driven by a win/lose mentality where, in a negotiation, it is expected that one party’s gain is the other party’s loss. This tribal model of business would change with the advent of widespread public share ownership amongst the middle class and the creation of wealth and its dividends from astute investment strategies and decisions.

With the increasing affluence and mobility of a middle class the rapid growth of small and medium-sized businesses will come. In the USA, this sector accounts for 80% of the economy. In Saudi Arabia, it is expected that with the introduction of international standards, transparency, competition and the employment of Saudi women (represented as 55% of the population) the small and medium business sector could become the powerhouse of the new economy.

The future of the Saudi economy depends on how effectively the country diversifies away from its oil addiction, how well it empowers regional economies in the kingdom through targeted budget allocations and to what extent it fosters regional self-determination through municipal elections.

The climate for change is favorable: Saudi Arabia has stability in the political continuity of its traditions and laws of succession amongst the royal family. Moreover, the recent ascension of Saudi Arabia into WTO membership accelerates the process of economic reform. However, Dr Ramady cautions, change must be consensual.

Towards the end of his presentation, Dr Ramady related a story about one of his students. Having lost 3 million Riyals in the recent Saudi stock market crash (the market was overvalued with some returns as high as 150%), the 19-year old was almost inconsolable. After giving the student the benefit of his experience in these matters, Dr Ramady reflected that without a crash another generation of young Saudis would have been lost to the curse of black gold.

Moving from inheriting wealth to creating it, in a knowledge-based economy, is the challenge of modern Saudi Arabia.

Harry Nicolaides

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Cunning Linguists…

The arrest of John Karr for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey has raised questions about the types of expatriates working in Thailand’s education system.

Harry Nicolaides, a Melbourne-born teacher who has taught English in Thailand, reveals that he sometimes felt he was sharing an office with Hannibal Lector.

What do a disgraced former US state senator, an octogenarian Nazi sympathizer and an Arizona highway patrol officer have in common? They are all teaching English in Thailand of course. The profession of teaching English in Asia attracts the strangest people. The flotsam and jetsam of the West, many of these ne’er-do-wells wash up on the shoreline of the Third World looking to reinvent themselves like the Count of Monte Cristo or to champion a cause celebre like Lawrence of Arabia. Some are undischarged bankrupts fleeing creditors, fugitives from justice, disgraced or convicted malcontents, religious missionaries, errant husbands, asylum-seekers (and those recently discharged from asylums), crusaders and occasionally teachers – with fake university degrees, of course. This is the state of the industry throughout Thailand. And sometimes, you can find yourself sharing an office with Hannibal Lector.

The process of screening applicants for teaching appointments in Thailand has always been open to abuse, exploitation and identity fraud. While most educational institutions employ foreign nationals from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the US without checking the bona fides of academic credentials, going overseas to work has also been a convenient way to escape the indiscretions and convictions of a former life in the West. As English is the new lingua franca of a global world there is a burgeoning demand for native English speakers to teach English in educational institutions at all levels across Thailand. The interview and selection process is perfunctory and typically is the responsibility of non-native speakers and so anyone who looks like a teacher in what is largely a presentation culture is assured of employment. While it is well known that thousands of reproduction artworks of European masters are created annually in Thailand, fake university and college degrees may also be bought in Kao Sarn Road Bangkok.

In the past century when Christendom was carried like a torch to enlighten the dark continents, missionaries and teachers were discovered looting national treasures, excavating and smuggling archaeological artifacts, exploiting the indigenous population or establishing private kingdoms with themselves as the self-appointed monarchs. During times of military conflict some teachers were even commissioned as intelligence operatives or became correspondents from besieged cities or nations erupting in civil unrest. Today, with an absence of such interesting opportunities, English language teachers abroad have turned to waging their own war against professional colleagues, exerting their own petty tyrannies on students, exploring a malignant neuroses, indulging a private obsession or simply experiencing the full dress rehearsal of a sordid sexual fetish.

Just like the former, US state senator who was repeatedly caught and convicted for drunk driving and beating his girlfriend. When he carried a loaded revolver into the state legislature he was finally expelled from office. At the height of his power, white racist supremacist and militia members rallied at his demagogic speeches against minorities and welfare recipients but most recently found himself teaching English at university in Thailand. He was also responsible for pushing through a US state senate a highly controversial bill to introduce and maintain a public database of previously convicted sex offenders. I met him in a notorious go-go bar in Phuket. It was the quip about the human race being a plague on the earth and that only through a systematic program of racial purification would we survive as a species that made me realise he was not on a mercy mission in the Third World. He was last seen teaching a transsexual prostitute to sing the Star Spangled Banner in an area notorious for homosexual encounters with young men who had had a sex change operation in Bangkok.

Then there was the teacher at a prominent language school in Phuket who was recently exposed as a confidante to Adolf Hitler’s personal radiologist. At 85, he was old enough to have been around during the Third Reich and his imperious gait was chillingly resonant of high rank. He spoke German, Greek, Italian, Thai, French and English fluently but his speciality was to craft letters for bar girls consisting of lies and half-truths to beguile mostly male Caucasian tourists out of their money. I was once privy to a meeting he thought was private and observed him perform the customary Nazi military salute when he greeted a German friend. At first, I thought it was moment of historical parody but then observed both men deliver the same Nazi salute to each other with triumphant, choreographed precision at their farewell. He still teaches English today helping young bar girls conjugate irregular verbs and writes letters while receiving an aged pension from the Italian government.

There was another teacher – an American, former Arizona patrol officer who while working in Thailand started to exhibit repressed aggression towards his students. His violent outbursts and confrontations involved minor infractions of university regulations. He became obsessed with thwarting students from gaining unfair advantage by cheating and spent hundreds of hours devising examinations that would challenge the ingenuity of students to anticipate the content of examination papers. When a small cluster of student papers were found to have similar results he launched a major investigation into the unlikely correlation. He conducted a statistical analysis of the results involving averages, probability and distribution graphs. Remarking all 250-exam papers, he concluded that a group of students must have stolen an exam paper prior to the exam day. He insisted, against the judgment of other teachers, to hold the exam again. The results in the second examination were the same. The students cheated again.

As a final indictment of the susceptibility of the Thai education system to fraud consider the following experience. A friend from Australia was visiting Thailand as a tourist. I managed to convince him to assume my identity for the first lecture I was to deliver to 120 students in a course of social psychology at the university where I was working. The exercise was designed to show students how vulnerable people are to appearance and presentation especially so-called experts with impressive credentials. We had my friend’s imposing 6’4 physique clothed in a fine suit and tie beautifully fashioned in the finest bespoke tradition of Bangkok’s 24-hour tailors. We gave him an impressive resume – PhD Cambridge University, Chairman of research committee at Oxford University, author of two definitive textbooks in the field – all of which loomed large behind him on a massive cinema-sized screen in a PowerPoint format while Garry spoke authoritatively about nothing for some time. The students paid meticulous attention and wrote copious lecture notes on the rambling dissertation. After an hour when I arrived dressed casually in shorts and t-shirt and introduced myself as the real course lecturer, the students dismissed me as a loony intruder. After all, I did not look like a teacher. That is what matters in Thailand – the appearance of truth, created by a tailor’s scissors, an artist’s brushstroke or a surgeon’s knife.

Saudi Arabia: Cyprus : The Road to Re-unification.

In 1958, when the first barbed-wire barricades were rolled out by the British colonial government across Ledra Street in the capital of Cyprus it seemed inevitable that the seeds of division would yield a bitter harvest of inter-communal conflicts, regional tensions and finally the partition of the whole island. Where minarets and churches once jostled happily together under the high, bright sun by day and crescent moon by night, garrisoned troops took up positions in machine-gun outposts and artillery turrets effectively dividing the inhabitants of Nicosia – Turkish & Greek Cypriot – into two distinct ethnic groups. Eventually, the age-old Greco-Turkish enmity found a new front line as the Hellenic and Ottoman civilizations collided once again along the UN-patrolled Green Line dividing northern and southern Cyprus.

This week demolition work commenced on part of the wall that has divided Nicosia and the whole island since 1974. When I visited the island recently, Melissa, a traditional Greek-styled cake shop in an old quarter of Nicosia, was still serving Turkish coffee in the same way it had for decades. Kateifi, Paclava and other freshly-baked cakes and sweets filled window displays. Hand-embroidered, white tablecloths covered the few rectangular tables where customers typically sat to enjoy their coffee. The day I was there only a few customers came in and seemed to pick up regular orders of sweets. Before the erection of the barriers and partition of the island, Melissa was a perpetual hub of social life where the street outside bustled with bicycles, pedestrians and taxi-cabs. However, in recent years the view from its gilded window frames has been starkly different.

The streets are empty now. A rusty bicycle leans against a lamp post. Solitary figures occasionally emerge from dilapidated workshops that now occupy the grand old buildings where boutiques once operated. Grass tussocks have sprouted around the ramshackle brick barriers and between the sand-bags filling the windows of the surrounding old Venetian-styled buildings. Crumbling walls display the faded markings of political slogans from long-since forgotten campaigns. Once buzzing with conversations about coup d’etat, the military junta and self determination, sagging electrical wires that run from telegraph pole to telegraph pole look like they have been gripped by a creeping paralysis. In fact the whole area seems to have been suspended in time resembling a Hollywood back-lot from a film from yesteryear.

My father, who was born in Cyprus in 1926, has fond memories of many times spent in coffee shops with Turkish and Greek Cypriot friends. As an electrician working for the Paphos Electrical Station (now a museum) he recalls three Turkish Cypriots with whom he had a close friendship. Some of the Turkish Cypriots joined him when he decided to migrate to Australia. To this day, on my father’s forearm, is a faded tattoo of a sailing ship and the words: ‘ Cyprus to Australia 1951’ in a pennant under the image. The small group of friends – Greek and Turkish Cypriot – all had the same tattoo pierced onto their forearms to commemorate their epic journey. As a boy I was fascinated by the likeness of the tattoos when the group would meet. As the years passed the tattoos faded and the group dwindled in size. Today, my father and one other man, a Turkish Cypriot, survive.

For my father Cyprus was never divided. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots were never at war. After all, when my father lived in Cyprus there was a high degree of cohesion and integration between the two ethnic groups. In his mind this is how he left Cyprus and always remembered it. Of course, in reality when the yoke of colonial rule was finally shrugged off in 1960 the responsibility of forming a government representing both ethnic populations was great. Additionally, the geopolitical ambitions of America and Britain in the Middle East and the posturing of Greece and Turkey over territorial sovereignty in the Mediterranean contributed significantly to inter-communal tensions. Eventually, as the two communities drifted further apart ethnic enclaves grew as integrated villages fell in number. Nicosia was in time divided by a wall.

This week the wall has been coming down. While the demolition work is centered on a small part of the boundary of the historic Old City within the capital Nicosia, it has profound symbolism. Although official efforts to unify Cyprus have failed, on a municipal level Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been cooperating for years towards preserving and restoring the rich Ottoman, Venetian and Lusignan heritage of the Old City. The recent demolition work is paving the way for the opening of a pedestrian bridge on Ledra Street, a once thriving commercial centre. Importantly, Ledra Street is also the place where the first barbed-wire barricades were rolled out. It is hoped that this small pedestrian bridge will not only bring two commercial districts together but also reunify a divided city, an island and the hearts and minds of all Cypriots.

Harry Nicolaides is a Greek-Cypriot Australian writer born in Melbourne. He is currently teaching English in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Harry is also the nephew of the late Nicos Nicolaides, a Greek Cypriot Radio Station owner who assisted the then fugitive President Makarios (believed dead and fleeing an assassination attempt from the rogue generals who had executed a coup to overthrow him) by helping him to make a historic broadcast over a short-range radio transmitter encouraging the civilian population to resist the coup. The message, heard all over Cyprus and in neighboring countries, aroused widespread resistance to the coup.

Harry Nicolaides

Desperate Liaisons in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter.

There is a lot of loose information exchanged on the back channels at embassy parties. Harry Nicolaides, an Australian writer in Saudi Arabia, lives in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh where today’s gossip – like the location of the 15 British Royal navy personnel abducted by Iranian forces – is often tomorrow’s headline.

On a bridge over a highway in Riyadh there are 22 flags heralding the countries represented at this year’s summit of the Arab League. The flags of Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon flutter wildly next to the flags of Sudan and Somalia. The Libyan flag has fallen to half-mast. The rest lift and drop with strong, vacillating winds saluting the intermittent motorcades of consular vehicles as they cross the bridge and then zigzag around large concrete barriers towards the fortified gate of the main entry point to the largest, heavily secured cluster of embassies and ambassadorial residences in the world: Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter.

Typically, every single day Saudi anti-terrorist security forces check vehicles before they enter. However, a few days earlier – for the first time ever – vehicles were stopped and searched on the way out causing significant traffic delays. With 5 of the Arab League member states engulfed by civil war, the South Korean president visiting town and Condelezza Rice in the region the delay was unsettling. Naturally, rumors abounded: Was a foreign spy caught, a rogue general planning to defect or perhaps a homesick diplomat preparing to flee a hardship posting?

It is more than a rumor that the 5 member nations – Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan & Somalia – are at the top of the agenda of meetings held in Riyadh over the next few days. Saudi leaders are determined to end the civil war in Iraq, revive an old Saudi peace plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, work on restoring stability to Lebanon and placate an increasingly marginalized, nuclear-armed Iran.

“Is Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi attending the summit this year?” I couldn’t resist asking the Arab politicians I met at the Greek embassy on Greek National Day. “Who knows? Maybe yes. Maybe no. No one can predict what Colonel Gaddafi will do. In fact, he may be here tonight!” It was true – the gadfly of the Gulf was a mercurial politician arriving and leaving previous summits in accord with a timetable of his own. He was also notorious for insulting other Arab leaders, making preposterous suggestions (former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was a Palestinian agent) and hatching assassination plots against Saudi’s King Abdullah.

Greek national day was celebrated like any other embassy function. The usual cast of ambassadors, diplomatic attaches, Arab royalty and European nobility in all their elegant finery gathered around an infinity-edged swimming pool expressing cordial greetings and paying homage to each other with generous compliments while grazing on a lavish buffet of haute cuisine served by cordon bleu chefs.

It wasn’t long before I saw the wife of a senior African diplomat with whom, unbeknown to her, I share a private driver. Evidently, she likes to shop. In fact she likes to shop so much she periodically fills a massive, freight shipping container full of women’s clothing and fashion accessories and has it shipped to her African home where the massive consignment is sold at a considerable profit at weekend markets.

I also encountered the political officer from a southern European country who utilizes the sophisticated intelligence gathering infrastructure of his embassy to conduct surveillance on several young Philippine women he has befriended on the internet. He spends hundreds of hours on the web to communicate with the girls. Often liaising with his diplomatic counterparts in the Philippines, he has compiled extensive personal dossiers on a select group of the women with the object of evaluating them as potential wives. He told me he was leaving for Manila in the next few days – to get married.

Behind him was the economic attaché of an Asian country who is the president of the secret Single Malt Scotch Whisky Society of Riyadh. Every fortnight he invites connoisseurs of single malt whisky – foreign diplomats, British, American and Australian expatriate lawyers & bankers, senior Saudi government officials, prominent Saudi businessmen – to his apartment in a Western compound to consume dozens of bottles of the finest whisky in the world. Gelenmorangie, Glenffidich, and Glenlivit are lined up next to the 30-year old Glen Moray. Under a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke business cards are exchanged, secrets shared and deals made.

Emerging from the crowd I thought I recognized the Iranian military attaché whom I met at the Australia Day function at the Australian embassy some months ago. He was a cardboard cut out of a Cold War Politburo figure, pressed, starched and embellished with a thick golden lanyard, bristling epaulets, assorted medals and military decorations and small brass badges shaped like jets on his broad lapels. Short, stocky and barrel-chested he pushed his way through the crowd until I came toe-to-toe with his grisly, lantern-jawed face.

After an exchange of pleasantries and small talk I made a joke: “Comrade, do you have the 15 British sailors in your Embassy?’ Astonishingly, he thought I was serious and began addressing my question in some detail. He explained that the group are guests of his country and are being treated lavishly. They are staying in a 5-star hotel in Tehran where they are enjoying fine dining, entertainment and companionship. Moreover, the group will be home as soon as a debriefing session is concluded and after the position of the international border between Iraq and Iran is mutually agreed and reaffirmed. On their repatriation to the United Kingdom they will speak very highly of the high level of hospitality extended to them by their Iranian hosts.

I know what you are thinking. It wasn’t Colonel Gaddafi playing a joke.

Harry Nicolaides

Saudi Students Seize the Day: The Beginning of a Cultural Revolution.

On the night of the 27 th November 2006, while millions of Saudis were sleeping, a handful of students in the capital unknowingly started a cultural revolution. Life imitated art when a stage play, “Wasati Bila Wasatiya” (A Moderate without Moderation) at Al Yamamah, an international college in Riyadh, triggered a violent confrontation between the Islamic religious police, the Mutawa and hundreds of students, ex-patriate teachers, actors and audience members. As cinemas and theatres in Saudi Arabia are outlawed this was the first time that a theatrical production exploring contemporary social issues was ever shown. The onstage struggle resulted in props being destroyed, lights smashed and actors battered. A firearm was discharged with live ammunition. The play was about social change in the kingdom.

Heavily armed government special forces carrying Kalashnikovs stormed the college auditorium and apprehended dozens of the ultra conservative Islamic protesters who disrupted the event and seized their cache of weapons and vehicles. The play subsequently received royal support with the Governor of Riyadh, HRH Prince Salman Ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud requesting to attend a special presentation of the college production. Hundreds of students also signed letters of support for their beleaguered college president, Ahmed M. Al-Eisa who resisted petitions and calls to resign. The parents of students also mobilized to support the college through social networks, business relationships and public advocacy. Within a few days Arab newspapers, Reuters and the New York Times reported on the incident.

“I felt so proud that I was a member of the play. In fact, I had the feeling for two reasons. First, because I was working with responsible students, who believed in the message they were trying to send. The second reason was because we were trying to send this critical message for the first time in Saudi Arabia” said one member of the cast and crew.

While the government shut down the college intranet preventing students from discussing the incident, throughout the region Arab news websites and internet discussion forums were inundated with emails. Many of the Mutawa-backed websites posted photographs of the president of the college identifying him as an enemy of Islam. In the prominent Arab newspaper Al-Riyadh, writer Abdul Aziz Al-Zukair criticized the incident at Al-Yamamah College mocking the heroics of the students and lamented the absence of respect for the opinions of the Islamic conservatives present in the audience on the night of the incident.

Other websites reportedly made threats of reprisals against the faculty and staff of the college. Ex-patriate teachers from Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, America and Europe while expressing concerns about their security demonstrated their support for the students by showing interest in attending the show when it resumed a few days later. Many mosques across the city condemned the college and its cultural week activities.

In a lecture before school principals, Mohammad Al Nojaimi, a prominent Islamic jurist and member of the Islamic Fiqh Council responsible for interpreting matters of Islamic jurisprudence and extracting religious rulings on practical issues, singled out certain writers and apostate scholars “for making non-believers out of everyone”. He called them traitors who are on the payrolls of foreign governments. “I suspect they have links with foreign embassies – I didn’t want to say this but Prince Naif (Saudi Minister of Interior) said it too”.

“We are afraid of nobody” said the president of Al-Yamamah College in an interview with another Arab newspaper Al-Hayat and stated that the college would continue to develop and promote its cultural programs. A week after the original incident the stage play was shown again in the same auditorium. Ominously, two bullet holes from a firearm discharged during the opening night of the play a week earlier were still clearly visible in the high ceiling.

Following a long, rousing musical score in the darkened college auditorium the first scene of a young man entwined in a rope and being pulled left and right was greeted with triumphant, rapturous applause and cheers from hundreds of Arab students and guests. The two worlds the provincial student inhabited – the traditional Islamic culture of his family and village and the modern graffiti-splayed Western-metro scene of his new friends – formed the stage backdrop. It was against this milieu that the young student fought to find his place as his village friends armed themselves with semi-automatic rifles and suicide bombs for a looming Jihad while his city friends found freedom of expression in English, tolerance of homosexuality and reveled in Western clothing and music. Tragically, the student collapsed in the no-man’s land between the two worlds under the strain of the cultural tug-of-war.

Saudi Arabia is a country in transition. Under the sands of its vast deserts Islam and secularism are grinding together like two monumental tectonic plates. Outwardly, almost every aspect of life in Saudi Arabia is governed by Islamic laws and customs. For example, all Saudi men are cloaked in the white thobe while women are covered by the abaya. There are strict rules preventing men and women from being together in public places. Before dawn the first calls to prayer are made from powerful loudspeakers on mosques and continue intermittently throughout the day while businesses cease to operate, shops close and streets are emptied of people and vehicles. However, inwardly a new voice is being heard.

While the Saudi government has been preoccupied with the implementation of its Saudization program effectively reducing the number of foreign workers in the kingdom, Saudi college students have been listening to podcasts on the BBC, defying strict national Saudi censorship restrictions and downloading the latest international films and communicating with each other using the Bluetooth network on their mobile phones. They eschew the ten hours of compulsory Islamic studies and instead share the latest music files, place orders with Amazon.com, watch satellite television and seek to form relationships with foreign nationals and expatriates. They spend the summer in New York, Paris and London where they improve their English and see a world beyond the old fortress walls of Riyadh.

The Arab world for Saudis is polarized between the excesses of Dubai and the rigorous asceticism of Riyadh. The theme of the play – the conflict between Islam and secularism – revealed how fractured and shifting Saudi culture really is. Ideally, many Saudis would like to find something in between. This cultural dissonance has survived because the Saudis have two lives – a public life and a private life and all the heavy, carved wooden doors of Riyadh ensure the two never meet. However, this may soon change as there are rumors that the stage play “Wasati Bila Wasatiya’ may be adapted to Saudi television and broadcast nationally.

Act one has finished. Act two is about to begin.

Harry Nicolaides is an Australian writer and teacher.

Health and Fitness while Living Abroad.

The decision to teach ESL overseas, or study overseas can be a significant one filled with excitement, promise and adventure. It also offers a personal challenge to many, as leaving home to travel 10 000 kilometers around the world to a foreign land can be a very frightening proposition. While there is no one way to eliminate the possible feelings of anxiety and stress associated with such a life changing experience, there are ways to manage them, so that your time overseas will be a fulfilling one.

The most important advice I can pass on is to stay active. Find some type of physical activity that you enjoy doing and do it regularly. Regular exercise not only keeps your body physically fit, but also keeps your mind sharp. Being so far from home, home-sickness and depression sometimes take hold, and lead to a potentially miserable experience. Exercising at regular intervals will raise your confidence and self-esteem and keep away most negative feelings. Exercising with a friend is also a great idea, as you can motivate each other.

Exercising can be as simple as going for a brisk walk or involved as getting a membership at a local gym. Often, even the smallest towns have fitness facilities of some type; whether swimming pools or martial arts studios. During my stay in the Republic of Korea (ROK) I had a membership at a local gym, took regular Kung Fu classes, ran regularly and swam on occasion. I had a positive outlook on the entire experience and rarely dealt with any feelings of anxiety or stress.

Another benefit of regular exercise is decompression. Life in certain Asian societies can seem very hectic, fast paced, crowded and chaotic at times, compared to North America. For those of us from the West who are suddenly immersed in this type of culture it can be quite a shock and the stress levels can mount quickly. Being able to get away from it all, even for an hour a day, and focus on your own health and well-being is essential to your success overseas.

While working in the ROK I found it necessary to devote some time every week to just being alone physically and mentally. I would often go for long walks in the country side early in the morning to get away from it all. I always came back refreshed, clear headed and in a positive frame of mind. Take some quiet time for your self, the benefits are real.

On that note, before traveling overseas to work, know where you’re going. Will you be working in a city of ten million or a town of thirty thousand? What are you more comfortable with? Where did you grow up and what are you used to? Every area has its pros and cons, however, many negatives will be magnified in a large city. Air pollution, noise pollution and crowded conditions all conspire against the health of those living in the larger Asian cities. My advice would be to avoid the mega-cities if at all possible.

Being so far away from home for the first time can be an invitation to disaster if you aren’t careful. You will meet people from around the world, all with different backgrounds and experiences. Some will be good, others will be bad. You will also have a lot of money in your pockets, perhaps for the first time. Regardless of the country, illegal drugs abound, and in some countries illegal drugs are considered equal to murder. Not convinced? Watch the movies Midnight Express or Brokedown Palace, they hit the mark. Unless you are willing to pay dearly for a momentary pleasure, stay away from all drug activity and those who partake in it. Just by being with a group of people doing drugs you’re guilty by association, plus the fact that drugs offer you nothing in the form of real relaxation and stress relief. Regular exercise and proper diet are the best alternatives.

In most Asian countries cigarettes and alcohol are fairly inexpensive. For example, a $12.00 pack of cigarettes in Canada would cost roughly $2.00 in South Korea. If you don’t smoke already, don’t use this as an excuse to start. The same goes with alcohol, if you must drink do so in moderation, but remember that alcohol impairs judgment and you don’t want to find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation thousands of miles from home. Coffee is very popular in some Asian countries, so if you drink it, also do so in moderation. Caffeine provides you with no real health benefits. I would suggest simply drinking bottled water. You’ll appreciate it during the muggy Asian summer months and you’ll be giving your body something it needs anyway.

As part of your lifestyle get plenty of rest and sleep. Avoid late night parties as they become easier when you’re working late afternoons and evenings only and have the mornings free. Sleep well at night and use your free time to do something active as mentioned above. Don’t let yourself turn into a couch potato; this will affect your mental outlook as well as your physical condition.

Indulge your palate when living overseas. Try all the local cuisine and forget about your North American diet. Asian cooking is much healthier than the foods we have typically become accustomed to here in the West. An overall focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, soups, steamed rice, light sauces, fish and small amounts of meat make Eastern cooking low calorie, low fat and nutritious. Although all the fast food outlets are available, avoid them. Did you travel half way around the world to eat a grease laden Big Mac? If you stick to the local cuisine you will lose inches around your midsection in a very short period of time, without even trying. Add regular exercise to the mix and you have a real recipe for success.

Stefan Ferron B.A., B.Kin., B.Ed., also an English teacher (South Korea, Canada) – owner Kettlebellrevolution.net