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'Blog' for the Year 2016

The first few months of my time in Saudi Arabia, i.e. from August to December 2016 were very much driven by the basic setting-up of structures and establishing a 'life' in this new context, as well as in particular the transfer of Susanne to Saudi Arabia and subsequently her move to Bahrain after she had received her Iqama.

Mid & Late December 2016 - New Year in Bahrain

Obviously in Saudi there is nothing, what would give any indication of the upcoming Christmas Season - contrary to Bahrain, where hotels and malls are decorated like in any other country of the world.

We spend the Christmas days and the New Year in Bahrain, as also our two daughters visited us for 1½ resp. 2 weeks. As the end of December is a 'normal' month in Saudi and also Year-End Financial Closing, I only spent a few days in Bahrain, where we visited the so-called 'Well No. 1', i.e. the first oil-well of the Arab region - the place where the oil boom of the entire region has started in 1931, which later on had such a huge impact on the [economic] development of the Arabian Peninsula.

Close to the 'Well No. 1' also the 'Tree of Life' can be found. A more than 400 years old tree in the middle of the desert.

... more to follow ...

.... was originally planned, but due to the high workload during the last couple of months I have still not managed to do it ...

Early December 2016 - Susanne moves to Bahrain

After Susanne got her 'Iqama', she moved to Bahrain. As we did not had an apartment yet, she stayed in a small serviced apartment, which belongs to the 'Radisson blu' Hotel in Manama. The wife of the General Manager was Swiss, such that we had an additional support for our local start-up ( in addition to some friends working for ABB Bahrain ). After having arrived in Bahrain, Susanne started to 'scout' around to search for a suitable quarter to live, was connecting with other Expat's, some of them were already living for many years in Bahrain, and who were a great source of inside information.

November 2016 - Susanne joins me in Saudi Arabia

After I finally got my Iqama, I was now also able to travel outside Saudi Arabia and in November, I was in Switzerland again for the first time after close to three months in Saudi Arabia. Having an Iqama, I was now also able to be the 'Sponsor' for the Iqama of Susanne, such that at the end of November she joined me going back to Saudi. In Saudi Arabia it is always required to have a local 'Sponsor' - i.e. a person or company, who is somewhat responsible for the person being 'sponsered'. In my case, ABB is the 'Sponsor' for me and for a wife it is always the husband, who is acting as the 'Sponsor'.

It took Susanne only about two weeks until she got her 'Iqama', i.e. her residence permit for Saudi Arabia, which will enable here to stay in Saudi for the next 5 years. To leave the country and to enter the country again it needs - for both of us - a so-called "multiple exit/re-entry visa", which is only a simple piece of paper in the passport, which one can get in a few hours, but it is also an additional source of income for the Saudi government, and it is required to be physically in Saudi to renew the "exit/re-entry visa", which has to be done every 3 months (later on we found out it can also be done for 6 months, but costs correspondingly more).

Late October 2016 - 'Iqama', Drivers License and so on ...

... yes, I could have smiled a bit more friendly ! (picture was taken at the airport after arrival)

'Iqama' 3 : Finally, after eight weeks, I got my Iqama. But it was not a problem due to the handling by the public authorities. That portion took only about one week. The issue with my Iqama started much earlier. Due to the economic downturn in the region and the high unemployment rate of ~ 11%, new work visa for foreigners are only given very restrictively and the approval process for a work visa takes correspondingly a lot of time, because the future employer has to prove that he was not able to employ a suitable Saudi national - with the exception of some highly qualified professions. And engineers are one of these highly qualified professions. I.e. correspondingly my work visa is based on the fact that I'm an electrical engineer, because that was the fastest way to get a work visa for me. But for the 'Iqama', first I had to be become a member of the Saudi Council of Engineers, and to do that, I had to proof that I have earned a accredited degree as an engineer. And having studied 30 years ago in a very small Swiss college, the Saudi Council of Engineers probably never had heard about it before, took some time, because they had thoroughly checked all the documents including curriculum, etc. That way it is ensured that no fraud can be done in this respect, which used to be quite widespread.

Road Traffic Authorities in Al Khobar

Having an 'Iqama', I was now also able to get a mobile phone, open a bank account and to get a local Driver's License. For all these administrative exercises, I was - as usual - perfectly supported by the Admin team of ABB. Without that, some of these tasks would be quiet heavy and time consuming. There is basically not that much difference in terms of content as it is in Switzerland, but more people / functions have to be involved, and one has to know how to do it, otherwise you are literally lost.

Late September 2016 - 'Iqama' & National Holiday

'Iqama' 2 : As mentioned already earlier, the 'Iqama' is the local residency permit and THE document in Saudi Arabia. But as all the documents submitted in this process have to be attested - sometimes even from several authorities - the whole process takes quite some time. Despite the fact, I received great support from the local ABB organization ( basically they are doing all the work for me ), and as Westerner in a senior management position is even handled with priority, I still do not have my 'Iqama' ( partially also due to the Eid Al Adha holidays, when all the offices are closed for a full week ). As a consequence, I am currently not able to leave the country and cannot join a management meeting in Switzerland next week as planned. Obviously, I had planned to combine my trip to Switzerland with some private activities as well, and use the trip back to Saudi to bring some more of my stuff, which I am missing ...

... or in other words, this was the first case, where I failed in my planning, because I relied on too optimistic expectations in terms of timing, and had not built-in a sufficient level of robustness.

National Holiday : On September 23rd, Saudi Arabia celebrated its 86th National Holiday, remembering the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

I would have liked to join some related celebrations, as I know them from other countries, and also asked two, knowledgeable and well-connected local colleagues, but it appears there was nothing going on. I even went out for some scouting together with my driver. There was a lot of police in the streets, and the Corniche of Al Khobar was even shut-off from any traffic - probably as in the past, there were some spontaneous gatherings in this area in previous years, where people celebrated the National Holiday, driving around, waving flags and pushing the horn ( like some Europeans do, when their team have won a soccer match ).

Lobby of 'Dhahran Tower' on National Holiday

Only the shops were decorated, or the lobby of apartment building I'm living in, as well as some shops were selling Saudi flags, scarves, hats whatever one can imagine. The green color of all these insignias reminded me somehow of St. Patrick's Day in Ireland.

And the day after, I learnt through the press, that there have been some official events, incl. some kind of a parade, in Riyadh.

Mid September 2016 - Moving into my Apartment

View from the 29th floor - with the Arabian Gulf in the background

Accommodation : The first two weeks, I stayed in a hotel, but in the second week of September, I moved into my own apartment. I had arranged for a furnished and serviced apartment already when I was in Switzerland, and as ABB acts as the official tenant, it was possible to rent an apartment even without having the 'Iqama'.

View at night ...

But as an ABB expat, one can not simply rent an apartment as one would like. The accommodation has to be in a compound - or in a hotel, which have to be approved by the local ABB security officer. In Dammam there were three suitable options for ABB expats, two compounds with houses and one with apartments - 'Dhahran Tower'.

... morning haze

Obviously, as I'm alone in Dammam, I rented the smallest possible apartment, which is still a 2 bedroom apartment with 158 sqm. The apartment even has a maid's room, which I use as storage, but I had to convert one of the bedrooms into a study, which was 'the' first action I did as part of my settling-in.

'Dhahran Tower', with its 46 floors is the tallest building in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, is actually located in Al Khobar, which forms together with Dhahran and Dammam the Dammam metropolitan area. 'Dhahran Tower' has 290 apartments, most of them being rented out to expats (many of them working for 'Saudi Aramco'). On the ground floor it even has its own supermarket, with mainly Western goods - obviously without any alcohol or pork meat, but otherwise offering a pretty good selection !

Early September 2016 - Formalities and Cultural Implications

'Iqama' : The 'Iqama' is the residency permit for Saudi Arabia. And without the 'Iqama', one basically does not exist, and it is also not possible to open a bank account, rent an apartment or even to get a mobile phone number without an 'Iqama'. For the 'Iqama' some confirmation documents from the employer has to be submitted, as well as a medical certificate - basically the same as it was needed for the visa. From a process perspective it is a bit tedious, but from a content perspective it is pretty easy-going, but it takes some time ...

Cultural Implications : Being an employee of ABB Saudi Arabia, I'm now also covered by the health insurance provided by ABB. The general conditions of the Insurance Company ( = AXA ) are comparable to the ones we would have in Switzerland, with two notable differences:

  • the insurance does not only covers the employee, but also family members, which are dependents of the employee. I.e. wife, sons up to the age of 25 and "... unemployed daughters, who are unmarried, widowed or divorced, who are depends of the employee". It shows that the responsibility of a father also has far reaching implications into other areas of life.
  • the insurance explicitly does not cover any treatment for health issues related to HIV or sexually transmitted diseases. Again, an illustrative example, how the moral standards have a relevant implication on something like an insurance coverage. 

Late August 2016 - my first few days in Dammam

Arrival in Dammam : having discussed with various colleagues, who had traveled to Saudi Arabia many times and having read some guidebooks for expatriates living in Saudi Arabia, I knew that to enter the country with a work visa could become the first of my local 'challenges'. Well, it took 32 minutes from the time the plane has landed until I have passed immigration - based on a work visa - as well as customs - carrying three heavy suitcases. Both officers were very friendly & courteous, and the immigration officer had all my data at hand - he knew that I would have two visa, my business visa as well as my new work visa.

At 4 o'clock a.m, the first reminder of being in a Muslim country reached my ears - the Fajr prayer, the first of the five daily prayers offered by practicing Muslims.

The next day, I also had to learn that knowing the prayer times also has a practical importance for expats, as e.g. shops close and the work rests during prayer times. At work is no big issue, but being locked into, or out from a shop for the next thirty-odd minutes is somewhat strange. As payer times and duration depend on day of the week as well as the sunrise, they change over the year and vary for different locations. Therefore, they are published in local newspapers, and there are obviously many different apps available.

August 2016 - Preparations

In process of finalizing all the preparations for the upcoming move. It is quite a bit of work to make all the required arrangements, even as I was greatly supported by ABB Switzerland and in particular by ABB Saudi Arabia. One reason for the 'heaviness' of the related workload was due to the fact that everything had to be done within 5 weeks ( as we made the decision to go for it in mid-July and I would move to Saudi already in late August ).

A critical element was obviously to get the visa, which requires a lot of paperwork, from getting academic degrees approved to medical checks and so on. Luckily, I did not had to prepare the documents myself or to arrange for the approvals, but to get everything done within a few weeks required a tight grip on all the different subjects.

Finally, I got the visa in late August and two days later, I had packed all my stuff and was on my way to Dammam.