Confessions of a Saudi Diva: FAQ’s about Leaving Saudi Arabia

It’s 9:26 pm on a Saturday evening. I’m sitting at the second floor of a Starbucks coffee shop, and writing this post while a very cool remix of Sade’s “By your side” playing in the background.

Life hasn’t been very easy for me since leaving Saudi Arabia. With a big career change move – from an IT-related field to a highly creative journalism and writing path, to living on my own and taking on wide and diverse responsibilities, to the ongoing fight to convince my father that this journey is worth every moment.

I remember telling a Saudi friend who was visiting the city a few years ago how challenging things have been for me when leaving Saudi Arabia. Her reply was: “With freedom, comes responsibility.” And that’s exactly what this post is about.

Despite my very high social media and blogging activity, with posts ranging from new food concepts in town, chilled coffee moments, luxury hotel staycations, and other ‘living the high life’ posts, there is an eminent reality that everyone should be aware of: I am still struggling to get paid for writing and working in the creative industry.

I truly enjoy what I do and have a great passion for this kind of work. However, I think many people don’t understand the basics of how things work in the creative industry.

Many of my friends and people who I randomly meet think that I’m just having a great time and don’t have a single care in this world. While the truth is that doing this kind of work while not getting paid a single Dirham takes a lot of courage, determination, persistence and of course patience.

I can’t deny that there are endless moments of optimism and feelings of success and gratitude, followed by others of pure despair and hopelessness. As with life’s highs and lows, trying to do your own thing or even get paid for work in the creative industry is no easy ride.

I’ll never forget when I was once sitting in a cafe (a couple of years ago) and I was speaking to one of the Barista ladies working there. She asked, so I explained to her my situation. Her advise to me was to go to a bar to chill and meet new people. While I understand the importance of networking and meeting new people (especially when new in a city), I couldn’t possibly agree with her idea that I needed to just go out and chill. That’s mainly because making it in the creative industry requires a great amount of self-discipline, hard work, commitment and dedication. So, hitting the nearest bar to chill and meet new people might temporarily ease away my stress. However, it certainly won’t help get me closer to realizing my dreams.

I believe that putting in more effort and continuously pushing myself and my limits is the ultimate way to achieve my career goals and targets.

As with every post in this series, I make sure to answer a commonly asked question about my culture. Today’s question is this: Was leaving Saudi Arabia easy or hard?

Most people are highly familiar with the strict rules of our Arab and specifically GCC culture. The limitations and Do’s and Don’ts are even more applicable to women. Coming from a somewhat conservative background, and having over-protective parents, leaving Saudi Arabia wasn’t as smooth as many would think.

For the purpose of keeping this post compact, I will explain how I did it in a summarized way.

I was 28 years old when I left my corporate IT support job in Saudi. I had watched Steve Jobs’ motivational video about having one life only. He believes that you shouldn’t spend a day doing something that you don’t want to do. I never wanted to work in IT, and therefore I wasn’t happy working in that industry. It was very routine-like, systematic and monotonous. I always knew that I had a creative side to me – one that was struggling to make an appearance.

And so, I decided to leave that unrewarding job in the summer of 2008. I spent one year reading spirituality books, the Quran, and devising a plan. It wasn’t an easy decision, as you have to be courageous at that age to just leave everything behind and go. I applied to a foundation course with London College of Fashion, and waited impatiently for my student visa letter to arrive by mail. During that time, I had to take the IELTS exam, process many documents and do some serious soul searching to figure out what I really wanted to do next.

In August 2009, I left Saudi to London with my dad. We looked for an apartment together, and I started my new life in London. To keep it short, I didn’t end up completing that course. I only finished one semester and after 8 months, I moved to Dubai. I will explain more about that course in the next post.

The reason I chose to move to Dubai was that I didn’t require a visa to stay in the country. Unlike London, where my student visa was automatically cancelled once I withdrew from the course. That’s why, I couldn’t stay in London, despite loving living there.

The fact that I don’t need a visa to live or work in Dubai – since I’m a GCC citizen – didn’t help make things easier for me. Trying to get a job in the publishing/journalism/media industry was not easy. Yes, I don’t have to worry about visa issues and processing one. However, I have other types of things to worry about. Like: how do I get paid for my writing? How do I get a job in publishing and not just an internship? What is the best way to connect with editors (who are extremely busy all the time)? How do I set my standards and not allow others to use my skills for free? How do I monetize a blog?

Fast forward over five years later, and I’m still trying to make it in the city! However, I am very proud of the progress that I’ve done. The new skills that I mastered and the inspiring/supportive people who I met along the way.

Since leaving Saudi Arabia and moving to Dubai in April of 2010, I have managed to do the following:

  • Complete two editorial internships at two well-known and reputable publishing companies (unpaid).
  • Complete an advertising company internship (paid).
  • Write and edit a lifestyle blog named: Undefined Declarations.
  • Write and edit a culture and luxury lifestyle blog – Saudi Diva.
  • Get a journalism Bachelors degree from Murdoch University.

To give you an insight and some humor into how challenging it is to get into the media and publishing industry in Dubai, let me tell you a small story.

My first editorial internship was with a publishing company who asked me to join their Readers’ Desk team. You know, the section in the newspaper where you reply to reader’s comments, views and suggestions. It was more like community journalism. I only stayed in that section for two weeks before I asked to move to the lifestyle supplement section. The total internship period was 8 weeks and it was unpaid.

Fast forward to this year (2015). When a few months back, I contacted the HR person from that company (the same person I communicated with in 2010) to ask if there were any openings with the magazines department. As that was my goal even back then, but it wasn’t possible to get an internship with that department at that time.

Can you guess what she was offering me? She has connected me with the same team as the Readers’ Desk that I joined in 2010, only now that team has gone online and are handling some kind of City Guides section on the paper’s website! Not only that, the editor of that section was asking me to intern with them! After several e-mails with me trying to explain that I had already interned with their company (stated in my CV) and that I’m now looking for a paid role or traineeship, the conversation reached nowhere and nothing came through.

It was disappointing to see that my new skills, Internationally-recognized degree, and hard work have gotten me nothing in return. I felt like I was back to square one in those people’s eyes.

To me, however, the fight continues. I know my value and I understand that it might take me some more time to reach my goals. But I also know that I can’t be exploited or taken for granted by any employer or company.

I’m running out of battery on my laptop, so I will end now and continue in a future post.


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