Moving from the sun kissed beauty of Southern Florida to the arid, sand dusted climate of Saudi Arabia might not sound tempting to most people. But for some employees, it is the greatest adventure of their lives.
Gina Marie Collins, an analyst with Sigmatech Security Assistance Management Directorate in Huntsville, just returned from a four year assignment with the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard. Based at a secure military compound where employees work and live, she was an acquisition management specialist for the aviation team.
During an employee's downtime, the region is a virtual playground for travelers, said Collins, who visited Abu Dhabi, Thailand, Dubai, South Africa, Bahrain and many other locations. Collins said she struck out on so many adventures while living in Saudi Arabia that she began blogging about her exploits, GMarie's Page at http://gmarieflsblog.blogspot.com.
"Saudi Arabia is one of those places where you have to be creative in finding things to do," she admitted, "but it's also the kind of assignment that allows you the time, the financial ability and autonomy to do so."
Collins' adventuresome spirit and creativity led her to learn and enjoy golf, diving and horseback riding, activities she might never have thought to pursue.
TIME, LEAVE & AUTONOMY
Collins called the assignment a great place for reflection. A lot of people come here to click the reset button, start a new phase in their lives, begin anew. She called it the perfect location to leave distractions behind and focus on yourself - pursue career, education and personal goals.
"It seems like you have a lot of time on your hands here since you are not exposed to a lot of things you would be exposed to in the U.S. - movie theaters, bars, dance clubs," she said.
She and many of her friends and co-workers enhanced their skill sets by taking online classes. "You can finish a degree here, get a second degree," she said, "or master another language."
More importantly for Collins, "I broadened my horizons by meeting people that don't necessarily think or live like I do and the result was lasting and meaningful relationships."
Employees at OPM-SANG also also enjoy a significant number of additional leave days due to home leave and host nation holidays. Home leave is earned after being in country for 24 months, and combined with host nation observances, can nearly double some employees' leave days.
Jan Weston is OPM-SANG's chief of Contracting and, like Collins, has worked in Saudi for four years. Although the typical assignment for military and civilian personnel is one year unaccompanied (up to five with an extension) and for civilians two to five years accompanied, Weston was not ready to give up the many advantages of living and working in the Middle East.
For people who want to make or save more money, Weston said on top of employees' salaries, they get a 25 percent hardship differential incentive and additional money for post allowance. In all, it can add up to almost 30 percent, based on the employee's spendable income and fixed calculations.
Another cash bonus is Sunday premium, a slight wage increase based on the fact that U.S. employees at OPM-SANG mirror the Saudi workweek and work Sunday to Thursday.
Employees who accept assignments at OPM-SANG store their household goods and vehicles back in the U.S. and are provided fully furnished villas with enclosed courtyards and relatively new automobiles.
"It (the military compound) is very accommodating and I think a lot of effort is spent to make it that way so people will like being here," Weston said. "You pay no rent or utilities; you get free cable, a cell phone and fuel for your vehicle free of charge. Everything is taken care of. Really, the only thing you have to pay for is Internet service.
"You're also allowed to shop at the commissary and Post Exchange, tax-free. This can make a big difference in the expendable income you have."
Another combined travel-monetary benefit is $4,500 that each employee receives annually to travel wherever in the world they want to go. Called "aid in kind," the money can be used by the employee to travel to the U.S. to visit family or to several destinations throughout the globe.
While she is happy with the monetary advantages, Weston said she doesn't stay for the money. For her, it's the thrill of a serving in a unique location and contributing to a critical mission with national security and global impact.
"The work environment is so fulfilling and you get a completely different perspective and a sense of purpose. It comes with an intensity that you might not get at your standard stateside assignment," she said of the unique work conditions.
And unique is an appropriate description for such an assignment, Weston admits. The Orange County, California, native is no stranger to living in the Middle East. She spent three and a half years in Iraq beginning in 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion. She spent another two and a half years in Kuwait and has spent time in Afghanistan.
ATTITUDE & ADVENTURE
While each country is unique, they have one thing in common: If you're going to work in a place like this, you have to be adaptable.
"People who aren't open-minded and flexible are making a mistake coming to an assignment like this," Weston said. "You are not going to have the same creature comforts, the same TV stations, you won't have the same routines. And if you're not emotionally or mentally prepared for that, it's not going to be a pleasant assignment."
Weston said there have been employees who just don't realize they are in a different culture and that things work differently.
"We've hired a fair number of people who hate it here because they bring a sense of American entitlement with them," she said.
"For me, it's just an extremely interesting environment and a great culture to experience. The work we do here is helping to facilitate a U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. And they'll tell you when you arrive that everything you do is about the relationship; your performance and behavior and how you interact with people, it is all helping to improve and make good the relationship between Saudi and the United States."
One adjustment for some new arrivals is the size of the compound. The relatively small area offers challenges similar to those of living in a small town. But for those who come from that environment or who love small town living, it is business as usual.
To combat the perils of small town living, Weston said the command offers lots of services and opportunities including woodworking and ceramic classes, a library, a variety of sports including horseback riding, trips and tours, volunteer opportunities and religious services. There is even a Spouses Club for those on accompanied tours.
To avoid the too-small feel of an enclosed compound, home entertaining abounds. Weston said a lot of people socialize at barbecues and host parties.
"Parties are put on by different people and everyone collects at someone's house. The upside to this is you tend to have more friends and closer friends than you would in a larger community," she said.
JUST FOR WOMEN
Any way you look at it, living and working at OPM-SANG is a very different life. Women, for example have to wear head and body coverings called abayas when they travel off the military compound. If not, you could be scorned by Saudi's religious police and even some Muslim women.
Again, she said, it goes back to having a positive attitude. "You can look at wearing the abaya and head covering as a drawback, or you can look at it as not having to fuss over clothes or hairstyles," Weston said.
"You just have to recognize you are in someone else's country and you have to respect their culture. You can't come here, thinking I'm an American and my way is the right way," she said.
Weston said another unique aspect for American women working at OPM-SANG is not driving. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. OPM-SANG's female employees are issued late model sedans that they can drive on the compound, but they must be driven off the compound by a male driver. Fortunately, she said, OPM-SANG provides a shuttle service that is available around the clock. She said it's only a matter of calling and waiting to be picked up and transported to the destination of your choice.
"I don't hear women complain about that being an inconvenience because the reality is a lot of men don't want to drive off post unless they have to. The highways are extremely congested and driving is fast-moving and chaotic, not the driving standards we are used to in the United States. Drivers don't use blinkers and they use their horn a lot," she said, laughing.
CULTURE & CUSTOMS
When OPM-SANG personnel and family members go off the compound, "something for everyone" is more than a cliché. "Everything is available - amazing shopping and restaurants, just about anything you could expect any normal large city - KFCs, McDonalds, Starbucks and Applebee's."
But it is the tourist-friendly souks that intrigue serious shoppers. Souks are Arab marketplaces or bazaars where consumers can bargain for a good deal.
Weston said the bustling commercial center of Riyadh is jam-packed with the most eclectic and the most commonplace items you can find. She said favorites for shoppers include the reasonably priced gold, unique jewelry, Persian carpets and knick knacks and souvenirs of every size and variety.
Although personnel must be aware of their surrounding and always pay attention to personal security, Weston said she feels safe in Saudi Arabia.
"We have a two-person rule so we don't go anywhere by ourselves," she said.
In addition to using the battle buddy system, personnel and residents report their movements frequently as they move around when off the installation.
"Our command takes security very seriously and they indoctrinate us all the time to be aware of surroundings because there are still people who don't like Westerners everywhere. But I can say that, in four years, I've never had an incident that caused me alarm. I've never been mistreated or had a security scare of any kind," Weston said.
The cultural setting of Saudi Arabia is Arab and Islam, and it is deeply religious, extremely conservative and family oriented.
"One misconception is that Saudi men are mean and they treat their women like second-class citizens," Weston said.
She said that couldn't be farther from the truth.
"I have seen them treat women with more reverence," Weston said. "And in the work environment, in my years here, I have experienced nothing but extremely respectful relations with the men I've dealt with."
With many U.S. civilians working in Riyadh, Saudis are considered extremely polite and gracious hosts, albeit unhurried in business dealings.
"That was really one of my biggest adjustments," said Collins, who for a time worked at OPM-SANG's Health Affairs Division and advised the Saudis on contracting issues at the King Fahd National Guard hospital.
She said some days work went at the organized, but breakneck speed typical in American industry. And other days, Collins said the Saudis spent more time than she was accustomed to in small talk.
"They are very family oriented and interested in what is going on around the world, so they would sometimes spend a lot of time talking about family and world affairs," she explained. "Americans are always moving fast at work and in our home environments. So I had to learn to pace myself and exercise a bit more patience."
Collins said she adapted to this change in her work environment and grew to not only accept, but appreciate the different pace in business.
For anyone who has not traveled broad, Collins and Weston agree on one thing: Keep an open mind.
"Read up on the country's culture so you're not in total shock," Collins said. "Do not be afraid to go out and explore. My blog is proof that you can come here to work and still have fun. Learn some Arabic. It is impressive to the Saudis that you are at least getting accustomed to their culture.
"Be patient to the way others do things in their 'backyard,' which will seem different from where you are from in the world. Living abroad is a challenging experience," said Collins, "but with patience and understanding, you will adapt and enjoy this new way of life."