Mrs Hamnett's Blog from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia



Saudi Arabia receives somewhat negative press from the media in the UK and I was hoping in my short visit to discover how life really was for an average teenage girl and for a female teacher living in this Country.   


In preparation for my visit to Saudi Arabia I of course read as much information as I could find on the internet and asked questions of my sponsor at the British Council.  The information I gained left me feeling anxious yet excited about my trip.  My main concerns were about my arrival at Riyadh airport and the experience of passport control as news reports suggested that I would be given a hard time; how strange to feel so nervous when I had a valid passport and visa.  My second concern was with regard to my own conduct as I was keen not to offend the country that was hosting my exchange.  As I am sure you know the life of a woman in Saudi Arabia is very different to many places around the world and I was keen to comply with various traditions and expectations.    Dar Al Uloom School


I was connected to a School called Dar Al Uloom which is a private school for Saudi students.  The school has two separate sections for males and females and both schools along with the University (which I visited on day 1) are owned by a prestigious Saudi family who are connected to the royal family.  I only spent time with the female students from grade 7 to 12 (aged 11 - 17) who are studying in the International section of the school.  The international students are taught in English rather than Arabic and they opt for a curriculum similar to the one used by America.  The students that I worked with rarely mixed with the female students at the same school following a National curriculum which is taught in Arabic.   

Over the next 5 days I will publish my experiences and thoughts of working in the Middle East with you, updating you on whether my initial concerns became an issue during my trip.

Day One

My arrival into Riyadh was somewhat delayed due to a sandstorm but I was delighted that my late arrival was the only issue I had to deal with at the airport.  Passport control did not pose any problems for me although it was unusual to be the only women out of approximately 200 people queuing to gain entry into Saudi Arabia. 

During my visit I had to adjust to two changes; 1. wearing an abaya (full length black cloak) over my clothes whenever I left my hotel room, 2. not driving (as women are not allowed to drive in SA).

My Abaya

After just 4 hours of sleep I was picked up by a driver from the British Council to take me to school for a 7am start - I was delighted to throw my abaya over my ever so creased clothes as I was too tired to worry about 'what' to wear.

Following a tour of Dar Al Uloom School and a few introductions I was taken to the nearby university with students in grade 12 for a marketing presentation.  We travelled on a bus with blacked out windows that protected the students from being visible during the journey.  The all female university was interesting as I came across a class being taught by a male lecturer via a TV screen with attached microphones for questions, the teacher was not allowed to teach the females in person and was being filmed in another building.  

On return to school I was given permission to remove my abaya and I think the staff were surprised at my reluctance to part with my new garment (creased clothes remember)!  The staff at the school are all from the Middle East and of course all female, the small number teaching in the International section came from Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Saudi itself.  Changes to sponsorship for overseas workers was a big topic of discussion during my stay as The King announced in the days before my visit that if anyone was working illegally (ie not sponsored by their place of employment) that they would need to change sponsorship or leave the country.  Initially no time was given for this change but then a 3 month window was introduced as some schools said they would need to close if no time allowance was given.  As I understand one of the reasons behind this drive is to provide more jobs for local people as SA currently has a large proportion of unemployed young people.  

The students are allowed to remove their abaya and headscarves when in the school building and underneath they wore long tartan skirts and long sleeved white blouses embossed with the school logo.  They accessoried their uniform with lots of jewellery and whatever shoes they liked. 

 I observed grade 11 in an English lesson in the afternoon and I was surprised by how quiet they were ( I now know that this was because they were trying to set a good example to me).  Each lesson is approximately 45 mins long and students in all grades work from set texts, which differ for males and females.  The classrooms have no natural light and contains very little wall display or other resources such as books.

The school day ended at 13:45 when the caretaker took to his microphone to shout out the name of every student as her driver appeared, as students are not allowed to wait in public or walk down the road unaccomponied.  The debate of whether or not to allow females to drive continues in Saudi Arabia but I can honestly say that I did not miss driving today as I have closed my eyes on every journey so far due to the lack of lane discipline.

In the evening I was lucky enough to walk across the skywalk on the 99th floor of The Kingdom Mall.  The building looks like a giant bottle opener and whilst I was initially irritated  that the building stopped at floor 9,  I then discovered in the lift that the mall had a -1 floor therefore making 100 floors in total.  The view from the skywalk was limited due to the earlier sandstorm but still a worthwhile visit.

Day 1 highlight was meeting Rola (exchange teacher) and some of the students and my least favourite part was sitting in traffic!

Day Two

The students at Dar Al Uloom School had an opportunity to ask me questions about our school today and they were under the impression that all English schools are like the ones shown in St Trinians!  They thought you all slept at school, wore lots of make-up and short skirts and did very little work. I put them straight on a few items but could not say all of the above statements were untrue.  I really enjoyed the time with the students as they were really interested in what you were all allowed to do or not do and they were surprised to hear how many trips you had the opportunity to go on.   

The girls were particularly desperate to know if you are allowed to use your phones during the school day.  Interestingly the headline on the front of the daily paper on this day was about Facebook damaging secondary school students progress in SA: – sound familiar?  Due to the segregation of males and females in Saudi Arabia the internet is a difficult social activity to police.  The girls are school are very keen on twitter and like so many of you are desperate to have their phones attached to their hands at all times BUT they are not allowed to touch their phones during the school day.   Dar Al Uloom School

I observed two lessons today; the first was a presentation on Egypt by grade 10 students and the second a grade 11 maths lesson.  The students are taught from one text book for each lesson and the text books are published with slightly different content for males and females.   The girls call teacher when they need assistance rather than Miss or Mrs Whoever and refer to the headteacher as Miss Natalia.  The class sizes are very small as the International section of the school is quite new and numbers vary between classes from 6 to 12.   

I gained the impression that the teachers at the school were a little reluctant to let me watch their lessons maybe as they are teaching in English, which is their second language or because the majority of the team are only teaching whilst their husbands work in Saudi Arabia and not because it is their chosen profession.   I felt a little frustrated about the lack of time in the classroom today and arranged to teach my own lessons the following day.   

In the afternoon I went to the Embassy area of The Kingdom to visit my sponsor at The British Council.  My contact was delighted that news of the exchange had made the local paper and we discussed the project work and the benefits of connecting the UK and SA classrooms.  We also discussed the current changes in sponsorship and the future potential for females to drive. 

In the evening Rola took me to a traditional market and then for dinner at one of  Riyadh's many malls.  The restaurants have two eating areas one for men and one for women/family and tonight we ate Lebanese food.  Whilst waiting for Rola's driver at the end of the evening I was told off for not wearing a headscarf, which I quickly placed on my head.  I was under the impression that I did not need to wear one as a western woman but it was not appropriate for me to question this request.

My highlight today was listening to what the students thought about English schools and my low point was being told off for not having my head covered.

Day 3

Display I had a great day at school today.  I created a display of some of our students work in the corridor and it was pleasing to see the students and staff taking an interest in the work.

The students in grade 12 are preparing a Science fayre for parents and students whereby they demonstrate experiments and people vote on which one they enjoyed the most.  This year they decided to video the experiments rather than perform them live.  I was allowed to sit in on the practice run through – the videos were amazing – really creative and some students spent such a long time preparing them.   Unfortunately I was not allowed to take photographs of the students whilst in Saudi Arabia and so I cannot share the work with you.  I watched a girl set fire to her hands, nail art production by making circles of nail polish on water and a great video to go with The Element Song (that I am sure you have all heard – the one with the elephants).  One girl made her up own song to Gangnam Style called Science Style  Science_Style.mp3 which I recorded –  it is well worth a listen.

Pythagoras I then taught trigonometry to grade 11 and they got the shock of their lives when I shared the news with them that Pythagoras was not a very nice man.  It was interesting to discover that the girls did not know any history of mathematics when as a region huge advancements in algebra were made.  Anyway I hope they will now always think of me when they use sine, cosine and tangent!

In the afternoon I showed grade 8 and then grade 7 the fantastic video that our sixth form students put together.  The video shows them at home or doing their extra curricula stuff and then they appear together and give a tour of the school.  The students at Dar Al Uloom found the video fascinating and initially sat in silence watching it but then became a little distracted when Anna Heslop went to her swim club as there was quite a bit of bare flesh!  IF the sixth form team who made the video agree, I will make it available.

DisplayGrade 8 read the letters from 8CJP and started to write their responses to our girls.   Once again we had a question and answer session but this time about films, books etc.  There are no cinemas in SA and whilst I spotted one or two books in the school library the girls are not allowed in.  It seems that the girls are big fans of the Hunger Games and that they watch British and American films at home as much as they can to improve their spoken English which is pretty good.

I loved my whole day today and have no low points to share.

Day 4    My Dessert

I was so excited about my day yesterday I forgot to tell you about my lovely  evening but I have decided rather than give you all the details I would summarise by showing you a picture of my dessert ... Chocolate sphere (yummy).

I felt like I spent most of today in the car. It took 50 mins to get to school from my hotel then 50 mins to get from school to the Museum and about an hour to return and then a 1hr 15min journey back to the hotel.  In addition I had approx. 2 x 40 min trips in the evening so a grand total of 255 mins which is over 3 hours approx. 1/5 of my day (beware of maths product placement).  The traffic was extra crazy, busy and scary today.  I witnessed toddlers standing on drivers laps holding on to steering wheels and a driver feeding his infant a bottle of milk whilst driving!!  I'm not sure as a female if I would want to drive on these roads if permission were granted.  My driver got into a situation where both he and another driver refused to move to let the other through and eventually the police were called to deal with the situation - my driver was getting quite wound up whereas the other got back in his car put his feet up on the dashboard and had a cigarette - calm as anything.  I am pleased to say my driver won the battle of the cars (eventually). 

Scale model of Mecca

The museum that we visited today was really interesting and well thought out.  It had descriptions in English as well as Arabic and so I could easily follow the exhibits.  The grade 11 girls translated when we watched videos in Arabic and they made the trip much more interesting and enjoyable for me.  I particularly enjoyed learning about the Prophet Muhammad and seeing the scale model of Mecca.  The majority of people that visit SA are on pilgrimage and visit Mecca and Medina ( which are situated near the city of Jeddah at the other side of Saudi Arabia.  The girls that went on the museum trip have not yet visited Mecca as although they are 16 they do not feel they have enough knowledge to get the best out of this once in a lifetime opportunity.  Like in England the Museum was free but unlike England we had to visit on a day that it was only open to females.

School Cafeteria I experienced food at school today.  The cafeteria is outside but covered and is made up of different kiosks - you can eat at the diet centre (sandwiches etc.), at the giant orange in the middle, wraps from another vendor or chocolate fondue.  Due to the fact that lessons start at 7am students eat breakfast at first recess around 9am and then have a snack at afternoon recess.  I had a warm turkey and cheese sandwich and orange juice, which were very tasty.  

In the evening I visited Rola at her apartment and then went out with her and her husband.  Like Rola her husband is Jordanian but he lived in the UK when he was younger. We spent some time discussing places that we had both visited in the UK and our views on London and Riyadh.  The remainder of the time was planning Rola’s visit to Beaconsfield in June.  I think she will get a surprise as to how different our school is in comparison to Dar Al Uloom and hopefully if I take her out at the right times she will witness quieter roads!

Day 5 

The FeastToday was thoroughly enjoyable as the students prepared a presentation for me and invited the whole of the international section of the school to attend.  I was treated to traditional Saudi food that the girls had made at home along with entertainment in the form of traditional dance in national costume.  In addition the grade 11 students prepared Powerpoint presentations to emphasise the differences between ‘what people perceived Saudi Arabia to be like’ and ‘what it is actually like’.

The FeastThe presentations were well prepared and interesting and the students worked hard to demonstrate their English and presentation skills.  A huge feast followed with so much food - every student who prepared a dish expected me to try it.  I am allergic to a number of food items and so I was trying my best to be cautious whilst not offending anyone.  Luckily the students displayed recipies beside each dish to help me to work out what I could or could not try.  A lot of the dishes contained rice (Kapsa) with butter being the main ingredient for dessert. And more

After lunch the grade 7 students danced and it did not take long before I was dragged onto the dance floor to copy their moves – this gave them all a real laugh.  The students then encouraged (pressurised) staff to also join them and before long we had a good proportion of the school dancing, singing and having fun on what should have been an average school day.

I am really grateful to all of the girls who made this day so special; they put in so much effort to ensure that I felt welcome in their school.

The weekend in Saudi Arabia is on a Thursday and a Friday and so I joined a weekly staff meeting to look ahead to the following week.  The head discussed the forthcoming changes to their employment following the announcement for all teachers to be sponsored by their employers and to tell them that after the weekend a member of the Ministry of Education would be visiting to inspect the school (similar to OFSTED).  The inspection would involve lesson observations and teacher interviews.  The headteacher advised her staff to be present (saying take panadol if necessary), prepared to speak positively about the students and to be well prepared.

The students finish the summer term in Saudi around the end of June as the weather becomes far too hot for studying to take place – they have hot days rather than snow days when students are advised to stay home rather than come into school.  The weather was bearable during my visit although to be fair I did not get a chance to be outside in the sun as I was either in school, a car, a mall or in my hotel room.  The abaya did not encourage me to sit out as I am sure you know black absorbs the heat and my skin would have turned bright red (actually my feet did as they were the only part of my body exposed to the sun)!





Last modified: Wednesday, 7 August 2013, 8:11 AM