In the wake of the oil boom years in the Gulf, a great many western men trekked over to the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula and the island of Bahrain to eke out their fortunes. They were soon followed by their wives and children, and the wives set about making this alien land as close as possible to the comforts of their homeland.
As the influx of expatriates boomed, some of the Gulf countries relaxed their restrictions on employing females and began allowing the recruitment of unattached foreign females for a variety of posts. There were also business licences granted to foreign women on pay parity with men. Dubai is a fine example of an emirate that took the lead in this venture.
In Saudi Arabia, though, such a practice was unheard of for many decades. The only unattached western females who were allowed in were registered nurses at government hospitals or a handful of stewardesses on the national airline.
Once these women settled down and their children were enrolled in schools, the wives often found that they had a lot of spare time. Some were previously employed, before moving with their husbands to the Gulf. Others who had been content just being married and raising their children found they had more time on their hands than back home. There were no families to visit, no old friends for coffee and so on.
With boredom setting in, and restricted by residential laws for employment, some of the more resourceful women started unauthorised home-based businesses that included a variety of services that were badly needed by a growing Gulf population awash with Petrodollars. Secluded in gated communities, some of the more enterprising women began bakery businesses, others sold floral arrangements, while still others offered music lessons. Initially, most of their customers happened to be other expatriates, but soon Saudi nationals got wind of it and emerged as loyal customers.
Gradually, small advertisements appeared in newspapers, seeking to employ a ‘western female English teacher’ at one of the many international schools that began sprouting in the country. Such sources of employment were eagerly grabbed by a multitude of western women who soon enriched their otherwise dull life with a meaningful vocation. The schools’ requirements at the time were basic. One only needed to know to speak the language, be it English or French, and teach it to pupils with the help of books provided by the schools.
With the passage of time, the schools became more selective and began insisting on hiring more qualified women for teaching posts, as these institutions increasingly came under the radar of the Ministry of Education.
It was about this time that an announcement appeared for an educational institution in one of the larger Saudi cities, seeking prospective students for enrolment. The advertisement, placed in a Saudi daily newspaper, went on to describe the buildings, facilities, number of students per classroom, curriculum on offer, and it highlighted the educational and professional qualifications of its teaching staff, adding that the faculty included ‘no expat wives’.
A day or two later, an expat lady from the capital wrote back in the letters-to-the-editor column of the newspaper, venting her ire at what she saw as an insult to wives all over. She went on to demand some kind of an apology or retraction from those responsible for designing the advertisement. A California expat added her wrath to this brewing pot of fury, along with a growing number of angry housewives. A mother of three, she had elected to teach her children at home, and was of the opinion that she was doing a superior job over some of those ‘degreed’ teachers.
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When I became aware of the controversy, I searched for the advertisement for a closer look. Sure enough, there it was ‘NO expat wives’. Apparently, what this educational institution was trying to convey to its prospective students and their parents was that their instructors were qualified professionals who had chosen this profession by design and not by default. Unfortunately, by that same token, the advertisement had apparently demeaned “expat wives”.
A French lady who felt insulted by the advertisement called me to protest and went on to describe her qualifications in detail: A degree in Theology from Paris-Sorbonne University, an author of three books, and an expat wife and a mother .... by choice! Did that make her less of a human being? She had a point. Afterall, were not Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel wives first and politicians later on, I added.
I wondered what the rationale behind that advertisement could have been. Or was it simply a case of ‘lost in translation’? In the bargain, though, that advertisement certainly attracted more attention than it had aimed for.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.