Engineering, Construction, and Getting Around in Saudi Arabia
May 7, 2012
Conrad Woodard, ECC Future Leader
Up until a few months ago, I had a pretty active work and personal life balance. I was managing offshore assets and leading corporate initiatives for a global engineering consulting firm going on 5 years now. I’ve also been managing 2 sons, 2 dogs, and working for an awesome boss (wife) of 10 years who also works for a large energy company. Not too eventful, but a really blessed life.
Still, I felt that I needed to seek an opportunity outside of my comfort zone and in an environment where I can grow in both career and personal life. I originally got my start in the industry as a field engineer, and was inclined to return to the field and hopefully execute an engineering and construction project(s) in a project management role. Then it happened; I got a call about an opportunity in the Middle East. I was thinking Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Qatar; but no, this opportunity was for Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. Not a big city in Saudi; one of the smallest and desolate places my company could find. But it was a chance to be a part of one of my company’s largest EPC projects to date. Therefore, after some arm twisting, discussion with the family, and prayer, I accepted.
Living in a foreign land that does not cater to English speakers whatsoever is very challenging, yet it’s manageable. It presents numerous opportunities to learn and experience the native customs and practices. For example, Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country; it is Saudi law that all observe and respect Islamic law. Yet foreigners outnumber the nationals by at least 3 to 1. Many of these foreigners have various religious beliefs other than Islamic, but are not allowed to display their beliefs publicly. .
All men, regardless of nationality, must dress modestly. This means no shorts or shirts exposing too much skin. Nothing above the knee or elbow (generally). Saudi Arabia maintains a strict dress code for women; all women, regardless of nationality, must wear an abaya. An abaya is a floor draping, loose fitting garment that is worn over street clothes and is usually black. Saudi nationals must also wear the hijab which completely covers the hair. Many women wear a cover over their faces exposing only their eyes. Government authorized religious police called Mutaween enforce this dress code along with many other strict laws and they are not playing around. Now with that said, in the mall you may see women covered in black from head to toe, but shopping in fashionable boutiques selling skimpy dresses and stilettos; not exactly what I was expecting to see in such a conservative country!
Getting to and from work is probably one of the most challenging adjustments I’ve had to make. Seeing that the city has fairly new infrastructure in regards to city streets and highways, traffic violation enforcement is a bit lax. This slack tends to result in erratic and unpredictable driver behavior. These highway conditions and driver behaviors has truly heightened my defensive driving skills and awareness.
I have been lucky enough to work with a good team of guys that tends to resemble fraternity-type of environment (minus the alcohol). But due to the long work hours and irregular shop hours, it makes personal life a bit irrelevant if you allow it. So here I am, 3 months into the project, living on a resort villa compound in the middle of the desert, working 10-12 hour shifts on site 6 to 7 days straight. It’s good work; executing the plan, mitigating schedule slips, leading engineering delivery, managing changes, confirming vendor compliances, heavy lifting planning and execution, leading constructability reviews, guiding installation, and so on. My time here will continue to enhance my leadership skills, determination to excel, and diligence to make the project a success; which I am thankful.
And recently, I was blessed to return with my family! Having them with me has really made compound living much more pleasant and is helping me maintain a healthy work and personal life balance.