1/ What is the one thing that surprised you about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
One of the things that really surprised me was the hospitality and openness of all the respondents we have spoken to.
We had a short workshop with a few members of the team from the client’s office before we headed to the Kingdom. Besides educating us about the culture and etiquette in Saudi Arabia, they also cautioned us about not coming across as too forward during the interviews and how it was important to always be extra conversational and friendly. Afraid that I might come across as rude or some of my actions might be misunderstood, I was nervous when I first arrived in Saudi Arabia.
However, thanks to the hospitality of the people we’ve met, I got over my nerves very quickly. Many of them were so kind as to invite us to their homes, some even served us delicious food. It seems like everyone in Saudi Arabia is a wonderful host. We are often served fresh juices, Arabic coffee, chocolates, dates and amazing desserts. Always in a particular order. Most of the people we met, including members of the Royal family were friendly and forthcoming. These interviews were surprisingly enjoyable and there was always laughter in the room, which puts me at ease and allows me to excel at being the chatty researcher I am.
2/ What is the one challenge you had to overcome?
I do not consider this a huge challenge, but one of the things I had to get used to is not being able to take walks while in Saudi Arabia. They do not have a strong pedestrian culture - their roads often do not have sidewalks and many prefer to be driven to their destination instead. Even though I did enjoy hopping in and out of a car because it was so convenient, after a few days I was really itching for a good walk.
This made me realise that being able to walk to different amenities is something that I’ve often taken for granted living in Singapore. Very often, these short walks give me plenty of time to reflect on the day or have a nice chat with family or friends. It was tough not being able to do that in Saudi Arabia but it definitely made me appreciate these small blessings I’ve taken for granted now that I’m back!
3/ What was your greatest learning over these 3 weeks in a completely different environment and culture?
It was very encouraging to hear from many of the women we met that they would like to be more independent have greater agency when it comes to managing their finances. Many of them also had lots of business ideas that they are hoping to start.
The culture in Saudi Arabia is changing rapidly and it is truly heartening to see so many women being brave and wanting to start something of their own. Sometimes in Singapore, I feel that perhaps we have become a bit too comfortable, and perhaps we forget to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and try new things. This was the longest and most challenging fieldwork I have been part of it - but it was definitely an incredibly inspiring experience as well.