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Why I finally moved away from the Gulf

August 15, 2023 26 Comments

After 7 years in the Gulf Arab countries, I finally packed my life up and left. 

It’s been a tumultuous journey since I first arrived in the chaotic Kuwait until now as I leave quiet Qatar.

My cat and I flew to another continent to start the next chapter of my expat life in…

Belgrade, Serbia

Now you’re probably wondering why I left Qatar and why I would move to Serbia of all places.

This post attempts to answer both those questions. But before I get into that, I have to say thank you. If you are here- reading this post- its because you have followed my life from some time period when I lived in the Middle East. You’re not here solely for travel tips or information on teaching abroad. And I appreciate that.

In a world where blogs exist to advertise products and recommend companies in exchange for money, I am flattered that you still trust me enough to visit my site and read about my life- the joys, sadness, reflections and everything in between.

If you’re a seasoned expat- particularly one who has lived in a part of the Gulf Arab countries- then this post might resonate with you. You may have felt as I do. Or you might be one of those expats who think these countries can do no wrong and that what they offer in terms of quality of life is worth all the bad things. Feel free to disagree with me. Or maybe you’ve never even stepped foot into this region but you’ve lived abroad before. So you will understand how, in the expat journey, sometimes you hit a point where the things that you didn’t even take notice of before, start to really frustrate you. The things you used to be able to accept transform into glaring red flags. It dawns on you that your time here needs to end before you lose your mental peace. 

That was the point I hit when I realised I needed to leave a comfort zone I had long since outgrown. Despite the comfortable lifestyle, frequent travels and amazing friends I had made, I was discontent. When I sat down and reflected on the reasons for my feeling of stagnation, I was able to focus on exactly why I needed to leave…

Why I left the Middle East

For most expatriates, their time in the Gulf Arab States is numbered from the time they land. With no path to citizenship and your time in the country linked to an employer, your time period in the country can be as transient or long as you want it to be. Meaning that any expat that lives in the Gulf countries has to be sponsored by someone- if you’re employed, your sponsor is your company. If you’re in a heterosexual marriage, your sponsor can also be your spouse (and the spouse will be sponsored by their company). Are you with me so far?

With the stringent control that companies have over their employees, the work experience impacts everything. If you have a fair and equitable company invested in your personal happiness, then you could easily stay long term as long as the company wants to keep renewing your contract. If your company is unstable and provides little/no benefits, has a toxic work environment and offers no support then your time will most likely be more temporary. Remember- if your spouse is sponsored by their company and they’re terminated or resign- that marks the end of entire family’s time in that country, unless they can secure other employment.

There is of course the option to move to another company in the same country or within the region depending on how employable you are. There are other caveats for people who own properties or businesses in the region but I won’t speak for their experiences as I don’t have firsthand knowledge. 

At this point I should also mention that the concept of worker’s rights and trade unions do not exist. Protests are illegal. You either work or you leave. If your company doesn’t want you to continue, it’s incredibly easy for them to get rid of you with few to little consequences or questions. That’s not to say that there aren’t laws in place- there are. They are rarely followed. The legal system here is confusing and requires a lot of expense to fight for what’s due to you.

Ultimately most people who live here during the prime years of their life are quite aware that:

-No matter how good their Arabic is or how much they understand the local culture, this is not the country they will retire in.

Even people who grew up in the Gulf countries- born here, completed schooling here, created their own families here- still have to leave if their parent/s aren’t citizens. Talking to those people- the Gulf babies- is terrifying. They are fully delusional about this being their home and how it’s the best place in the world meanwhile… they have not had the opportunity to exist in a society that they could potentially integrate with fully. It’s scary to me, to be raised on the periphery of a society you call home but will never fully accept you. It’s not their fault and I don’t blame them at all (I will explain why in a bit). But talking to these people is what cemented my idea that I have to leave before I ever fell into this trap. 

I feel like living in the Gulf is like being in an unhealthy relationship. You and your partner have been together for a very long period. But you’re aware that you should leave (and that it will eventually be necessary for you to do so), but the ‘ ‘what comes after” makes you uncertain. Yet, somehow, you feel at ease with your dissatisfaction because the potential uncertainty after the break-up is infinitely worse. 

Life in the Gulf is extremely comfortable- it’s been created that way to entice you to stay. The more you want to stay, the more you can give these economies your skills, generate profits for them and help build a country that keeps you safe. And yes, if you grew up in this context, you would have no idea about what it’s like to live in ‘less comfortable’ societies.

As long as you keep your head down, and don’t question too many things too loudly, you can pocket your salary and enjoy the comfortable, convenient and appealing lifestyle.  Time passes so quickly as you slip into a sense of comfort-

And leaving gets harder and harder the longer you live in a place.

Especially one that is a seemingly modern-day Utopia where everything is convenient; even the heat is a mild matter as we live in temperature-controlled houses and sleep with thick comforters even when it’s nearing 50C outside.

There are a few reasons I can pinpoint as to why I exited this region. None of them are attacks on the countries I have lived in but rather, just reasons I couldn’t continue on based on my personality and personal preferences:

The censorship and the way it infiltrates every fabric of society

On a broad level, censorship is practiced by most media publications in the region. It’s very rare- if ever- to hear criticism against governments in these countries. 

When people say negative things about a country in the Gulf, they lower their voices. They look around them furtively. They use euphemisms and beat around the bush… “You know how it is” they say with pointed looks, not actually stating the issue at hand. Nervous laughter ensues. Sometimes they say things like, “You never know who is listening!” particularly if you’re on a phone call or sending a voice note. This fear of saying something wrong- or saying something that could be perceived as wrong- is rampant in the region. Tales of people being jailed and deported for criticizing even a small aspect of life here out loud simmer under the surface. You keep quiet and say nothing because you never know what the consequences could be for you. You choose your words carefully and engage in superficial discussion with strangers because you don’t know who you can trust.

Censorship becomes a part of the day to day when living in these countries. 

I don’t think I’ve been to the cinema in years. It’s not worth it to me. Most of the movies are censored even for the slightest hint to cross-dressing, homosexuality and romance. The reasoning is wanting to protect impressionable youth; but instead what I’ve observed is that this society is creating a generation of intolerant people who don’t know how to perceive anything that happens outside of their comfort zone. I don’t know why movies are censored but my students can watch anything and everything on Netflix. And they do. Oh they do!

In other instances of censorship, posting an honest review of a place can also land you in hot water. Saying something negative about a business is considered ‘defamation’ and can have you arrested. Some Gulf countries are stricter about this than others but it’s a common notion that you can and should only say positive things or say nothing at all. That means that nearly every review you’re reading is biased; even if it isn’t, you start to doubt the validity of it all.

But for teachers, censorship is the bane of our existence. In Qatar- as of 2023- the Ministry of Education has a 23 page booklet outlining the topics that cannot be discussed in classrooms.

Yes, that includes human reproduction, evolution, religions besides Islam, any political discussions… The list is endless. Teaching any kind of social studies course here is a challenge (I taught 3 over 3 years). There was so much I couldn’t do.

In Kuwait, I know teachers who have had to take black markers and censor paragraphs that alluded to evolution. I knew kindergarten teachers who had to stick labels over photos of girls and boys holding hands. Another teacher friend in Oman was forced to censor photos of children wearing shorts from workbooks. Another teacher in Bahrain had to redact hundreds of history textbooks for mentioning the Holocaust. Teachers I know have been in trouble for having multicoloured class decor (with the claim that it looks like the LGBTQIA+ flag). Another teacher was called in for questioning when a book found in her classroom mentioned the word “bra”. 

You’re consistently walking  an invisible tightrope, never knowing if a student will misconstrue what you say and report it to their parents. You never know what innocent resource might offend a student or parent. While I can understand the notion of wanting to protect cultural and religious principles, show me a peer reviewed research study that illustrates that bright colours and bras are going to convert people out of their faith. 

The blatant racism and xenophobia

Now don’t get me wrong, EVERY country has racism and xenophobia. The only difference is the degrees to which it shows itself. Growing up in a post Apartheid South Africa meant that racism was all around me, infiltrating every aspect of my childhood. It’s very hard to explain this to non-South Africans so I won’t. But I never thought I would live in a region where racism was going to be more obvious than South Africa. And then I came to the Gulf. 

There is hierarchy here and where you are placed on it depends on your nationality and skin colour. These two factors influence what jobs you can obtain, where you can live and how you’re treated. Now I will say that every Gulf country is different in how I’ve been treated but overall, the same principles apply. Jobs adverts will clearly say, “Only applicants from UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand and Ireland should apply” or “Filipino or Indian women required”. Certain employment visas are only granted to specific nationalities. You only need to go to a supermarket to see that certain groups of people work certain jobs (cashiers, grocery baggers, butchers, shelf stockers etc). It’s a widely accepted norm. 

Many companies pay you according to where you’re from- not your years of experience or qualifications. That means someone from Canada will get paid 2-3 times as much as someone from India for doing the exact same job. Maybe the Canadian person is less experienced and less qualified. However, it’s not uncommon that their salary is higher simply because of the passport they hold. People just have to accept this.

I’ll never forget shopping in Aldo at a mall in Abu Dhabi and a local lady handed me a shoe and asked me to get her a size 41. There was nothing about me to indicate that I may have worked at this store other than my skin colour. She seemed confused when I handed it back to her and walked out of the store. In another instance, my sister and I visited a prominent tourist site in Abu Dhabi… she was told she would not be allowed entry because her skirt was too short (1cm above the knee); yet there were dozens of Eastern European tourists wearing tiny shorts and roaming around. Rules do not apply to white people.

In Kuwait I was yelled at every single time I had to go to a governmental office; I was also made to stand outside in the scorching sun while white people were allowed to enter air conditioned buildings even if they arrived after me. I left Kuwait in tears after the trauma.

It’s not the only instance of racism I’ve had to endure and/or observe. I have a blog post about my professional experiences of racism at schools in the Gulf. Read it here.

Racism and xenophobia slap you in the face no matter what you do and where you go. It’s simple to keep yourself preoccupied and just concentrate on whatever matters most to you if you’re socially and financially affluent- you can exist within a very comfortable bubble. There are very few instances where you have to confront your privilege. The worse thing is that the longer you stay, the more people are desensitized to the inequalities actively encouraged in these societies. And I didn’t want to ever reach that stage. 

The education system here is a crumbling mess

If you are a loyal reader, you’ll remember that in 2020 I published a blog post explaining why I didn’t want to teach in the Gulf anymore. The physical abuse, racism and microaggressions at schools I had worked at in Kuwait and the UAE had become too much for me and I stayed home for 6 months. I considered changing my profession. But ultimately, I did give teaching another chance when I returned to teaching at a school in Qatar and my last blog post was about how I watched the school transform into something abominable under useless leadership.

Here’s my broad view- with racism and xenophobia being acceptable norms in these societies, these factors play out in schools as well. That means- light skinned, white or white passing people usually sit in leadership roles; alternatively, people with the right connections or those with privileged passports are hired. Their experience in a position or willingness to adapt to local culture is irrelevant. Thus, we end up with schools led by people who are unqualified/inexperienced or just out of depth in the role they’ve been allocated to. This makes teachers’ jobs unbearable. From conversations I have had, I believe this is the case in most companies here in the Gulf- led by inefficient people who hold their positions based on their nationality or skin colour. It’s not just limited to schools.

I also think schools in this region are obsessed with grades/marks. To a point where it becomes unhealthy. Students- led by their parents- are obsessed with an arbitrary number printed in a report card rather than whether they’ve achieved skills, grown as humans and progressed in a meaningful way. Grade tampering is common; ‘gift-giving’ to teachers to ensure certain grades is also something that happens. Principals will ask teachers to grade student work well after the official deadlines in order to ensure that certain students pass.

I sat, a few hours before the grade 12 graduation grading work a student had turned in 228 days late at the insistence of my principal. The student passed the grade after taking 3 days to turn in all the work yet every other student had to work consistently all year. Where’s the integrity?

Parents will email to ask why their child got 85% instead of 100% in a project and refuse to accept the explanation you give them (with reference to the rubric). They then go over your head and complain to the principal who either insists you change the grade or just adjusts it behind your back. You start to wonder what the point of it all is. And the tests… WOW THE TESTS. These schools are obsessed with tests designed by English speaking countries for English speakers (MAP, TIMSS, PISA, SATs, the list of tests with strange acronyms is endless). Then the same test is sent to a country where most people speak English as a second or third language but the results are compared with the English speakers. It’s like comparing apples with oranges but yet teachers are held accountable for student results on tests we don’t even believe in. 

Private schools exist in a vicious cycle- parents pay the school fees, teachers assign and grade work, parents are unhappy with the grades and insist to the principals that the grade must increase otherwise they will stop paying fees. The threat of a potential loss of money means that many kids are pushed through the system without the help they need and teachers have no real autonomy. When you refuse, you’re dismissed or it’s done behind your back anyway. Parents will get what they want no matter the cost- if principals disagree they go to the Ministry of Education, make a complaint and the government cracks down on the school. It’s a lose-lose situation. I’ve seen parents fight for weeks insisting that a grade must change from 80-90%. It’s madness. 

At the end of the day it seems that education in the Gulf is just to make profit (through private schools) and that’s a hard pass for someone who is passionate about equipping students with meaningful and mindful education.

*I did teach in a public school in Abu Dhabi and although those schools aren’t for profit, they have their own challenges. As I only taught there for a year, I will not delve deeply into that experience which I can akin to being a glorified babysitter.

Now DO NOT get me wrong- no place is perfect and every place has flaws. But as a seasoned expat, you do get to a point where you’re ready to tolerate different flaws. The flaws you currently have to deal with become impossible to endure. And again, this is a reflection of ME and my unwillingness to accept this reality; it’s not an insult to the countries that run in a  way that’s best for them and their citizens.

Why Serbia?

I entered the job market very early on in recruitment season in order to give myself the best possible chance of finding a job at a school whose philosophy aligned with mine and also in a country that would offer me a new adventure. Being brown, having an African passport and being EXTREMELY PICKY means that when I start to job hunt, it takes me a long time to find what I want.

I was open to most places- as long as I could take my cat- but I did know that I wanted to move to a more liberal country. Money was not my biggest motivator but I wanted to live somewhere significantly cheaper than Doha. Despite applications to schools in Seychelles and Ethiopia, and interviews with schools in Brazil and Costa Rica, I was drawn to a school in the small city of Belgrade, Serbia. They were honest about their flaws as a school, they recognised the things they were trying to improve and I had the opportunity to speak to 7 different people at the school before signing a contract. I wanted a new adventure and this relatively under-the-radar country in Europe seemed as good a place as many for big change. I will discuss my decision in more detail on my Instagram in upcoming posts. 

Before a barrage on internet trolls attack me saying, “If you didn’t like the Gulf, you should’ve left years ago”, I recognize that these societies operate in a way that’s best for them; based the needs of their citizens, their values and cutural outlook. I have always respected that and continue to do so. While it once worked for me, I have grown exponentially in seven years and my needs have also evolved.

I think I forgot somewhere along the line that I grew up in South Africa. In a country more liberal and accepting than most “Western nations”. A place where women in bikinis and burqa’s can exist side by side; a place where a Hindu temple and Islamic mosque can be neighbours; a place where sex education is part of the curriculum and freedom of speech is a right that’s actually honoured (maybe sometimes too much). The diversity and tolerance in South Africa is unparalleled in comparison to most places I have lived and visited.

Now I am not saying that I plan to run off and have abortions or marry a woman or do whatever it is the deeply religious and/or conservatives fear. But growing up in a place where people have the right to do what they want and be accepted means that I do want to live in a place where I don’t have to constantly watch what I say and where people can feel free to exist as they are. 

It’s ok if no one understands this. It’s ok if people think I am losing my mind by giving up the comforts of the Gulf to go freeze in the Balkans. I know that right now I am making the best decision for me. And no one else has to understand that decision but me. 

I regret nothing about my time in the Gulf; it afforded me so many wonderful life lessons, meaningful experiences and I will always look back on my time here with fondness. My social media is evidence of this- so many smiling photos in beautiful places with amazing friends. A high standard of living, professional opportunities, the incredible safety and respect shown to me as a woman. I am eternally grateful. As great as it was for the years I spent in the region, there is only so long that one can continue to exist in a bubble created only to favour those who earn a certain salary, follow a certain faith and look a certain way. 

I know white expats living in the Gulf are reading this and they’re like, “What is she on about? None of that stuff is important. People will find flaws in any place!” which goes to show you just how blinkered people can be.

I don’t know what Serbia has in store for me; but I know it’s going to be a HUGE difference after living in the Gulf for so many years. It will be a struggle to start from scratch in a new school and a new country, a new region, a new continent. There’s going to be language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. But if ‘progress is impossible without change’, then I welcome it all. 

“Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is constant transformation.”

Nia Peeples

Thank you for joining me in my next chapter. 

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  • Angela D August 15, 2023 at 8:29 pm

    Always interesting to read about your journey. Shocking to read about some of the treatment you’ve experienced but not surprised at the ongoing privileges of whiteness. It’s incredible how colonial mentalities get replicated over and over. There are so many ways in which expats are bought and paid for. Really interested to hear how you find Belgrade. We found the Balkans fascinating. I’m certain you’ll learn a lot. Looking forward to following along. Wishing you well always and especially with this transition.

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks so much Angela.For me, I was surprised to see how blatantly white supremacy displayed itself in the Gulf because it’s not a white-majority country. Maybe I could understand this mentality if it was. Nevertheless its been a great ride however I am ready for a change!

  • Rochelle | Adventuresfromelle August 15, 2023 at 8:32 pm

    I’m very happy you got to leave such a censored place. The Jamaican in me could never! We are very loud and vocal about ALL our issues, often tagging our Prime Minister and his fellow party members in rants about the state of our country, roads, unemployment, housing market etc. In fact, protest is cultural here. My fellow junior doctors had a ‘sick out’ strike in 2021 even though there are laws preventing us from striking. In fact, we were one of the first nations to publicly lend our support to the end Apartheid movement and Nelson Mandela came to visit Jamaica after his release from prison as a result. We also have a park named for him here.

    As for racism, I don’t know it. It makes me scared to travel internationally sometimes. Yes, we have colorism but I love living in a majority black nation with people looking like me. It’d be a lot to get used to, being looked upon as inferior based on the colour of my skin.

    Anyway, best wishes on your new journey! I know next to nothing about Serbia so I’ll enjoy learning about the country through your lens.

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:19 pm

      Thanks for sharing your unique perspective as a Jamaican. As a South African I identify with much of what you have said because we are very involved in the governmental affairs of our land. Protests are part of the SA culture too! Censorship is unheard of in SA in this century. This freedom of speech of course stems from Apartheid when people protested for their right to basic human rights.The relationship between SA & Jamaica (and other Caribbean countries) has always been excellent due to solidarity!

      Racism is a part of expat life and extensive travel. There is no other way to sugarcoat this. My thinking is that the more of us they see, the more they become accustomed to seeing us in spaces we weren’t meant to exist in. But racism over time, in a place where you live, does destroy your soul. I can deal with it on a holiday (because I leave) but where do I escape to when it’s a place I live in?!

      Anyway, we keep moving on and aiming for progress & change!

  • Wharda August 15, 2023 at 9:25 pm

    Loved reading this.

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:15 pm

      I am so glad!

  • Maria August 15, 2023 at 10:26 pm

    First , thank you for your post.

    I’m a white expat in Kuwait, to be honest not sure why I’m still living here, all that happen here hurts and I feel completely useless.

    If you decide to ignore what is around you, life is super comfortable. But what kind of people makes us doing that?

    Enjoy your new experience ☺️

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:14 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thought Maria. Kuwait is not an easy place to live for many of us who reflect on our position in societies. Thank you for the well wishes!

  • Travel with a Pen August 15, 2023 at 11:48 pm

    I enjoy reading your insightful posts and particularly loved that you could find (and make) good adventures out of your living situation. I enjoyed reading about and watching your adventures in the Gulf countries you lived and worked in. I’m sorry you had to deal with the negative aspects but glad for the positives you experienced and the incredible opportunities too. I’m excited to follow your adventures in Serbia!

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:14 pm

      I am grateful for the experiences both and good because I got to explore a lot and share with the world. Thanks for the consistent support, I do appreciate it! Fingers crossed that Serbia is a more positive experience 🙂

  • Ayesha August 16, 2023 at 1:05 am

    Happy for you, hope it all works out. Only one thing, now that you so far away from the Gulf when will you get to see your husband expatpolar? Also how do you guys manage the long distance relationship?

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:13 pm

      We will see each other when our schedules permit and manage our marriage as we always have, since we have always lived very independent lives.

  • Ravi August 16, 2023 at 3:40 am

    Whoa. It’s a crazy education system. We are excited for your new journey in Serbia.

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:12 pm

      It’s been a wild ride! Thanks Ravi!

  • Victoria | August 16, 2023 at 4:51 am

    Congrats on the move! Good luck in your new country ❤️

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:11 pm

      Thanks so much Victoria!

  • Nosipho August 16, 2023 at 10:57 am

    I’ve been following you on instagram for quite some time but just started reading your blog yesterday AND I’ve just been binging on these blogs. Thank you for sharing your journey with us and being unfiltered about it. These uncomfortable situations have made you this person that you are today not that it’s acceptable for one to be mistreated or abused. In all thank you.

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:11 pm

      Thanks so much for reading Nosipho! Difficult experiences truly make us who we are.I hope that by sharing these experiences people can make more informed decisions.

  • Nafeesav August 16, 2023 at 3:57 pm

    Indeed very eye opening ! A lot of people my age think moving to teach English in the gulf is an amazing utopia. All the best is Serbia 😃❤️

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:03 pm

      Important to note when it comes to expat life is that there is no utopia- every place has good and bad. The reason no one ever hears anything bad is because of the stringent censorship laws so I hope this provides an alternative perspective. Please come visit when you’re in the UK!

  • Diana August 16, 2023 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you for being so open about your journey and being willing to share your experiences to help others understand. Best of luck in your next chapter!

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:02 pm

      Thanks so much for the well wishes! I hope people can be more aware and informed by reading about my experiences.

  • Mel Adams August 16, 2023 at 7:07 pm

    The censorship – I don’t miss it at all. Great article, Aneesa. And what an exciting move! I have a friend there. All the best 🙂

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:01 pm

      Thanks so much! Maybe one day you can visit us both 🙂

  • Wandering Cucamber August 19, 2023 at 3:34 pm

    Thank you for being raw and informative as always. This was well written and it’s been incredible to see you growth 💕🫂🫶 I wish you only the best in your new adventure in Serbia 🇷🇸🇷🇸

  • farukrazak003 November 3, 2023 at 9:04 pm

    Good evening

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