Camilla in Riyadh: A whole new world!

Published 2020-06-04 11:55

"If you are young, do not be afraid to change your life because living in a different country broadens your horizons. At the end of this adventure I will take my abaya with me as a symbol of the efforts I have made and the courage I have put in!" Camilla tells us about her life and work experience in Saudi Arabia. Read the interview to find out her story.

Tell us a little about yourself and the reasons that brought you to Riyadh

It was August 2019, I was in a car headed for Venice to board the cruise ship and enjoy a well-deserved week of vacation together with my best friend when I hear the phone ring and read the name of my manager. I immediately think it is an urgency otherwise he would never have called me during the holidays, with my heart in my throat I answer and he says: "Are you sitting? I'm here with the personnel manager "and I start thinking about the worst and continue saying" yes a position has been opened for the project in Riyadh that the company is following and we immediately thought of you ".

I immediately said yes and after returning from their holidays they sent me to Milan to do the visa and on September 24 I left for the first time to the capital of Saudi Arabia together with two colleagues. For privacy reasons, I cannot say the name of the company, nor what project is it, I can only say that it is currently the largest and most important project in Riyadh.

What was your first impression just arrived?

I was very surprised at how "great" everything was compared to Italy where everything is on a human scale.

The first thing I ever thought of was: "But how do they drive these guys?". In my first Compound-work journey I risked my life 2 or 3 times!

I was also impressed to see such a large and noisy open space, very different from the type of working environment I was used to.

However, the first impression was positive especially with respect to the way I was treated and welcomed by everyone.

What was the most complex situation you experienced and how did you overcome it?

Leaving aside the work component in which I experienced various complex and delicate moments due to various factors, surely the greatest difficulty for me was to resize my too lively and "over the top" character for a city like Riyadh. It is true that Arabia is changing and it has already changed a lot but I don't think it is ready to manage a girl like me in the midst of its hyperactivity.

I had to contain myself a lot, I am a very expansive, noisy, full of life person and above all with only one rule "to live a life that is worth living". Following this motto I let myself be guided by my feelings and emotions, if I listen to music and I want to dance on the street I usually do it, but in Riyadh you can't, you would be looked at badly and perhaps even taken by the police.

Little by little I got used to this more peaceful and orderly way of life, leaving my exuberance for the Compound (the complex where I lived, where it is allowed not to use the abaya and where you can, within the limits, do what you want).

How do you find yourself working in an international team being the only woman?

Until recently I had an Italian colleague who had also been sent there from the Italian office. His presence comforted me also because I am the little girl in the group and my colleagues see them almost as a second family and having a woman who made me a little "mother" was definitely a pro. Now I will have to see it alone, I will have to try to assert myself in a team of men only, I will have to try to show that despite my young age I deserve to hold this position and I can go very far.

For a few years, Saudi women have also been allowed to work and I believe it is a very important step for the country, a recognition of the value of women not only as a housewife but also as an independent and working woman. Inshallah (ie "if God wills") slowly Saudi women will be able to conquer more and more freedom.

What differences did you find between the Italian and the Saudi world of work?

Without generalizing, because every person is made in his own way, I think the main difference is "pragmatism". We Italians are more pragmatic, quicker and more resolute in completing a job or solving a problem. In the Saudi work environment, on the other hand, people work more calmly, things are done yes, but without haste, without anxiety, when there is time to do it.

We Italians are louder and easily alter (all combined with our classic and unmistakable gestures), the Saudis are always calm, calm, they do not leave their emotions almost transparent. The Saudis do not like to be criticized or addressed directly, they prefer an indirect confrontation. The differences are many but they are probably the ones that make our work group so powerful and unique.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time in Riyadh?

Unlike what one might think, Riyadh offers enough fun activities. I was very lucky and arrived here just before the start of the "Riyadh Season", a series of events spread throughout the city which included concerts, playgrounds, lantern festival, fireworks, international restaurants including Twiga Briatore etc ... I attended all these attractions with some friends and I also went to the Pitbull concert, perhaps the best evening since I was in Riyadh.

I also like walking around the Mall giants, going to the cinema, discovering new places in the city, visiting the Mosques and the souqs (typical open-air markets).

Every so often during the weekend I make trips out of town: Bahrain, desert ("The Edge Of The World"), Oman, Dubai etc ...

Saudi Arabia has changed a lot in recent years, before you couldn't even listen to music in public, now there are many more freedoms.

Do you have to dress according to specific rules when you are public?

Yes, in public places as well as in the office it is mandatory to wear an abaya.

It is a long dress up to the ankles that can be closed with the zip or with the buttons or simply by screwing it on itself.

The abaya can also be kept open (although in some places it is advisable to keep it closed) but underneath should be worn loose and not low-cut garments or that allow the body to be seen. It is not mandatory to wear the veil or cover the head (unless you go to a place of worship).

I struggled to get used to it, but now I'm used to it and I enjoy buying abaye of every color and texture!

Until a few years ago the Mutawa was present, or the Saudi religious police who imposed on everyone a certain way of dressing and behaving in respect of religion.

Is it true that women cannot drive? How do you get around?

From 24 June 2018 Saudi women started driving. It is a decision by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a view to "Vision 2030", a plan for economic and social reforms.

If an Italian woman wanted to drive it would be enough to obtain an international driving license; neither me nor my colleagues, however, by business decision, can drive (also because driving in Riyadh is really difficult and very dangerous!) and therefore we move with Uber. It is a really comfortable and functional service.

Did the coronavirus have a negative impact on your working mission in Riyadh?

Unfortunately, as in all the works, yes. Fortunately, I had no negative impacts on the economic level but on the level of work management.

I deal with an area where the human component is very important and working from home by communicating only via PC is not easy.

Furthermore, this situation made me stay in Riyadh for a month and it passes more than the trip we had organized. They decided to close the borders and to block all flights, especially for Italy as it is a country very at risk.

The lack of contact with the outside world and the inability to go home had destabilized me enough.

Fortunately, the Italian Embassy organized a flight to Rome and I was able, albeit late, to return home and see my family.

I hope that everything will return to normal soon and that I will be able to return to the office in Riyadh soon.

Country you go, customs you find: which ones have most affected you in Saudi Arabia?

Among the customs that most impressed me (some in a positive sense and others in a negative one) there are:

The presence of the "Family Section" and "Single Section" (ie of the "family" or "men" sector) both in restaurants and shops. This division allows families or single women to stay in a "protected" environment, away from prying eyes. In women's underwear stores, for example, access is granted only to families or women.

Religiousness: Sharia is Islamic law that is applied to Muslims. I think this type of religiosity (if not carried to excess) is a very strong and deep-rooted form of devotion.

Shops close during prayer hours: always linked to strong religiosity, during prayers all shops and restaurants and public businesses must close. I risked getting stuck inside a shop several times because I didn't realize that prayer was starting!

Sharing: the Saudis (I think Eastern cultures in general) have a very strong sense of sharing. Especially with regards to food ... you never order single dishes, but many dishes to share and eat together.

Different working days: when I arrived in Riyadh I was told that I would work from Sunday to Thursday. For them, Friday is a sacred day, in fact even the shops open in the afternoon from three onwards.

What advice would you give to a woman who should move to Saudi Arabia. How to approach the Saudi world of work and also to local society?

For a Western woman (actually also for a man) it is certainly not easy to adapt to such a different world.

My advice, especially if you are young like me, is not to be afraid of changing your life since most of the time change is enrichment and not giving up.

The experience of living in a country other than one's own has the "pros" of the "cons" but certainly allows you to open personal horizons. However, you must always present yourself with curiosity and respect to get the most out of the experience.

We must have courage and we must not feel uncomfortable in any way just because we are women in a society where there are still evident, albeit small, gender differences.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh said: "It takes as much courage to have tried and failed as it does to have tried and succeeded".

At the end of this adventure I will take my abaye with me as a symbol of effort and courage: after this experience, nothing will stop me!