Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Saudi-based Security Assistance Employees Enjoy Adventure and Professional Benefits


  Story Highlights


Gina Marie Collins, an analyst with Sigmatech Security Assistance Management Directorate in Huntsville, Ala., just returned from a four-year assignment with the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard. Based at a secure military compound where employees work and live, she served as an acquisition management specialist for the aviation team .. and she loved it!

Moving from the sun kissed beauty of Southern Florida to the arid, sand dusted climate of Saudi Arabia might not sound tempting to most people. But for some employees, it is the greatest adventure of their lives.
Gina Marie Collins, an analyst with Sigmatech Security Assistance Management Directorate in Huntsville, just returned from a four year assignment with the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard. Based at a secure military compound where employees work and live, she was an acquisition management specialist for the aviation team.

During an employee's downtime, the region is a virtual playground for travelers, said Collins, who visited Abu Dhabi, Thailand, Dubai, South Africa, Bahrain and many other locations. Collins said she struck out on so many adventures while living in Saudi Arabia that she began blogging about her exploits, GMarie's Page at http://gmarieflsblog.blogspot.com.

"Saudi Arabia is one of those places where you have to be creative in finding things to do," she admitted, "but it's also the kind of assignment that allows you the time, the financial ability and autonomy to do so."

Collins' adventuresome spirit and creativity led her to learn and enjoy golf, diving and horseback riding, activities she might never have thought to pursue.

TIME, LEAVE & AUTONOMY

Collins called the assignment a great place for reflection. A lot of people come here to click the reset button, start a new phase in their lives, begin anew. She called it the perfect location to leave distractions behind and focus on yourself - pursue career, education and personal goals.

"It seems like you have a lot of time on your hands here since you are not exposed to a lot of things you would be exposed to in the U.S. - movie theaters, bars, dance clubs," she said.

She and many of her friends and co-workers enhanced their skill sets by taking online classes. "You can finish a degree here, get a second degree," she said, "or master another language."

More importantly for Collins, "I broadened my horizons by meeting people that don't necessarily think or live like I do and the result was lasting and meaningful relationships."

Employees at OPM-SANG can also also enjoy a significant number of additional leave days due to home leave and host nation holidays. Home leave is earned after being in country for 24 months, and combined with host nation observes, can nearly double some employees' leave days.

FINANCIAL BENEFITS

Jan Weston is OPM-SANG's chief of Contracting and, like Collins, has worked in Saudi for four years. Although the typical assignment for military and civilian personnel is one year unaccompanied (up to five with an extension) and for civilians two to five years accompanied, Weston was not ready to give up the many advantages of living and working in the Middle East.

For people who want to make or save more money, Weston said on top of employees' salaries, they get a 25 percent hardship differential incentive and additional money for post allowance. In all, it can add up to almost 30 percent, based on the employee's spendable income and fixed calculations.

Another cash bonus is Sunday premium, a slight wage increase based on the fact that U.S. employees at OPM-SANG mirror the Saudi workweek and work Sunday to Thursday.

Employees who accept assignments at OPM-SANG store their household goods and vehicles back in the U.S. and are provided fully furnished villas with enclosed courtyards and relatively new automobiles.

"It (the military compound) is very accommodating and I think a lot of effort is spent to make it that way so people will like being here," Weston said. "You pay no rent or utilities; you get free cable, a cell phone and fuel for your vehicle free of charge. Everything is taken care of. Really, the only thing you have to pay for is Internet service.

"You're also allowed to shop at the commissary and Post Exchange, tax-free. This can make a big difference in the expendable income you have."
Another combined travel-monetary benefit is $4,500 that each employee receives annually to travel wherever in the world they want to go. Called "aid in kind," the money can be used by the employee to travel to the U.S. to visit family or to several destinations throughout the globe.

While she is happy with the monetary advantages, Weston said she doesn't stay for the money. For her, it's the thrill of a serving in a unique location and contributing to a critical mission with national security and global impact.

"The work environment is so fulfilling and you get a completely different perspective and a sense of purpose. It comes with an intensity that you might not get at your standard stateside assignment," she said of the unique work conditions.

And unique is an appropriate description for such an assignment, Weston admits. The Orange County, California, native is no stranger to living in the Middle East. She spent three and a half years in Iraq beginning in 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion. She spent another two and a half years in Kuwait and has spent time in Afghanistan.

Attitude and adventure

While each country is unique, they have one thing in common: If you're going to work in a place like this, you have to be adaptable.

"People who aren't open-minded and flexible are making a mistake coming to an assignment like this," Weston said. "You are not going to have the same creature comforts, the same TV stations, you won't have the same routines. And if you're not emotionally or mentally prepared for that, it's not going to be a pleasant assignment."

Weston said there have been employees who just don't realize that they are in a different culture and that things work differently.

"We've hired a fair number of people who hate it here because they bring a sense of American entitlement with them," she said.

"For me, it's just an extremely interesting environment and a great culture to experience. The work we do here is helping to facilitate a U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. And they'll tell you when you arrive that everything you do is about the relationship; your performance and behavior and how you interact with people, it is all helping to improve and make good the relationship between Saudi and the United States."

One adjustment for some new arrivals is the size of the compound. The relatively small area offers challenges similar to those of living in a small town. But for those who come from that environment or who love small town living, it is business as usual.

To combat the perils of small town living, Weston said the command offers lots services and opportunities including woodworking and ceramic classes, a library, a variety of sports including horseback riding, trips and tours, volunteer opportunities and religious services. There is even a Spouses Club for those on accompanied tours.

To avoid the too-small feel of an enclosed compound, home entertaining abounds. Weston said a lot of people socialize at barbecues and host parties.

"Parties are put on by different people and everyone collects at someone's house. The upside to this is you tend to have more friends and closer friends than you would in a larger community," she said.

JUST FOR WOMEN

Any way you look at it, living and working at OPM-SANG is a very different life. Women, for example have to wear head and body coverings called abayas when they travel off the military compound. If not, you could be scorned by Saudi's religious police and even some Muslim women.

Again, she said, it goes back to having a positive attitude. "You can look at wearing the abaya and head covering as a drawback, or you can look at it as not having to fuss over clothes or hairstyles," Weston said.

"You just have to recognize you are in someone else's country and you have to respect their culture. You can't come here, thinking I'm an American and my way is the right way," she said.

Weston said another unique aspect for American women working at OPM-SANG is not driving. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. OPM-SANG's female employees are issued late model sedans that they can drive on the compound, but they must be driven off the compound by a male driver. Fortunately, she said, OPM-SANG provides a shuttle service that is available around the clock. She said it's only a matter of calling and waiting to be picked up and transported to the destination of your choice.

"I don't hear women complain about that being an inconvenience because the reality is a lot of men don't want to drive off post unless they have to. The highways are extremely congested and driving is fast-moving and chaotic, not the driving standards we are used to in the United States. Drivers don't use blinkers and they use their horn a lot," she said, laughing.

CULTURE & CUSTOMS

When OPM-SANG personnel and family members go off the compound, "something for everyone" is more than a cliché. "Everything is available - amazing shopping and restaurants, just about anything you could expect any normal large city - KFCs, McDonalds, Starbucks and Applebee's."

But it is the tourist-friendly souks that intrigue serious shoppers. Souks are Arab marketplaces or bazaars where consumers can bargain for a good deal.

Weston said the bustling commercial center of Riyadh is jam-packed with the most eclectic and the most commonplace items you can find. She said favorites for shoppers include the reasonably priced gold, unique jewelry, Persian carpets and knick knacks and souvenirs of every size and variety.

Although personnel must be aware of their surrounding and always pay attention to personal security, Weston said she feels safe in Saudi Arabia.

"We have a two-person rule so we don't go anywhere by ourselves," she said.

In addition to using the battle buddy system, personnel and residents report their movements frequently as they move around when off the installation.

"Our command takes security very seriously and they indoctrinate us all the time to be aware of surroundings because there are still people who don't like Westerners everywhere. But I can say that, in four years, I've never had an incident that caused me alarm. I've never been mistreated or had a security scare of any kind," Weston said.
The cultural setting of Saudi Arabia is Arab and Islam, and it is deeply religious, extremely conservative and family oriented.

"One misconception is that Saudi men are mean and they treat their women like second-class citizens," Weston said.

She said that couldn't be farther from the truth.

"I have seen them treat women with more reverence," Weston said. "And in the work environment, in my years here, I have experienced nothing but extremely respectful relations with the men I've dealt with."

With many U.S. civilians working in Riyadh, Saudis are considered extremely polite and gracious hosts, albeit unhurried in business dealings.

"That was really one of my biggest adjustments," said Collins, who for a time worked at OPM-SANG's Health Affairs Division and advised the Saudis on contracting issues at the King Fahd National Guard hospital.

She said some days work went at the organized, but breakneck speed typical in American industry. And other days, Collins said the Saudis spent more time than she was accustomed to in small talk.

"They are very family oriented and interested in what is going on around the world, so they would sometime spend a lot of time talking about family and world affairs," she explained. "Americans are always moving fast at work and in our home environments. So I had to learn to pace myself and exercise a bit more patience."

Collins said she adapted to this change in her work environment and grew to not only accept, but understand the different pace in business.

For anyone who has not traveled broad, Collins and Weston agree on one thing: Keep an open mind.

"Read up on the country's culture so you're not in total shock," Collins said. "Do not be afraid to go out and explore. My blog is proof that you can come here to work and still have fun. Learn some Arabic. It is impressive to the Saudis that you are at least getting accustomed to their culture.

"Be patient to the way others do things in their 'backyard,' which will seem different from where you are from in the world. Living abroad is a challenging experience," said Collins, "but with patience and understanding, you will adapt and enjoy this new way of life."
Thanks Adriane for the great reporting!
All the best, 
GMarie

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi UAE

Marhabbah (Hello),                       

This past Thanksgiving weekend I took the opportunity to get out of Riyadh for a few days and re-revisit Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. I was there in 2013 but did not get a chance to get a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.  Abu Dhabi is the capital of United Arab Emirates, located on the Arabian Gulf and situated among over 200 other islands.  The UAE is more conservative than Western countries but far more progressive than Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wearing an abaya is not enforced, women can drive and there are movie theaters, night clubs and one can partake in a little libation!
            Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the Abu Dhabi’s grand mosque which was envisioned by the late president of the UAE; Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan whose final resting place is located next to the mosque. Containing four 350-foot minarets, 82 white marble domes, and possibly the world's largest hand-knotted carpet, the mosque can accommodate over 40,000 worshipers; 10,000 in the internal areas and 30,000 in the external areas.

            

It took over 3,000 workers and 38 contractors to complete this magnificent structure that is assembled from materials such as marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics. In the main prayer hall, the carpet, made in Iran, weighs over 30 tons was hand knotted and is probably the largest in the world!  Also in the main hall are 96 marble columns that are inlaid with Italian glass and mother-of-pearl. There are seven chandeliers that were imported from Germany that encompass Swarovski crystals!


           The reflective pools that surrounds the mosque really captures the beauty of the mosque, amplifying the white and gold colors during the day and amazingly at night.  This artifact is by all means a must see. Incorporate this tour into your trip to the UAE. Try to arrive at the mosque before 5pm so you can get some really great photos. The mosque is open daily except Fridays which is for worshipers only. The tour is free.




Over 41,000 "hits" on GMarie's Page and over 100 blog posts later, my adventures in Saudi Arabia, has come to an end.  I have been in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for four years. The years have been adventurous yet challenging but the cultural differences, language barriers and the extreme climate, I believe, have not been as much of an obstacle as I originally thought it would be.       . 
       I have thoroughly experienced the Saudi culture and all that it had to offer. As a Westerner, I had several pre-conceived notions that were cultivated by what is reported by the media about the Arab people, their religion and customs. But I have grown to realize, observe and have a better understanding and respect for their way of life. The day to day interaction with my Arab co-workers assisted in my understanding and perceptions. The close interactions torn down the barriers (i.e. religion, prejudices).
          I wrote in my first blog post that I would learn a lot about the Arab culture and about myself. Well, I have. I am now equipped with forbearance for others’ differences (i.e. religion, language barriers, culture), patience for the pace that others have and will always move to and regardless of where I am in this small world “People are the same wherever you go, there is good and bad in everyone. If only we could live together in perfect harmony, learn to give each other what we need to survive together alive.” (Ebony & Ivory by Steve Wonder and Paul McCartney).

          This experience has been invaluable, one of which I will never forget and enjoyed sharing every moment of it. “Catch me” on my next assignment and adventure through GMarie’s Page!

As-salaam Alaeikum (Peace be on to you) and thanks for reading!

All the best,
GMarie

Friday, August 28, 2015

SAMA Money Museum, Riyadh Saudi Arabia

The post recreation department hosted a trip to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) Money Museum. The currency of Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Riyal which is abbreviated as SAR or SR.I thought this venue would be something interesting to do outside of the normal shopping or visiting an eatery.  





Once inside museum, there were several halls to explore. In the first hall there were two silver dirhams (unit of currency in several Arab states) that date back to the year 165 hejira (H means the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina) and 283H!




In another hall there were raw material and tools that are used for minting gold and silver and print the banknotes. In main showroom there were ancient currencies from pre-Islamic time to present day. Also on display were currencies from fellow Gulf States and other countries.



            In an adjacent hall, it was devoted to Saudi currency. This room contained coins that were struck (printed) during the periods of 1372 to 1375H. There was also paper money that was printed when King Fahd was the ruler. As of May 2007, the fifth domination of the Saudi Riyal features  King Abdulaziz Al Saud on the 500 riyal and  King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz's picture on all the other notes.



           Toward the end of the tour, there was a room that you could view films on how the currency is made and the proper way to check currency for authenticity.

           Before visiting the museum, which is located in the SAMA Head Office at King Saud Bin Abdulaziz Street in Riyadh (+966 1 466 2779), it would be a good idea to call the museum director first to make a reservation. The tour is free!

All the best,
GMarie

Friday, June 5, 2015

Pattaya, Thailand

            I have heard that Thailand was a fun place to visit so I decided to go for a week.  I wanted a place on the water so I set my sights on visiting Pattaya, Thailand.  Pattaya, situated on the east side of the Gulf of Thailand, known for its beaches, water sports and naughty nightlife, is also a fast growing community for expat retirees because of the climate and low cost of living.
The flight from Riyadh Saudi Arabia to Bangkok is about seven and a half hours. Once my flight arrived into Bangkok, I was met by my friend Ken. We grabbed a cab and headed to Pattaya’s Cape Dara Resort which is an hour drive (all highway) from the airport.
The Cape Dora Resort (256 Dara Beach, Soi 20, Pattaya-Naklua Road, Pattaya, 20150 Thailand,  Tel.+66 38 933 888, or www.capedararesort.com) tucked away from the bustle of Pattaya is situated on the sea and resembles a ship’s main sail.  In the lobby, while checking in, you can feel the breezy air coming from the sea. Within the vicinity of the hotel lobby there is a beautiful infinity pool overlooking the sea.  Breathtaking! The ambience was very harmonious accompanied with a Thai element which absolutely oozes peacefulness and harmony. The anticipation of seeing my room was too much! 





            The room was comfortable and spacious with a lovely balcony to sit, relax and take in the beautiful view of the sea, of course, while indulged in a glass of bubbly. Simply, spectacular!  The bathroom contained a large shower and bathtub complimented by a panoramic view of the water.





I wanted to start my weekend retreat with some spa services. So co-located in the hotel is Luminous Spa on the 4th floor. It was fairly easy to get an appointment for just about any spa services being that Cape Dara is tucked away off the beaten path. Services can be rendered indoors or on the open-air gazebo so you can relax with a sea breeze and sounds of the sea! I opted for a 30 minute scrub and 90 minute aromatherapy massage. Yes, a bit of heaven at best!


After a relaxing day at the spa, before turning in for the night, I stopped by the concierge to inquire about the day activities in Pattaya.  There were a few choices that actually sparked my interest. But the one activity that stood out was the Sriracha Tiger Zoo. A chance at petting a baby tiger was not only a “bucket list” item but also one of those once in a lifetime things to do. So after breakfast in the morning, my first stop would be the Tiger Zoo.


Sriracha Tiger Zoo (341 Moo 3 Nongkham, Sriracha Chonburi 20110 Thailand Tel. +66 (0) 3829 6556-8) was only 40 minutes from the hotel.  We passed through a small portion of the city of Pattaya before enter the highway and then making our way through a remote part of Chonburi.  Once we entered the park, there were so many tigers located in their playground.  But, not only were there plenty of tigers, there were crocodiles, elephants and pigs as well.



There were also a few shows. The tiger venue show-cased the tigers are jumping through fire or climbing ladders and such.  At the elephant demonstration, they were either walking a tightrope or throwing real knives at an audience volunteer strapped to a spinning wheel.  The crocodile show is where there is a man who is sticking his limbs or his head inside the crocodile’s mouth. But the venue which was truly amazing was where you get to hold a tiger cub on your lap while feeding him or her milk from a bottle!  The crowd was snapping pictures left and right. Someone even said that though they didn’t know me personally, I was appeared extremely happy being at one with the tiger cub. The Sriracha Tiger Zoo was well worth the visit.



Another nice tourist attraction is the Nong Nooch Botanical Garden (34/1 Moo 7 Na Jomitien, Sattahip, Chonburi 20250, Thailand Tel+66 38 709358-60) which is known for its landscaped tropical gardens and Thai cultural shows.  The garden has a collection of orchids and palms as well as Asian, American and African species of cycads. Elephant shows are also held in the garden. It is unbelievable that they are trained to play football and basketball!






The last place I visited was one of Thailand’s most popular spot called the Walking Street! This popular tourist attraction draws many and truly offers something for all. The Street is filled with restaurants, open bars, live music, street entertainment, souvenir shops, massage parlors, night clubs, cabaret shows; all which makes for one gigantic party! The Street (under a mile long) is open to traffic during the day but after 6pm. It is closed to vehicular traffic and the party begins!




  Pattaya is a great weekend getaway for water sports, relaxing seaside massages, delicious seafood and electrifying night life!   On a final note, the three hour rule to arrive at the airport on international flights......trust me, with all of the folks that travel to and from Bangkok, you will need that time to catch your flight on time!

All the best,

GMarie

Monday, May 11, 2015

Naila Art Galley, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

            I heard from a friend that the base Morale, Welfare Recreation (MWR) was sponsoring a trip to an art gallery in Riyadh. I always jump at the chance to get off the compound to do some exploring and gather information for my blog. About 45 minutes from our originating point the van parked in front of Naila Art Gallery.  Naila, in business since 2013 and known for showcasing local and international talent, was hosting a four day fair featuring the work of several Saudi-based artists.




The gallery, which has two levels, contained visual art from all mediums (i.e. sculptures, paintings, photography). The displays were impressive  but the added attraction was that the actual artist was there to represent and answer any questions pertaining to their work.
The gallery represents artists such as Najla Al-Ruwaitea (Najla.alrwaita@hotmail.com), Maliha AbdulRahman Z. Alsuwaida (MalihaAlsuwaida@gmail.com) and Reem Alsubaiy (vibjolie@yahoo.com).  My attention was focused on these three artists.  
Ms. Najla’s art piece “I see no evil, hear no evil, speech no evil” is metaphoric and causes you to understand and feel what’s being depicted in her work.
Ms. Maliha’s work was mostly of women cloaked in white garments. I found her art to be  aesthetically appealing creations.  


Ms. Reem’s self-portrait is a unique happy medium that stands out from the crowd. There are no gimmicks or distractions, just pure talent.

Each artist possesses very different styles but their creativity commands attention and evokes a conversation.


            Support the Arts. Naila Art Gallery (+966 11 880 5352, info@gallerynaila.com) is located on Al Takhassosi Street, Bldg. 247, in Riyadh. Admission is free and you won’t  be disappointed!

All the best,
GMarie