Friday, September 18, 2009

Education in Saudi Arabia

I have been getting periodic requests from potential expatriates planning to work in Saudi Arabia about educational facilities in the kingdom, both in primnary / secondary levels and in under graduate levels.

I had briefly described in one of my earlier posts (click here) about schooling facilities in the kingdom. Schools in Saudi Arabia can be broadly classified into two categories. The first one serves only Saudi / Arab children while the other is meant for expatriate children, more popularly known as "international" schools.

International schools can once again be broadly classified into two - those which serve primarily the citizens of their respective countries and those which are 'truly' international, i.e., they do not mind admitting children of any nationality.

Before I go into the details, a word of caution for potential expatriates. If you are planning to bring your family into the kingdom, make sure that you sign a contract in which the educational expenses are covered by your employer. Education IS expensive in the kingdom and it would put a big hole in your pocket if you fail to take care of this important point.

First, a word about the country-wise "international" schools which cater primarily to the citizens of their respective countries. For example, we have schools run for Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, etc., and have typical names such as "International xxxx School". The curriculum followed in these schools is exactly what is followed back home in their respective countries. For those expats who do not want to lose continuity and who would like to ensure that their kids get a smooth re-admission once they return to their native countries, joining their kids in their respective country's school makes sense.

There are also other schools which are truly multi-national and multi-cultural. The students as well as the teachers come from almost every part of the world. Some of these schools charge exhorbitantly and it is very uncommon to find expats paying the fees themselves. The kids in these schools are invariably company-sponsored ones and the syllabi followed here conform to western standards. All schools come under the strict purview of the Ministry of Education of the Saudi Government and there is an "observer" to monitor the activities of each of these schools. Since last year, Arabic has been made as one of the compulsory subjects in all expat schools due to statutory restrictions, but passing in Arabic is just a formality and is not taken too seriously by the schools themselves.

It is quite common for expats to send their kids back home for higher studies once they complete Grade 10. There is no denial of the fact that as the kids keep growing up, the standard of education imparted is nowhere near what is taught back home. To give their kids a fair chance of writing competitive examinations, it makes more sense to send them back home when they cross Grade 10. Of course there are kids who continue upto Grade 12 but then this seems to be the limit. There are two reasons for this.

When the child completes 12 years of schooling, his or her age is typically 17 years. Once the child reaches, he is supposed to get a separate iqama. Any male above 18 years is considered as a potential employment-seeker and hence can no longer be under his father's iqama. Parents usually make the painful decision of sending their children back home to pursue their higher education when it comes to this stage.

Talking of higher education, the opportunities for children of expats are very limited and whatever is available is prohibitively expensive. Also, the various courses and options available back home are, sadly, missing here unlike neighbouring GCC countries like Bahrain or the UAE. Universities such as KAUST promise to provide the latest hi-tech education, particularly in Science, but being a relatively new University it would take a while before it gets fully established. Since there is no subsidy for expats, education here is also extremely expensive.

Most expats working in Saudi Arabia, who are forced to be away from their families just because they want their kids to have a better education back home, are in an unenviable position. The emotional and psychological problems faced by these expats can simply not be compensated. But the other pain is the financial one. Every year they have to pay for the air tickets of their families to the kingdom, just to ensure that their names are still in their iqamas. It is no wonder that after a certain stage, expats consider seriously shifting back home or to some other country where opportunity for higher education is available for their kids.

Let us just hope that things change for the better and Saudi Arabia too offers the same educational opportunities in higher education, as in the rest of GCC.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The law and reality of your contract

Expatriates working in Saudi Arabia are in an unenviable situation. All of us have fixed term contracts which we sign before taking up an assignment in the kingdom. We just assume that once the contract is extended, we have another term of stay in the kingdom.
I have mentioned in the past the importance of going through your contract terms and conditions very carefully before signing it. What protects you once you land here is only the contract and nothing else. Note that all the important things which matter to the expatriate, your job title, family visa, end of service benefits, virtually all of your benefits and obligations of your sponsor, are all based on your contract.

My attention was drawn to an interesting article in today's Arab News. This is a question by one of the readers to a lawyer about the status of his contract. The question relates to a "time bomb clause" in the contract by which the employer can terminate the contract at any point of time by giving a month's notice despite a contract to the contrary. The reply given by the lawyer is 100% correct and I have no reason to dispute it, given that the learned lawyer is a well-respected one in his profession. What I would like to focus in today's post is what is NOT mentioned in the reply.

For those of us expatriates who have continued to stay beyond the "initial" contract which was signed after entering the kingdom for the first time, you must be careful on what you sign while extending your contract. Clever employers use the word "extension of contract" rather than just "contract". Expatriates working in Saudi Arabia must be aware of their rights and obligations while extending their contract with the above words. What this means in simple language is explained below.

When you first arrive in the kingdom on a contract, this becomes the "mother" contract. Now let's say you signed a 2-year contract. At the end of the 2nd year, both you and your employer want to renew this for another 2 years, either on the same terms or on mutually agreed upon terms and conditions. In case the new contract says that it is an "extension of contract", your employer has every right to terminate you with just a simple one-month notice. All is not lost. You too have an equal right to terminate the contract with the same notice period. It doesn't matter if you have a 2-year contract extension. What this, in effect, means is that the employer is not obliged to give you your complete end of service benefits and other dues until the "end" of your contract, i.e., until the 2-year period in the renewed contract is completed. This is the difference between a "contract" and an "extension of contract".

For example, this is my 12th year of stay in the kingdom. After the "mother" contract of the first 2 years, the contract with my employer has always been an "extension of contract". My employer chose not to sign a fresh contract, but rather just "extend" the existing contract. Of course, it was by mutual consent. So, every two years I sign a contract extension for another 2 years. I am under no kind of illusion that I would stay in the kingdom for atleast 2 more years. Every day I come to work, I know that I have a notice period of 30 more days on either side, even though I have a 2-year contract. I am quite happy with this arrangement because I am not bound to work for the complete 2-year period in the extended contract and I can just quit if I get a better job by giving a month's notice, just as how my employer can also fire me by giving a month's notice. So, all is fair in love and war, as they say.

After all, the only thing certain in Saudi Arabia is uncertainty! Hope this post is an eye-opener for fellow expats.