Sunday, April 04, 2010

Lessons Learned from a Year in Saudi Arabia

I won't pretend that a tour in Saudi Arabia is as difficult as serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  However, it wasn't a walk in the park, and while I learned a lot from the experience, it was also one of the most difficult times in my life.  After I'd been back in the US for a few months, I was able to collect my experiences in Riyadh into a few main points that I think may be applicable across hardship posts, high-stress environments, and life in general.
  • Maintaining family ties and relationships with friends outside the stressful environment is paramount.  I don't know what I would have done without Skype and AIM to keep me in touch with my loved ones at home, who kept me grounded.  They gave me perspective, encouragement, and laughs when I needed them the most.  (Care packages of comfort food and good books help too.  Anne and Sarah, Katelyn, my mother, and Aleksei...  you guys are my saviors.)
  • Forging ties with other social groups is crucial.  Even if you can't socialize normally due to security restrictions, make friends with people in another secure compound.  My coworkers were incredible, and I count many of the people from my time in Riyadh among my closest friends.  However, spending 12 hours in the office, 2 at dinner, and then going home to the same housing compound with the same people six or seven days a week is not healthy - it means that you can't turn off the office.  A few months after I arrived, I connected with a number of US military members posted at the military installation on the other side of Riyadh, and going there on weekends served as the pressure release valve I needed when I couldn't think about work anymore.
  • Get out of the pressure cooker regularly.  There is no email so important that you can't let your out-of-office reply handle it for 36 hours while you get away from it all every two months or so.   Bahrain was my favorite getaway, although I went to Jeddah a few weekends to see friends there and to enjoy a comparatively relaxed city.  
  • Go home.  You're of no use to your employer if you're driven to the point of exhaustion.  If you're still at your desk at 9 PM and the president is not arriving for a visit in 2 days, then you need to pack up and leave.  
  • Be kind to your staff.  There's a special place in hell for people who abuse the ones they supervise (one circle below animal abusers, I believe).  All those things they told you in A-100 about being kind to your local staff?  Absolutely true.  It's amazing how often a hello, a thank you, or a pat on the back will improve moods and in turn make your job easier (and it's telling that these simple gestures can mean so much).  The corollary to this is that if you aren't bringing snacks to your office at least once a month, you're failing your team.  Dust off your grandmother's mixer and make some cookies, spring for Dunkin Donuts, or even just leave a sack of Hershey's Kisses by the door.  We had a weekly breakfast spread for my office - the Americans rotated turns for about $30 each week and got a favorite local breakfast treat for everyone in the office.  It took no more than 15 minutes out of our day, and it was a chance for everyone to sit around the same table and relax together.
  • And finally, no matter how stressful things get at times, keep it all in perspective.  You're leaving soon.  You can learn something from every situation if you have an open mind and a flexible attitude.  And after all, you could still be working the crappy job you had in college.  Remember, this is what you signed up to do, right? 

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