Looking to Teach English in Saudi Arabia?

teaching english in saudi arabia

If you are interested in teaching in Saudi Arabia, you probably have a number of questions concerning pay, the lifestyle, housing, health insurance and everything else that goes with teaching and living in another country. Saudi Arabia has become a popular spot to teach English during the past few years, most of which can be attributed to the possibility of making a decent salary and saving a nice chunk of change. You may have read a thing or two about teaching here or even met someone that taught in Saudi. The reality is there is a fair amount of misinformation when it comes to teaching here. As an experienced American teacher that has taught here for over a year, I want to share the basics of what you need to know about teaching English in Saudi Arabia. To read more about my adventures, follow me at www.leeleonard.org.

How much money can  I make teaching English in Saudi Arabia?

First, let’s get to the nifty gritty….. MONEY!  I have saved about 85,000 USD my first two years working in Saudi Arabia. I have known some people working the same job as me that have saved a fraction of that, and I know one guy who has saved more. It all depends on your personal financial obligations and your spending habits. I don’t own a car. I know one teacher that has a 50,000 dollar Camaro. He is not the one that has saved more than me. I have a roommate, and I spend my long vacations in Africa living on the cheap. My school does not provide housing. We get about 3500 dollars a month plus an extra 40% on top of that for living expenses. In addition we get an annual bonus of about 4,000 dollars.

My cost of living in Saudi Arabia

Rent- $350

I spit a rather large two bedroom apartment and I live in Jeddah, so the rent is a bit higher.

Food- $200

Eat like a king.

Transportation-$160

Pay a co -worker $120 a month for ride to work and back.

Taxi charges…….$0-$50

What I spend on entertainment

Eating out twice a week at nice western style restaurant….$230 USD

Pub bills-$0

Pork BBQ-$0

Movie tickets-$0

Strippers-$0

Concerts-$0

Fun in general-$0

Next year I do plan on transferring and working where they have golf, so I will be spending a couple hundred dollars a month extra on that addiction.

Travel during holidays while teaching in Saudi Arabia

This can vary a lot of course, and add up quickly. Everyone reading this can figure out their own budget on how much they spend on vacation in relationship to how much vacation time your job offers. Most schools in Saudi Arabia will pay for a round trip ticket home or to a destination of your choice (equal or lesser value annually).

What kind of housing can I expect if I teach in Saudi Arabia?

Not all jobs, but the vast majority offer a living allowance in lieu of provided housing, like my deal. If you are willing to have a roommate, you will save a significant amount of money because the cost is less than the housing allowance.   If not, the housing allowance should be just enough to cover the cost of housing. While a small minority of teachers live on a compound, most do not. They are expensive if you are paying out of pocket, but some jobs do hook you up with one. They may have some advantages making it seem a little bit more like home, but if you envision spending your weekends peacefully snoozing off the compound party hangovers and reading a book poolside…forget it. The pools are full of screaming brat kids.

What types of teaching Jobs are there in Saudi Arabia?

First of all, everything is segregated in Saudi by gender, so this information applies to male institutions. There are a number of jobs for the ladies as well, but the salary will not be any more in spite of a more restrictive lifestyle you will be forced to lead.  Most teaching jobs for you gals will be in University, but there are a few COE schools educating women as well. You can use the information here as a rough guide. However, this is my advice regardless if you are a man or woman!  Before you get hired, talk to a as many teachers at your prospective school as you can!

Language schools:

This is the bottom of the barrel and pay is the shittiest as far as I can tell. Have never met anyone who worked at a language school in Saudi, but there is a presence of them here. I have seen Wall Street and Education First here in Jeddah.   I doubt there are many good deals with them, as I am pretty sure I would have heard about it by now.

University Jobs in Saudi Arabia

Many people are happy in these positions.  Housing is usually provided, often with all bills included. (Which doesn’t add up to jack shit anyway …my roommate and I split a 15 dollar a month flat rate electric bill, internet costs 30 bucks a month between us.)  You can expect to pull down 40 grand USD a year teaching 13-25 hours at a uni, including your annual bonus.  Office hours vary 0-20 hours a week. Holidays are variable. Some have outstanding holidays with nice semester breaks and a long summer holiday (King Fahad institute of Petroleum and Minerals) ,and others, 30 days a year (working days) plus public holidays, leaving you twiddling your thumbs weeks at a time while you are forced to hang around where there are no classes. Some universities may offer a light schedule with an opportunity to do more hours or teach part of the summer increasing you salary by $10,000 annually.

A word about Saudi public holidays…there are not any. (It is a Wahhabi thing).

There is the Hadj holiday which can be up to two weeks. However that is in September, right after you get back from summer break! Then there is Saudi national day shortly thereafter, then nothing until a couple days at the end of Ramadan, but that invariable falls during summer vacation.

Company Jobs

These jobs entail doing language training at companies. You will be teaching young Saudi men so you may very well be faced with the similar challenges of the COE program positions. (See below).  Salary varies from outrageously good to not so good.  Vacation time will not be as much as some universities and COE. The minimum I believe by Saudi law is 30 paid working days a year. A great question to ask if you are thinking of taking a job with a company is, How do you compare your classes to those you would find in a COE program?

COE jobs

Be familiar with this acronym!!! COE stands for Colleges of Excellence. This is the program I work in. You will make more money than you will at a university and have longer holidays in all likelihood. But if the advice of “look before you leap” has never been more true than when accepting an offer to work at in a COE this program. This job is not for the faint of heart. I am happy with it, but then again I am a mean old Florida redneck with a background in gator wrestling and bronco bust’n as well has having worked as a prison guard. I also did a 4 year stint in the minor league pro wrestling   business until a flying scissor kick off the top ropes that went haywire put an end to that gig. In other words I am not easily intimidated.

I must tell a funny story here….I was in a convenience store in my neighborhood and an old man came was in line with me. This guy looked like he just jumped off a camel. Shaggy grey beard, white robes, headgear, the whole bit. He turned and greeted me in perfect American English.

“Hey how ya do’n,” he says.

“Great, yourself,” I reply, surprised at his fluent English.

“You work’n here in Jeddah?” he continues.

“Yea, been here about 6 months, I teach English,” I explain.

He then starts laughing and in a sort of conspiratorial whisper he says, ”Don’t tell me you are working in one of our College’s of Excellence.”

“You got it brother,” I confirm.

Barely able to contain himself from bursting into hysterics he asks me “Do you find it excellent?”

Turns  out the old guy was a college prof in Mississippi for 30 years. This is a true story. (The bit about the wresting, bronco bust’n, and prison guard stuff is bullshit, but I do have an extensive background working with primary and secondary students in Thailand, and I can tell you these guys need a lot more class management).

There is nothing excellent about the places.  The program has a number of different providers who contract to run a college 5 years at a time. COE takes various forms, and you need to ask at the interview, Is this a COE program? That way you know what you are getting into. The students are by and large the underachievers who did not make it into university.  Mostly they come from very modest family backgrounds. (Not every Saudi drives a Ferrari ,some are actually poor).  The “students” study English for one year then move onto the PET exam which is something like a TOIEC test. Maybe 10 per cent will pass…maybe. Regardless if they pass or not, they will then begin studying a trade. My college offers IT, Business, and “Electrical” which I think is something like being an electrician.

The colleges are an integral part of the government drive toward  Saudization, which is the  goal of placing Saudis into jobs now done by foreigners.  None of my guys will ever replace a western educated technocrat, but the the idea is to get them into the management and tech positions currently filled by Filipinos, Indians and other Central and Southeast Asians.

The providers get paid if the students simply show up to class. It is a for-profit scheme. Academics take a back seat and is usually just a smoke and mirrors job at best. Absenteeism probably runs on the average of 25-30 per cent. Most students are apathetic and half the class will be in the “class clown” category.

As much as teaching English, our job is to engage them in class, get them to show up in uniform, stay awake, stay off the phones, look like they are paying attention, and keep them from tearing the classroom to shreds.  Basically we are there to help them grow up and learn to take some sort of responsibility.

My dad was an engineer who worked in the space program. The vast majority of my students’ fathers, if they had a job at all, were in some bullshit government position where nothing was expected of them.  They probably rarely showed back to work after the afternoon prayers. The King himself was born in a tent.  Most of my kids have had nobody in their lives as a role model who understands  the needs of the modern workplace. With the fall of oil imminent, it is critical that Saudi  Arabia diversify their economy and that Saudis start being productive. That is where we come in….

A lot of teachers   get hired thinking they are going into higher education in a COE program and will be a “lecturer’ or “professor”. This is not the case. Even university classes class management issues but nothing like COE.

Now I will say this: Even though they are an unruly bunch, they never directly disrespect the teacher and are very friendly, and welcoming. But make no mistake about it, they are wild.  A lot of these kids have a major screw loose. Their favorite pastime is “drifting.” That is where you get on open road and see how you can make a car go while fishtailing without flipping it. You have to know how to be firm with them. If it weren’t for the fact that I am a “Whole Brain Teacher,” which makes classroom management easy, I couldn’t take it. If you can’t handle a primary school class forget a COE program. These guys can dream up and execute all kinds of mischief that would not cross the mind of a 10 year old kid.

Teaching at international schools in Saudi Arabia

This falls outside of your TEFL jobs, but I know you will in all likelihood need a teacher’s license from your home country. In other words, if you don’t have a degree in education and were not a license public school teacher in your home country, you are not going to get one these types of jobs.

What is the application process to teach English in Saudi Arabia?

You unequivocally need a B.A. and a face to face 120 hour TESOL/CELTA equivalent and some experience teaching overseas.  Some jobs have different requirements in terms of types of degrees. I get the feeling that they there is not much wiggle room, and they will stick to whatever they are advertising for. Many times you can go directly to a university website and apply, or go to one of the provider’s websites, or go through a recruiter. Search all the major suspects in terms of ESL job boards. Initially, I dealt with a recruiter that was recruiting for my provider. When I didn’t hear back from him, I went to the provider’s website, applied and got the job.

After filling out the application forms, you will have a series of interviews.  First the recruiter if you are using one, then with the manager or managers at whatever institution you are applying for. Be prepared for the, “Why do you want to come to Saudi question.” Try and refrain from saying something like, “Because I want to see a camel in the wild you dumb fucking shit. Why the hell are you there?  For the  goddamn money of course.” I think a good response is to talk about money, and you can even say it is your main goal, but what you want to do here is to somehow stress how adventurous you are by nature and how curious you are about the world.  I used something like it would be great to work in Saudi as a sure way to make some coin and see a part of the world that is still largely a mystery to the West. That seemed to work.  Actually, it was a pretty accurate response and it fit my resume pretty well. (Inside tip…you know Arabic speakers pick up speaking skills pretty quickly and are challenged with writing…the guy who interviewed me was impressed I knew that).

After securing a job offer and signing a contract, you be referred to a visa agent. Forget whatever it says on the Saudi Embassy website and just give them what they ask for in terms of degrees, police clearances, and med checks.  When looking at the Saudi embassy website, it will all look quite uniform and inflexible…NOT the case. It seems every school has a different relationship with the visa people. Some need apostatized degrees and FBI background checks, and extensive medical checks, and others do not. Don’t sweat it because the visa agent knows what he is doing. In terms of the medical check. If everything does not check perfectly, it is ok so long as you are reasonably healthy. When you get to Saudi, you will have another quick med check and will be issued an Iquama. Do not go for a job without an Iquama!  Some recruiters work with entities that issue business visas. I think now these are technically illegal to teach on and it is disappearing. Only take a position like this if you are dead set on coming to Saudi and nothing else has turned up.

Forget about teaching in Saudi however if any of the following apply

1 )You do not have a University degree (unless it is an iron clad diploma mill degree that you dished       some real money out for, that might work)

2) You do not have a face to face (not online) 120 hour TESOL certificate.  If that is what the position asks for (the vast majority do)

3) You are HIV or hepatitis B positive or don’t pass the tuberculosis test

4) You are sane!

About Lee Leonard 3 Articles
A Florida native and graduate of Furman University, Lee has currently teaches English in Saudi Arabia. His ESL journey started with in 1985 when he joined the Peace Corps and taught in a rural lycee in Burkina Faso West Africa. Lee also taught for 12 years in Thailand, 1 year in South Korea, and has spent some time teaching in Washington D.C. In addition to his travels while teaching he also spent a significant amount of time Costa Rica and lived in Hawaii for 5 years pursuing his passion for surfing and golf. Currently he is finishing work on Would Be Skiers and Accidental Transvestites: A Peace Corps Tale which is based on his recollections of his time spent as a volunteer in Burkina Faso. See more at leeleonard.org.

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