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Memoirs of a Saudi Ph.D. student: Where are we going this weekend?

Back home in Saudi Arabia, large family gatherings over lunch are cherished, irreplaceable and we really long for them, but the where-to-take-the-kids-this-weekend was a problem for us every single week; there were few choices and mostly costly. You take your children to the mall’s mini theme park and you pray that they will get bored soon before your wallet is drained, in addition to the fact that the atmosphere is air conditioned, so obviously no fresh air, thanks to Jeddah’s hot and humid weather and, until very recently, the lack of proper outdoor playgrounds.
When I arrived to the UK, and as a mother of two boys who are willing to transfer a tiny flat into a football field, I began looking for accommodation with the non-negotiable condition that it has to have a nearby garden or football field. Thankfully, I managed to find a flat in the suburb with a greenest football pitch just outside. When some other Saudis find out where I live, they would exclaim, “Why do you live so far in the middle of nowhere? It’s so isolated!” But I would just smile like the sophisticated post-graduate that I am and start to explain, “Yes, well, because it’s cost effective in the long run. When you live near an open space you tend to spend much less on entertaining your kids, because you can always send them to play outside, in addition you will limit your costly outings because the flat is not really close to any tempting amenities.” Of course at the end of my speech I would usually be scoffed at.
But come on! living close to open spaces is a great blessing. Ok it’s true that during the hard winter months the place will look like a haunted forest, but for the rest of the year it’s a very helpful for parents. In addition to the free football pitch, we have a garden well maintained by the council which has swings and other playground activities for children, it’s clean, fun and best of all, it’s free.
Well, I knew then that bringing up children in this country is considered an investment rather than a source of income. OK sorry I am lecturing again but really, it’s amazing how children’s activities here are either free or with nominal charges. If we excluded big theme parks and other “posh” activities, you can entertain your children for a whole day in the park free of charge, you can also take them to the nearby sports center and let them enjoy a swim session for a very low price, they can go to public libraries where they have lovely books and CDs for children to borrow — for free! Even children’s clothes are tax-free.
I am not suggesting that living here is cheaper than Saudi Arabia, not at all! Housing is very expensive and the price of fuel is about six times the price back home, in addition to taxes and various other charges you have to pay, so its only family entertainment that can be cost effective, if you manage it well.
Back in Saudi, children’s activities are becoming a big burden on families’ and take a big chunk out of their incomes. In addition to overpriced private schools, family’s have to cater for their children’s consumer needs which are influenced by their peers, if they got the new scooter then they have to get it too, if they go to that overpriced club every weekend, then you have to take them as well or otherwise they will feel less fortunate. Honestly, I here in the UK I feel liberated from all of those social pressures, and its a blessing to live according to your own standards and not standards set by others. The irony is, people are trying to impress each other by purchasing overpriced stuff and not to satisfy their own needs. Many live on limited incomes but they are willing to be in debt just to be upgraded to a social class that they don’t belong to. Back home if you live simply you just feel odd and may come across as just cheap. My God it’s so liberating to live a simple and ordinary life, and that’s what my family and I are currently enjoying. I could not care less what others think.

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