JEDDAH: A British expatriate who has lived in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades is showcasing the changing face of the country to hundreds of thousands of followers around the world — and dispelling some of the misconceptions about life in the Kingdom
Abdurahman Afia was born and grew up in London. He moved to Saudi Arabia with his wife, Khadija, in 2000, and their four children —26-year-old Abdullah, 24-year-old Abdurahman, 20-year-olds Anas and Aisha — were raised there.
He has watched the nation evolve and grow in the past 21 years, and recently decided to embrace the power of social media and use it to show the world what modern-day Saudi Arabia and its people are really like.
The 46-year-old is fast becoming a social media sensation, with 1.4 million followers on TikTok, more than 24,000 on Twitter and 100,000 on Instagram. He shares with them a varied mix of entertaining, informative and compelling content in Arabic and English, including amusing and interesting anecdotes and snippets from his day-to-day life in the Kingdom, recipes for shawarma, which he clearly adores, and his appreciation of the famous Al-Baik chicken nuggets, one of the country’s most popular fast-food treats.
Afia, whose original first name was Joel, found himself on the road that would eventually lead to Saudi Arabia at a young age.
“I was born in London in 1974 and grew up as an atheist,” he told Arab News. “At 16 years of age, a friend of mine asked me if I knew the purpose of my creation: Why was I alive? That question started a search for answers.
“The search continued until just after my 18th birthday, when one day I found a Muslim who would come every Sunday to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park.” This is a section of the park where anyone is free to come and share their lawful ideas and beliefs with the public.
“After many months had passed I asked him to help me understand more about the religion of Islam, and shortly after that I accepted Islam as my way of life,” Afia said. It gave him a sense of peace and purpose “I’d never had before,” he added.
He then began to forge a career, first as an educator and then as an expert in leadership development. He holds a number of qualifications, the most recent of which is a master of business administration from the University of Northampton. He studied for it alongside his eldest son, Abdullah, and they graduated together in 2019.
Afia’s first job when he arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2000 was as a senior English instructor with language-training center Direct English. The following year he became a center director. In 2004, he was appointed an English-language coordinator at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, before moving to King Saud University in Riyadh in 2008, where he held a number of positions until 2011.
He worked at several educational establishments for the next five years before becoming vice director of the preparatory program at the University of Dar Al-Uloom in 2016. In 2019, he co-founded and became a managing partner of i2iCorporate, a company that provides leadership training and coaching.
Afia said that as he has explored the Kingdom over the years, he has discovered many admirable qualities that are common to the people of all regions, including generosity to guests, love of traditional culture, and good manners. Yet he has also noticed that some characteristics are particularly strongly associated with certain regions.
“I have found the people of Yanbu to be incredibly relaxed and calm, the people of Makkah to be seriously business minded, the people of Dammam to be so happy, the people of Jeddah to be so welcoming, and the people of Riyadh to be so noble,” he said. “And yet at the same time all the regions of Saudi Arabia reflect the characteristics I’ve just described.”
Afia said he has had the opportunity over the past 21 years to move to other countries but is happy to remain in Saudi Arabia.
“I have the ability to live anywhere in the world but I have chosen to stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for 21 years because I cannot find the peace, security and lifestyle that I have found here,” he said.
“I have raised my family here, built an incredibly successful career as a leadership development consultant here, and always have access to world-class medical care.
“My friends and family can visit whenever they like, and these days you can get a tourist visa within minutes. These are some of the reasons I continue to choose to live in the Kingdom.”
For many years, Afia said, his parents who live in London, refused to visit him in Riyadh. But after much convincing, in 2016 they eventually agreed and discovered they had been missing out on a fascinating and friendly country with many hidden gems to discover.
“I am delighted to say they absolutely loved the time they spent here,” he said. “They found the Saudi people to be so kind and welcoming, and at the same time found in the city of Riyadh everything they could want.”
Afia said he has been asked many times by friends and relatives in the UK what life is like in the Kingdom and whether it is a safe place to live. He is always happy to share his experience and observations.
“In 21 years of living in Saudi Arabia I haven’t once needed to call the police,” he said. “I haven’t been the victim of a crime, nor ever even felt the threat of a crime.
“It is very normal to be able to sit outside a cafe with one’s wallet and phone on display without ever having to worry about someone stealing them. This is in stark contrast to my own beautiful city of London, where more than 340 mobile phones are stolen every day.
“I have visited countries all over the world, from East to West, yet I have never felt safer than when in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
However, many people still have misconceptions about the country and its people, Afia said, the main one being that women are oppressed, uneducated and undervalued.
“The reality is Saudi Arabia has one of the largest numbers of female entrepreneurs in the world and an incredible number of Saudi ladies now graduate from university,” he said.
Another popular misconception, he added, is that citizens of the Kingdom are unhappy and unfriendly. In fact, he said, his experience as an expatriate has been that the Saudi people are some of the warmest, friendliest and happiest people he has ever met. So he decided to put the record straight about his adopted home.
“After 21 years of living here, raising a family and having a successful career, my goal through social media is to show the world the reality of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I believe it is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world, a diamond that most of the world is unaware of.”
His ambitions for revealing the truth behind the misconceptions about Saudi Arabia extend beyond social media to more traditional media outlets.
“I am in discussions with some television networks to produce a show in which I would visit all the regions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and explore and share my experiences with the world,” he said.
“I believe passionately that this would bring a huge amount of awareness about this beautiful land I am so happy to continue to live in.”