Greenwich businessman tells of life in Saudi Arabia
GREENWICH — When it comes to living in Saudi Arabia, it’s not what many Americans might think, according to an Old Greenwich resident who worked there for five years.
Tom McGlynn Jr. was an employee of PricewaterhouseCoopers from 2008 to 2013 in the Mideast kingdom. He oversaw the expatriate tax program that made sure the 1,800 American employees of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. paid their U.S. taxes and was treasurer of the American Business Association there.
Any stereotypes about desert scenes with camels should be abandoned, McGlynn said.
“In reality, Saudi Arabia is much more than just preconceived notions that we have of the Middle East,” McGlynn said in a talk Wednesday before the Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich . “It’s a very dynamic and vibrant economic powerhouse.”
During his time there, McGlynn lived in the compound for the American workers at the world’s largest oil company. But he got to see the unique Saudi culture and worked with Saudi executives who traveled frequently to the U.S.
He called his time there “a great experience.” Although travel to Saudi Arabia is heavily restricted, McGlynn said that is changing as the country seeks to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil.
While admitting that it wasn’t always easy to live there, McGlynn said the Saudi people were very hospitable and wanted to learn about his native country. In his talk, he discussed the country’s family-oriented culture, the beauty of the Red Sea and the amazing stargazing there, away from artificial light.
The compound for American workers was vast, housing nearly 11,000 people and providing the workers with a hospital, a school for their children and even a golf course. It was separated into two parts: In the commercial part, all the day-to-day activity for the oil company took place, and then, beyond a security checkpoint, was the residential community.
McGlynn liked driving by the golf course because it was one of the few places he could see green. He also described how difficult it could be to get a flight from the compound to the capital of Riyadh as well as the four-and-a-half-hour drive through the desert to get there.
“You can’t imagine the vastness of it or the amount of sand that you see,” he said. “One of the things I missed most was green. ... The temperatures in the summer could exceed 125 degrees Fahrenheit.”
In America, swimming pools are heated. In Saudi Arabia, McGlynn said, pools are cooled. The air was so hot, that you would be completely dry in the time it took to leave the pool and walk to a deck chair.
The security inside the kingdom can be immense. Traveling the 20-mile causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia can take an hour because of the security checkpoints along the way where people must produce their passports and visa each time. And that is nothing compared to accessing the compound’s residential area.
“The security to just enter the facility was strict — to put it mildly. And when things were of a higher alert nature, even more restrictive,” McGlynn said. “For a vehicle to enter ... it has to have a permit that’s visible. Security would examine under the hood and the trunk of the car and can look underneath the vehicle with rolling mirrors.”
When the call to prayer is heard — which happens five times a day — employees leave business meetings and work adjourns until later.
“If you were in a supermarket or if you were out to dinner at a restaurant, when the call to prayer happens, all businesses are required to shut down,” McGlynn said. “If you’re in the grocery store, the gates at the entrance would come down and you would be required to stay inside until prayer time is over. If you were in a restaurant, the same would hold true and you would not be able to leave until prayer time is over.”
To help Americans and other Westerners plan, newspapers printed the times for the call to prayer.
Inside the kingdom, women wear abayas, which can cover the entire body except for the eyes. And while American men can wear traditional Western clothes, when American women leave the compound, they wear abayas, too, though typically ones that cover only from the neck down, not their hair and face.
Parts of the culture are changing in Saudi Arabia. The restriction against women driving was lifted recently. While McGlynn lived there, American women could drive on the compound but not outside of it. Women had to depend on a male driver or public transportation.
One thing he learned in his time in Saudi Arabia, McGlynn told his RMA audience, was patience.
“Many of you have traveled the world, and we can’t look to enforce our beliefs or the way we think things should be done on other cultures,” he said. “I think if we’re open to their culture and if we’re open to understand where they’re coming from, it’s beneficial for both parties.”