Interviewee: Hassan Abouzeid
Interviewer: Alya Osman
Location: Bahrain (Virtual Zoom Interview)
Language: Arabic (Transcript translated by Osman)
Length of Interview: 23:49
Description: 55-year-old Hassan was born in the Philippines, and his parents’ diplomatic career moved him between Egypt, Afghanistan, and the UK. Hassan discusses his experiences of migrating straight out of university to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, nepotism in the workforce in the GCC, and maintain roots at home.
Alya Osman: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. First, can you please state your name, your date of birth and your region of birth?
Hassan Abouzeid: Hassan Abouzeid, 20 January 1966, and out of all places, I was born in Manila, Philippines.
Alya Osman: Interesting! Did your parents live in Manila for a period of time?
Hassan Abouzeid: Yes, my father worked there, so as a result, I was born there and lived there till I was three years old.
Alya Osman: So, throughout the entirety of your life, where have you and your family migrated to?
Hassan Abouzeid: Professionally, I have worked in the Arab Gulf, in a number of Arab Gulf states for a cumulative period of 17 years. Not in one go, but 17 years. And the countries would be Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, which is where I am currently.
Alya Osman: And at what point when did you migrate to each of them?
Hassan Abouzeid: The same month I graduated; I was offered a job in Saudi Arabia. And that ended up [being] a nine year work duty in Saudi Arabia, during which I actually got married and had my first twins when I was there. Then I went back to Egypt for a few years, and I was thoroughly enjoying, but then I decided to relocate to Kuwait nine years ago. And I spent seven years in Kuwait and now my second year in Bahrain.
Alya Osman: And I’m curious, when you first migrated to Saudi Arabia, what was the motivation for migrating and why Saudi Arabia in particular?
Hassan Abouzeid: It was interesting because one of my university professors had contacts in Saudi Arabia and they were looking for a certain skill, a certain profile. So, I was actually offered the job before I even graduated. I have a background in architecture and at the same time, I have a certain I.T. skill. So, they were looking for an architect with certain computer skills which at the time wasn’t a very common combination. So, I got offered the job when I was still in university, and I accepted it. And once I finished my finals, I flew out. Even before getting my university results.
Alya Osman: And how did you find the process of moving to Saudi Arabia, did you face any challenges in adapting to life outside of Egypt?
Hassan Abouzeid: Well, as I told you, I was born in the Philippines and because my parents were diplomats, we ended up living in multiple cultures before I even relocated to Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is always… some adjustment is required. It’s not – the culture – it’s not exactly like ours, there are some differences. So, yeah, there was an element of surprise, an element of adaptation to it. But it wasn’t as bad simply because I had a history of traveling and therefore learned to realize that different countries, different cultures behave in different ways. The norm – there is no standard for ‘normal.’
Alya Osman: And when you look back to when you first moved there, what do you recall were your first impressions or your earliest memories?
Hassan Abouzeid: At the time, women didn’t drive and… well, the first thing I noticed is that you see lots and lots of men and you don’t see that many females on the streets or in the workplace. Obviously, workplaces are segregated. So, I think that was the striking thing. But on the other hand, the traffic was a lot more organized than it is back home. So, you got more highways and people tend to be a bit more disciplined than we are back home. So, my earliest memories are driving in that traffic, and you have to adapt to the new rules which are slightly more proper, slightly less random than in Egypt. And at the same time, [there’s] full segregation in workplaces. You don’t see women on the street, in the workplace, in the shops, anywhere. Even restaurants, when you go to a restaurant, there’s a men’s section. So as a single man, it was just… different.
Alya Osman: And how did you find the process of starting a family there? Did you feel that there were any challenges as opposed to if you had continued [living] in Egypt?
Hassan Abouzeid: On the contrary, no. I was looking forward to starting a family because when you start a family it brings some level of normalcy. Saudi Arabia is not a place where you want to be a single man. So, when you have a family with you, you’re more accepted in society, you get a bit of social life, You can actually enter the family sections of restaurants, etc.. That was not the reason I married; don’t you dare tell my wife that. [smiles] But it was something that did help me. So, it was, on the contrary, something that I did look forward to.
Alya Osman: Generally, at the time, what were your forms of socializing or where did you find community? And what was your relationship with other Egyptians?
Hassan Abouzeid: Well, first of all, I did have some family there. Some members of my extended family live there, so they introduced me to certain social circles and that was very welcome. And then obviously, as you said, there is a large Egyptian expat community there. So, socializing with other Egyptians started from workplace Egyptians and then it branched out. So that’s how I created my social circles during Saudi Arabia.
Alya Osman: And I’m curious, then, moving to Kuwait, what was the impetus to move back to Egypt and then to move back to Kuwait? And why Kuwait this time around?
Hassan Abouzeid: Egypt was for family reasons, mainly. I wanted to reestablish my roots in Egypt, I wanted to spend more time with my parents who were getting older at the time, etc. So I really wanted – it was purely social, it wasn’t professional or financial, it was purely social. Because I wanted my children to also be raised as Egyptians and have roots back in their country. So, that was the reason we decided to move back. And I started doing interviews. I had a decent job offer, so I decided to return.
Alya Osman: Did you feel like there were any challenges at all returning to Egypt after having not lived there? And could you clarify when you moved to Saudi Arabia and when you came back to Egypt?
Hassan Abouzeid: 1987. I came back in 1996, if I’m not mistaken.
Alya Osman: And did you find that there were any challenges after having not lived there for a long time?
Hassan Abouzeid: Not challenges, but adapting back to a certain way of life, to our way of life. Yes. It wasn’t identical – the workplace politics, the social norms, what is acceptable, what isn’t acceptable, etc. There was an element of establishing normalization. But since the majority of our social circles in Saudi Arabia were Egyptian, we weren’t totally alien to that culture. So, having come back again, it wasn’t as much adapting as I had to do moving to Saudi Arabia in the first place. But yes, there was… I would catch myself staring at women driving and go “hold on a second, that’s not right!” but then I realized this is not it. So, yes, there was an element of that.
Alya Osman: And I’m curious, then, when it came to deciding to move to Kuwait, what was the driving force to migrate again? Did you [specifically] have your sights set on the Gulf? And why Kuwait?
Hassan Abouzeid: That was in 2012 and at the time, Egypt was experiencing a certain level of political uncertainty. And I wasn’t happy with the direction the whole country was going, so I thought, from a pure risk profile basis, I was not happy continuing here. I could see there was a good possibility it might collapse. So, I wanted a foothold outside the country, and especially [since] the organization I worked for had made very clear signals that they might exit Egypt as a territory completely. So, those were the motives. And Kuwait was not out of choice, because that’s where I got the job from. I did a couple of other job interviews as well.
Alya Osman: And before you moved to Kuwait, were there people you knew who were there already, was that at all encouraging?
Hassan Abouzeid: I actually got two offers simultaneously – one in Kuwait and one in Oman. I chose Kuwait because I have a sister who lives there, so having a sister living in Kuwait for me was a factor.
Alya Osman: And I’m curious, even though you had lived in Saudi Arabia – obviously Kuwait is very different – whether you had any challenges adapting to Kuwait after having lived in Egypt for so long?
Hassan Abouzeid: Big time. Kuwait’s different. Well, what can I say? A different set of rules governing the country, written and unwritten, so yes. I’ll be quite blunt about this, but in Kuwait you’re… I wouldn’t call it a meritocracy. I am used to working in multinational organizations where people are judged, promoted, etc. by merit. In Kuwait there are other factors, such as your nationality. Which is a big, big factor in determining, you know, your status, your package, your promotions at work and how much exposure you get to the media, et cetera. So, for me, that was a bit of an alien concept. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I’m just saying it’s very different.
Alya Osman: And do you feel that – obviously you can’t speak on their behalf – but how did you feel like your family generally adapted to life in Kuwait after living in Egypt?
Hassan Abouzeid: They never came to Kuwait. So, at the time, we jointly made the decision that my wife and children would stay in Egypt. Again, for social reasons, her aging parents, my aging parents, etc., and I would go back to Egypt every month. And it started off every month, between two weekends a month and at times three weekends a month, I would spend back home in Egypt. I was actually working abroad, but I spent at least two weekends a month back home in Egypt because that’s where the family was. And that model worked well for me. It’s a bit exhausting, but it worked well.
Alya Osman: I’m also wondering, I mean, obviously, you still had very strong social ties to Egypt, but how did you or did you try to find a sense of community in Kuwait as well?
Hassan Abouzeid: Not as much as Saudi Arabia. I had a sister there, and that was good enough for me. I had a few other – a cousin and a nephew, so I had some family members there. But since I took a conscious decision to spend any spare time I had – weekends in particular – back home in Egypt, I didn’t have a very vivid social life in Kuwait. I had an element of it with the family, with a few work friends, but that was about it. My primary social life was back in Egypt on the weekends.
Alya Osman: And at what point did you move to Bahrain and why did you take that decision?
Hassan Abouzeid: Just under seven years in Kuwait and I realized that one won’t get promoted there unless you’re a Kuwaiti, effectively. It’s very difficult to get promoted or even have a career unless you’re Kuwaiti. So, at that point in time, I decided to gracefully step aside. I got a job offer in Bahrain, which is a much more expat-friendly set up, and the job itself is a more senior role and it pays better. And I thought, at this stage of my career, I really want to retire at a certain level, eventually. So, I accepted the job. So, I’m currently in a much more senior role than I was in Kuwait. And it’s a role I would have never achieved in Kuwait, not because of merit, but because of other factors.
Alya Osman: And this is a very broad question, but when you look at the three different countries that you’ve lived in the Gulf, what would you say are the most striking differences?
Hassan Abouzeid: Striking differences… well, let’s look at the commonalities. They’re all very hot [smiles] and all of them have very good infrastructure in terms of streets and set up – buildings to live, utilities, facilities. All three countries are well set up in that respect, and all of them have very similar climates. When it comes to the social aspects, Saudi, at the time I lived there, there was a very strict version of Islamic code. Their own version, I disagree with it, but it’s their own version of Islamic code where women cannot walk on the streets with their head exposed, they cannot go into restaurants with men unless it’s a relative and they have to prove it’s a relative and all that, what have you. So, that was a bit alien. That was the main social awkwardness in Saudi Arabia. In Kuwait, there was a very clear distinction between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis, not only from a social perspective, but even things like some medicines or medical procedures were reserved for Kuwaitis only. So, even expats, who are human beings, were not entitled to that medication in Kuwait, which after a while got to me and I said, well, I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life in a place with these values. Now again, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. It’s just the way it is. But it was not compatible with my personal values. So, when I got the better job offer in Bahrain, I came here. Bahrain is a lot more… it’s a lot less wealthy than both others. So, Kuwait and Saudi have considerably more wealth. Bahrain is not as wealthy, which means people are a lot more modest. You’ll find Bahrainis doing jobs that Kuwaitis and Saudis would not do, like working in restaurants and filling cars in petrol stations. Saudis and Kuwaitis would not do that. And obviously, salaries are not as good as Saudi and Kuwait. However, from a social perspective it’s more compatible with my values, expectations, and lifestyle that I [inaudible].
Alya Osman: I’m also wondering, do you feel that your upbringing and having lived in different places affected your decision to migrate? And did you ever consider living in any of the countries that you were growing up in?
Hassan Abouzeid: Afghanistan is not an option. [laughs] And the Philippines… no, I never actually considered it because I don’t speak the language, for starters. The other country I lived in for a while as a child was the UK and I actually own property there and I did consider, several times, relocating there. I do have the right to a home, I do have a residency in the UK. However, I did not because the taxation is too heavy. The Gulf remains mostly tax-free, so from a pure financial perspective, if you’re going to be an expat, you’d better be an expat somewhere where it’s worth it.
Alya Osman: I know it’s probably difficult to tell, but at this point, do you see yourself eventually relocating to Egypt permanently or do you see yourself migrating outside of the Gulf?
Hassan Abouzeid: There is no doubt in my mind that I would want to retire back in Egypt. It’s where my roots are, although I do have the option of staying in Bahrain permanently if I wish to, even after I retire because I made a certain investment here that guarantees me residency for life. I also have residency status in the UK. But I don’t think there’s any place like home. So, Egypt’s the place for me.
Alya Osman: And how would you say, if at all, that migration has changed your relationship with Egypt?
Hassan Abouzeid: It has, it certainly has. One has become a bit less tolerant of the chaotic nature of conducting things in Egypt, be it driving, be it dealing with a government place… [in] many, many aspects of life, Egypt has its own set of – what can I say? – organized chaos or… I’m not sure how I’d refer to it. It works., but it works in different ways, in funny ways. So, one has become a lot less tolerant of that. And I often use money to outsource these activities to others rather than do them myself, because it’s just something I can’t tolerate anymore. And I think it’s… my tolerance has dropped. I’m not sure if that’s age or being an expatriate or a combination of both [smiles].
Alya Osman: That was all of my questions. I guess maybe one more would just be generally, looking at from when you were a child to the present, how would you say that migration has affected your life?
Hassan Abouzeid: I believe living in different cultures broadens your perspectives. It allows you to see things from many, many different perspectives. You realize different is not necessarily wrong. If you live in one place and you’re used to doing things in a certain way, then anything that is different, people tend to interpret as wrong. I did the same with my children. I wanted my kids to have roots in Egypt, but I gave all of them the opportunity to study at least one year in university abroad. Again, just to sample a different culture and broaden their horizons a bit and open up their minds to be more tolerant of others. So, in a way, that is the main thing. That it’s brought you a certain breadth of knowledge that you never would have acquired had you stayed put in one place and a breadth of understanding of different cultures and the different ways that people go about their lives? It’s quite colorful out there [smiles].