Two months ago, I got a job in an event management company. I was offered an interesting temporary position whereby I had a chance to develop a good connection with important people in Saudi Arabia and abroad. I actually had been dreaming about working in an IT company, so this major step was surprising for me. I was bored and had nothing to do at home. I had been searching for an IT job, but perhaps I was not lucky enough to get one. So I thought.. yeah why not? After all, this was just a temporary work which lasted for only 2 months. The new job also seemed to be so interesting for me. The company that I worked with had a contract with one of the Saudi government bodies to organise a prestigious international forum which was related to ports and maritime industry. This event was the first of its kind to be held in the Kingdom (@ Jeddah Hilton Hotel) and was expected to be an important gathering for all people in a related industry. The three-day forum, which featured exhibition and conference, was held under the patronage of the Governor of Makkah region (which includes Jeddah, Mekkah, and surrounding), Prince Khalid Al Faisal. Personally, I was eager to be part of the event because of its genuine support from the government and its importance to the maritime industry. Through this job, I started to realise how IMPORTANT and powerful the shipping industry was; 90% of goods are transported by the sea. It was indeed a huge industry! I came to know big companies like Maersk Line, DP World, Hanjin, UASC, and much more who have made a great contribution to the maritime industry.
For the first one month of my work, one of my major duties was to invite foreign and local companies to participate in the event, either through an exhibition, a sponsorship or even only visiting. I called companies across Asia, Middle East, and Europe every single day. I had to go through troubles of talking very slowly to the people in Japan, Korea, and China who have little knowledge of English. In some occassions, I had to use my broken German to explain what the event was about when calling companies in Germany. Although sometimes it was boring to make calls every time, I got to learn a lot of things. Based on my experience of calling companies from different countries, I drew a simple conclusion that: most top-level positions in Japan, China, Korea, and Saudi Arabia are occupied by men. Amazingly, out of 100 companies (and more) located in Saudi Arabia that I contacted, I only had a chance to talk (through phone) with 3 women from 3 different companies. One was an operator, the second one was a marketing coordinator, and the third one was a marketing & communications manager (Saudi women, we still have a longggg way to go). Japanese people were the most polite out of all. Singaporeans were my least favourite because they always refused to listen and seemed to be very busy. People in Europe often kept their promises. If they said they would send me the answer tomorrow, they would do so.
Calling people seemed to be a very easy job. But it was not that easy when I first started it, coz my English was far close to business English. I googled many useful tricks, tips, and information regarding how to make a professional and successful call using business English. I need to be extra polite on the phone for the sake of professionalism. Stuff like “May I ask…” or “Would you mind…” never crossed my lips before and I had to get used to it. Every time I made calls, I had all the list of sentences in business English ready with me so that I could read it when I got stuck. Besides business English, I also read business etiquettes and how to behave and meet with people for business purposes. I had to take my job really seriously because I dealt with overseas people. I had to be very professional because these people that I dealt with were experienced leaders and executives range from managers, CEOs, and presidents of a number of huge multinational companies in the world. I also had to keep my emails really professional in terms of grammar and politeness, and sometimes my boss was happy enough to check my grammars before I sent them.
Less than one month before the event started, I stopped calling new companies and focused on calling those who were interested in participating. I followed up, I provided their needs, I negotiated, and so on. I became a point of contact between my company and their companies. I was then asked by my boss to join an exhibition team which consisted of 4 people and was responsible for the exhibition side of the event. I made sure that the logo and name of the stand were correct, the stand design was approved by the company, and their needs were met. I conducted meetings with a number of people and learnt how to convince them to choose the things that I wanted. I also had to make sure that the visas were applied for and hotel accommodation was booked.
I did enjoy my work, but sometimes it did get VERY frustrating. I hated it soooo much when people screamed at me on the phone. I asked or answered their requests/questions very politely and what I got was a yell. It happened to me twice and both were clients located in Saudi Arabia! I so wanted to chop their heads!!! The first guy actually yelled and seemed so pissed at me when I asked him to repeat the phone number of his boss twice! (which was VERY normal, if you ask me) I didn’t know what happened to him, seriously. Maybe he had such a terrible day and gave that anger to me, who knows! I immediately hung up the phone. I was really really shocked. The same thing happened to the second guy who suddenly screamed at me and spoke in a very rude way when I told him that the visa application had just been closed. It was SO bad and it dropped my mood to the lowest. I couldn’t describe it; it was just awful and it made me stressed for the whole freakin’ day. I couldn’t work properly afterwards. It’s like I was about to have a heart attack!! Perhaps you may wonder that this was just a “small” thing, but for me, it was a new thing and I never been treated that way. These guys just didn’t know the word of respect. Speaking to a woman and a stranger like that?!?! I wonder how do they treat their wives?!?!?!?
The other frustrating thing that I faced was a language barrier. My boss and a few employees in the office can speak English really well. But a number of them could speak little English and what made me frustrated was that they always made assumptions to the things that they did not understand. They did not try to ask me to clarify or even tell me that they did not understand my point. It drove me crazy. There was a time when I felt like screaming… seriously I just needed them to tell me that they did not get what I meant and I would really be glad to repeat it and try to make them understand. I had to repeat sometimes for 5 times to make sure that they fully understand my points. But after few weeks working there, I tried to be more understanding and I even tried to talk in Arabic — and I was surprised to find out that my English and Arabic accent went towards Lebanese accent because most of my colleagues were Lebanese hahaha.
One of the pleasures of doing this job was knowing that your clients appreciated what you did for them. It was a big thing for me. Even if it was just a simple “thank you”, it made me feel very happy and it made me feel that I accomplished something. The most important thing was to make them feel like they were very important for you. For every request that they make, tell them that you will do as best as you can. Even though you know that it is impossible. Never say NO because they would think that you don’t try very hard. Tell them that you will do your best, but you don’t promise them that it will work.
One day before the event, we already moved to Hilton Hotel and it was bloody far from my home! At this time, I became EXTREMELY busy. I had to handle 26 companies for the exhibition and they all wanted my attention. I had to make sure that everything ran smoothly, from building the stands and producing the name badges to enter the forum. My mobile phone never stopped rang and when the battery was low (and eventually the phone was off), I was sooooooo grateful hehehe. I sometimes had to hide in one room because I was too tired and wanted to take a rest. On that day, I worked from 9 am to 12 am (midnight). It was madness! Though it was tiring, I enjoyed it very much. I was happy to finally meet with people that I frequently called and only recognised by voice.
When meeting with different people and talking with them, I had to be EXTRA careful with what I did and what I said because men in Saudi Arabia could perceive it differently. As ALL people that I frequently talked to were men, I had to limit myself and tried not to ask too much questions that were not related to the business. People must understand that there are not many women who work in this country, so sometimes I did not know how to present myself to these men in a right way. I SOOOO wanted to be myself, but I knew that my behaviour could be unacceptable to the Saudi society and men might perceive it in a different way. The perception that I got from these people was very positive — they were surprised and pleased to see a woman who was not only sitting behind the desk but also active in the “outdoor” (i.e. handling exhibition). Some people told me that they were proud of me; the fact that I was an Asian woman and could work in a company (because you know… Indonesians = maids 😀 ) and the fact that I was a woman who valued time, were very active, and presented myself in a professional way (some people even said that I worked like Western people). I could understand their points because of the situation of women here. Most of these business executives got their degrees from UK and USA, so their idea about working women was very open and modern. When I worked in Australia, I saw how they did their work professionally and I imitated and practised it myself. I then brought those experience and knowledge that I got in Australia to Saudi Arabia. If I were in Australia, the way I work might not be surprising to many people because everyone’s doing it. But when I was here, everyone told me that I was different — in a good way of course. One thing that struck me was a comment from one of my colleagues. He said, “I always thought that women here would never do a great and excellent job. But my mind was changed because of you.” Oh my God, I really was soooo grateful that what I did had changed people’s minds. I was speechless. Ever since I was a teenager, I always dreamt of working in Saudi Arabia, because I wanted to change that negative perception of working women here — that we were incapable of doing great work, we were slow and had no leadership skill — because most women here spend most of their time at home. We were always undervalued. But people don’t realise that a growing number of women in Saudi Arabia go to university (both local or abroad). In few years time, we can prove to those men that we too can do an excellent job! even much better than men. Let’s do it, women!!
When all exhibition stands were finally completed, my main task was complete. I thanked God for that. I didn’t need to go from one stand to another anymore. There was an interesting point that one of my colleagues made. He said that I had to be as low profile as possible. I didn’t have to go around the exhibition area all the time. It was better that I stayed in one place and waited for our clients to show up and find me. Because again, people might perceive it differently and sometimes their eyes were evil that they were just “happy” to see women around. They might think that my presence in the exhibition area was just to get attention from men. For God sake, I was just doing my job there!! I wanted to complain but I knew it was useless. I could not be Amalia whom everyone knows… a person who likes to smile and laugh. I had to pretend and be the other person. I had to remind myself over and over again. This was not Indonesia or Australia. This was Saudi Arabia, girl!
When the long-awaited event finally started, I was busy in the registration area to help out my colleagues. Therefore I could not watch how the opening ceremony was. A lot of people said it was good. One of my clients told me with amazement: there was a dance and a girl on stage in Saudi Arabia??!?! Hahaha. I told him that Saudi Arabia was definitely changing. Even when the Prince arrived, I could not notice and did not know which one of them… coz there were just too many people following him. But it’s ok, I could see him on TV and newspapers! 🙂 On the second and final days of the event, I was asked by my boss to help out the conference. My job was to make sure the conference ran smoothly. I collected all powerpoint presentations from the speakers and provided the speakers’ CVs to the moderators. Alhamdulillah, everything went very well. People were eager to ask questions, though I felt like the way they asked questions were not very effective. No one in the audience wanted to stand up and ask questions to the speakers. Instead, they wrote the questions on the papers and asked our staff to give them to the moderator. Having to spend my time in Indonesia & Australia, I saw how people there were encouraged to speak out and express their opinions freely. I understand why it happens in Saudi Arabia; this is part of their culture and what they have been taught at schools. I have an evidence: my own brother. He studied in Saudi school until he completed his grade 6 and eventually moved to an international school afterwards. His teachers (at the new school) always complain that my brother never wants to ask questions. At home, my brother is very talkative and he always asks us questions, but it’s different when he’s at school. During his time in Saudi school, he was taught to be passive. Because in Saudi culture, it’s not good to confront anyone, to express our own opinion, or to express our disagreement. So this is something that I always want my brother to change.
Overall, this event received positive responses from a lot of people. We could have done a much better job, but this was a learning experience for us. It was indeed an experience that I never forget! This event really improved my communication and leadership skills. I always thought that my leadership skill was lacking and I would never be able to manage people. But this event opened my eyes and made me feel more confident. I finally realised that… hey! I could do those things too! 🙂 Everyone, including my boss, was happy with the way I worked, which made me even much happier. Now it’s time for me to find an IT job hehehe…