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Arabian Nights: From Oxford to a royal palace ... a magical journey
OXFORD — Ever since 1446, when Mani' ibn Rabiah Al-Muraydi settled in Diriyah in Arabia, Al Saud (the House or Family of Saud) has ruled Saudi Arabia. The thousands of members of the royal family include two little girls – Haya Bint Miteb Al Saud, 2, and Noura Bint Miteb Al Saud, 1.
It also includes Andrea Owens, 27, of Oxford.
How did an Oxford Hills gal end up in the hot and sandy regions of the Middle East? By way of Hollywood of course.
Owens graduated from Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School a decade ago. She is the daughter of Tom Owens of Oxford and Colleen Francis of Otisfield.
In 2002, when she was 16, she was chosen from more than 37,000 contestants nationwide to pose in the newest “Got Milk?” ad for the National Basketball Association.
She entered when the Chocolate Milk Mustache Mobile tour rolled into Portland and was flown to New York City for a professional photo shoot. She and two other winners appeared in Inside Stuff, the official magazine of the NBA.
After high school, Owens went to Central Maine Community College to study early childhood education. She taught preschool at the Community Child Care Center.
"I was in a rut," said Owens. "I loved the preschool but there wasn't much room to move up. I also loved traveling and meeting people."
Her sister had moved to Massachusetts to "do the nanny thing," so Owens decided to give it a try.
And the magic began.
She registered with an online agency and it was through that agency that she landed her first job.
Working for Katherine Heigl.
Owens became nanny to Heigl's, and husband, Josh Kelley's, two little girls.
After Heigl decide to take a hiatus from making movies to spend more time with her children, Owens moved on, briefly, to a different nanny position.
For Charlie Sheen's children.
"I was networking with the other Hollywood nannies," said Owens, "and I knew someone who knew someone and I ended up with the Sheen kids, working for his ex, Denise Richards."
Owens decided to register with a top flight nanny agency – The Help Company. After a rigorous qualifying interview, Owens was told that the agency wanted her on its team and had an immediate opening.
With one little hitch.
It was in Saudi Arabia.
However, this "hitch" did not deter Owens. In fact, it excited her. So she took the next step in securing the position, interviewing with Princess Anoud, sister of the mom for whom she would be working, who lives in Beverly Hills. Owens hit it off with Princess Anoud and an hour-and-a-half later, after speaking with her sister – Princess Sara Bint Khaled Al Saud – Princess Anoud called Owens and offered her the position.
They worked out a mutually acceptable contract with a year-to-year commitment. Apparently being employed by the royal family makes everything easier and within a week, Owens had her visa and was flying home to Oxford to say good-bye to her family before leaving for the Middle East.
"I was so, so excited," Owens remembered.
Her family, however, was not quite as excited as she was.
"At first I was pumped," said her dad. "But then I started worrying."
"There was a fear of the unknown," explained Owens, "they were nervous about me going."
"In fact, said Owens, "they are still nervous about me and my life there." Owens was back in Oxford this week, for her sister who just had a baby.
Maybe nervous, but proud nonetheless. Owens' dad was the one who called the Advertiser Democrat to see if there was any interest in doing a story on his "amazing daughter."
Seven months ago, in August, Owens landed in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
"When the car pulled up, my jaw dropped," she said. It was magnificent. "It was like Aladdin's palace."
"It's a totally different world," said Owens, "so different than everyone here thinks."
The royal family lives inside the "Diplomatic Quarter" which is surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire, with military-guarded entrances. The Diplomatic Quarter or DQ as it is popularly known, is also home to foreign embassies, international organizations, as well as residences and malls.
"It is very Westernized," said Owens, "the malls have American stores."
Almost a city within a city, with lush gardens and numerous sports facilities, it is also one of the city's greenest areas. It is especially known for its fine architecture, and is considered a model for other Islamic cities around the world.
The royal family although numbering in the thousands, shares a great deal of wealth so Owens' life is very comfortable.
In respect for the customs of her host country, Owens wears an abaya (black robe to her ankles) over her clothing and a tarha [sic] or scarf covering her hair whenever she leaves the palace. As an American, she doesn't cover her face.
Owens says she is treated really well by the general public and has been made to feel part of the royal family. "They have jumped through hoops to make me feel at home and comfortable," said Owens.
Owens doesn't actually live at her family's palace. Instead, she lives with Princess Sara's grandfather, the governor of Riyadh, in his home because of renovations being done at the palace. She will move to the palace soon.
Her work day begins around 9 a.m., when she arrives at the family's palace and feeds the children breakfast. Following this, they go to the "play tent" which is air conditioned.
They can only be outside in the winter season, said Owens, because of the heat. In the summer the temperature averages around 118 degrees with no humidity, but in winter it drops to around 70 degrees. In the winter months they go to the park.
In the play tent she does age-appropriate activities with the girls. Around noon they have snack time and, then, a two-hour nap.
At 3 p.m. they have lunch. As in many countries outside the U.S., lunch is the main meal of the day. The entire extended family gathers at either Auntie's house or Grandfather's house, the men come home from work, and lunch lasts a few hours.
They leave around 6 p.m. to return to their own palace.
There, they have play time and mom and dad time.
"The parents are very hands-on," said Owens. "The older daughter is in preschool and her mother drops her off and picks her up. Their mom gets them up and dressed in the morning too.
Although their dad goes to work every day, their mom spends her day studying for her degree in medicine.
Dinner is at 7 p.m. after which, dad goes back to work.
After dinner is bath and quiet time. Bedtime is 8:30-9 p.m.
"A lot happens at night," noted Owens, referring to the men returning to work after dinner.
"Lots of things happen at night, like weddings," she explained. "I went to a royal wedding and the bride walked down the aisle at 11:30 p.m."
Owens isn't sure if this is dictated by religious beliefs or because it is cooler at night.
After the children are asleep, Owens returns home to her quarters to have some "me time."
She will read or watch television, "which is really hard because there are not a lot of English stations over there." And while she can get American magazines, every copy has been "Magic Markered" blacking out immodest photos and inappropriate copy. She goes to bed around midnight.
Owens has Internet access which she uses to frequently Skype her family and friends. She also has a Saudi cell phone supplied by her employers. She gets a month-and-a-half of paid vacation and the family covers her airfare home and back.
"I am very well taken care of," Owens noted, saying they pay her extremely well and deposit her salary in U.S. dollars which goes directly into her American bank account. While she is home this week, she is dealing with her income tax filings in the U.S. There are no income taxes in Saudi Arabia.
She has traveled with the family to Switzerland, Paris, other areas in France and is looking forward to a trip to Spain in August "because it is just too hot in Saudi Arabia."
She is slowly learning to speak Arabic but is quite sure she will never master written Arabic.
"I am still learning the culture," she said.
The only real clothing restrictions, in the home, she said, are no shorts. She can wear floor-length skirts, jeans and tank tops as long as the tops are modest.
She has grown to like the food which she described as "interesting with lots of spices."
"They do not eat pork but they eat a lot of lamb, beef, chicken and rice."
Although on a year-to-year contract, she loves her job and life so much she is thinking about staying for at least five years.
She is included in American embassy social affairs as well as Saudi social life. There is no dating in the Muslim culture – couples are matched and marry and then get to know one another. This holds little appeal for Owens (the lack of getting to know someone) but she doesn't rule out the possibility!
She speaks very highly of the family she works for, both as parents and for the way they have included her helping her acclimate to a new country and culture and feel like part of the family.
The Royal Family of the House of Saud.
RESPECT — Andrea Owens in public wearing her culturally-respectful head scarf and abaya with the iconic Kingdom Center rising high above Riyadh, in the background.