Regardless of their racial origins, the people of Saudi Arabia have two common characteristics: they speak Arabic and are of the Moslem faith. They are intensely proud people and have a deep respect for personal dignity and country, whilst their customs of generous hospitality are well known.
Are you about to begin an exciting new life in Saudi Arabia? In recent years, the country with the largest oil reserves in the world has attracted numerous multinational companies and foreign workers. Here is a useful guide to expat living in Saudi Arabia and everything you need to know about this country.
Life in Saudi Arabia
At a Glance:
- Moving to Saudi Arabia will certainly come with a culture shock what with the traditional culture and gender segregation, but as long as you respect the way of life, you’ll fit in.
- The high-quality healthcare in Saudi Arabia comes at a cost due to the fact that most expats aren’t entitled to free healthcare. Purchasing private health insurance is highly recommended.
- Housing in Saudi Arabia can be expensive, especially in new developments. A lot of expats choose to live in expat compounds where the traditions of Saudi society aren’t as strictly enforced.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is relatively sparsely populated – which is no surprise, seeing as the desert is the predominant geographical feature. Of the just over 32 million residents living in Saudi Arabia, over 80% are settled in towns and cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah. These numbers include more than ten million foreigners relocating there for work; who are mainly of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. The number of North American and European expats is estimated at just over 100,000.
A Traditional Society
Despite aspiring to be a modern state in many respects, the Saudi nation still has one of the most traditional societies worldwide. It is governed by firm religious beliefs, rules and traditions, which expats must acclimatize to, for the law is no more lenient on foreigners than it is on local residents.
The traditions and attitudes of local society have been shaped by Islamic as well as Bedouin culture. Thus, expatriates living in Saudi Arabia will soon discover that family bonds are still much stronger there than in many other cultures, to the extent that they permeate all aspects of life, even the business world.
Culture and the Quran
Cultural life in Saudi Arabia rests strongly within the confines of strict interpretations of the Quran. In practice, this means that the visual arts, for example, are limited to geometric, floral or abstract designs, as representations of humanity are forbidden. Although there are some cinemas in larger cities, relinquishing the joys of theater comes with the territory for expats relocating to the Arabian Peninsula.
Music, dance, and Bedouin poetry form an important part of Arab culture. Literature in general is, however, kept in check by strict censorship rules. Expats in Saudi Arabia will quickly become aware that not only is there no freedom of religion but freedom of expression is also repressed to the extent that it is non-existent.
You may be surprised at the lack of religious heritage sites in the cradle of Islam. This absence can be explained by the fear of idolatry in Wahhabism (or Salafism), the form of Islam which dominates life in Saudi Arabia.
Gender Segregation and the Progression of Women’s Rights
Women who live in Saudi Arabia have a defined legal status –they have fewer rights than men in many respects and play a very limited role in public. However, the country is making slow progress toward some form of gender equality. The late King Abdullah endeavored to grant women a larger role in Saudi society. The very structure of government itself changed under his reign, with female suffrage and the right to run in municipal elections having begun in 2015. From the beginning of his reign over Saudi Arabia, King Salman, the current king of Saudi Arabia, has shown his intentions to continue his late half-brothers endeavor.
Moreover, the strength of the guardianship law, which dictates that all women regardless of age must have a male guardian to either accompany her in public, grant permission to travel, attend school or marry and if needed identify her in the eyes of the public, will be reduced. Moreover, national identity cards are now issued to women, meaning that they can identify themselves and be recognized as individual citizens in the eyes of the law. This gives women a lot more freedom in that, before they had to have a male family member with them to complete any kind of formal transaction. The idea is that women’s identity cards are the first step towards reducing the guardianship law which dictates that women, regardless of their age, must have a male guardian, be it their husband or their brother, wherever they go.
While female expats living in Saudi Arabia will not be bound to quite the same restrictions as the local population, they must still submit to the laws and customs of their host country, no matter how disagreeable or different from home they may find them.
Driving is strictly forbidden for women. Outside the typical compound, gender segregation is common in all areas of the public sphere, from the more obvious places, like swimming pools, to the less obvious, such as restaurants. However, expat women do have more freedoms than their Saudi Arabian counterparts in the Kingdom. For example, while foreign women can book themselves into a resort on their own, Saudi women enjoy no such luxury.
The Conservative Dress Code
Expats in Saudi Arabia are expected to dress conservatively in public. While it is neither necessary nor recommended for men to wear traditional Saudi dress, women are advised to wear the abaya, a loose black dress covering the whole body. Wearing a veil is not required for non-Saudi, non-Muslim women, but you might want to carry a head scarf with you in case you are asked to cover your hair.
Foreign women arriving in Saudi Arabia who do not have an abaya to call their own may be able to borrow one at their hotel for a limited period. If your stay exceeds a couple of weeks, though, it’s probably worthwhile buying one.
Western men should always wear long trousers and shirts, unless they’re engaged in some sporting activity. In a business environment, a full suit is certainly the best choice, despite the scorching heat.
Sharia Law and Corporal Punishment
Before coming to Saudi Arabia, foreigners should be aware that behavior which is perfectly acceptable in their country of origin may be a punishable offence in Saudi Arabia. This includes homosexual acts and the public consumption of alcohol, even if you are a non-believer. Sodomy, adultery, drug possession, and prostitution may incur the death penalty. Moreover, you should avoid anything that could be interpreted as missionary activity for religions other than Islam.
Despite recent reforms introduced by the king, the Saudi justice system is still largely based on Wahhabism’s version of Sharia law, which accounts for the many forms of corporal punishment, from flogging to beheading. Suspects can be held without charge and access to legal representation. Please note that, if you are involved in an ongoing commercial dispute with a Saudi company or individual, you may be prevented from leaving the country until the issue is resolved.
Healthcare in Saudi Arabia: Excellent But Expensive
Healthcare is generally of a rather high standard in Saudi Arabia. Every major city has both public and private clinics with plenty of well-trained staff and state-of-the-art equipment. English is widely spoken, especially in the private sector: Many doctors and medical personnel are foreigners profiting from the high salaries in Saudi Arabia, or Saudis who received some of their training abroad. Your country’s embassy or consulate should be able to provide you with contact details of local doctors or dentists who speak your language.
Saudi Arabia has a good public healthcare system providing free or low-cost treatments to all Saudi citizens. High-earning Saudis often opt for private healthcare, and all expats need to take out private insurance plans. The perks that private care offers, such as luxurious hospital accommodation and virtually no waiting times, do, however, come at a hefty price. Expats should therefore check with their health insurance to find out whether it covers some or all of the costs incurred.
Waiting times in general are low, even in the public sector. You can expect to be seen by a doctor within 24 to 72 hours of requesting an appointment. In emergencies, you will be seen to immediately.
Most hospitals have an Accidents and Emergencies department. If you’re new to the country, make sure you know where your nearest hospital is. This is particularly important, seeing as ambulance services are not always as fast and efficient as they should be. You may therefore need to arrange for your own transportation when going to the hospital.
If you don’t know the number of the ambulance service, or if the operator can’t give you a satisfactory time of arrival, your best option is to call a taxi. Make sure the urgency of the situation is clear to everyone concerned.
Pharmacies and Prescriptions
You should be able to get most medications you require in pharmacies. However, don’t automatically assume that drugs which are prescription-free in your home country can be obtained without a prescription in Saudi Arabia. Conversely, antibiotics, for example, are freely available over the counter. Pharmacies are usually open in the morning and in the afternoon, and most parts of town have one pharmacy on night duty.
Drugs such as anti-depressants and sleeping pills, among others, have been banned by the government and are therefore not available in Saudi Arabia. If you need to import them (for personal use only!), make sure you always carry your doctor’s prescription with you, and if possible a note certifying that you are in need of medication.
Education and Housing in Saudi Arabia
Schooling in Saudi Arabia is free of charge and takes place in gender-segregated elementary, intermediate and secondary schools. The latter usually offer the choice between a religious and a vocational or technical track. The study of Islam does, however, dominate education at all levels, and it is even a compulsory subject at university.
The medium of instruction is Arabic, but English is taught widely as a second language. With its emphasis on religious studies and memorization, the education system has been criticized for failing to equip young Saudis with technical and marketable skills required in the modern world. However, more recently, the Saudi government has spent a lot of money on improving the education system.
Private vs. International Schools: Language and Religion
Local state schools are usually not an option for foreign children. There are numerous private schools which cater to the expat community and well-to-do Saudi families. Often, these private schools are under government control to a certain extent, in order to ensure that curriculum and standards of education meet those of state schools.
The clear advantage of private schools for non-Muslim expat children is that being a ‘non-believer’ will not get in their way, the language of instruction is often English, and classes are co-educational. Families with older children, however, should make sure that the curriculum and standards of education are similar to those in their home country in order to ease the transition, especially with regards to their children qualifying for higher education.
Expat families with children usually opt for international schools, of which there are a few in cities like Jeddah, Riyadh, or Al-Khobar. Some of them follow certain national curricula (such as British, American, Indian, and Pakistani). Others offer the International Baccalaureate or a combination of international and third-country curricula. Some schools are affiliated with their national government and therefore may not accept third-country students. Most international schools incorporate pre-school, primary and secondary school under one roof. As places are limited, make sure to apply as soon as possible.
Expat Housing: The High Cost of Compounds
There is no shortage of accommodation in Saudi Arabia, unless you are looking for somewhere cheap to live. Most newly-built accommodation tends to be at the higher end of the price range. You’ll soon notice that there are a lot of construction projects going on in Saudi Arabian cities, as apartment blocks and family houses are being built in great numbers and at great speed to cater to the growing urban population.
Most expats live in ‘compounds’, i.e. low-rise apartment blocks that form a kind of gated community. The more luxurious among them come with their own swimming pool, tennis courts, gym, children’s playground, shops, and restaurant. The apartments themselves are usually spacious and well maintained. Whatever type of accommodation you are going for, make sure it provides covered parking facilities to protect your vehicle from sand, dust, and high temperatures.
Foreign residents have only been allowed to own property in Saudi Arabia since 2011; therefore most expats live in rented accommodation. A lot of big companies with a significant share of foreign employees have special deals with local landlords or estate agents, which enable them to offer a certain contingent of accommodation to their expat staff.
If you do not have the support of your HR department or sponsor in your search for accommodation, ask other expats in your area, as word of mouth is usually the best way to find what you need. Alternatively, you can contact local estate agents (most of them speak English), check English-language newspapers such as Arab News, or simply ask the porter of the compound you are interested in about upcoming vacancies.
The renting process itself is relatively straightforward, though you should make sure to have a certified English translation of the Arabic contract. Most accommodation is unfurnished, and there are short and long-term contracts available, ranging from one month to one year. As per usual, any damage done to the property exceeding the boundaries of fair wear and tear will have to be paid for.
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Reasons to consider living and working in Saudi Arabia
In addition to the work opportunities, there are many other advantages to consider when deciding whether to take on an expat role in Saudi Arabia.
The number one reason many expats consider moving to Saudi Arabia is the financial prospects. Salaries are tax free; that’s a huge incentive considering in many countries you can expect to pay taxes worth up to 40-50% of your earnings. Savings will be easier as the salaries are higher here than in most parts of the world.
Having overseas work experience in your CV showcases to employers your ability to work in other cultures and learn how to do business in other places. Saudi Arabia can be one of the hardest places to do business, but also one of the most rewarding experiences. Employers will look upon that with great interest as you demonstrate your adaptability and global business skills.
Saudi Arabia gets generous sunlight all year round. For three or four months of the year, it's too hot to really go outside, but air-conditioning helps one cope. In the remaining months, you can enjoy outdoor living, beaches, pools, etc. The summers are long and hot, but manageable; with holidays at home/overseas, you can break it up whilst you wait for the cooler weather to return.
The standard of living is high in Saudi Arabia, as the cost of living is low. It is very common for expats to enlist the services of drivers, maids, nannies, and gardeners. While these things depend on your preferences, many expats enjoy a good lifestyle.
Saudi Arabia is a central location for many top travel destinations. The world’s busiest airport, Dubai International Airport, is only a two-hour flight away from Riyadh. The national carrier Saudi Airlines offers world class standards of safety and comfort.
New malls are opening on a regular basis offering consumers the biggest brands and modern retail experience. The Mall at Kingdom Centre located in Riyadh for instance, offers extensive shopping options.
7. Food and drink
One can enjoy a high-quality dining experience and quality cuisines. Eating out is a cultural experience and everything from affordable to luxurious is available. Saudi cuisine is rich and flavourful. An authentic Arabic experience includes mint tea and shisha.
In addition to experiencing the local cultures and learning about the famous Arabic hospitality, you will quickly learn how welcoming and friendly Saudis can be. There are some interesting places to visit in Saudi itself. Saudi Arabia is as diverse in its landscapes as it is in its culture and traditions, from desert fortresses and mountain ranges, to magnificent fish and coral reefs.