Living in Saudi Arabia
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. InterNations offers you a useful guide to expat living in Saudi Arabia.
Expat Living in Saudi Arabia
This website (Living in Saudi Arabia) is dedicated to all of those expatriates working and living in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A land of many opportunities and at the same time many disappointments.
Why work in Saudi Arabia? Most of us expats have come to Saudi Arabia for one reason, Money, the root of all evil as some would say, and something that some would say the Saudi’s have more than their fair share of due to the Oil found beneath their sands.
But this wealth has led to an opportunity for many of us to come and work in this ultra-religious and very private society. For some this is an adventure and a chance to mix with people with a very different background and culture whilst for others it is a chore of immense proportions.
- 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.
Living by the Rules in KSA
If you are living within Saudi Arabia you will be aware of the many rules that you have to abide by, restrictions that would be challenged in any court in the west. But this is Saudi Arabia, the birth place of the Muslim religion and the Saudi interpretation of the rules is extreme. Prayers are observed 5 times per day and everything stops, I mean everything; stores close, businesses stop and everyone goes to pray in the mosque, in the office or even in the street. If you time your visit to the supermarket wrongly you will find yourself with a full trolley and a 30 to 40 minute wait before the checkout staff return.
But despite the rules, the heat (sometimes 50 degrees), Saudi working practices and the frequent encounters with people you want to strangle; I have found living in Saudi Arabia to be one of the best experiences of my life (after all I met my wife here!)
- The Money - Most Western expats come to Saudi Arabia for one reason: Money. Landing a position here as an experienced and educated professional typically comes with perks that jobs back home don't offer. Generous tax-free salaries, luxurious housing, paid education for your children, free tickets back home, and the minimum standard of 30 days paid vacation are all benefits offered to Western expats. The cost of living here is pretty reasonable as well, and considering that for most expats, housing and transportation are a
part of their salary packages, very little money needs to be spent to live here. We all know gasoline is cheap (cheaper than water actually), but you may be surprised to know that food, entertainment, and shopping are also affordable.
- Travel and Tourism - The Middle East has several famous tourist destinations, but the word tourism probably doesn't spring to mind when one thinks of Saudi Arabia. It doesn't have a booming tourist industry like other countries in the Middle East, and it's nearly impossible to come for leisure purposes unless you already have family here to sponsor you, so being able to take advantage of the rich cultural history that the Kingdom has to offer is one of the benefits of living here. Of course there are Mecca and Medina, the country's two holy cities, which are on the top of the list for Muslim expats, but there are several other sites worth seeing as well. Dir'iya, the original home of the Al Saud family, offers a look into what life was like when the Kingdom was first born. Mada'in Saleh, an ancient city of buildings carved into cliffs, similar to Petra, is a look back in time to the country's pre-Islamic history. Saudi Arabia also offers spectacular scenery when you venture out into the deserts beyond Riyadh, the mountains of Abha, or the beaches along the coast of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
- Food - I've never found a place outside of the Middle East where you can get quality Middle Eastern food. And further, there is no place outside of Saudi Arabia where you can get quality Saudi food. So if you've not visited, you have no idea what you're missing! The national dish of Saudi Arabia is Kabsa, a dish of rice with meat or chicken served on a huge platter. Traditionally it is served on the floor with everyone sitting around the platter, taking rice and meat with their hands. The experience is offered not only in homes here, but also in traditional restaurants. It's an experience that you probably won't find anywhere else, and one you'll miss when you leave.
- Diversity - Growing up in a small town in midwestern America, I thought diversity meant that white kids and black kids attended my school in equal numbers. Today my world has been expanded beyond anything my small-town mind could have imagined several years ago. I have made friends with people from all corners of the globe, from countries I had probably never heard of before coming here. Riyadh, the country's capitol and my home away from home, has a mostly foreign population. People come here from all over the world to earn a living and to build lives. If you're bringing your family and children with you to Saudi Arabia to live, this is a great place to teach your family about differing cultures and ways of life.
- Crazy stories to tell back home - Ok, I'm grasping at straws a little here. But seriously, my family and friends never tire of hearing about my adventures and experiences. And I never get tired of having them. How many times in your home town have you spotted a camel or a flock of sheep in the back of a pickup truck? Exactly. Every day is a new adventure here. New people to meet, new languages to learn, new foods to try. Even the challenges I face while living here end up becoming funny little tales to write about.
Working in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has a healthy economy, and job prospects for foreigners remain positive across a broad spectrum of industries.
While the oil and gas sectors are the cornerstones of Saudi Arabia’s economic foundations, expansion in the logistics sector as well as retail and consumer goods provide expats with a larger variety of opportunities to pursue
Additionally, engineering, construction, IT and telecommunications have been historically active areas of employment, while English teachers are always in demand and can earn quite well working in Saudi Arabia. Nurses and doctors are also actively recruited. Planned development of an integrated public transport network in Riyadh in the coming years is also likely to present numerous employment opportunities for both skilled and unskilled workers from abroad. In addition to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea cities of Jeddah and Yanbu and the Eastern Province cities of Al Khobar, Damman, Jubail and Al Hasa attract a large number of foreign workers.
Job market in Saudi Arabia
Remuneration packages in Saudi Arabia for highly skilled workers are competitive when compared to those offered in the wider Gulf region. Added to the incentive of a tax-free salary, benefits usually include accommodation, health insurance, transport and education allowances, and annual flight tickets home. Expats will also find that their hard-earned salaries will go further, as the Kingdom offers a lower cost of living than many of its regional neighbours.
However, discrimination is widespread when it comes to wages and benefits in Saudi Arabia; Western expats generally earn much higher salaries than their Asian counterparts, even with similar qualifications and experience. Further discrimination is targeted at female workers; work opportunities for women are severely limited in the Kingdom, with most jobs for women restricted to the health and education sectors. A married woman cannot work without her husband’s permission, nor can she leave the country or travel without it.
Working culture and environment in Saudi Arabia
Expats working in Saudi Arabia may find themselves in a working environment radically different to what they are used to. The culture and customs of Saudi Arabia are essentially Arabic and Islam dominates all facets of life, including business. A central aspect of Saudi life is prayer. Muslims pray five times a day and work days will therefore be disrupted numerous times to make provisions for this. Working hours will also be reduced during the holy month of Ramadan.
Arabic is the official language in Saudi Arabia, but English is widely spoken and understood in business circles. Nevertheless, expats would do well to learn Arabic if seeking to fully establish themselves in the Saudi working world.
Most foreign workers in Saudi Arabia are manual labourers and semi-skilled workers from Africa, South and Southeast Asia and other Arab states, many of them working in the country illegally. Saudi authorities have been clamping down on these illegal workers in recent times. In a bid to regulate the flow of immigration to the Kingdom and encourage more job creation for the local population, as part of its policy of 'Saudization', the government has also implemented a number of restrictions on hiring foreign labour, with Saudi companies facing penalties for hiring too many foreigners. However, this is not likely to impact the job prospects of highly skilled expats, who are still in high demand.
Foreigners wanting to work in Saudi Arabia are required to have a work permit, which cannot be obtained without a confirmed job offer and sponsorship from an employer. It is therefore not possible to arrive in Saudi Arabia in order to look for work. The process of obtaining a work permit can be a long and convoluted one, so expats should be prepared to have patience and endurance. Note that once arriving in the country, expats must surrender their passport to their sponsor. This means that they will be unable to leave Saudi Arabia without their permission. In addition, to leave the country, expats require an exit stamp – obtainable only with their sponsor's approval.