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A Quick Guide to... Living and Working in Saudi Arabia

Posted by: Kathie Higginson

There are many great things about taking an expat role in Saudi Arabia – the most obvious of all being the massive earning potential; with huge expat salaries and little or no tax, many expats choose to spend a few years in Saudi in order to save to pay off a mortgage back home. Not to mention the price of petrol!

So you’ve weighed up the pros and cons and decided to take the plunge into an expat role in Saudi Arabia… here’s our quick guide to start you on your way.

Emergency Services: 999 police, 997 ambulance
Language: Arabic
Currency: Saudi Riyal (ريال‎‎), subdivided into 100 halalas

You may not have a choice where you live as it will likely be provided by your employer - however this means that it’s heavily subsidised or even free. Expats live in expat-only compounds where the rules are more relaxed than elsewhere in KSA and housing and standard of living are generally high. Security is generally very good so it’s safe for residents great for children.

Schooling and Healthcare
International schools in Saudi Arabia are generally speaking excellent, with fantastic facilities and equipment. Many are modelled on the US education system however you will find British and International schools too. Ensure that your package covers school fees if possible, as they are expensive.

Private hospitals are of equal quality to those in the USA and Western Europe, however it’s worth noting that some perfectly legal drugs elsewhere may be classed as illegal narcotics within Saudi Arabia so check before you bring anything into the country.

Unless within one of the larger compounds, women cannot drive. Traffic accidents can be quite frequent and drivers may be aggressive and often get road rage. Congestion is challenging, particularly in cities, and roads outside of cities may be unpaved. Drive defensively and if possible hire a driver. You may not know immediately if you have been issued a speeding ticket so check the government website – particularly as you won’t be allowed to leave the country with unpaid fines.

Alcohol is illegal everywhere in Saudi Arabia, but expats do get hold of or brew their own alcoholic drinks including the local brew Siddique – which is essentially neat alcohol. This is still illegal, but Saudis do turn a blind eye for the most part to expats drinking within compounds. Road blocks mean it’s dangerous to transport alcohol around, and convictions can and do happen both outside of and even within the compounds.

Women and men are held to different standards. When going anywhere outside of the compound, women must be escorted by a male relative (or their husband) and, as mentioned previously, are not allowed to drive. It goes without saying that dressing modestly is the norm, even for men – and when leaving the compound, women must wear an abaya and, in many cities, a headscarf. Inside your compound, women should be able to drive and wear Western clothing.

Getting Away
It’s easy to travel anywhere in the Middle East, and many expats frequently take short breaks in neighbouring countries, particularly Bahrain, most of which have more relaxed laws surrounding women’s behaviour and drinking (and eating pork!), in particular.

Take into account that you may not receive Christmas as a holiday – but you will receive time off for Ramadan and Hajj.

Home Comforts
As an expat anywhere, there will be certain things you’re going to miss from your home country. It’s a good idea to take some nice toiletries or other luxury items that won’t be as good quality in Saudi Arabia. One thing you’re sure to love in Saudi Arabia is the beautiful dates.

If you have children, you’ll find Saudi Arabia a fantastic place to raise them. The Saudis are very family-focused and adore children, so there’s plenty for them to do. Most of your entertainment will be within your compound, where there tend to be plenty of clubs and activities to get involved in, and generally speaking any hobby will be well-covered. You should have no problem meeting other expats and making friends, and you’ll find Saudis themselves a welcoming bunch who are, on the whole, great fun to be with.

There aren’t really cinemas or other public entertainment as they can be regarded as incompatible with Islam, and public places such as restaurants practice sex-segregation for unmarried couples. Aside from socialising within your compound, going out for meals, coffee and shopping will form the biggest part of your entertainment. The vast majority of Western chain restaurants are available, and western style malls have all the stores you would expect and some even have rides for children.

Law, Order & Etiquette
As you’ll know already, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative country. The religious police or Mutaween are the keepers of social compliance, and it’s best to be polite with them. It goes without saying that you should be respectful of local laws and customs - particularly during the holy month of Ramadan,when it is forbidden to eat, drink and smoke in public during daylight hours.

Religious non-Muslims can practice their religion within their own homes but are strictly forbidden from proselytising (attempting to spread any other religion), and do not wear any religious symbols (such as a cross). You can bring a bible, or other religious text, into the country so long as it is only for your personal use – do not bring more than one. It also goes without saying that you shouldn’t import any pork products.

Your left hand is considered unclean in Islam, so only shake hands, receive gifts or eat with the right hand. Men shouldn’t make physical contact with unrelated women in public, and no public displays of affection at all – even with your spouse.

Staying in Touch
The internet service in Saudi Arabia tends to be very good, and you will only need your Iqama (Right to Work certificate) to set WiFi up, so it should be fairly simple to keep in touch with family and friends back home.

Price Guide

3 course meal for 2, mid-range 60 ﷼  $16
Draught beer (0.5 litre, non-alcoholic) 4.50 ﷼ $1.20
Loaf of bread 2.98 ﷼ $0.79
Mid range bottle of wine (non-alcoholic) 20 ﷼ $5.33
Gas/Petrol (1 litre) 0.58 ﷼ $0.15
Taxi (1 km) 5 ﷼ $1.33
Rent - 1 bed, city centre* 1,490 ﷼ $400

*Indicative of a city centre apartment, although expat rentals would be more expensive they are typically supplied by employers.

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