Angela Harlow is an American expat who has been living in the Red Sea city of Yanbu with her husband and daughter since 2012. Here she shares some interesting perspectives on the pros and cons of living in this Saudi city.
Yanbu is a small, quiet city on the Red Sea. Located approximately a three hours’ drive north of Jeddah, it has a long history as an important economic centre for Saudi Arabia, from a bustling seaport to one of the two industrial cities under development in the country.
The city’s industrialisation took hold about 35 years ago and is now in its second phase of development. With more and more businesses moving in, the city is expected to double in size over the next 10 years. Because of the development and rapid changes, there are certainly ups and downs that come with expansion and growth. If you can learn to flow with the tide here, Yanbu can certainly be an oasis in the desert.
With a seaside location and a history as a major port for the area, Yanbu has a wide selection of beaches and is ideal for enjoying the water. There are beaches just for Westerners where Western bathing suits are welcome, along with more traditional beaches segregated for men and women.
Pro: Yanbu is located directly on the Red Sea with some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world. The coral is amazing and at many of the beaches you are able to easily see the start of the coral in quite shallow water. A weekend at the beach is just a few minutes away and is available almost all year round due to the warm climate. It’s certainly easy to throw on a wetsuit and dive in.
There are also many boat services in the city that offer diving and fishing excursions. You can take a glass-bottom boat tour with the family for a day out on the water.
Con: Because of its location and being a small city, travel in and out of Yanbu is a challenge. The local airport services select flights that may leave you with a five- to 12-hour layover at a larger hub for just a weekend getaway. Also, many of the airlines will cancel flights that are not fully booked in and out of the city due to low demand, so taking a flight direct in or out of Yanbu can be a challenge. The solution is a three-hour drive to Jeddah, with a larger airport and more service, as it’s the hub for Saudia Airlines. However, many international flights leave in the wee hours of the morning (1am to 5am) making for a very long travel day.
Climate in Yanbu
If you love the outdoors, Yanbu’s weather is beautiful for about 75 percent of the year, making it a great location for being outside, whether at the beach, a local park or exploring the local deserts.
Pro: Most days there is a breeze that blows through the city due to the Red Sea; this helps to quell the heat and make the temperatures a bit more bearable. The temperatures do fall below 68°F (20°C) during the winter months (December and January), while the autumn and spring temperatures stay between 68°F (20°C) and 86°F (30°C).
Pro: If you like to garden, it’s easy to grow a variety of flowers and vegetables here due to the warm climate. There are many nurseries available and gardeners are inexpensive to hire to help set up a yard with irrigation and landscaping. You can easily and inexpensively create your own oasis in the desert at your home.
Con: With the breeze comes sand storms, which can occur up to three or four times a week, depending on the season. Some can be pretty severe and houses are not sealed well, so sand and dust is everywhere, which can wreak havoc on allergies.
Con: Because there is little to no rain, when it does rain, the city tends to flood, causing houses and roofs to leak. Local authorities are working on installing a drainage system throughout the city, but with such an infrequency of rain, just an hour can cause damage to houses and roadways.
Con: Summer months (July and August) are extremely hot, reaching above 104°F (40°C). During this time, spending any time at all outside is dangerous, so those staying in the country during the summer are usually hopping from building to building for air conditioning to stay cool.
Accommodation in Yanbu
The city is growing, but housing is limited, along with selections of hotels for weekend get-aways.
Pro: Most companies offer expats either free housing or a housing stipend that covers the cost of a rental either in town or in one of the two compounds. The houses range from Saudi style, which can be very large and luxurious with marble throughout, to ranch and more Western style, along with small apartments and flats. Most have air conditioning (a must here) and newer model appliances. The two compounds offer 24/7 security for residents, along with many amenities, including day care, pools, gyms and restaurants.
Pro: Hotels in the area are quite nice, with the Movenpick and Radisson being the top choices for Westerners. The Movenpick is a five-star resort located in the Industrial City right on the Red Sea and offers direct beach access to guests. The Radisson is located downtown in “Old” Yanbu and has a seafood buffet that is first class.
Con: Due to the expansion of the city, housing is at a premium. Many companies are facing a housing shortage as the compounds are full and many of the Western “camps” that were originally developed to house expats have been turned over for rentals and permanent housing. The city is building constantly, but at the moment demand has outweighed supply. Many expats are housed in one of the local hotels until something comes available, which could take up to five months.
Con: Housing is also older and, due to the harsher climate, most homes need extensive renovation work. They are not luxury homes, but are livable. Workmanship tends to be mediocre as many receive a “quick” fix in order to move people in and out as quickly as possible.
Con: Hotels in the area, and in Jeddah, are generally quite expensive. A room for a night ranges from 200 USD to 400 USD. So a weekend away can be very expensive.
Lifestyle in Yanbu
It is no secret that the Saudi lifestyle is more conservative and restricted than the traditional Western lifestyle. The country is governed under Islamic law and everything in the local culture revolves around this. Both Mecca and Medina are just a short drive from Yanbu, so life in the area tends to be more traditional than the larger cities of Jeddah and Riyadh.
Pro: Family is of the utmost importance in Saudi culture. There are more than 100 parks in the city, ranging from smaller to large, all with nice play equipment for the kids to get out some energy. Also, everywhere you look after the sun is gone, families gather for picnics. Families will stop on the side of the road, in the desert, in parks, practically wherever it is convenient, throw down a blanket and enjoy a meal together. As a Westerner, it’s nice to sometimes slow down and do the same.
Con: Women must wear an abaya and may be asked to cover their hair in public. Also, women are not able to drive, so women must rely on their husbands and drivers for transportation. Restrictions are high for women and this includes Westerners in the country. Women cannot ride a bicycle for transportation either, so walking and drivers are their primary means of getting around.
Pro: Women get more exercise walking here, and depending on your view, you can be comfortable in pajamas all day as the abaya covers everything and is worn over your clothes. If you like stretch pants or yoga pants, you may never wear jeans again and no one knows.
Con: There is no pork or alcohol in the country, which can be a disadvantage for some Westerners. There are alternatives; non-alcoholic beverages and beef bacon, which can offer a substitute. An advantage of this is that your diet can become much healthier with less fat and cholesterol.
Pro: Saudi Arabia is a safe country. You do need to use common sense, but in general the safety here is high. Occasionally you hear of a break in, but in general, compared to the Western world, crime is minimal. Punishments are harsh, which helps to control the crime.
Con: The driving here is not safe. Because women are unable to drive, it is not unusual to see a child as young as eight driving a large SUV. The city is working to clean up some of the traffic violations and has been installing more and more cameras and patrols to check for licensed drivers (driving age here is18 for males); however, violations continue and accidents, when they occur, are usually quite severe.
Pro: In general, the benefits and salary packages for expats in Saudi Arabia are some of the highest in the Middle East. Due to the location and growth of the city, the packages here are more lucrative for many expats compared to Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh or even Jeddah. If you negotiate your contract correctly, you and your family can live very comfortably, with some companies offering up to two home leaves a year rather than one.
Con: The cost of living can be a bit higher here for Western products. You tend to spend more and pay outrageous prices for products that aren’t a staple here. For example, a tub of margarine (American brand) can run at 25 USD and you’re more willing to pay that price given the supply shortage of Western brand names. However, there are local alternatives that are reasonably priced and certainly more readily available.
Culture in Yanbu
Culture shock is certainly a factor here. Saudi Arabia is very unique, standing out from even other Middle Eastern countries. There are many different cultural dos and don’ts that can be a challenge or a blessing for any expat.
Pro: The culture loves children. If you have children, the locals here are very open and accepting of children. There are parks everywhere with amusement “parks” in many of the malls and at the beaches. There is always something to do with your children here.
Con: For women, the culture is very restrictive. The restrictions that women face can take their toll, so it’s important to come to the country with an open mind. The openness of Western culture is not the case here. Restaurants are separated into single and family sections, and some will not allow women to enter to order. It’s important to do your research and learn from expats who have been in the area for some time in order to understand all the ins and outs of Saudi life.
Pro: The culture is, in general, very accepting of and friendly toeveryone. Most people greet you with a smile and are very kind and happy to answer your questions when you don’t know the answers. Many are well educated and spent much time abroad, so communication is easy in English and they are happy to share and explain their culture and beliefs. This is important, as it can be overwhelming to understand your new lifestyle here.
Healthcare in Yanbu
Healthcare in the Kingdom, in general, is good, with modern facilities and equipment. Medical professionals from all cultures can be found throughout Yanbu, with an International Hospital located in Jeddah.
Pro: The cost of healthcare here is minimal compared to what is paid in the USA. The healthcare here for many expats is covered by the company with out-of-pocket expenses for care and medicine being a small fraction of even the best of coverages stateside.
Con: This is a country that follows Islamic law, so due to prayer times and strict separation of men and women, men are only allowed to visit wives and children in certain hospitals for a maximum of two hours per day. If you are hospitalised, the care is good; however, as a woman, support from your husband is limited due to regulations. Also, the language barrier can be a problem. Although most health professionals speak English, the translation can be somewhat confusing when talking about symptoms so it can be a challenge to discuss healthcare here.
Education in Yanbu
With Yanbu being a smaller city, the options for education are limited.
Pro: There is an International Schools Group (ISG) school in the city that is well established, Yanbu International School (YIS). Because it is a small community, the school is made up of a mix of teachers who are expat wives and some who are brought here as expats to work at the school directly. Also, due to the size of the community, communication with teachers is pretty open as most expats are familiar with each other. There is another school, Radhwa International (American Curriculum), that is in the process of certification and is very new as an alternative. In addition, there are other schools throughout the city that offer an English curriculum.
Con: The resources for the schools are limited, and with YIS, the building is older, so facilities are aging. Radhwa is new, but is just building a reputation and working to obtain certification. It is AdvancEd accredited; however, it's not an ISG school. Choices are limited for students and as the expat population grows the schools are feeling the stress with teachers, resources and space.