Working in Saudi Arabia
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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 has also presented 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 travel or leave the country 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 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 may be requested to 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.