Moving to Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an oil-rich, conservative Middle Eastern country where Islam dominates and the Qur’an forms the constitution. Expats seldom move to Saudi Arabia for the lifestyle, the weather, the food or any of the enticements other expat destinations may offer. Rather, Westerners tend to move there for financial reasons, and while earning their tax-free salaries, remain sequestered in Western-style compounds far removed from real Saudi life.
This is perhaps the most important thing to realise: one is not necessarily moving to Saudi Arabia at all, rather a transient Western colony that amalgamates and magnifies the best and worst of life back home. Expat life is intensely social as fellow immigrants develop strong, quickly formed bonds and weekends are centred on compound get-togethers, trips to the desert and diving excursions. The camaraderie and parties are second to none; but the artificial lifestyle is difficult to sustain for long.
Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia law, and Islam is closely interwoven with daily life. It is essential that expats become familiar with Islamic customs and laws to avoid transgression and the consequences thereof. Although foreigners are allowed to practice their own religion in private, proselytising is strictly forbidden and there are harsh consequences for those disobeying Islamic laws and flouting local customs.
Women, in particular, may struggle to adjust to life in Saudi Arabia, especially if moving there as a “trailing spouse”. Many of the freedoms they enjoyed back home, such as driving a car, are no longer available. Women are also expected to wear an abaya, a long, flowing black robe, when out in public, and are not usually allowed to work if living there as part of their husband’s visa.
Most expats in Saudi Arabia live in Jeddah and Riyadh, both of which have the full range of Western amenities, a wide range of accommodation, and the majority of the Kingdom’s employers. Some expats will also find themselves drawn to Saudi's Eastern Province, pulled by lucrative job offers in the hydrocarbon sector.
Foreign children are not permitted to attend Saudi public schools, but there are a number of international schools catering to the international community. The standard of education at these schools is variable. Due to the high demand, space is often limited and parents should consider applying as early as possible to get a place for their child in their school of choice. Fees can also be exorbitant, and expats should factor these costs into their contract negotiations when considering a move to Saudi Arabia.
Working and living in Saudi Arabia is best treated as an adventure and new life experience. The key is to make sure one is going for the right reason – if it’s solely to make money, think again. Expats need to see a move to Saudi as a package of career advancement, cultural experience, and financial enrichment.