Moving to Riyadh
The modern metropolis of Riyadh rises from the sultry heat of surrounding desert in a mirage of high-rise towers and sprawling skyscrapers. Once a small oasis settled for its palm trees, dates and orchards, Riyadh has matured to become Saudi Arabia’s capital and largest city.
As the centre of power and the commercial hub of the country, many expatriates have moved to Riyadh to pursue career paths and to climb the ladder of ambition. Current statistics even estimate that the expat community makes up nearly 40 percent of the city’s population. Such a large foreign presence is certainly a reassuring factor for expats moving to Riyadh who may be wary of the glaring restrictions of Islamic law.
Expats are bound to experience some culture shock when relocating to Riyadh. The city is one of the most conservative in Saudi Arabia, and the daily rhythms of life in the city are dictated by Muslim prayer times, which occur five times a day. With no cinemas, pubs or nightclubs in Riyadh, and alcohol banned, new arrivals may struggle to adjust to this restrictive social environment. The climate is another factor to contend with; summer temperatures can skyrocket over 122°F (50⁰C) and average at 113°F (45⁰C). It's also very dry throughout the year, and when the wind blows the city is often covered in a haze of sand.
Most Western expats are accommodated in residential compounds, often owned by their employers, scattered about the northern and eastern suburbs of Riyadh. Downtown housing tends to be taken by lower-salaried employees, both Saudi and expat. The residential compounds, depending on both their ownership and the cultural make-up of their residents, may be more liberal in their policies than the general situation might suggest. Men and women are permitted to socialise freely in these neighbourhoods, women can drive and the strict clothing rules for women do not apply. These self-contained housing complexes have all the modern amenities expats may require, including shops, gyms, tennis courts, and even schools, and an active social life can be enjoyed by all.
With a strict adherence to Sharia law and harsh punishments for indiscretions, crime is low in the city and expats should feel quite safe in Riyadh. Despite some international concerns over the threat of terrorism, there have been no recent significant incidents to warrant any further concerns, and security is tight in and around Western compounds. Driving is likely the most significant safety concern for expats living in Riyadh; Saudi Arabia has a poor road safety record and erratic driving and high speed are the norm on Riyadh’s roads.
Although plans are currently in place to begin construction of an integrated metro and bus transport system in Riyadh, the city’s transport infrastructure of today leaves most expats relying on their own vehicle or taxis for getting around. Taxis are abundant in the city, and the most viable option for women to travel around.
Despite the glitz and glamour of monstrous malls and futuristic architecture, Riyadh is still an Arab city in the heart of the Arab world. If the ancient mosques spotting and dotting the tree-lined highways aren’t enough of a reminder, the strict adherence to Islamic moral and cultural code will certainly do the job. Relocation to Riyadh is bound to be a challenging experience, but one that can be both a financially rewarding and culturally enriching experience, and one that expats should approach with an open mind.