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Situated in the heart of the Middle East on the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia's vast and seemingly endless desert plains, coupled with a conservative society strictly governed by Sharia law, can make the country seem intimidating for many expats.
Though there are certain perks to life in Saudi Arabia, expats seldom move there for the lifestyle, the weather, the food or any of the enticements other expat destinations may offer. Rather, Westerners tend to move to the Kingdom for financial reasons and remain sequestered in Western-style compounds, far removed from real Saudi life while earning their tax-free salaries.
Living in Saudi Arabia as an expat
Most expats in Saudi Arabia live in Jeddah and Riyadh, both of which have the full range of Western amenities, a good selection of accommodation, and most of the Kingdom’s employers. Some expats may also find themselves drawn to Saudi's Eastern Province, pulled by lucrative job offers in the hydrocarbon sector.
Expat life in Saudi Arabia is surprisingly social as fellow immigrants develop strong bonds. Weekends are often centred on compound get-togethers, trips into the desert and diving excursions. The camaraderie and parties make up for a lack of other liberties and luxuries, but the artificial lifestyle can be difficult to sustain over long periods.
Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia law, and Islam is closely interwoven with daily life. Although foreigners are allowed to practise their own religion in private, proselytising is strictly forbidden. For the most harmonious and peaceful experience possible, expats are advised to respect Islamic laws and customs, bearing in mind that they are guests in the Kingdom.
Expat women in Saudi Arabia
Expat 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 are far more limited in Saudi Arabia. The best way to blend in and not attract unwanted attention when out in public is to wear an abaya (a long, flowing black robe) over clothes. Women aren't obligated to wear an abaya by law, but public decency laws do specify that knees and shoulders should be covered in public.
If living in Saudi as a dependant on their husband’s visa, women aren't automatically granted the right to work and will need to obtain their own sponsor and work visa to do so.
Expat families and children
Foreign children don't often attend Saudi public schools due to language and cultural barriers, but there are several international schools that cater to the international community. The standard of education at these schools is generally high. 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. 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. To make the most of it, expats should view their move to Saudi as a combination of career advancement, new cultural experiences and financial enrichment.
Population: 35 million
Capital city: Riyadh (also largest city)
Other major cities: Jeddah, Dammam, Mecca
Neighbouring countries: Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen
Political system: Unitary Islamic absolute monarchy
Geography: Saudi Arabia is made up mostly of desert. The population is distributed in the eastern and western coastal towns as well as the interior oases, but much of the country remains empty desert.
Main languages: Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken and understood in business.
Major religions: Saudi Arabia is a strict Islamic country governed by Sharia law. Although other religions can be practised in private, proselytising is strictly forbidden.
Money: The official currency is the Saudi riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halala. The country has a well-established banking system and expats are able to open a local bank account in Saudi Arabia.
Tipping: 10 percent
Electricity: 110V, 50Hz in main cities, but expats in remote areas may encounter 220V, 60Hz.
International dialling code: +966
Internet domain: .sa
Emergency numbers: 999 (police); 997 (ambulance); 998 (fire)
Transport and driving: Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road in Saudi Arabia. Most expats get around in their own vehicles or with a personal driver.
"Through the years, Saudi Arabia has been subjected to lazy stereotyping. It’s important to be open to the move and as frivolous as it may sound, a lot is based on that positive approach. The country is under cultural transformation for the better with liberal laws, especially for expats living in Riyadh (which has traditionally been more conservative compared to cities like Jeddah and Dammam). In my opinion, it’s an ideal time to live in Riyadh to be able to experience this interesting cultural transition."
Get more advice and insights from Palavi in her interview with Expat Arrivals.
Are you an expat living in Saudi Arabia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Saudi Arabia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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