- Purchase the complete Expat Arrivals Saudi Arabia Guide (PDF)
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 moving to Saudi Arabia, expats seldom do so 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 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.
Cost of living in Saudi Arabia
The cost of living in Saudi Arabia for expats can vary depending on their lifestyle and the city they reside in. Generally, housing and food are relatively affordable, while luxury items and imported goods can be expensive. The country offers a range of accommodations, from simple apartments to lavish villas, to suit different budgets.
Expats can enjoy a variety of local cuisine at affordable prices, especially if they opt for street food or local restaurants. However, imported food items and dining at high-end restaurants can be quite costly. The cost of utilities such as electricity, water, and gas is relatively low, while transport costs can vary depending on the mode of travel and distance. The low price of petrol and of buying a car in the Kingdom makes driving and taxis surprisingly affordable, which is good considering that Saudi's public transport still has a way to improve.
Expat families and children in Saudi Arabia
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 limited and parents should consider applying as early as possible to get a place for their child in their school of choice. Fees are typically high. Expats should factor these costs into their contract negotiations when considering a move to Saudi Arabia.
Healthcare in Saudi Arabia is of a high standard, and expats will benefit from excellent medical facilities in both the private and public sectors. For the most part, there's no need to worry about delays or waiting lists, but having adequate health insurance is a must to cover the costs involved.
Climate in Saudi Arabia
The climate in Saudi Arabia is desert climate with extremely hot summers and mild winters. The country receives very little rainfall throughout the year. The climate in Riyadh is characterised by hot summers and cool winters. The city is known for its dry climate and low humidity, which can make the heat more bearable. Jeddah, located on the Red Sea coast, has a more tropical climate with high humidity and mild winters. The Eastern Province, meanwhile, has a subtropical desert climate. This region receives more rainfall than other parts of the country and also greater variance in temperature between the seasons.
Working and living in Saudi Arabia can be a unique and exciting opportunity for expats. It is an adventure that can broaden horizons, deepen cultural awareness and provide the chance for personal growth. Embracing the move to Saudi Arabia as a chance to gain a new perspective can also make the transition smoother and more rewarding. While the country's conservative culture may take some getting used to, it can also be a valuable and enlightening experience, and with the country's booming economy and growing job market, there are a wealth of opportunities for those looking to make a move.
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 and public practice of those religions is strictly forbidden.
Money: The official currency is the Saudi riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halalas. 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.
"Saudis are the most genuinely kind and generous people on earth. They are fun loving, helpful, warm, and truly make this country worth visiting and what makes it so special. Don’t expect things like customer service to be like what you are used to back home. Relax and go with the flow – and you will love your time here."
Read US expat Susie's 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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