Saudi Arabia has a long history of expats coming to live and work here, and at any time it is estimated that around a third of the population are foreign nationals.
However, at the same time relocating to Jeddah or Riyadh will require some significant adjustment on the part of people coming from Europe or the US, for instance.
Saudi Arabia is a socially conservative Muslim country, and consequently there will be several cultural and social aspects of living here that can present challenges.
Nevertheless, expats who are prepared to be adaptable and flexible, and are willing to explore some different cultural norms, can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and access to high-quality housing, education and other social amenities.
Expat Life in Saudi Arabia
Expat life in Saudi Arabia can be quite a different experience to relocating elsewhere in the world. The location, the climate, and the social structures all mean that there will be some limitations that expats haven’t previously experienced.
This does not mean, however, that a rich and varied family life can’t be enjoyed in major cities like Riyadh and Jeddah.
The fact that most expats in Saudi live in gated communities does mean that a strong sense of community tends to be fostered amongst friends and neighbours. Compound get togethers are a great way of getting to meet people and establishing networks, and just relaxing away from work in a safe environment.
There are also a range of accessible activities that can be enjoyed all year round. Expats in Jeddah will tend to spend large amounts of their free time around the coast of the Red Sea, for instance, where there are multiple beach clubs offering boats and jet skis for hire.
Diving is another highly popular activity, and the warm waters of the Red Sea are ideal for engaging with a stunning array of underwater life. For newbies, there is an abundance of dive schools where you can learn this very enjoyable skill.
Desert tours are also a highly popular social activity for expats in Riyadh and Jeddah. There are a wide variety of options depending on how far off the beaten track you want to go, and experiencing the stark, stunning landscapes is an essential part of a stay of any length in Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, it is important for expats to come to terms with the fact that there is something artificial about the lifestyle in Saudi Arabia. If you plan to live for an extended period of time in either Riyadh or Jeddah, it will be beneficial to try to explore aspects of life outside of your compound, and to find ways in which to engage with other people beyond those in the immediate expat community.
Financial Landscape and Income Tax
One of the most significant aspects of expat life in Saudi Arabia is that jobs are very well remunerated, and consequently offer financial opportunities beyond what might be available at home.
In addition, earnings from employment are exempt from income tax, which further increases the value of an expat employment package.
However, employees (including expats) are required to pay a 10% Social Insurance Tax, which contributes to the country’s social security provision.
Essential Services and Amenities
Expats living in Jeddah and Riyadh can enjoy a standard of living in most instances equal to or even superior to that which they generally enjoy at home.
Healthcare for expats in Saudi is world class, and as medical insurance is compulsory, there is a wide variety of private hospitals with high class facilities that can be accessed. Significant numbers of the medical staff are expats and consequently English is widely spoken, which helps to enhance the standard of care.
There is also an accessible network of pharmacies, many of which are attached to hospitals and open 24 hours a day, which can be essential for expat families with young children.
In terms of education, families with children have a large variety of options open to them. You can choose from a range of international schools, offering British, US and other curriculums that mean children are able to keep up with their counterparts at home, and transition back into the system easily when you return.
The standards of facilities and teaching in Saudi Arabia international schools are on a par with the best private and independent schools in Europe, the US, Britain and Australia, and provide expat kids with a range of extra-curricular and social activities as well.
When it comes to travelling and getting around in Saudi Arabia, it is not uncommon for expats to have a driver who looks after them. Most housing compounds also provide women and children with bus shuttle services to major shopping and dining precincts, while international schools will also provide a bus service to take kids to and from school each day.
Women are now permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, although female expats who drive themselves are relatively uncommon. Instead, most women travelling independently prefer to use taxis, but these need to be booked in advance as they can’t be hired on the street. Careem and Uber both are available as well.
Legal and Administrative Procedures
There are two main visa and permit categories in Saudi Arabia that expats need to be familiar with:
- Employment visa
- Residence permit
Expats require an employment visa to be able to live and work in the Kingdom. This needs to be sponsored by your Saudi employer, who will generally take care of most of the process for you, but you will be expected to supply all relevant documents.
The employer will lodge an application for a work visa with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Labor, who will then issue a Visa Authorisation Number when approved.
Once in Saudi Arabia, expats are then required to apply for a residence permit, known as an Iqama. This will be issued through the Directorate General for Passports. This is an important document and should always be kept safe.
While working in Saudi Arabia, if you need to travel in and out of the country, you are required to apply for an Exit/Re-Entry Permit through the Ministry of Interior (which will usually take a week to process).
A residence permit will also feature a worker’s wife and children (under the age of 18 years), Sons and daughters over 18 years must have their own passport and obtain a visa for themselves.
Saudi Arabia has a digital platform known as Absher which is designed to provide access to a range of government services. Expats can register to use Absher by supplying your residency permit details.
Embracing Cultural Integration
Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, although English is widely spoken, especially in the work environment.
It can be challenging for foreigners to learn Arabic, however, everyone can master some of the basics, and should be encouraged to do so, as it not only helps with communication but also enhances cultural awareness.
There are a range of options for expats in Saudi Arabia who want to learn Arabic. There are language schools offering private, group, and business classes, as well as supplementary online classes. Universities also offer Arabic lessons, as well as providing self-learning tools.
Language aside, there are other cultural norms and social etiquette that expats in Saudi Arabia will need to adjust to.
Crucially, expats need to understand that Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia, and this has implications in terms of dress, behaviour and social interactions. Other religions can be practised in the Kingdom, but any form of proselytising is strictly prohibited.
Saudi Arabia is a conservative country that is organised along patriarchal lines, and this can be a way of life that is difficult for expats to adjust to, even though expat women are largely exempt from most of the restrictions placed on Saudi women.
Nevertheless, when out in public, life can be easier for women if they wear an abaya (a long ball robe) over their regular clothes. This is not compulsory, but it is a requirement that women in public cover their shoulders and knees.
When meeting and interacting with people in a work or social environment, men can always expect to shake hands and to hear the greeting As-salaam Alaikum, which means peace be upon you. However, women should not automatically expect to receive a handshake from a man on being introduced, therefore it is advisable to wait until any contact is initiated.
In the public sphere, you can expect to find some places where the sexes are segregated, although in private there are more opportunities for mixed gender gatherings.
Alcohol can only be consumed within the confines of expat compounds, and pork is not to be eaten anywhere. You can also expect to find a press and media that is quite heavily censored.
Saudi Arabia celebrates the two most important festivals in the Islamic calendar: Eid-ul-Adha and Eid-ul-Fitr.
Eid-ul-Adha marks the end of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah (also known in English as Mecca, the city where the Prophet Muhammad was born, and where the Ka’bah is located), while Eid-ul-Fitr takes place at the end of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and which is a month of fasting and prayer.
In terms of important events outside of religious festivals, it is useful for expats to know that Saudi Arabia National Day is September 23, when there is a range of public events and entertainment to enjoy.
Pros and Cons of Expat Life in Saudi Arabia
Ultimately, if you are considering taking up expat life in Saudi Arabia, either as a single person or a family, there are some benefits and drawbacks that you will need to weigh up before you go.
A well paid, tax-free income is naturally very tempting, and it can provide an opportunity to build savings in a way that might not be possible otherwise given the economic climate in much of the world at the moment.
Likewise, expat life creates a ready-made community with which you can become involved. You have the chance to be part of a group of people who have much in common, but are diverse at the same time, coming from a variety of different countries, speaking different languages, and having a vast array of life experiences, yet who are all in Saudi Arabia for work.
Then there is the country itself. Expat life not only gives you the chance to engage closely with a completely different culture, there’s also some fascinating places to explore which are likely to be unlike anything else you’ve ever seen before.
At the same time, these cultural differences can pose a challenge for many expats. Living in an Islamic country is not like living in western countries, even those that have large Muslim communities. Sharia can be challenging and will require some modification of behaviour. Living in Saudi will not be for everyone’s cup of tea.
Some people will also find the fact that their liberties are somewhat restricted compared to life elsewhere, and therefore find it difficult to adjust.
In the end, coming to Saudi Arabia to live and work can bring with it a range of benefits, both culturally and financially; however, it does need to be considered carefully as it is not necessarily a move that will suit everyone.