Riyadh at a Glance
Living in Riyadh
For expats, the quality of life in Riyadh is fairly good, as far as creature comforts are concerned. The residents of Riyadh’s expatriate compounds enjoy a lot of amenities. Behind the heavily guarded gates of such communities, the facilities provide plenty of leisure opportunities. Pools, gyms, and various sports grounds are frequently standard features.
As the mutawwa (Saudi Arabia’s religious police) cannot enter those areas, expat women living in Riyadh’s foreign residential areas do not have to adhere to the strict local standards there. The “modest” dress code is abolished; both genders can mix freely during sports and other leisure activities; sometimes, there may even be home-brewed or smuggled booze for an expat-only party.
If you prefer a quiet evening in, you should get a decent Internet connection, buy a satellite dish, and stack up on books. Most local TV programs are in Arabic, so if you are nowhere near fluent in the language, you may be glad to have other channels.
It will also be interesting to see how the e-book revolution might change the reading habits of bookworms living in Riyadh. Amazon orders are often delayed at the censor’s office, but can online book archives and downloads be checked as easily? Still, if you have a favorite author, you shouldn’t rely on them being available in Riyadh. Jarir Bookstore does offer some foreign-language books, but it’s a limited selection of mostly big bestsellers.
Exploring the City
As nice as your expat life in Riyadh may be inside your compound, it can feel somewhat stifling after a while. Venture outside for a change! Living in Riyadh – though a hassle for pedestrians – is actually a lot safer than the strict security measures at the compound gate can make it seem. Due to the religious and cultural restrictions on public life in Riyadh, there are no movie theaters or stage performances, but the city has some sights of interest.
The National Museum, the Masmak Fortress, and the Kingdom Center with its spectacular skybridge are particularly recommended. You should also seize the opportunity for a daytrip to the Arabian Desert. However, make sure to book a guided tour through a reputable agency! Even today, a solo trip to that inhospitable, albeit impressive waste land can have fatal consequences.
Shopping and Dining
If a desert adventure isn’t quite to your taste, you can opt for the favorite activities of everyone living in Riyadh: shopping and eating. The Souk al-Thumairi is a traditional Arabian market where you can buy beautiful handicrafts, jewelry, incense, and rugs for your loved ones at home. Furthermore, there are several upscale malls, especially in Riyadh’s business district, where affluent customers can shop Gucci, D&G, and Versace till they drop.
Whereas alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia, life in Riyadh doesn’t mean you’ll have to go without a delicious meal. From Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine to Italian dining and Japanese specialties, Riyadh’s restaurants are surprisingly varied. However, you’ll have to get used to “Saudi champagne” with your meals – i.e. apple juice mixed with lemon soda and sparkling water! When out shopping or dining, expat women should take care to enter the “family section” of shops and restaurants. Kingdom Mall even has a ladies’ floor, where you can take off your abaya.
Another way of avoiding the “cabin fever” among expats in Riyadh is making friends outside your compound. Western foreigners in particular are treated politely, but getting to know Saudi residents can be kind of hard. The country’s human rights violations, as well as many nations’ foreign policies since 9/11, make for uncomfortable small talk topics in this context.
Moreover, the extended family has a far higher status in Saudi Arabia than, say, in North America or Western Europe. A lot of socializing takes place among relatives, and making friends with non-family members – let alone foreigners – seems of relatively little importance. But you should definitely try to meet other expatriates that aren’t your next-door neighbors. Cultural evenings at foreign embassies, networking events at business associations, the community life at your kids’ international school, or online meet-ups are perfect for foreign assignees living in Riyadh.