Saudi Arabia at a Glance
Living in Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is relatively sparsely populated – which is no surprise, seeing as the desert is the domineering geographical feature. Of the roughly 27 million residents living in Saudi Arabia, over 80% are settled in towns and cities. The above numbers include more than eight million foreigners moving there for work, mainly of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. The number of North American and European expats is estimated at 100,000.
Despite aspiring to be a modern state in many respects, the Saudi nation still has one of the most traditional societies worldwide. It is governed by firm religious beliefs, rules and traditions, and expats have to get used to that as there is no way around it.
The traditions and attitudes of local society have been shaped by Islam as well as Bedouin culture. Thus, expatriates will discover that family bonds are still much stronger than in many other cultures, to an extent that they permeate all aspects of life, even in the business world.
Cultural life in Saudi Arabia has to be in agreement with strict interpretations of the Quran. In practice, this means that the visual arts, for example, are limited to geometric, floral or abstract designs, as representations of human beings are forbidden. Although there are some cinemas in larger cities, relinquishing the joys of theater comes with the territory of relocating to the Arabian Peninsula for expats.
Music and dance form an important part of Arab culture, as does Bedouin poetry. Literature in general is, however, kept in check by strict censorship rules. Expats should be aware that, just as there is no freedom of religion, there is no real freedom of expression, either.
You may be surprised at the lack of religious heritage sites in the cradle of Islam. This absence can be explained by the fear of idolatry in Wahhabism (or Salafism), the form of Islam which dominates life in Saudi Arabia.
Women who live in Saudi Arabia have a very particular legal status – meaning they have fewer rights than men in many respects and play a very limited role in public. Recent changes in government were made when King Abdullah announced that Saudi women will receive the right to vote and run in municipal elections come 2015, a tremendous improvement for their rights.
While female expats will not be bound to quite the same restrictions as for the local population, they must still submit to the laws and customs of their host country, no matter how disagreeable or different from home they may find them.
Every Saudi woman, regardless of her age, has a male guardian, who also acts as their legal representative. This means that, if she wishes to travel, attend school or university, marry, start working, or open a bank account, she must get permission from her male guardian first.
Driving is strictly forbidden for women. Outside the typical compound, gender segregation is common in all areas of the public sphere, from the more obvious places, like swimming pools, to the less obvious, such as restaurants. While you’ll hardly ever encounter a single local woman on the streets of Riyadh, an expat woman living in Saudi Arabia who wants to dine out alone in the evening can usually do so in the family area of most restaurants.