Saudi Arabia at a Glance
Living in Saudi ArabiaiStockphoto
Religion forms the backdrop to all aspects of life 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 26.5 million residents living in Saudi Arabia, over 80% are settled in towns and cities. The above numbers include more than eight million foreigners living in Saudi Arabia, mainly of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origins. The number of North American and European expats living in Saudi Arabia is estimated at 200,000.
Life in Saudi Arabia: Society
Despite aspiring to be a modern country in many respects, Saudi Arabia still has one of the most traditional societies in the world. Life in Saudi Arabia is governed by firm religious beliefs, rules and traditions, and expats living in Saudi Arabia have to get used to that as there is no way around it.
The traditions and attitudes of Saudi Arabia have been shaped by Islam as well as Bedouin culture. Thus, expats living in Saudi Arabia will discover that family bonds are still much stronger than in many other cultures, to an extent that they permeate all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, even in the business world.
Living in Saudi Arabia: Culture
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 life in Saudi Arabia for expats.
Music and dance form an important part of cultural life in Saudi Arabia, as does Bedouin poetry. Literature in Saudi Arabia in general is, however, kept in check by strict censorship rules. If a life in Saudi Arabia is planned for expats, they 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.
Life in Saudi Arabia: Women
Women living 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 life in Saudi Arabia. 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, which is a tremendous improvement for women’s rights. While life in Saudi Arabia for expat women will not entail quite the same restrictions as for Saudi women, they must still submit to the laws and customs of their host country, no matter how disagreeable they may find them.
Women of all ages living in Saudi Arabia have a male guardian, who also acts as their legal representative. This means that, if a Saudi woman wishes to travel, attend school or university, marry or open a bank account, she must get permission from her guardian first.
Driving is strictly forbidden for women living in Saudi Arabia. Gender segregation is common in all areas of public life in Saudi Arabia, from the more obvious places, like swimming pools, to the less obvious, such as restaurants. While you will hardly ever encounter a single Saudi woman on the streets, an expat woman living in Saudi Arabia who would like to dine out alone in the evening can usually do so in the family area of most restaurants.