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Moving to Riyadh

What to know if you're moving to Riyadh

Will you be moving to Riyadh soon? As an expat about to settle in Saudi Arabia’s capital, you probably have many questions. The InterNations GO! Guide to Riyadh introduces you to the wealthiest city in the Arab world, the visa requirements for your stay, and housing for expats in Riyadh.

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All about Saudi Arabia

Are you planning on moving to Saudi Arabia? This article will give you sufficient information regarding the country and its people, the hot, dry climate, and safety precautions. Moreover, our guide discusses popular expat destinations, as well as visa regulations for Saudi Arabia, in detail.

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Relocating to Riyadh

  • Saudi Arabia is a diverse country with over a third of their residents being expats, and the capital city Riyadh is no different.

  • Riyadh is a very conservative city compared to places like Jeddah, for example, so make sure you respect their standards and beliefs when it comes to clothing and socializing.

  • Although Riyadh isn’t an overly expensive place to live, accommodation and children’s education can be very pricey, especially if they aren’t covered or subsidized by your employer.

As an expat moving to Riyadh, you might feel slightly apprehensive. Since Saudi Arabia does not have an industry for leisure tourism, you will not be acquainted with the country from your travels.

Practicing Muslims are the notable exception. Every year, millions of believers make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, moving to Riyadh and onwards to the Holy City. For those new to the Saudi capital, our guide will serve as an overview.

A Hot Climate in the ‘Gardens’

Moving to Riyadh brings you to Saudi Arabia’s capital and largest city. It is located in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, in the Central Province. The region where Riyadh is situated is called nedjid or najd (there are several transcriptions from the Arabic); a rocky highland in the desert, about 600 meters above sea level. Unfortunately, the city’s elevation is not quite high enough to have an effect on the local climate. Expatriates living in the city will face temperatures of up to 50°C in summer. Sandstorms are also a frequent occurrence.

Considering the hot weather in Riyadh, it may seem somewhat incongruous for those moving to Riyadh that the city’s name means ‘the gardens’. This description refers to the date palms around the capital, which gave the city its current name in the 17th century. Before that, the settlement – dating back to the pre-Islamic era – was called Hajir. A couple of centuries after Hajir had become Riyadh, it was designated as the Saudi capital for the first time. But the so-called Second Saudi State in the early 19th century was brought down by a rival dynasty.

Riyadh had to wait until 1932 to become the capital of modern Saudi Arabia. Back then, it had an estimated population of 40,000 people. Eighty years later, it has exploded into a metropolis covering about the same surface area as Greater London. Since the Saudi capital is said to be one of the richest cities in the Arab world, moving to Riyadh can be an attractive prospect.

Diverse Demographics

It’s hard to say how many inhabitants Riyadh has exactly. The capital’s rapid population growth is driven both by the Saudi birthrate of two or more children per woman and the many foreign nationals moving to Riyadh. According to the 2004 official census, Riyadh had slightly more than four million residents. However, a survey in 2006 estimated the number at 4.6 million. In 2013, the population is said to have grown to 5.2 million people and, in 2016, is was estimated to be around 7 million.

It’s equally hard to say how large the percentage of foreign residents is, however, it is estimated that up to 40% of all inhabitants may be non-Saudis. Those moving to Riyadh from Africa, as well as other Arab states, make up the biggest share. The other foreign nationals are Western expatriates or are from South Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Migrants with menial jobs for unskilled labor, e.g. in the construction industry, often suffer from poor working conditions and unfriendly treatment. Western expats, however, are mostly treated with courtesy on an individual level, regardless of the political climate.

Due to the many non-Saudis moving to Riyadh, you needn’t be fluent in Arabic. English is spoken in Riyadh’s business world and widely understood among the urban middle and upper classes. Of course, a little politeness goes a long way everywhere. Some basic Arabic phrases will help you feel more welcome in your new home. Brush up your language skills before you move!

Personal Safety in Riyadh

When it comes to personal safety, there are a few things you should keep in mind after moving to Riyadh.

  • There is a certain ongoing risk of terrorist attacks against non-Muslim foreigners, so you should register with your embassy and check their travel warnings regularly.

  • Avoid political demonstrations and large crowds in general.

  • If possible, keep your original passport and visa in a safe place. If your sponsor has your passport, make sure to have several copies at hand.

  • Always carry your iqama (ID card) with you.

  • The crime rate in Riyadh has been on the rise, but it’s still comparatively low. The most common crimes are petty theft and car-jacking.

  • You should be aware that Riyadh is a more conservative place than Jeddah. Remember that alcohol consumption, drug abuse, adultery, homosexuality, and prostitution are all criminal offenses. Don’t argue with the mutawwa (religious police). They have no sense of humor but lots of power to detain people and can make living in Riyadh very difficult.

  • Adhere to the local dress code when outside a compound (long pants and long-sleeved shirts for men, abaya and an “emergency” headscarf for non-Muslim women).

  • Expat women shouldn’t socialize in public with men who aren’t relatives and should use the “family section” of public buildings.

  • Respect the Ramadan and prayer times.

If you heed this advice, you should have no problem after moving to Riyadh.

As mentioned on the previous page, there is no proper tourism industry in Saudi Arabia. Therefore you won’t get a regular travel visa for Riyadh. If you are a devout follower of Islam and would like to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, please contact the nearest Saudi embassy. They can advise you on applying for a hajj visa.

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Visas for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Business Visa

Business travelers should apply for a Business Visa (aka Commercial Visa) to Saudi Arabia. It is only valid for business visits, negotiations, investment talks, sales pitches, etc. If there is any kind of paid work involved, you need an Employment Visa (please see below). To obtain a business visa, you require:

  • a valid passport
  • a recent passport photograph
  • a completed application form
  • a letter from your employer, a Saudi company, a foreign chamber of commerce in Riyadh, etc. to prove your position and the purpose of your visit
  • payment of the visa fee
  • an online visa request number

Employment Visa

If you’d like to take up profitable employment in Riyadh, you need an Employment Visa. Like other Gulf States, Saudi Arabia has a sponsorship system (kafeel). Usually, your employer in Riyadh acts as your visa sponsor. The company applies for an employment permit from the Labor Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs first.

Other than that, an application for an Employment Visa requires:

  • a valid passport with two blank pages facing each other
  • a recent passport photograph
  • a completed application form
  • a letter from your sponsor, certified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chamber of Commerce
  • a reference note with the number and date of your employment permit
  • certified and notarized copies of your diplomas
  • a copy of your job contract
  • a police certificate with up-to-date information on your criminal record
  • three copies of a medical report (including an HIV test)
  • payment of the visa fee
  • an online visa request number

Residence Visa

If you are an expat spouse accompanying your partner to Riyadh, you need to get a Residence Visa. Your husband will be your sponsor and guardian while you are in Saudi Arabia. There are some single expat women working in Riyadh, but the Saudi system probably couldn’t accommodate a male spouse with a working wife as the sponsor.

You must also have a permit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before submitting an application. The rules are similar to those for getting an Employment Visa (see above). Instead of your professional qualifications and job contract, however, you need to attach an official proof of kinship (notarized marriage certificate, birth certificate, etc.).

General Advice

Please be aware that all these regulations are subject to change and may depend on the country you’re applying from. When in doubt, ask the nearest Saudi embassy. Remember to apply well in advance of your move to Riyadh. It may take several months to process your application.

Moreover, you may face certain difficulties in two cases. Firstly, people of Saudi descent who might have a claim to Saudi citizenship should always enter the country on a foreign passport, plus Saudi visa. The Saudi Embassy or Consulate in question may offer you a so-called “laissez passer” document to make your travel easier. However, this usually only helps you with entering the country and may then require you to get a Saudi passport before leaving again. The latter procedure can then take up to a year, during which you are not legally allowed to depart.

Secondly, Saudi Arabia does not recognize dual nationality. If you have both the Saudi and another nationality, you will be treated like a Saudi citizen while living in Riyadh. Getting consular help is then extremely difficult or, at times, impossible – enquire beforehand what to do as a person with dual citizenship. Lastly, people with an Israeli passport and even with Israeli visa stamps could be denied entry in certain cases. Officially, Saudi Arabia has an “anti-Zionist” policy. In practice, this can mean an anti-Semitic prejudice.

Once you have received your visa, clarify for how long it will be valid. The date may be written using the Islamic calendar. If you are not familiar with it, find out the equivalent in the Gregorian calendar.

The Iqama

After arriving in Riyadh, you need an iqama – a residence permit / ID card – from the General Directorate of Passports or the local passport office. As a first-time applicant, you must fill out an application form and pay an administrative fee. Show your entry visa and your passport, and hand over two recent photographs. If you have come to Saudi Arabia on an Employment Visa, you also need your work permit from the Labor Office (ask your employer).

Usually, it is the responsibility of the employer to get you an iqama. For further details, contact the passport office directly.

Just like with a visa, you should know when you must renew your iqama before it expires. The date is written in Arabic, using the lunar calendar, so have someone translate it for you, if necessary. Carry your iqama with you at all times, as it proves that you live (and work) in Riyadh legally. If you lose it, report it to the police and apply for a replacement immediately. Failure to report the loss – or to apply for renewal at least three days before the card expires – can result in fines.

Exit Visa

Due to the Saudi sponsorship system, your employer may not only apply for an iqama on your behalf, but he may also keep your passport. If that is the case, you should keep several copies of your passport and visa stamp. The sponsor is also responsible for requesting an exit visa through the Ministry of Interior if you want to leave the country. So take care to keep your relations with your sponsor or employer as smooth as possible.

Expat Accommodation in Riyadh

Money, Social Life and the Gilded Cages

Moving to Riyadh is often a cheaper option for expatriates than other destinations. According to the Mercer Cost of Living survey 2016, the Saudi capital ranked on place 234 out of 372 global cities. It is more expensive than Kuwait City, or Manama, but still less costly than the neighboring UAE.

The biggest expenses among expats in Riyadh are the annual rent for compound housing, healthcare (if they aren’t fully covered by their company), and tuition fees for their children. However, domestic help is very affordable, petrol is famously cheaper than mineral water, and cars are less pricey than elsewhere. Also, you can’t spend all that much on leisure and nightlife, considering that Riyadh has virtually none.

When it comes to quality of life, expat living in Riyadh can occasionally feel somewhat claustrophobic. Compounds for expatriates have been politely described as ‘gilded cages’. Those unable to cope with life in Riyadh have even called them ‘glorified prison camps’. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible to enjoy living in Riyadh, and you will never suffer any material hardships whatsoever.

Looking for Accommodation in Riyadh

Contemporary Riyadh is a sprawling metropolis without clearly defined boundaries. It consists of 16 smaller municipalities, one of which is the Diplomatic Quarter. There, you can find most foreign embassies, as well as housing for diplomatic staff. The other 15 municipalities are subdivided into over 130 smaller districts.

If you’d like to settle outside the Diplomatic Quarter or an expat compound, as some expatriates do, Al Olayya & Sulaymaniyyah (the municipality with Riyadh’s business district) or the prestigious districts Al Mohamdiyah and Al Nakheel within Al Ma’athar may offer suitable housing.

Local accommodation is mostly advertised in the Arabic press or not at all. You can have a friend translate the classifieds for you, or just wander around an area that you like. Ask the superintendent of a building complex for the landlord’s phone number and enquire after vacancies. You should specify if you want a “bachelor’s apartment” or a “family apartment”.

Living outside a compound is recommended mainly for male expatriates without wife and kids. Their family will have fewer opportunities to socialize, and they also have to do without a shuttle bus service. Since women aren’t allowed to drive or ride a bike, this is obviously a hassle for them. Solo expat women may feel safer within a compound or at an accommodation provided by their employer in Riyadh.

Claustrophobic Compounds

Compounds have the advantage that you’ll meet lots of other expats there. They are gated communities, often located outside of metropolitan Riyadh. They offer numerous amenities, such as shops, pools, gyms, or shuttle services, and the mutawwa (religious police) cannot enter. Therefore the strict dress codes and rules concerning gender segregation do not apply.

  • However, as mentioned above, they can get claustrophobic after a while. Moreover, compound villas are particularly expensive – a two bedroom villa can cost up to 135,000 SAR a year. Since rent is normally paid up to one year in advance, this will tear a big hole into your budget and may require a loan. Despite the high costs, waiting lists for compound housing are often months and months long.

  • No matter where you decide to live, keep the following things in mind:

  • Make sure that you get an English rental agreement and/or an official translation from the Arabic before you sign anything.

  • Check if your new place already has utility connections for water and electricity. (Gas is only bought in bottles.)

  • If you want to save some time and money, go for housing that has at least some basic furnishing. In compounds, fully furnished housing may be available.

Ask about voltage and frequency, and stock up on adapters and plug-in sockets since the wiring is often a bit improvised.

Here’s a list of selected compounds in Riyadh:

Updated on: July 25, 2016
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