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Living in Riyadh
A comprehensive guide about living well in Riyadh
Are you busy preparing for expat life in Riyadh? The InterNations GO! Guide to Riyadh provides a first impression of daily life for foreigners in Saudi Arabia’s capital. Read on for information on leisure and socializing, health and hospitals, as well as education and transportation.
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Life in Riyadh
Settling in in Riyadh can be a challenge due to the cultural differences, but with a bit of research and some exploring, you’ll find there’s a lot to do.
Fortunately, the healthcare in Riyadh is of a high standard, but expats aren’t usually entitled to free healthcare, so make sure you get some good insurance before you go.
Most expat parents send their children to Private International Schools given that Arabic is the main language used in teaching in Riyadh.
Expat Life in the Compounds
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 these 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.
The e-book revolution has also greatly helped to feed the reading habits of bookworms living in Riyadh. Amazon orders are often delayed at the censor’s office, but online book archives and downloads cannot be monitored as easily. Still, if you still prefer a paperback to an e-book, 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 bit bothersome 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 such an inhospitable, albeit impressive waste land can have fatal consequences.
Shopping and Dining: Everyone’s Favorites
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.
While 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, if you are new to the city, 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, which can provide the perfect break from moving about the city in such restricting clothing.
Finding a Social Life in Riyadh
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 hard. The country’s human rights violations, as well as many nations’ foreign policies since 9/11 and the recent terrorist threats, 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 events at your kids’ international school, or an online forum accompanied by meet-ups are perfect for foreign assignees living in Riyadh.
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Healthcare in Riyadh
Expatriates who are going to live in Riyadh needn’t worry about medical services. The healthcare facilities in Saudi Arabia’s major cities have decent to excellent quality standards. Since the Ministry of Health was established in the 1950s, the country’s living standards and medical care have improved tremendously. The WHO even ranked the Saudi healthcare system ahead of countries like Canada or the United Arab Emirates.
Health Insurance for Expats
Unfortunately, free access to Riyadh’s primary health centers and public hospitals is only guaranteed for Saudi nationals, though the rare foreign national employed in the public sector may also be covered. The vast majority of expatriates need to take out private health insurance during their time in Riyadh.
Very often, companies based in Saudi Arabia provide their foreign employees, as well as their dependent family members, with a medical insurance plan. However, make sure to carefully check your company’s healthcare plan and evaluate the services it offers. This is especially important if you have any preexisting conditions which may not be covered. Sometimes, it may be necessary to take out supplementary insurance, e.g. to cover dental care or the cost of medical repatriation.
If your new employer in Riyadh does not offer you any sort of health coverage, you should start shopping around with the big international insurance companies as early as possible. Contact providers like Axa, Allianz, Aviva or Cigna well in advance and compare their costs for someone of your age, gender, and general state of health.
Health Tips for Riyadh: Pre-Departure
Before you leave for Riyadh, you should see a doctor and get booster shots for standard vaccinations (tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough; mumps, measles, rubella; influenza and polio; flu jab). Additional recommended vaccinations for long-term stays in Saudi Arabia include typhoid fever, rabies, hepatitis A and B, as well as meningitis. While some parts of Saudi Arabia are classified as risk areas for malaria, Riyadh is not among them.
Take the climate into account when you prepare your baggage. Pack lots of light clothes made of natural fibers as they are far more pleasant to wear in the oppressive heat of the summer months. Even Riyadh can get a bit cool in the midst of winter, so don’t forget some sweaters and jackets, either!
Health Tips for Riyadh: Upon Arrival
Once you have arrived in Saudi Arabia, avoid the midday sun and the hot afternoon hours whenever possible. Lots of Saudi businesses are closed in the early afternoon for an extended siesta to give employees the opportunity to relax instead of toil during the hottest time of the day.
Also, make sure to drink lots and lots of water – far more than you might usually drink – in order to stay hydrated. Stacking up on hydration salt can come in useful in case you suffer from light dehydration and need to quickly restore your electrolyte metabolism. If you’re severely dehydrated, go and see a doctor immediately.
If you regularly take prescription medication, you can import it in quantities obviously intended for personal use. However, remember to bring a letter from your doctor (and a certified Arabic translation) to avoid any trouble with customs. Saudi Arabia has very strict policies concerning illegal drugs (including alcohol), and some common medications can only be imported with such a special note – or not at all.
In recent years, the Coronavirus has started worrying residents and health services in Saudi Arabia. It includes a wide range of respiratory diseases, from a kind of common cold to the rare case of SARS. To learn more about this health risk and ways of preventing infection, please read the information provided by the Saudi Ministry of Health.
Medical Services in Riyadh
For minor ailments, some expat compounds offer a nurse’s office or a resident physician. In a medical emergency, phone 997 directly or call a nearby hospital to send an ambulance. Below, you’ll find a list of some of Riyadh’s largest and most popular hospitals.
Although the Saudi government is making ongoing attempts to have more national medical staff trained in the country, many doctors and nurses are still foreign-born or have received their medical training abroad. Hence, English is widely understood in the medical sector.
Hospitals in Riyadh:
Education and Transport in Riyadh
Education for Everyone
Since the medium of instruction in Riyadh’s public schools is Arabic and education revolves around the local interpretation of the Quran, most expats prefer to send their children to international schools. There are a variety of international and third-country schools available. Most of them also include a kindergarten for children between three and five years old, and a school bus service for all their students.
The biggest disadvantage of these excellent schools is the cost. If your employer does not cover the cost of an international education in Riyadh, you may end up paying around 87,063 SAR per year. This number is the annual tuition fee for new high school students at the American International School Riyadh in 2016/17, extra fees for ESL support, registration, etc. not included.
Selected International Schools in Riyadh
American International School of Riyadh (IB diploma)
Getting Around Riyadh
The school bus service mentioned in the previous paragraphs on international education in Riyadh is obviously very important. While the government is in the process of constructing a metro and bus network, this project will take at least another two years to complete (2018), until this point Riyadh has no public transport system to speak of. Local residents from poorer areas who do not drive take advantage of the privately owned busses known as the ‘Khatt Al Balda’. They can be seen throughout Riyadh but are rather derelict and shoddily run. The doors often do not close and there are no designated stopping points. Instead drivers pick passengers up anywhere on the street and similarly, to get off, one just yells.
For expats who do not want to avail of this option, transport can be rather difficult, especially as women are officially forbidden to drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Female expats must depend on their male family members, a shuttle service provided by their compound, or a company car with a driver. The expansion of Uber in Saudi Arabia has also been a great help for women in Saudi Arabia.
At King Khaled International Airport and in Riyadh’s city center, it’s easy to hire a taxi. Cabs are usually white limousine-style cars. Taxis in Riyadh have a meter; however, it’s still pretty common to agree upon a flat fare beforehand. A trip within Riyadh should cost about 25 SAR.
If you are a woman, remember that you have to sit in the back. However, male expats, too, may prefer to sit in the back of the taxi, as there have been reports of drivers sexually soliciting foreign male passengers.
On the Road in Riyadh
If you don’t have a personal driver and prefer to be more independent, you (as a male expatriate) can hire a car with a long-term lease or buy a second-hand vehicle. Car rental companies can be found at the international airport and in Riyadh’s business district. Whether you own the car or just rent it, make sure you have a comprehensive insurance policy. The local driving style is sometimes rather adventurous, to put it politely.
Always carry your important papers in the car (i.e. iqama ID card, driver’s license, vehicle insurance, vehicle ownership, vehicle registration), and insist on calling the traffic police after any accident (993). If either the other driver(s) or the police officer wants you to sign an Arabic statement, categorically refuse to do so. Or, if you do think that signing it is the wiser course of action, add a sentence that you do not understand it. In addition to the police, contact your visa sponsor and/or your embassy, and try to get a translator for all interviews at the police station. Thus, you’ll be able to avoid being blamed for damage or reckless behavior you are not guilty of.
Foreign men can use an International Driving Permit or overseas license for up to 12 months. After that, they need to exchange it for a Saudi license. Saudi Arabia has a license exchange agreement with selected states, e.g. Germany. Male drivers from these countries only need to present the following to the Riyadh traffic police:
- original license
- two copies of your license
- official certified translation into Arabic
- iqama ID card
For nationals from other states, it is more complicated. Please contact the General Department of Traffic, your local consulate or a local driving school for further questions on this procedure.
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