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.
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.
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!
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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