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 predominant geographical feature. Of the almost 29 million residents living in Saudi Arabia, over 80% are settled in towns and cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah. These numbers include more than eight million foreigners relocating there for work; who are 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, which expats must acclimatize to, for the law is no more lenient on foreigners than it is on local residents.
The traditions and attitudes of local society have been shaped by Islamic as well as Bedouin culture. Thus, expatriates living in Saudi Arabia will soon discover that family bonds are still much stronger there than in many other cultures, to the extent that they permeate all aspects of life, even the business world.
Cultural life in Saudi Arabia rests strongly within the confines of 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 humanity are forbidden. Although there are some cinemas in larger cities, relinquishing the joys of theater comes with the territory for expats relocating to the Arabian Peninsula.
Music, dance, and Bedouin poetry form an important part of Arab culture. Literature in general is, however, kept in check by strict censorship rules. Expats in Saudi Arabia will quickly become aware that not only is there no freedom of religion but freedom of expression is also repressed to the extent that it is non-existent.
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 defined legal status –they have fewer rights than men in many respects and play a very limited role in public. However, the country is making slow progress toward some form of gender equality. King Abdullah has endeavored to grant women a larger role in Saudi society. The very structure of government itself has changed under his reign, with female suffrage and the right to run in municipal elections beginning in earnest in 2015.
Moreover, the strength of the guardianship law, which dictates that all women regardless of age must have a male guardian to either accompany her in public, grant permission to travel, attend school or marry and if needed identify her in the eyes of the public, will be reduced. National identity cards will be issued at this time, meaning women can identify themselves and be recognized as individual citizens in the eyes of the law.
While female expats living in Saudi Arabia will not be bound to quite the same restrictions as 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.
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. However, expat women do have more freedoms than their Saudi Arabian counterparts in the Kingdom. For example, while foreign women can book themselves into a resort on their own, Saudi women enjoy no such luxury.
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