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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Saudi Arabia

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  • Juan Garcia

    Making business in Riyadh was easy. But meeting true friends is hard. I found them on InterNations, where the global minds meet.

Life in Saudi Arabia

At a Glance:

  • Moving to Saudi Arabia will certainly come with a culture shock what with the traditional culture and gender segregation, but as long as you respect the way of life, you’ll fit in.
  • The high-quality healthcare in Saudi Arabia comes at a cost due to the fact that most expats aren’t entitled to free healthcare. Purchasing private health insurance is highly recommended.
  • Housing in Saudi Arabia can be expensive, especially in new developments. A lot of expats choose to live in expat compounds where the traditions of Saudi society aren’t as strictly enforced.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is relatively sparsely populated – which is no surprise, seeing as the desert is the predominant geographical feature. Of the just over 32 million residents living in Saudi Arabia, over 80% are settled in towns and cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah. These numbers include more than ten 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 just over 100,000.

A Traditional Society

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.

Culture and the Quran

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.

Gender Segregation and the Progression of Women’s Rights 

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. The late King Abdullah endeavored to grant women a larger role in Saudi society. The very structure of government itself changed under his reign, with female suffrage and the right to run in municipal elections having begun in 2015. From the beginning of his reign over Saudi Arabia, King Salman, the current king of Saudi Arabia, has shown his intentions to continue his late half-brothers endeavor.

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. Moreover, national identity cards are now issued to women, meaning that they can identify themselves and be recognized as individual citizens in the eyes of the law. This gives women a lot more freedom in that, before they had to have a male family member with them to complete any kind of formal transaction. The idea is that women’s identity cards are the first step towards reducing the guardianship law which dictates that women, regardless of their age, must have a male guardian, be it their husband or their brother, wherever they go.

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.

Expat Info Saudi Arabia: Health and More

The Conservative Dress Code

Expats in Saudi Arabia are expected to dress conservatively in public. While it is neither necessary nor recommended for men to wear traditional Saudi dress, women are advised to wear the abaya, a loose black dress covering the whole body. Wearing a veil is not required for non-Saudi, non-Muslim women, but you might want to carry a head scarf with you in case you are asked to cover your hair.

Foreign women arriving in Saudi Arabia who do not have an abaya to call their own may be able to borrow one at their hotel for a limited period. If your stay exceeds a couple of weeks, though, it’s probably worthwhile buying one.

Western men should always wear long trousers and shirts, unless they’re engaged in some sporting activity. In a business environment, a full suit is certainly the best choice, despite the scorching heat.

Sharia Law and Corporal Punishment

Before coming to Saudi Arabia, foreigners should be aware that behavior which is perfectly acceptable in their country of origin may be a punishable offence in Saudi Arabia. This includes homosexual acts and the public consumption of alcohol, even if you are a non-believer. Sodomy, adultery, drug possession, and prostitution may incur the death penalty. Moreover, you should avoid anything that could be interpreted as missionary activity for religions other than Islam.

Despite recent reforms introduced by the king, the Saudi justice system is still largely based on Wahhabism’s version of Sharia law, which accounts for the many forms of corporal punishment, from flogging to beheading. Suspects can be held without charge and access to legal representation. Please note that, if you are involved in an ongoing commercial dispute with a Saudi company or individual, you may be prevented from leaving the country until the issue is resolved.

Healthcare in Saudi Arabia: Excellent But Expensive

Healthcare is generally of a rather high standard in Saudi Arabia. Every major city has both public and private clinics with plenty of well-trained staff and state-of-the-art equipment. English is widely spoken, especially in the private sector: Many doctors and medical personnel are foreigners profiting from the high salaries in Saudi Arabia, or Saudis who received some of their training abroad. Your country’s embassy or consulate should be able to provide you with contact details of local doctors or dentists who speak your language.

Saudi Arabia has a good public healthcare system providing free or low-cost treatments to all Saudi citizens. High-earning Saudis often opt for private healthcare, and all expats need to take out private insurance plans. The perks that private care offers, such as luxurious hospital accommodation and virtually no waiting times, do, however, come at a hefty price. Expats should therefore check with their health insurance to find out whether it covers some or all of the costs incurred.

Waiting times in general are low, even in the public sector. You can expect to be seen by a doctor within 24 to 72 hours of requesting an appointment. In emergencies, you will be seen to immediately.

Health Emergencies

Most hospitals have an Accidents and Emergencies department. If you’re new to the country, make sure you know where your nearest hospital is. This is particularly important, seeing as ambulance services are not always as fast and efficient as they should be. You may therefore need to arrange for your own transportation when going to the hospital.

If you don’t know the number of the ambulance service, or if the operator can’t give you a satisfactory time of arrival, your best option is to call a taxi. Make sure the urgency of the situation is clear to everyone concerned.

Pharmacies and Prescriptions

You should be able to get most medications you require in pharmacies. However, don’t automatically assume that drugs which are prescription-free in your home country can be obtained without a prescription in Saudi Arabia. Conversely, antibiotics, for example, are freely available over the counter. Pharmacies are usually open in the morning and in the afternoon, and most parts of town have one pharmacy on night duty.

Drugs such as anti-depressants and sleeping pills, among others, have been banned by the government and are therefore not available in Saudi Arabia. If you need to import them (for personal use only!), make sure you always carry your doctor’s prescription with you, and if possible a note certifying that you are in need of medication.

Education and Housing in Saudi Arabia

Schooling in Saudi Arabia is free of charge and takes place in gender-segregated elementary, intermediate and secondary schools. The latter usually offer the choice between a religious and a vocational or technical track. The study of Islam does, however, dominate education at all levels, and it is even a compulsory subject at university.

The medium of instruction is Arabic, but English is taught widely as a second language. With its emphasis on religious studies and memorization, the education system has been criticized for failing to equip young Saudis with technical and marketable skills required in the modern world. However, more recently, the Saudi government has spent a lot of money on improving the education system.

Private vs. International Schools: Language and Religion

Local state schools are usually not an option for foreign children. There are numerous private schools which cater to the expat community and well-to-do Saudi families. Often, these private schools are under government control to a certain extent, in order to ensure that curriculum and standards of education meet those of state schools.

The clear advantage of private schools for non-Muslim expat children is that being a ‘non-believer’ will not get in their way, the language of instruction is often English, and classes are co-educational. Families with older children, however, should make sure that the curriculum and standards of education are similar to those in their home country in order to ease the transition, especially with regards to their children qualifying for higher education.

Expat families with children usually opt for international schools, of which there are a few in cities like Jeddah, Riyadh, or Al-Khobar. Some of them follow certain national curricula (such as British, American, Indian, and Pakistani). Others offer the International Baccalaureate or a combination of international and third-country curricula. Some schools are affiliated with their national government and therefore may not accept third-country students. Most international schools incorporate pre-school, primary and secondary school under one roof. As places are limited, make sure to apply as soon as possible.

Expat Housing: The High Cost of Compounds

There is no shortage of accommodation in Saudi Arabia, unless you are looking for somewhere cheap to live. Most newly-built accommodation tends to be at the higher end of the price range. You’ll soon notice that there are a lot of construction projects going on in Saudi Arabian cities, as apartment blocks and family houses are being built in great numbers and at great speed to cater to the growing urban population.

Most expats live in ‘compounds’, i.e. low-rise apartment blocks that form a kind of gated community. The more luxurious among them come with their own swimming pool, tennis courts, gym, children’s playground, shops, and restaurant. The apartments themselves are usually spacious and well maintained. Whatever type of accommodation you are going for, make sure it provides covered parking facilities to protect your vehicle from sand, dust, and high temperatures.

Renting Accommodation

Foreign residents have only been allowed to own property in Saudi Arabia since 2011; therefore most expats live in rented accommodation. A lot of big companies with a significant share of foreign employees have special deals with local landlords or estate agents, which enable them to offer a certain contingent of accommodation to their expat staff.

If you do not have the support of your HR department or sponsor in your search for accommodation, ask other expats in your area, as word of mouth is usually the best way to find what you need. Alternatively, you can contact local estate agents (most of them speak English), check English-language newspapers such as Arab News, or simply ask the porter of the compound you are interested in about upcoming vacancies.

The renting process itself is relatively straightforward, though you should make sure to have a certified English translation of the Arabic contract. Most accommodation is unfurnished, and there are short and long-term contracts available, ranging from one month to one year. As per usual, any damage done to the property exceeding the boundaries of fair wear and tear will have to be paid for.

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  • Juan Garcia

    Making business in Riyadh was easy. But meeting true friends is hard. I found them on InterNations, where the global minds meet.

  • Marie Troisonne

    Without the help of all the expats on InterNations it would not have been able to settle in Riyadh that fast. Thanks to the community.

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