Adjusting to the religious restrictions in Saudi Arabia can be challenging, and the desert-like climate will simply add to the culture shock.
Being up to date with your vaccinations is advised for anyone travelling to Saudi Arabia and, if you’re planning on staying longer, talk to your doctor to make sure you have all the necessary vaccinations.
You cannot get a tourists visa for Saudi Arabia. No matter what the purpose or duration of your stay, you’ll need someone to sponsor your visa application, whether it be your boss or a family member.
With millions of foreigners working in the biggest economy in the Middle East, expats will find they are in good company in the “Land of the Two Holy Mosques”. According to estimates made in 2015, there are around 10 million foreign residents living in the country, making up 33% of Saudi Arabia’s population.
However, don’t be fooled by the sheer numbers of foreigners moving to Saudi Arabia. The desert kingdom is far from being an open, multicultural society; rather it is one marked by strict rules and traditions, which foreign residents should acknowledge.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it is officially known, can be considered a relatively new state, after being founded in 1932. However, the region’s culture and history extend much further back and the country prides itself on being the birthplace of Islam. Thus, expats moving to Saudi Arabia should be aware that religion is an all-pervasive characteristic of the public and private spheres.
Since its inception, the modern state has been ruled by the Al Saud family, and the current king Salman bin Abdul-Aziz functions as both head of state and prime minister. As a foreigner moving to Saudi, you should therefore not be surprised at the absence of political parties or other forms of public participation in politics.
The ulema on the other hand, a body of religious leaders and legal scholars, plays a direct role in government. Even non-locals or non-Muslims may be targeted by the religious police, called mutaween, or officially the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who ensure that decency and decorum are observed in public.
Moving to Saudi Arabia demands a high degree of flexibility and adaptability if you are not used to living in a restrictive society. Hospitality is held up as a great virtue, but that does not mean the devout will tolerate behavior that is not in accordance with the teachings of the Quran, or their interpretation thereof. Foreigners are expected to comply with the written and unwritten rules of local life. However, it should be noted that some areas are more conservative than others. Riyadh can be considered the seat of Saudi adherence to Islamic culture whereas Jeddah, although following the way of Allah, is less intense than the capital.
Among other things, any expat should be prepared for and ready to accept the following: gender segregation is common in almost all public places, and women are very restricted in their freedom of movement and expression. However, the late king, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections as of 2015, and the hope is that the current king will further lessen the gender gap. An expatriate woman moving to Saudi Arabia may nevertheless find these restrictions hard to cope with.
As the kingdom is a very religious and conservative place, expats, especially non-Muslims, are strongly advised to refrain from anything that might offend their hosts, like consuming alcohol in public, dressing indecently (by local standards), or openly practicing a religion other than Islam. Moreover it is strictly forbidden to import or consume any kind of drug, alcohol, or pork meat.
A move to Saudi Arabia will not only trigger culture shock among expats, but also temperature shock: In some places, daytime temperatures can rise as high as 50°C in the height of summer. Everyone moving to Saudi Arabia from colder parts of the world should be well aware of the effects this might have on their health and well-being. (Don’t forget that you can’t just take off your clothes and jump into nearest pool, either, especially if you’re a woman.)
As most of the Arabian Peninsula is made up of desert or semi-desert shrubland, there is practically no rainfall all year round. The only exception is the Asir region, which is influenced by the monsoon season from the Indian Ocean.
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