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A Comprehensive Guide on Moving to Saudi Arabia

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Relocating to Saudi Arabia

At a Glance:

  • 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.

A Country Centered on Religion

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.

Respect the Religion

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.

The Climate Shock

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.

Saudi Arabia: Health, Safety, Major Cities

While moving to Saudi Arabia doesn’t necessarily entail any exceptional health risks, expats are advised to see a doctor for a general medical check-up well in advance of their relocation.

Make sure you have all the standard vaccinations before moving to Saudi Arabia (i.e. tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, polio, MMR, and influenza). If you’re considering a move to Saudi Arabia for the long term, you might want to get additional vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies, and meningitis. The latter immunization is now mandatory for all pilgrims traveling to Mecca and/or Medina.

Malaria does not present a risk in major cities, but there have been cases of Dengue fever. Everyone should therefore take standard precautions against mosquito bites. Moreover, there have also been isolated cases of severe respiratory infections, caused by a virus called MERS-CoV. However, neither the WHO nor the CDC see any reason to restrict travel or commerce in the region.

Safety Advice: The Terrorism Threat

Foreigners should be advised that there is a general threat of terrorism in Saudi Arabia. Islamic hardliners who think the government is too liberal sometimes attack government offices and public places, such as shopping malls, markets, or Western hotel chains. Terrorist activities include kidnappings, large and small-scale bombings, and the odd targeted shooting.

However, foreigners who respect Islamic law and traditions are fairly safe in Saudi Arabia. Simply keep your eyes open and take care to avoid large gatherings, especially political or religious demonstrations of any kind.

Importing Goods: Religious Restrictions

Several important restrictions are enforced for people wishing to enter the country. Most of them are directly related to religious laws, for example, the zero tolerance policy on imports of alcohol and pork products. Please note that it is also strictly forbidden to carry any kind of religious scriptures or pamphlets with you. Carrying more than one copy of the Bible, for example, may be interpreted as an attempt to spread Christianity and result in punishment and/or being banned from entering the country.

Any attempt to smuggle herbal or synthetic drugs to Saudi Arabia will be severely punished if discovered. If you take any medication during your trip to and stay in Saudi Arabia, make sure to always carry your doctor’s prescription on you. It is, of course, illegal to import weapons of any kind.

Destination Riyadh

With an estimated 7 million inhabitants, the capital of Saudi Arabia is an important financial and business center in the Middle East. A considerable percentage of Riyadh’s residents are foreigners, many of them affiliated in one way or another with foreign diplomatic organs of state.

The Diplomatic Quarter of Riyadh is not only home to foreign embassies and international organizations, but it also contains up-market residential areas and shopping malls. With its numerous sports facilities and lush gardens, it is one of the city’s greenest areas and even offers some privileges to foreign diplomatic staff, such as a less strict dress code.

The city center is made up of the Al-Bat’ha and Al-Dirah districts, which also form the oldest part of the town; encompassing an old fort, some tourist attractions and museums. The commercial heart of the city is the Al-‘Olayya District, offering plenty of opportunities for shopping, dining, and accommodation. The industrial areas are mostly located in the east and northeast of the city.

Destination Jeddah

Jeddah is the largest port on the Red Sea and a major urban center of western Saudi Arabia. Its three and a half million inhabitants make it the second largest city in the country. Moreover, its large numbers of expats from all around the world have helped to make it the most liberal city in the kingdom. This ethnic diversity gives Jeddah a somewhat cosmopolitan flair, reflected, for example, in a more tolerant attitude towards women’s rights. Indeed, the country’s first female law firm opened there in 2014, after women were granted the right to practice law in 2013.

Jeddah is the principal gateway to Mecca, and thus welcomes thousands of pilgrims every year. It is also one of the world’s largest open-air galleries, displaying works of art of international renown among other, more obscure pieces, in its public places.

Issues faced by Jeddah’s population include air pollution, especially on hot days, traffic congestions, occasional water shortages, and an outdated sewage system which cannot cope with the current amounts of waste water. Some poorer areas of the city still remain unconnected to the system.

Visa Information for Saudi Arabia

Anyone intending to travel to Saudi Arabia needs to request a visa first. Please note that in order to be granted a visa, you need to be in possession of a passport that is valid for at least six months (or the entire period of your stay, whichever is longer) with two blank visa pages facing each other, and you need someone who will sponsor your visa application.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, so you should avoid carrying two passports with you at any time. For example, US-Saudi nationals have had one of their passports confiscated when it was discovered. Please also note that if your passport in any way indicates that you have recently visited Israel, you might be refused a visa to Saudi Arabia or have trouble entering the country. However, various travelers and expats have had different experiences with this issue.

Visa applications should be addressed to the nearest Saudi Embassy or Consulate in your legal country of residence. You can check the website of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs for contact details of all Saudi diplomatic missions abroad.

In order to be granted a visa you need to fulfill certain requirements, which vary according to the purpose of your visit and possibly your nationality. Your Saudi Embassy or Consulate will be able to provide you with detailed information. There are various types of visas available to people wishing to visit Saudi Arabia, some of which are listed below. At the time of writing, however, visas were only granted to diplomatic visitors and their family members, for business, academic purposes and Muslim pilgrims. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not issue tourist visas for leisure travelers.

Types of Visa

The following visa categories apply for Saudi Arabia:

  • Business / Commercial Visa
  • Diplomatic and Official Visa
  • Employment Visa
  • Escort Visa (for the spouse and children of the principal traveler)
  • Family Visit Visa
  • Government Visit Visa
  • Residence Visa
  • Student Visa
  • Work Visit Visa
  • Hajj Visa
  • Umrah Visa

Please note that a normal visa doesn’t give you the right to exit and re-enter the country at will. In order to leave the country without losing the right to enter again, you need a special visa for multiple entries. To avoid paying a hefty fine, you should never overstay your visa.

Moreover, if you hold a work and/or residence permit in addition to your visa, you will need your visa sponsor’s permission to obtain a final exit visa and leave the country.

Business Visa

For a short business visit, e.g. as a representative of your company, a sales representative, an investor, or for a similar purpose, you can apply for a Business Visa. In addition to your passport, you usually need one recent passport-size, full-face color photograph with a white background and a completed application form. The form should be available at your nearest Saudi Embassy or Consulate.

It is important that you get a visa request number first. This can be done via the KSA Visa website. KSA Visa is an IT service provider which handles visa applications in the first instance.

You will also be asked to produce one or both of the following documents:

  • a letter from your employer stating your position in the company, the purpose and duration of your visit, which needs to be certified by the relevant chamber of commerce in your country of residence
  • an invitation from your Saudi business partner

Please note that a fee applies for every visa request. It normally has to be paid via Enjaz or a registered visa office.

Employment Visa

The above-mentioned Business Visa does not give you the right to work or reside in Saudi Arabia. In order to take up work, you need an Employment Visa. The requirements for an Employment Visa are similar to those for a Business Visa, generally with the following additions:

  • a letter from your Saudi employer (or visa sponsor, if not the same) certified by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • a signed copy of your employment contract
  • notarized certificates of your academic and/or professional qualifications
  • an up-to-date police report including any criminal records
  • one to three copies of your official medical report, including HIV test results, issued by a licensed physician

Expats on long-term assignments need to have their Employment Visa extended to a Residence Permit (iqama),which is usually valid for one or two years. The iqama is issued by the General Department of Passports, which is part of the Ministry of Interior, or its local branch offices.

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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.

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