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Employment in Saudi Arabia

At a Glance:

  • The new drive to diversify Saudi Arabia’s thriving economy has resulted in a lot of new job opportunities, but with the push for Saudization, finding work in Saudi Arabia could prove challenging for expats.
  • It is not uncommon for a business to be kept within the family in Saudi Arabia. Nepotism is very common there so bear this in mind if you’re complaining about your boss to a colleague.
  • Be prepared for compliments and learn to read between the lines – the Saudi population aren’t keen to discuss the negatives so try and maintain a perspective outlook.

There are more than ten million foreigners based in the Desert Kingdom. Most of them are from South East Asia and find employment as manual laborers. Roughly 125,000 foreign residents from Western nations are estimated to be working in Saudi Arabia as well.

These numbers are unlikely to decline in the near future, although the government is busy improving job prospects for its own people, by investing in the education system and introducing quotas to regulate the number of expats in Saudi businesses. Since November 2012, employers were forced to pay heavy fines if they hired too many foreigners, and not enough Saudis. On top of this, the government has just launched a new ‘Saudization’ plan that will support Saudis from a young age, preparing them for working life. The hope is that expats will no longer be needed if the Saudi population is properly trained.

World Class Economy

Holding about 18% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, it is unsurprising that the kingdom’s economy is heavily based on oil. To be precise, petroleum accounts for 85% of export earnings, 73% of budget revenues, and 50% of the GDP. This partly explains why Saudi Arabia is one of the few high-income countries with a very strong industrial sector.

Thanks to recent diversification efforts to reduce the economic dependency on oil exports, the service sector in Saudi Arabia has really taken off. In 2015, the service sector generated roughly 51.8% of the GDP, thus making the tertiary sector one of this most important sources of income for the national economy. Given the climate and topography, agriculture doesn’t stand a chance of playing a major role, although there have been some government efforts to make the populace less dependent on food imports.

The manufacturing industry has also benefitted greatly from the diversification attempt. In addition to the local petrochemical industry, particular attention has been given to power generation, telecommunications, and natural gas exploration. The government is also investing over 70 billion USD into the building of six economic cities. The hope is that creating a sort of “industry huddle” will motivate the firms, boosting productivity and creativity.

Getting to Know the Industry

While it is not the easiest country to find work in, there are plenty of opportunities for working in Saudi Arabia if you can offer a high level of expertise and experience. Large numbers of expats have jobs in engineering (particularly in the oil industry), IT, healthcare and medicine, banking and financial services, teaching (especially women), telecommunications, or construction. Since Saudi Arabia is also increasing investment in urban planning, transport infrastructure, food processing, and water resource management, foreign specialists with experience in such jobs might also have good chances.

Most expats working in Saudi Arabia were contracted while still in their previous city of residence. It is very rare, indeed almost impossible, for foreigners to come to, say, Riyadh or Jeddah without an offer in order to start looking for work there. The Saudi government’s new push for “Saudization” has also further complicated the situation.

The recruitment for managerial positions is mainly done by private consultants or agents representing Saudi employers in big cities across the globe. Intra-company transfers within multi-national corporations also account for a considerable share of assignees from abroad. A good first step for anyone interested in working in Saudi Arabia would be to contact their country’s chamber of commerce.

Work Permits and Sponsors: Stay on their Good Side

You cannot secure a work permit unless you have a concrete employment offer. In fact, individuals cannot apply for a permit themselves; their sponsor must apply for one on their behalf. Every expat has a sponsor – usually their employer – who acts both as a guardian and a guarantor during their time working in Saudi Arabia. The function of a sponsor can be held by individuals, companies or institutions, such as your chamber of commerce in Saudi Arabia, or a business associate or partner. Some individuals may expect remuneration for their services.

Your sponsor will probably be your main contact in the kingdom, and can help you with many of the issues you may encounter, from getting your visa to helping you find accommodation. At the same time, they are responsible for you and thus have a strong interest in both your well-being and your good behavior. Any offence you cause while living and working in Saudi Arabia may reflect badly upon your sponsor.

Saudi Arabia: Benefits and Business Culture

Working Women

Expat spouses need their own work visa if they want to take up employment in Saudi Arabia. Female expat spouses who accompany their husbands to Saudi Arabia don’t have it easy. It is, however, possible for foreign women to find temporary work in fields like healthcare, teaching (with the right qualifications), or real estate. A local recruitment agent may be able to help you find a job and sort out your work permit. Please note that you always need your guardian’s (read: husband’s) official permission to take up employment.

If you are a native English speaker and have relevant qualifications, you can apply for work as an English teacher in a private school or a language school. Once you have a work visa, you can also give private English tuition, for which there is great demand. The British Council in Saudi Arabia also recruits and employs English teachers and may be able to give you further advice on the subject.

Big Salary, Big Bonus: The Benefits of Being an Expat

Working in Saudi Arabia comes with some considerable financial benefits. Not only may salaries be higher than for the same kind of work in Europe or in the US, but your net income receives a significant boost through the absence of personal income tax.

As there is no social security system, either (at least not for foreigners), there will be virtually no deductions from your monthly salary. However, you may want to make good use of your high income: Not only do you have to take out private health insurance, but you should also contribute to a personal or corporate pension plan during your time working in Saudi Arabia.

Another perk awaiting expat employees upon conclusion of their contract is the “end of contract” bonus, which they are usually entitled to after two or more years of working for the same employer. This indemnity can amount to a significant sum. However, Arab companies are slowly moving away from employing expats for limited periods of one or two years only and are beginning to offer long-term contracts instead.

Business Culture: Keeping it in the Family

Non-Muslim expats working in Saudi Arabia must accept that religion is the underlying principle in all aspects of life. Allah and his Prophet are everywhere, even in business meetings. There is no strict division between religion and other areas of life. Religious rituals are to be observed, never mind if you’re in the middle of important business negotiations. If Allah wills it, the deal will be concluded. If it doesn’t work out, it simply wasn’t meant to be.

The other characteristic of doing business in Saudi Arabia that Westerners often fail to appreciate is the importance of family ties. Nepotism is not a sign of corruption but of a healthy business structure. After all, why wouldn’t you give a responsible position in your company to someone you can trust, and who can you trust if not a member of your family?

This policy is aided by the fact that many businesses are built around family units, with senior positions often being held by senior family members. The importance of maintaining a wide network of connections and contacts can therefore not be stressed enough. You never know whose favorite nephew you are talking to! On a similar note, entertaining is an important part of Saudi business culture. You need to invest time into the relationship between you and your business partners.

Give Generously, Receive Graciously

If you are in a senior position and need to give instructions to your team, make sure you do so in an unambiguous manner. Subordinates may not be used to showing initiative, nor may they be willing to interpret incomplete directions given to them.

Even if you do not converse in Arabic with your business partners, try to mimic its characteristics. Arabic is sometimes a very flowery language, so don’t shy away from compliments and flattery that may seem exaggerated in your own language or culture. The rule of thumb is: Give generously and receive graciously!

For similar reasons, people in Saudi Arabia are often reluctant to be the bearer of bad news. It is important that you learn to read between the lines and keep a sense of perspective on overly positive reactions.

Saudi business meetings can seem like a shambolic affair, with no clearly defined agenda or time limit. Sometimes, several meetings take place in the same location at the same time. You can raise your voice in one of those meetings to show interest and engagement, but not indignation. Always make sure to establish strong eye contact when talking to people to indicate your interest in them and what they have to say.

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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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