Want to live in Saudi Arabia?
Expats in Saudi Arabia have a high standard of living, thanks to large disposable incomes that allow them to indulge in luxuries.
Many expats, particularly women, may find life in the kingdom restrictive. And some people don’t like the insular nature of a housing compound. But there are plenty of advantages that make a move to Saudi Arabia appealing – from the lucrative contracts with generous employment packages, to a good choice of international schools and private hospitals.
Accommodation in Saudi Arabia
As an expat in Saudi Arabia, you’ll probably live in a secure housing compound surrounded by other expats. Compound accommodation is in high demand, so it’s important to discuss your requirements with your employer ahead of your move.
The apartments and villas in expat compounds are usually fully furnished. With facilities such as swimming pools, tennis courts, libraries, shopping centres, restaurants and even schools, compound life is very self-contained, and some people rarely step outside the perimeter fence.
Rents are high in compounds, but many employers include a housing allowance in their benefits package. You may be expected to pay up to a year’s rent in advance, and you’ll also be charged for utilities such as electricity, gas and water.
Local culture in Saudi Arabia
Moving to Saudi Arabia can be daunting, even if you’re a seasoned expat. It’s a conservative Islamic country and you’ll probably find that many customs from back home are more strictly regulated. The culture shock can be tempered by living in an expat compound.
Islam governs all facets of life in Saudi Arabia, from politics and business to family life, sexuality and even hygiene. You’re allowed to practise any religion within the privacy of your home, but proselytising is forbidden and there are harsh punishments for breaking the law.
Saudi Arabia is an extremely patriarchal society, and many expat women struggle to adapt to its strict rules and constraints. For many years, these limitations were enshrined in the law. Today the law is less harsh, and expat women in particular are exempt from most restrictions. But patriarchal Islamic values still dominate the country’s social sphere. Women don’t have to wear an abaya or cover their heads in public, but doing so can help an expat blend in. Both men and women should dress conservatively and keep their legs and shoulders covered.
Drinking alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia except inside expat compounds. Non-Muslims are also expected to abide by the Islamic law that forbids people to eat pork – and you can’t take any pork products into the country.
There are strict censorship laws in Saudi Arabia. Many films and TV shows are censored for immorality or causing political offence. Freedom of press and free speech are also limited.
Education in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, the school week is from Sunday to Thursday and hours may be shortened during Ramadan. The academic year runs from September to June and is usually divided into two or three terms.
Saudi Arabia’s public schools teach in Arabic. While expat children are allowed to attend public schools, most expat parents feel that the language and cultural differences would make for too difficult a transition.
Some international schools in Saudi Arabia have a high staff turnover and a shortage of well-qualified teachers, so expats may choose to supplement their children’s education with private tuition.
Some international schools, including the American and British schools, are governed by embassies and preference is given to their respective nationalities. Others offer multiple curricula under one roof. Waiting lists are common and fees are high. Unlike public schools, where boys and girls are segregated, international schools are usually co-educational.
Keeping in touch in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has fast ADSL and fibre broadband as well as growing mobile broadband networks. The Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Mobily and Zain all offer competitive internet packages. These are also the three major mobile phone companies. You can choose from a range of prepaid and contract options. To open an account, you’ll have to provide your Iqama (work permit).
The most popular English-language newspaper is Arab News. Most Saudi publications only cover hard news and tend to have a global focus.
Healthcare in Saudi Arabia
Saudi healthcare facilities are on a par with those in Western Europe and the USA. There’s a good selection of public and private hospitals and clinics, but you might have to go outside the country for some specialist treatments.
The standard of public healthcare in Saudi Arabia is good. Because it’s compulsory for expats working in the private sector to have medical insurance, most use private hospitals instead. These hospitals tend to offer a better standard of care, but come at a price, so make sure your medical insurance is adequate. Many of the medical staff at these hospitals are expats themselves and speak English.
Most medicines are available from pharmacies in Saudi Arabia. Pharmacies are usually open from 9.30am to 1pm and from 4.30pm to 10.30pm. Some hospitals have 24-hour pharmacies where you can get prescription and over-the-counter medications.
Saudi Arabia’s ambulance services are run by public hospitals. Response times are good, and paramedics are well-trained and speak English.
Getting around in Saudi Arabia
The public transport infrastructure in Saudi Arabia is underdeveloped, so most people use their own vehicles or taxis to get around. Low import duties and cheap petrol means driving is the most cost-effective way to get around Saudi Arabia. The country’s road network is excellent, but Saudi drivers can be erratic.
Although women are now allowed to drive, many still hire a driver or rely on their husband or a male relative. Most expat compounds offer shuttle services for women and children. For expat women who don’t have a driver or access to a shuttle service, taxis are often the best option. You can’t hail a taxi in the street – they have to be booked in advance. Most cabs are metered but fares can be high, especially during Ramadan, Hajj and Eid.
In terms of public transport, urban and intercity buses are well maintained and air conditioned. Long-distance bus services connect Saudi Arabia to countries such as Jordan, Qatar, Syria and the UAE. Rail transport in Saudi Arabia is limited, but Mecca and Riyadh both have fairly new metro systems.
Flying is the quickest way to travel the long distances between Saudi cities. The national airline, Saudia, and a number of other international carriers operate regular domestic and international flights from all the main airports, including King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and King Fahd International Airport near Dhahran.
Cost of living in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has a lower cost of living than many other Middle Eastern destinations. Most expats enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, especially if their employment package includes housing, transport and education allowances.
Compound accommodation is expensive and international school fees are high. Thanks to the country’s booming oil industry, petrol is cheap, so it costs very little to run a car. Local groceries are also reasonably priced but imported food and eating out are costly.
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Top tips for Saudi Arabia
See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in Saudi Arabia.
Read carefully about the laws and regulations before you move in. The social life is restricted compared to Western and other Asian countries.
All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.
All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.
This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.
Always remember to ensure you're aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.
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