Most expatriate residents of Saudi Arabia will find themselves living in one of the country’s three main cities: Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. Those living in Riyadh and Jeddah work in a wide variety of sectors, whereas most expats in Dammam – part of a tri-city area that includes Dhahran and Al Khobar – work in the hydrocarbons industry, often directly for Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company.
Jeddah and Dammam are considered more liberal culturally, but Riyadh has the largest and most diverse community of expats. The majority of Western expats live in compounds, inside which they enjoy the freedoms they would most likely have in their home countries. The more upscale ones have high-end amenities, with pools, fitness centres, tennis courts, movie theatres, restaurants and sometimes their own golf courses. However, this sort of accommodation sometimes comes with a hefty price tag and often has long waiting lists, so some expats prefer to live in regular apartments or villas.
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country whose legal framework is based on sharia, or Islamic law. Respect for these laws is a must for those living in the Kingdom, even those who are non-Muslims. Restrictions include a ban on alcohol, women driving, and public interaction between men and women who are unmarried or unrelated.
The expat community makes up for such constraints, however, through its inclusive and social nature. Most weekends are quite busy, with events hosted at Western embassies and compounds. For the more adventurous, desert excursions, camping trips and even scuba diving are popular options. Travel outside the Kingdom is relatively easy and cheap, with short direct flights to neighbouring countries. Expats looking to go further afield can also travel to Europe, Africa or Asia in a matter of hours, although for these the options are less direct.
The primary reason expats come to Saudi Arabia is financial. High, nearly tax-free salaries, often combined with housing covered by employers and generous holidays, draw skilled foreigners from around the world. The cost of living is also low, partly due to government subsidies for electricity, water, petrol and food. Those looking for additional help around the house or with children can hire maids and nannies at a fraction of what they would pay in their home countries. Many expats argue that, even if they were to earn the same salary in the UAE or Qatar, for example, working in Saudi Arabia is more financially attractive as their effective income is much higher.
Foreign children are not allowed to attend Saudi public schools, but there are a large number of private international schools in which expatriate students can enrol. This means a lot of variety in terms of quality. The Western ones such as the US, British and French schools enjoy the best reputations, but parents should note that these also have the highest tuition costs and the longest waiting lists. If you plan to bring your family to the Kingdom, it is best to start the application process early.
Although Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, it is not necessary to speak it provided you are living in one of the main urban areas of the country. Knowing a few key words and phrases will certainly make life easier and the cultural experience more rewarding, but most expats find it easy to get by with English. In the rural regions, however, this may not be the case, so keep this in mind when reviewing a job offer or considering travel outside of the main conurbations.
Saudi Arabia will present challenges for those looking to relocate there, but it also offers unique cultural experiences, financial benefits, career opportunities, and, once one becomes accustomed to the country, a comfortable lifestyle. Prospective expatriates should do their research before deciding whether to come, yet the best resource is to talk to those who have lived or currently live there.
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