10 Tips for Living in Saudi Arabia
By Betsy Burlingame
Summary: Saudi Arabia is an expat post that some love and some find incredibly challenging. Expats offer tips about living in Saudi Arabia - from the conservative dress to rules for Western women and more.
Life in Saudi Arabia
"The move specifically to Saudi Arabia was because I didn't want to live in a "sophisticated" society any longer. It was time to get back to basics again. To go out into the desert and see the stars, watch the sunset and have a fuller social life. Not to have my life run looking at the clock all the time and living up to other people's expectations. Most of ones expectations have been met. The social life is good, the climate is excellent. We have lots of time to see the stars and watch the sunrise or sunset. To meet and socialise with people of other nations and not be clock watching all the time. All these expectations have been met," said one person that moved to Riyadh.
"Jeddah has a relatively low crime rate, as it attracts religious Muslims both as visitors and as residents. Jeddah is very hot in the summer, but mild, even cool, in mid-winter. Almost every room in the city is air-conditined; few are equipped with heaters. Many western residents live in housing compounds, some of which are very well equipped; life in these areas is not widely different from living in the West. Jeddah has a number of excellent English and American k-12 schools, for both Muslims and non-Muslims. There are several colleges. The university is generally open only to Saudi students; most foreigners send their children abroad for post-secondeay education. Jeddah is a beautiful, modern city, built almost entirely in the last forty years. It's important for non-Muslim visitors to note that dress is very conservative, and that alcohol is absolutely forbidden throughout the country," explained one expat in Jeddah.
"I am one of the millions of expatriate workers who live here out of necessity. There are 3 levels of inhabitants in Riyadh - the Saudis, the Europeans and the Asians. All have unequal rights and all have unequal salaries for the same work," described another expat.
" I also had to be mindful of prayer times because whenever the call to prayer comes around, shops would all shut up pretty quickly ten or so minutes before so I had to learn to shop around the times that it wasn't prayer time and that took a bit of time to get into that routine. Usually the paper would have these times printed in there," said one expat in Al Khobar.
Getting to Know the Locals
"I loved the fact that these people had a lot of time for me, if I liked something they would give it to me and I was often treated like royalty a lot too as I was the only woman who worked amongst the men. I was treated with a lot of respect and also I found that these people were great hosts. The owner of my apartment building and I became good friends and he would often get his manservant to bring me up a plate of every dish he would serve down in his Ramadan tent over Ramadan just so I didn't miss out as I could not enter his enter tent because it was a male only event. But like a good host, I was given a lot of respect by the males in the Kingdom and I will never forget that. It was their kindness and appreciation for me as a westerner that made them do this and I was rather sad when I left because of this," said one expat.
What to do in Saudi Arabia
An expat in Jeddah suggested, "because Jeddah is the port of Makkah, it is more cosmopolitan than other Saudi cities; visitors of every nationality are commonplace. There is little in the way of entertainment; there are no theaters, and women are not allowed to attend football (soccer) games. Two major football teams are based in Jeddah, but the major recreation involves hanging around malls and boating. (Wonderful coral reefs for diving, and women as well as men belong to diving clubs.) Another popular activity is camping in the desert."
Men and Women Can't Mix
"Another issue is that men and women can't 'mix' so opportunities to socialize are fairly limited (mostly to expensive embassy events or if you are fortunate enough to live in a 'western' compound--but single women usually must live in a company compound, which often isn't western so the freedom we're used to isn't allowed)", explained one expat in Riyadh.
Single Women in Saudi Arabia
"They say that Saudi Arabia is one of the most difficult foreign assignments for a single woman, but my 'shock' has been minimal. As I said, I'd done my homework before leaving home so that made it easier. But, I am also blessed with a job I love and a great team of multinational colleagues," said one expat.
"If you haven't yet made the move, really look into it carefuly. You want to make sure you are housed in a Western Style compound. The outside environment for women (married or single) is hostile. Mobility is limited, traveling alone by taxi is risky, and so. Nonetheless, if living in a secure compound and your learn how to survive as a single woman it should be fine," said expat in Saudi Arabia.
"It's difficult to get around since women can't drive. If this were a western city, I'd have explored it from top to bottom! But here, you're taking cabs everywhere so only really go from point A to point B and don't know what's in between," explained one expat in Riyadh.
What to Bring to Saudi Arabia
"I didn't bring anything, but I wish I had brought my music, movies and an assortment of clothes (ladies items)," said one expat. Another said, "I wish I had brought hair mousse for my daughter who has very curly hair. More books and movies. I wish I had left all my knickknacks and such, no room in this house for such things." Yet another said, "Three things I wish I brought: more music on my computer, a large jar of vegemite and rexona men's deoderant. Three things to leave: wireless router, batteries, and personal care products."
"If you can help it, do not bring household goods or electronics, because many people have found their stuff to be either broken or simply gone. Handcarry your valuables: important papers, pictures, cd's (get one of those binders) etc. Other than that, pretty much everything you need/desire is available," said one expat in Khamis Mushayt.
Finding a Home in Saudi Arabia
One person who moved to Riyadh advised, "Watch for location of Mosques, visit you "new" villa during prayer time so you can see how loud it is or how busy the streets become on a friday morning. Neighbours, I am not a stereotypical person and I love everyone.. until there kids are playing on your doorstep at 3 am or there parties have the police next door.. this is not scary at home, but here it may invite unwelcome complications. Though most officers are understanding. We live in a large 5 bedroom private villa with drivers quarters. This is not typical for expatriates. Though a pool and stuff is essential for any expatriate family. But in this area (Al Maseef) it is the norm. We found a larger private villa after being in a small compound. It cost the same and now we have our own pool without the harrassment of kids. (Parents allow them to run wild here, with or without supervision to all hours of the night.)"
Expat Women in Saudi Arabia
"Keep an open mind. Things are much different here. Somethings are better, example: my kids can play outside safely all the times. And, somethings are worse, not being able to drive limits when and how I can do my shopping, etc," suggested one expat.
"A woman is not allowed to be alone in a vehicle with a man who is not her relative UNLESS the man is a licensed commercial driver (bus, taxi, limo, etc.). In that situation, the woman should be in the back seat -- just like a taxi in the western world. She (or anyone for that matter) should always carry ID -- either a passport if not a resident, or an igama if a resident," explained one expat. Another said, "If you move onto a compound then most compounds have daily shopping busses to different shopping centres. Also, there are probably school busses for the children."
"Make sure that when you go out you take a scarf with you so that if you get asked to cover your hair, you have something to do that with. It does not have to be a black scarf. Your abaya can also be decorated. It doesn't even have to be black, although that is the colour generally worn. When you get an abaya, it's probably a good idea to get one that covers your ankles as that is an extremely sexy pat of your body. Alternatively make sure you are wearing leggings or trousers under the abaya. Sandals are not an issue, neither is make up. Shoes and handbags are huge fashion accessories, for obvious reasons," said another expat woman in Saudi Arabia.
Having a Baby in Saudi Arabia
"Go to one of the large private hospitals and ask to see the most popular OB/GYN on the staff. If you don't like the doc you get, ask for another one or go to another hospital. A good technique, actually, is to ask a doctor you trust who s/he recommends. Who delivered her (or his wife's) children? Best, of course, to go Home, if at all possible," said an expat in Jeddah.
Another expat explained, "I went to a private hospital which had lots of western patients and all English/US trained and speaking doctors. I was given an epidural (which failed) and eventually a general anasthetic for an emergency caesarian. I was in hospital for 4 days and was very well cared for. The doctors and nurses were very nice, although not that encouraging or knowledgable about breast-feeding."
Many expats, especially those planning to have babies in Saudi Arabia, have expat health insurance plans for access to medical facilities globally.
About the Author
Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.
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First Published: Oct 16, 2012