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Expat Exchange - Culture Shock in Saudi Arabia
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Culture Shock in Saudi Arabia

By Betsy Burlingame


Summary: If you're planning a move to Saudi Arabia, or have recently settled there, it's natural to encounter some culture shock as you adjust to your new surroundings. Our insightful article is designed to help you navigate this transition smoothly. It offers practical tips and draws on the experiences of fellow expats who have successfully embraced the cultural nuances of Saudi Arabia.

Living in Saudi Arabia - Culture Shock in Saudi Arabia

Welcome to a land of contrasts and traditions, where modernity meets heritage in the heart of the Middle East. Moving to Saudi Arabia can be an exhilarating experience, filled with new opportunities and cultural discoveries. However, it can also bring about a significant culture shock, especially for those who are unprepared for the vast differences they may encounter. Understanding the cultural nuances and societal norms of Saudi Arabia is crucial for a smooth transition. In this guide, we'll explore the phases of culture shock, language barriers, common cultural faux pas, and gather advice from expats to help you navigate your new environment with ease.

Understanding Culture Shock

When you first arrive in Saudi Arabia, you'll likely go through various stages of culture shock. Initially, there may be a honeymoon phase where everything seems exciting and new. As time goes on, the differences in language, social norms, and daily life can become more challenging, leading to frustration or isolation. It's important to recognize that this is a normal process and to give yourself time to adjust. Finding a supportive community and engaging in local customs can help you transition through these phases more comfortably.

Language Barrier Challenges

Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, and while English is widely spoken in business and expat circles, not knowing Arabic can still pose challenges in daily life. From reading road signs to interacting with locals, learning the language can greatly enhance your experience. Many expats find it helpful to take Arabic lessons or use language learning apps to build their skills. Patience and a willingness to learn will go a long way in overcoming language barriers.

Top 5 Cultural Faux Pas

  1. Dressing Inappropriately: Saudi Arabia has a conservative dress code, especially for women. It's important to dress modestly in public, covering shoulders and knees, and for women to wear an abaya when required.
  2. Disrespecting Religious Practices: Islam is an integral part of Saudi culture. Non-Muslims should show respect during prayer times and the holy month of Ramadan by not eating, drinking, or smoking in public during daylight hours.
  3. Public Displays of Affection: Public displays of affection between men and women are frowned upon. It's best to keep physical contact to a minimum to respect local customs.
  4. Photography Without Permission: Taking photos of people, especially women, or government buildings without permission is considered disrespectful and can lead to trouble with authorities.
  5. Ignoring Gender Segregation Rules: In certain areas and social situations, men and women are segregated. It's important to be aware of and adhere to these rules to avoid offending anyone.

Expat Advice on Culture Shock

Experienced expats often emphasize the importance of keeping an open mind. One American expat shared how joining a local sports club helped him understand the value of community in Saudi culture. Another expat from the UK recommended attending cultural events and festivals to connect with the rich heritage of the country. Many also suggest finding a cultural mentor - a local friend who can guide you through the do's and don'ts of Saudi society. This can help you appreciate the nuances of the culture and reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.

Adjusting to life in Saudi Arabia takes time and patience, but with the right mindset and preparation, you can embrace the change and enjoy the unique experiences this country has to offer. Remember to respect the local customs, make an effort to learn the language, and seek out connections within the expat and local communities. By doing so, you'll find that the culture shock transforms into cultural enrichment, making your time in Saudi Arabia a truly rewarding journey.

"Finding friends is a bit tough, yet one can start from the work mates and if one happens to live in a compound (secured, fenced residential area) then one can also mingle with people easier and faster," said one expat living in Riyadh.

"Yes I did, I often missed the little things from home, even things like foodstuffs and just hearing about stories from home. The only news stories I watched about NZ whilst I were there were about Shrek the sheep being shorn and a local member of parliment driving up the parliment steps in a tractor! Fortunately the Internet was avaliable but even then some pages were restricted or band or the service we had in the apartment was very very slow despite the fact it was supposed to be cable. I also got angry too (see below) as sometimes it took forever for apartment staff to do anything and that tested my patience, something that I was used to having a lot of before I left. I often got lonely because where I was, there were very few woman around," wrote a member in Al Khobar.

"Living expenses are fairly low here and varieties are available, shopping is real fun," said one expat living in Riyadh.

"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," wrote a member in Al Khobar.

"Juggling your life around no entertainment and prayer times. Life can be rather boring in Saudia in many respects and that is where board games and things done back in the good old days are known here. Dinner parties with other expats was often good as you could mix and mingle with others- without alcohol of course. It was a quiet life there and sometimes I went across the boarder to Bahrain just to see a movie or to not wear my abbaya, but I felt safe there too which was good," commented an expat living in Al Khobar.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder and President of Expat Exchange and is one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Prior to Expat Exchange, Betsy worked at AT&T in International and Mass Market Marketing. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

Some of Betsy's articles include 12 Best Places to Live in Portugal, 7 Best Places to Live in Panama and 12 Things to Know Before Moving to the Dominican Republic. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.



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