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5 Tips for Living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: Expats living in Riyadh face a number of adjustments. Women have to learn to wear an abaya in public and are not allowed drive. Western compounds often enable expat families to relax and live like they do at home. In this article, expats offer tips for newcomers to Riyadh.

Expats in Riyadh - 5 Tips for Living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Life for Expat Women in Riyadh

A female expat in Riyadh described the challenges of living there and said, "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. 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. 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)."

Another expat offered advice to a woman preparing to move to join her husband in Riyadh, "officially you don't need to wear an abaya at the airport. I never do. However, it is better if your husband can have one ready for you to wear. There is always the trip from the airport to your house to consider. If your car was to break down and you needed to get out you would be stuck. As for covering your hair... any scarf, hat or head covering will do when necessary. As a blond, european I have only ever covered at festivals or in souqs at night. Again, officially, by royal decree, western women shouldn't be asked to cover, however it does happen and perhaps it is the easy option. I totally agree with the previous comments. Make sure you are covered when you arrive at the airport. Loose fitting top, covering your arms, pair of jeans or trousers. Sandals are fine, hands and feet are not an issue."

Compounds vs. Private Villas

"I would think that you need to budget at least 100,000 to 200,000 for a compound. Also, compounds vary tremendously. If you are looking for a Western style compound where the ladies don't have to wear abayas and families can swimming together, you need to specify this in your search. It is not so necessary to have a driver when one lives on a compound as many compounds have daily bus services to shopping malls and supermarkets. Also, there are busses to certain school. Of course, this does depend on the compound. My husband and I live in an apartment in town. Our budget is between SAR 50,000 and 60,000. As we live in town, we have a driver. Budget between SAR 30,000 and 40,000 a year, plus iqama fees and holidays, depending if the driver lives in or out one can negotiate," advised one expat in Riyadh. Another expat said, "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. 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.) As for districts: this varies widely. An apartment in the building next door to us is between 23,000 and 35,000 depending on size. Also, depending on what languages who speaks and the colour of your skin. This might sound politically incorrect, however, you will find adverts clearly stating such things as "no phillipinos or no indians or bachelors only or families only". This is not Europe!" One expat offered a list of the compounds that he knows of in Riyadh, "Al-Hamra compound Exit 9, Ishbiliya compound Exit 9, Al Nakheel compound Exit 9, Arabian Homes compound near to Mursalat and Kingdom City compound it is near to kingdom hospital."

Meeting Other Expats in Riyadh

"A move to Riyadh can be both scary and exciting. Probably with young children it would be a good idea to live on a western compound. Not all compounds are "western". There is an american school in Riyadh, as well as a multinational school and the British school. For your two year old there are also separate kindergardens. Seder Village compound has a kindergarden as well as Arizona compound. No doubt some of the others do, too. As the previous respondent said, there is an active USERA, as well as the american Community of Riyadh (ACR) that organise activities for families and the ladies. The western compounds host regular "coffee mornings." These are big events with anything from brunch with a number of vendors to a bazaar. For the rest, Saudi is a very beautiful country and for the more adventurous there are walking groups (Hash) to off roaders who organise day desert trips to week tours. There is also the Embassy circuit, where different embassies host different events that are accessible to other nationalities. Some of these events are by invitation, others are ticketed. Security in Riyadh is generally not an issue. The compounds also have monthly bus schedules to western style shopping malls and souks. Your only restrictions are as a woman you cannot drive (you probably wouldn't want to) and you have to wear an abaya outside the compound. We have been living in Riyadh now for 4 yrs. some on a compound, some off. We really enjoy our life and look forward in spending another few years here," advised one expat in Riyadh.

International Schools in Riyadh

British International School Riyadh is for students from 3 to 18 years old. One parent with kids at the British International School of Riyadh said, "very good facilities, including an artificial sports field. Limited drama and music facilities though - just converted classrooms. Extra-curricular activities are good and they do lots of trips. It is a British curriculum and so the transition was easy. I have a child in senior and a child in primary. They have a mentor system so my children were very well looked after, especially the one in primary. The oldest is a bit shy and it took him a week or so to settle. In primary, the class teacher is in daily email contact. It is less regular in senior but still the communication was good. They do a Welcome Morning for new parents at the start of the year I hear, but there wasn't a similar session at the start of term 2. The PTA runs a few activities, but the families sort out most activities themselves. The school has a campsite in the desert, and sometimes parents can use that. It is a great facility."

The American International School of Riyadh caters to students from 3 to 18 years of age. A new campus is currently under construction. A parent with children at The American International School of Riyadh KSA said, "most teachers at AIS-R seem to be aware of the "adjustment period" new students may need. In the elementary and MS the new student is ususally "signed up" with a buddy. Since the majority of the students have been new to the school at one time, the overseas student is usually easier to become friends with than moving to a school where the students have attended the same school since 1st grade."

What to Bring to Riyadh

"[I miss] my shampoos, especially my toothpaste. Bring enough for a year. I don't know how to stress this enough. I wish I had my toothpaste. I just used a normal aquafresh kind but they only care strange brands here and not the good ones. The shampoos here feel like imitation shampoos to be honest. Deodorant: I like Degree for women and they don't have that here. I am very picky about my deo. I feel embarrassed to say, but if you like a particular kind of undergarment like simple cotton kinds, bring them. Bring your socks, extra tennis shoes. These things are expensive here. If you have kids for goodness sake buy all their clothes in advance for the next year, good grief clothes are expensive!! I am going back home in March and will stock up on my list up there. We moved here in August and I can't wait to get my toothpaste... =) other than these things all else is fine. From IKEA you can buy some big mugs for coffee if you're a coffee drinker like me. Coffeemate is a little expensive and so is coffee but these things I don't mind because I really have to have MY coffee. Also, maybe night gowns etc t-shirts. They have all American kind of clothes in the malls," recommended one expat.

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Some of Betsy's more popular articles include 6 Best Places to Live in Costa Rica, 12 Things to Know Before Moving to The Dominican Republic and 7 Tips for Obtaining Residence in Italy. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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Comments about this Article

inbetween
Sep 8, 2014 11:34

I lived tin Riyadh for two years with my family. All you said is true. I did wear an abaya in public, and many times, head covers if I was going to an Arab public place. I did teach English, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, French, beginners's Russian and even Arabic as a Second Language, so I had a wide circle of friends ( locals included). I was invited to many Arab homes and had Saudi friends and their families going to my house. I am not a Muslim, but I respected the culture and learned about it. I guess having studied the language and being interested in their way of life really helped. My kids went to the British School , so they also had many friends: British, a few Americans, a lot of expatriates, like us...and quite a few Saudi friends. I met princes and princesses, through my fun ( and lucrative) work and was invited to Saudi weddings and even to the Princesses' Club! My open mind and respect to cultural differences helped; also being a Brazilian national did too. I brought a lot of clothes to my kids and other personal items from the US and Brazil. Despite some of the differences in taste, I could find almost everything there - including toiletries. Again, it was a matter of adjusting my taste. And the food was good. Although I love pork , i was able to substitute it for lamb, regular meat and fish and take advantage of the wonderful spices. Shopping for everything was a delightful experience , always, and going to their "souks" for whatever, was just great. Our compound was big and offered just about every commodity we needed. We even had a daily bus to take us wherever we wanted to go, taxis were plenty and i never had any problems, whether I was alone or with my kids. By the way, Saudis love kids. My experience was very positive, probably because and I had lived in many cultures before ...and since. The desert is beautiful when you get to know it - many different colors, ancient caves and oasis; so are the mountains around Mecca on your way to the Red Sea...and camel milk is not so bad...(my kids liked it)...And if you want to have a real beer/wine now and then, cross the bridge and go to Bahrain. .. My advice to go to Riyadh or anyplace else? Learn some of the language and the cultural differences; be respectful of their religion and religious holidays; get to know the people, their food, the good the country has to offer ( I even found Xmas. decorations..). However FOLLOW THE RULES! For the women: see the abaya as a coat that you wear over your clothes and you will be fine (advice from a Saudi friend...)

jamieannwooldridge
Sep 26, 2016 12:25

Informative and helpful read! I am moving from Chicago to Riyadh in January - at which time, I'll be over half way through my first pregnancy. Can anyone provide insight into prenatal care in Riyadh? Delivery & labor practices? Recommendations on a good OBGYN?

First Published: Aug 11, 2014

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