Country Facts – Saudi Arabia
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Saudi Arabia Country Guide
Blessed with a richness of oil that has turned this Middle Eastern kingdom into one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Saudi Arabia represents a fascinating destination. With one foot in the future, looking to capitalize on its untold wealth, and another in the past trying to maintain traditional values in the face of unbridled consumerism, Saudi Arabia is a fascinating and – so far – very successful social experiment.
Saudi Arabia is far removed from many other popular expat destinations, and even stands apart from many of its Middle Eastern neighbours. Steeped in Islamic law, with all the rules and mystique that this brings with it, Saudi Arabia may just be the most adventurous expat destination of all.
As a gulf state, Saudi Arabia enjoys a desert-type climate. This translates into low annual rainfall with high temperatures during the day. Temperatures of 40’C or more are not unusual, and in the hottest months it has been known to reach an incredible 53’C. For this reason the vast majority of buildings and vehicles are air conditioned in order to maintain an agreeable temperature. However this also makes outdoor activities less popular than they are in many other parts of the world.
A factor that some expats forget about a desert climate is that nights can be surprisingly cold, meaning that warmer clothing may be required after sundown. The positive aspect of this nocturnal chill is that it can make sleeping easier, especially when compared to more equatorial zones that remain hot and muggy right through till dawn.
It is interesting to note that the Western coast of Saudi Arabia is the exception to this general rule. It is the only part of the country to experience the tail-end of the Indian monsoon, which means a rather different lifestyle. Heavier rains here during the monsoon season can make wet-weather clothing a necessity. Overall the seasonal and daily fluctuations in temperature are less extreme here than in the rest of the country.
Saudi Arabia is a fascinating country, posing an intriguing intersection between the traditional and the modern. At its heart, Saudi Arabia is a nation built upon Islamic law. The Quran controls many aspects of daily life here, some of which will take some getting used to.
For example, women’s rights here are rather different to what many Westerners will be familiar with. Women typically have fewer rights than men and are expected to adhere to a strict set of guidelines about their behaviour, especially in public. That said, expatriates are generally offered more leniency than native Saudi’s. Female expats will still likely be treated differently to men, but should not experience quite the level of servitude expected of native Saudi women.
There are other differences too. For example in Saudi Arabia the working week begins on a Saturday rather than a Monday, something that some expats find takes a little getting used to! Muslims are also expected to pray regularly throughout the day, so these strict prayer times should be observed so as to not interrupt devout Muslims during their worship.
Generally speaking, these traditional values translate into a rather conservative culture. Friendship, honesty, eye-contact and gifts are highly valued. Most business deals in Saudi Arabia take far longer than in Western nations as they are typically based on relationships – perhaps even friendships. It takes time for these to develop, and hence business deals do not often happen quickly.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s oil fields have allowed the kingdom to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. This wealth flows through the population, where consumerism is rife. Expensive, luxury cars are coveted possessions for most people for example. This money has also paid for the development of Saudi Arabia’s major cities. These days over 80% of the population resides in these cities, while the undeveloped desert areas remain largely unpopulated.
This wealth has also created opportunities for expats. A thriving expat community exists here and so few expats entering the country for the first time will have difficulties locating others from their home country or quickly making new friends.
The official language in Saudi Arabia is Arabic. Western expats can find this a challenging language to adopt due to the fact that it doesn’t use a standard Roman alphabet. In order to read Arabic it is therefore necessary first to learn the new alphabet, and then learn the meaning of the words.
That said, English is spoken by many people in the Saudi Kingdom, especially those with more senior positions. It should, however, not be relied upon. Most employment contracts are made out in Arabic so it is advisable to have these carefully translated before signing them if Arabic is not your mother tongue.
In addition, some expats have found to their dismay that few police officers speak English. It is therefore a smart idea to keep the telephone number of an Arabic-speaking friend to hand, should you ever need a translator.
On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a very large country and it is possible that you may want to cover much of this. On the other hand, most of the people are restricted to a handful of cities, so it may be that you never need to venture outside your local area.
For shorter distances, driving is possible. Driving in Saudi Arabia is an acquired taste that can divide expats, mainly because of the speed at which most Saudi’s drive. For some, this speed makes for exciting drive, for others the stress of careering round corners at breakneck speeds may be rather too much.
Whatever your thoughts about driving in the city, however, sand dune driving is a rather different experience. Generally enjoyed as a pastime, it is a quintessentially Saudi hobby, and one that everyone should try just once.
Note that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where it is illegal for women to drive. While the current king seems to be making steps to modernize the country, and expand on women’s rights, the lack of women drivers can be a rather surprising experience for expatriate visitors.
The best alternative to driving is to make use of public transport; most notably the well-appointed bus service. Clean, air-conditioned buses are the most common form of transport here and can make for a reasonably-priced and comfortable form of transport. This is particularly beneficial as the Arab world has few trains; infact Saudi Arabia possesses just one stretch of train track, which is the only track in Arabia.
Saudi Arabia offers the single largest hospital in the Middle East. It has an international reputation and you should feel confident of the quality of care you will experience there. Saudi Arabia does of course have a range of other hospitals and medical facilities too and the levels of care are considered exceptional. In addition, there are a range of privately-run facilities in major cities, staffed by expatriate staff from the USA and UK. It is fair to say that you won’t be underserved in Saudi Arabia when it comes to healthcare facilities.
Health insurance is mandatory in Saudi Arabia and you should make enquiries with your employer before arrival. While many employers will include private medical insurance as a benefit, some will not and here you will need to invest in your own policy. Generally speaking healthcare is expensive in the Middle East and you should be certain that the policy you choose covers these expenses.
There are a number of vaccinations that are generally recommended before visiting Saudi Arabia. Most notably you should ensure that your tetanus, hepatitis, TB and polio shots are all up to date. In addition, the Western area that suffers from monsoons may be considered malarial. As a result, if you plan to visit these damper areas, it is advisable to invest in a course of anti-malarial tablets before your journey.
The currency in Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Riyal. Generally speaking for such a wealthy nation, the cost of living is relatively low. In conjunction with the lack of income tax in Saudi Arabia, expats often find themselves in a very strong financial position here. It is not uncommon for the expat community to regularly transfer money out of the country, either into overseas saving accounts or to family members who have remained at home and this is considered perfectly acceptable.
Note that due to the often-oppressive heat, and the potential culture shock of a strictly Muslim country, many expats relocate to Saudi Arabia primarily due to finances. Those expats looking for a cultural exchange and an outdoor lifestyle may be rather more disappointed.
The banking system in Saudi Arabia is highly-regarded and considered to be quite advanced. Increasingly, it is becoming a cashless society, with debit and credit cards accepted almost everywhere. That said, note that many businesses add a surcharge when accepting credit cards.
Of note is just how short banking hours are. Most typically banks only open for half days between 9am and midday. A few may open again in the afternoon but generally this is the exception rather than the rule. Also be aware that banks typically only work a five-day-week and so accessing your cash on weekends will likely be via ATM only.
Cashpoints are accessible in all major towns and cities and – far from just allowing one to withdraw cash – may also serve a range of other services. It is possible, for example, to transfer money or pay bills through many ATMs in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi education system is highly regarded and offers some of the best student:teacher ratios anywhere in the world, and currently averages one teacher to just twelve students. Impressively, Saudi Arabia is working hard to eliminate illiteracy among the population right now and as a result both boys and girls are typically educated to same level.
That said, it is unfortunate that expat children cannot attend standard state schools and must instead be educated at one of the many private international schools. Fortunately, similar high standards of education should be expected, though the tuition fees are generally considered to be very high.
Should you currently be considering relocating to Saudi Arabia, it can be a good idea to try and include school fees in your salary negotiations so as to reduce your financial exposure and save you money.
Food & Drink
For such a wealthy nation it should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia offers a strong dining experience, where cuisines from around the world may be sampled. Increasingly, the Saudi Kingdom is enjoying an international flavour, thanks in part to their reasonable immigration rules, and so expats should feel confident that they will be able to source suitable food no matter what your personal tastes may be.
That said, there are a number of Saudi specialities that all expats should attempt to experience during their stay. First off is the so-called Mirra coffee, which is made in the true Bedouin style. It is typically strong, dark and a little bitter though converts sing its praises. Only by trying it can you be certain quite how you’ll feel about this totally new and unusual way to enjoy your coffee.
Many vegetarians find that classic Saudi dishes are highly suitable, based as they are on vegetables, spices and pulses. Two specialities, hummus and falafel, have now spread around the world, though trying them in Saudi Arabia can be a whole different experience. Even the diehard meat eater may be converted by Saudi Arabia’s rich and fragrant selection of meat-free dishes.
Visitors should be aware that alcohol is illegal in the Kingdom. It has been claimed that officials may overlook moderate drinking in expats but this seems unnecessarily risky. For those missing the taste of alcohol, a variety of alcohol-free beverages such as champagne and beer can be purchased easily. Note that the penalties for drink driving are severe.
There are two aspects to consider when it comes to safety in Saudi Arabia, and both stem from the traditional culture and strict adherence to Islamic law. The first of these is that crimes in Saudi Arabia are severely punished. This, in turn, means that crime rates are typically kept very low indeed. Very few cases of theft or suchlike occur here simply because the penalty if caught is so extreme. This means that generally Saudi Arabia should be considered a very safe country for both nationals and visitors alike.
On the other hand, these same laws and rules can impact expats negatively. The Saudi culture is so different to that experienced in most Western nations that there is a chance expats may inadvertently break one or more rules without even being aware of them. Fortunately, expats are typically granted more leniency than nationals if they are caught, but all visitors should make an effort to investigate local customs and laws before arrival.
Making an attempt to learn the language can also go a long way, and even just a few words may ingratiate you to the authorities and those in power. Such activity may be enough to sway the odds in your favour if you ever find that you have accidentally broken some rule.
Places to Visit
Saudi Arabia’s desert climate perhaps offers rather less to visitors than many other countries. The vast majority of entertainment is largely indoors, away from the baking sun within the confines of a climate controlled building. That said, the dry desert air has helped to preserve a number of notable buildings. It should come as no surprise for such a religious nation that many of these are Muslim temples.
Visitors to the Saudi kingdom often rate Medain Saleh as the top tourist destination in the country. This huge area represents some of the most attractive desert views anywhere, combining golden sands with wind-hewn rocks and mountains. This wilderness area is also one of the richest areas for wildlife and offers unprecedented opportunities for bird watching and outdoor pursuits.
However possibly most excitingly of all are the buildings here. These vast ancient temples have been carved straight out of the sandstone cliffs, allowing one to glimpse into another world.
Al Masjid al Nabawi
Considered to be the second holiest mosque in the world, Al Masjid al Nabawi was supposedly built by the Prophet Muhammad himself. Besides the religious and historical importance of Al Masjid al Nabawi, it is also a jaw-droppingly vast and ornate building in its own right.
One of the benefits of living in a desert state like Saudi Arabia is just how warm the seas typically are. This can make for water-based pursuits. The Farasan Islands are notable as they are arguably the top diving site in the Arab world. Even world-famous ocean explorer and film maker Jacques Cousteau was said to be mesmerized by the wealth of life he found here and rated it as one of his favourite places in the world.
If you want to experience something truly unique while you’re in Saudi Arabia then a visit to Wabha may be in order. It is possible to hike up the side of the extinct volcano, and actually into the crater itself. Here, you will find a veritable oasis of life, as the microclimate created by the crater walls has permitted all manner of trees, plants and animals to thrive. If that weren’t enough, you’ll also find dried up salt pans, gleaming white under the desert sun.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Saudi Arabia please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.