Good wages and a lack of taxation have always made ‘KSA’ a financially attractive option for expats, but many don’t appreciate the restrictions imposed on their lifestyles.
– Riyadh versus Jeddah
– Restrictions and Interaction with the Locals
– Two Worlds
– Final thoughts
Stories abound of foreigners being forced to live on compounds, women having to cover up from head to foot, men and women not being allowed to mingle publicly, and of draconian penalties for relatively minor crimes.
Is it really so bad? I asked a number of expats who live or have lived there about their experiences, and their varied responses made for interesting reading. Everyone does agree on one thing however: “It’s very hot!” Dave says. “First thing I bought when I got there was decent sunglasses.”
Riyadh versus Jeddah
For many people, their feelings towards the country are shaped by where they go. Each city has its own culture and rules. Riyadh is famously more conservative than Jeddah, which is widely regarded as the most progressive place in the kingdom. “Riyadh is odd,” Ken thinks. “It looks American, with its fast-food joints, but the muttaween [religious police] walk around tapping women on the ankles with sticks if they aren’t covered up properly, and woe betide any Muslim they find in Starbucks not the mosque at prayer time.”
Jeddah, on the other hand, is far more open. The muttaween there are less visible, and some cafés have done away with segregated seating areas for families and single men. “Saudi is a place of contradictions and extremes,” Paul points out. “It’s beautiful, and fun, but sometimes scary. I have fond memories of exploring the desert, diving in the Red Sea, earning loads of money and attending some wild parties. This was in Jeddah though – Riyadh was far more severe.”
Finding somewhere to live is an important Consideration. In Saudi the company sponsoring you usually helps, but as foreigners cannot own property, you have to rent. Most expats live on Western compounds – gated communities that people either view as holiday villages or prisons. Inside, the dress is Western and sometimes Saudis aren’t allowed in socially. On-compound accommodation is generally high quality and spacious, albeit more expensive than elsewhere. But since the employer often pays the rent and costs are seldom an issue, most Westerners prefer this lifestyle as it offers more freedom and security.
Larger compounds have pools, restaurants and shops, and sometimes sports facilities and gyms. Most properties are rented ‘unfurnished’, but this definition is quite broad. It might mean only the bare essentials, but it can sometimes include cookers, refrigerators and washing machines. Fully furnished property is harder to come by.
Overall living costs are similar to Western Europe if you live the expat life. The lack of taxation and low import duties makes some items like cars and electronic goods relatively cheap. But internationally branded imported foods and designer clothing are always going to cost a lot more than locally produced alternatives.
Utilities are usually subsidised by the government in order to provide inexpensive electricity and water for the local population. Of course you won’t need heating anyway, but at the height of summer you’ll need to factor in the costs of running air-conditioning units for long periods.
“You can find most ‘British’ things you might need in the supermarkets in the cities,” Dave observes. “But elsewhere some things are harder to come by and you have to shop around.”
Restrictions and interaction with the locals
In a land where executions are public events, it pays not to step over the line and to know what the rules are. Laws are enforced and punishments are often more severe for foreigners than for locals, who can sometimes get away with a knuckle rap.
You must carry a passport/visa with you at all times, unless you have an Iqama (residency card), in which case you must have that instead. Getting stopped with no ID means you risk being treated as an illegal and imprisoned. If you’re out with a woman, she must be your wife, and you must have an Iqama or your marriage certificate to prove it. In some stricter areas, even talking with someone of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse or a close relative could get you deported. Public shows of affection such as kissing between men and women is not tolerated, even among married couples, although the latter may walk hand in hand.
Oh, and don’t even think about adultery – that carries the death penalty.
Dressing respectfully means no vests or shorts for men in public, and when not on Western compounds women must wear an Abaya (those long black cloaks) at all times. Women with experience say it is good practice to carry a headscarf with you, and to don it without argument if asked to.
In fact, male or female, one piece of oftrepeated advice is if someone tells you to stop doing anything, do so straight away and don’t argue. Don’t swear publicly as people are easily offended (or may pretend to be) and things can escalate. “But if you really must swear, don’t mention Allah or the prophet Mohammed!” Ken says. “If someone takes a dislike to you, leave the area as quickly as possible, as in any dispute, a Saudi is always right and a foreigner always wrong.”
Saudis are of course deeply religious. As Muslims they pray five times per day, and everything shuts down every time for 20 to 30 minutes. If going out, check the times beforehand. “Carrying a prayer schedule is possibly more essential than a credit card here. Get it wrong and you could find yourself in the supermarket with a trolley full of melting frozen food when the lights go off and the checkouts close,” Dave points out. “If you’re a light sleeper, you’ll also find yourself getting up early, when the dawn call to prayer starts up at the nearest mosque.”
‘Pornography’ is illegal, and covers much more than what is generally considered risqué by Westerners. Any form of exposed female flesh appearing in advertising images or on imported goods is zealously blacked out with a marker pen. Pork products are also a no-no, and getting caught chomping into a crafty bacon sandwich at work could land you in jail.
Alcohol is officially not allowed, even in perfume, so be careful what you try to import. But in practice, expats say, booze is actually easy to find. Some compounds have their own residents’ bar, while others resort to making their own beverages. But beware of drinking outside the compound. “Every Thursday night there was a party somewhere in the city,” Dave recalls. “The local hooch was called Siddiqui (my friend). After a while, you start liking it. I met a few ‘brewmasters’ while working at Aramco. One made Port and Cointreau from the Siddiqui – it was unbelievably good – and strong. One time I managed to lose my boss’s pick-up in the desert when drunk – I never did find it…”
There are also peculiarities with traffic rules worth remembering. If you’re in a taxi, and it is involved in an accident, you – not the driver – are responsible, as the driver is in your employment. “Get out and leg it…” is what Dave suggests. “Also, don’t hang around gawping at accident scenes – the Saudi police round everybody up for questioning. If you’re driving, any accident is your fault, no matter what.”
Life on and off compound is clearly two separate worlds. In one you can wear what you like, men and women can mingle freely, and you can watch satellite TV and drink. But beyond the gates there is little public entertainment, restaurants (mainly US fast food chains and Indian) are usually segregated, and single women are not even allowed out unaccompanied.
These double standards don’t sit well with everyone. “It’s one of the most hypocritical societies I’ve encountered,” Peter says. “It preaches about no alcohol and virtuous women, but the queues to drive over the bridge to Bahrain at the weekend are ridiculous. It’s mainly Saudis heading for the bars and nightclubs where they get drunk and pay for the local ‘ladies’.”
Besides the off-compound dress code, women face extra restrictions. Only a few professions recruit single women, such as teachers, nurses, and doctors. Even then, you might be required to live in a single-sex compound so you can be ‘protected’ from the men. Unmarried couples cannot live together.
Women also can’t legally drive, yet according to one local study they still cause 50% of all road accidents. Apparently they manage this by arguing with their husbands, distracting them and making them crash, or making them stop suddenly if they see a dress in a shop window. Western women wanting to travel alone outside a compound must order special taxis that come with blacked-out windows and Asian drivers.
Life becomes doubly hard for non-Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. Throughout this period all able-bodied adult Muslims abstain from eating, drinking or smoking until after sunset prayers, and most shops and all restaurants are closed during the day. Only hospitals and veterinary clinics remain open.
At this time, never eat or drink in public or in front of Muslim colleagues or friends. Quite apart from it being unfair it is also illegal. Work places have designated areas for non-Muslims to eat behind closed doors.
On the flip side, cities come alive at night. Shops open at around 8.30 pm and remain open into the early hours.
“If you have a chance to work in Saudi, I’d say go for it,” Ken says. “Respect them and they’ll respect you. Just don’t go to ‘chop chop square’ on execution day!”
“Most of the time, I enjoyed it,” Dave confirms. “Most locals understand we like drink and women, and turn a blind eye. But there’s always one, so you have to be wary. If Saudis push in front of you or get mouthy in an airport queue in Dammam or Riyadh, let it slide. Do what everybody else does, and wait till you get to Heathrow…”
Dutch-based freelance writer Tim Skelton has spent the past 22 years living outside the UK, and has been a regular contributor to the Expat Network’s Nexus magazine since 2004. As well writing on expat issues, he uses his engineering background and experience gained at the Dutch environment agency to comment and write about a variety of energy and environmental matters, and is always happy to wax lyrical about his personal favourite subjects – travel, food and beer. When not appearing in airline magazines, national newspapers and lifestyle magazines from Playboy to GQ, he has also written two books: Luxembourg – the Bradt Guide (2008), and Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers (2010).