Here at Regent Personnel we like to provide our candidates with as much information as we can regarding the country they are planning to move to, its people, the climate, and safety precautions.
There are millions of foreigners working in the biggest economy in the Middle East, expats will find they are in good company in the “Land of the Two Holy Mosques”. According to estimates made in 2013, there are between eight and nine million foreign workers living in the country.
Regardless of the foreigners moving to Saudi Arabia, it is not an open, multicultural society; rather it is one marked by strict rules and traditions, which foreign residents should acknowledge.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it is officially known, can be considered a relatively new state, after being founded in 1932. However, the region’s culture and history extend much further back and the country prides itself on being the birthplace of Islam. Thus, expats moving to Saudi Arabia should be aware that religion is an all-pervasive characteristic of the public and private spheres.
Since its inception, the modern state has been ruled by the Al Saud family, and the current king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz functions as both head of state and prime minister. As a foreigner moving to Saudi, you should therefore not be surprised at the absence of political parties or other forms of public participation in politics.
The ulema on the other hand, a body of religious leaders and legal scholars, plays a direct role in government. Even non-locals or non-Muslims may be targeted by the religious police, called mutaween, or officially the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who ensure that decency and decorum are observed in public.
Hospitality is held up as a great virtue, but that does not mean the devout will tolerate behaviour that is not in accordance with the teachings of the Quran. Foreigners are expected to comply with the written and unwritten rules of local life.
As the kingdom is a very religious and conservative place, expats, especially non-Muslims, are strongly advised to refrain from anything that might offend their hosts, like consuming alcohol in public, dressing indecently (by local standards), or openly practicing a religion other than Islam. Moreover it is strictly forbidden to import or consume any kind of drug, alcohol, or pork meat.
In recent years, the country with the largest oil reserves in the world has attracted numerous multinational companies and foreign workers.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is relatively sparsely populated – which is no surprise, seeing as the desert is the predominant geographical feature. Of the almost 29 million residents living in Saudi Arabia, over 80% are living in towns and cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah. These numbers include more than eight million foreigners relocating there for work; who are mainly of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. The number of North American and European expats is estimated at 100,000.
Despite aspiring to be a modern state in many respects, the Saudi nation still has one of the most traditional societies worldwide. It is governed by devout religious beliefs, rules and traditions, which foreigners must adjust to.
The traditions and attitudes of local society have been shaped by Islamic as well as Bedouin culture. Thus, expatriates living in Saudi Arabia will soon discover that family bonds are still much stronger there than in many other cultures, to the extent that they permeate all aspects of life, even the business world.
Cultural life in Saudi Arabia rests strongly within the confines of strict interpretations of the Quran. In practice, this means that the visual arts, for example, are limited to geometric, floral or abstract designs, as representations of humanity are forbidden. There are cinemas in larger cities.
Music, dance, and Bedouin poetry form an important part of Arab culture. Literature in general is, however, kept in check by strict censorship rules.
Female expats living in Saudi Arabia will not be bound to quite the same restrictions as the local population, they must still submit to the laws and customs of their host country.
Driving is strictly forbidden for women. Outside the typical compound, gender segregation is common in all areas of the public sphere, from the more obvious places, like swimming pools, to the less obvious, such as restaurants. However, expat women do have more freedoms than their Saudi Arabian counterparts in the Kingdom. For example, while foreign women can book themselves into a resort on their own.
A move to Saudi Arabia will be a culture shock for most. Temperatures are high and some places, daytime temperatures can rise to 50°C or more in the height of summer. Everyone moving to Saudi Arabia from colder parts of the world should be well aware of the effects this might have on their health and should take appropriate precautions.
As most of the Arabian Peninsula is made up of desert or semi-desert shrubland, there is practically no rainfall all year round. The only exception is the Asir region, which is influenced by the monsoon season from the Indian Ocean.
Holding about 17% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, it is unsurprising that the kingdom’s economy is heavily based on oil. Petroleum accounts for 90% of export earnings, 80% of budget revenues, and 45 % of the GDP. This explains why Saudi Arabia is one of the few high-income countries with a very strong industrial sector (nearly 65% of the GDP in 2013).
The service sector generates roughly one third of the GDP, making the tertiary sector the second-most important for the national economy. Given the climate and topography, agriculture is never going to play a major role.
Recent diversification efforts to reduce the economic dependency on oil exports have created new areas of employment for those working in Saudi Arabia’s secondary and tertiary sectors. In addition to the local petrochemical industry, particular attention has been given to power generation, telecommunications, and natural gas exploration.
Population: Around 29 million
Capital city: Riyadh (also largest city)
Neighbouring countries: Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen
Political system: Islamic absolute monarchy
Main languages: Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken and understood in business.
Major religions: Saudi Arabia is a strict Islamic country governed by Sharia law. Although other religions can be practiced in private, proselytising is strictly forbidden.
International dialling code: +966
Internet domain: .sa
Electricity: 125 volts, 50Hz in main cities, but expats in remote areas may encounter 215 volts, 60Hz.
Money: The Saudi riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halala. The country has a well-established banking system and expats are able to open a local bank account in Saudi Arabia.
Tipping: It is usual to tip 10 percent of the bill for services rendered.
Driving: Cars drive on the right side of the road in Saudi Arabia. Women are strictly forbidden from driving in the Kingdom.
Education: Foreign children are not allowed to attend local public schools. There is a range of international schools catering to the expat community, although the standard of education can be variable.
Emergency numbers: 999 (police); 997 (ambulance)
Saudi Arabia offers a wealth of opportunity for expat job seekers and companies, but it is crucial that expats understand the entry requirements attached to visas for Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has put stringent rules in place and they are unlikely to change in the near future.
Everyone entering Saudi Arabia requires a visa, except for nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and holders of a re-entry permit issued by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Even visitors will need to have a passport valid for at least six months and an appropriate visa.
Visas must be obtained prior to arrival, and it is important to remember that all visas require an individual or company to act as a sponsor who will vouch for the individual’s conduct while in the country.
Visas for Saudi Arabia
Below are the different types of entry visas issued by either the Saudi Arabian embassy or consulate in the expat‘s home country, or directly from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia:
Visitor’s visas for Saudi Arabia
A visitor’s visa, which is also the category that a business visa falls under, requires a formal invitation from an individual or company sponsor. Proof of the invitation for a business visa should be provided in the form of a letter certified by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The invitation will contain a visa number and serves to show the embassy that the applicant has obtained a visa via the sponsor. The applicant can then take this visa number along with their passport, the fee and other required documentation to their local Saudi embassy or consulate to collect the visa. A business visa is usually valid for a single entry and for a stay of up to three months.
Family visit visas for Saudi Arabia
This visa is issued to the immediate relatives of those who are currently working in Saudi Arabia. In order to obtain a family visit visa, proof of relationship, such as marriage or birth certificates, should be produced. To get a family visit visa for their family, employees need the help of their employer, which will need to provide a letter. As with the residency visa (see below), the approval of this visa can only be obtained from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia.
Transit visas for Saudi Arabia
At present there is no substantial tourist industry in the country and Saudi Arabia, unlike other countries in the GCC, does not issue tourist visas except for approved tour groups following organised itineraries. It does appear slightly more straightforward for Muslims to enter Saudi Arabia and the process for obtaining the Hajj and Umra visas for religious purposes is well administered.
Work visas for Saudi Arabia
If a person intends to work in Saudi Arabia they are required to apply for a work visa, known as an Iqama. The employment contract, academic or professional credential documents, and the results of a comprehensive medical examination must be presented to the Saudi embassy/consulate in the applicant’s home country or to the authorities in Saudi Arabia via their sponsor (person or company), known as a kafeel. This will ultimately lead to a visa number, allowing the applicant to be issued their visa. The visa will usually be valid for the length of time that the sponsor company has requested.
Residency visas for Saudi Arabia
These are issued to visitors wishing to live in Saudi Arabia, such as the wives and children of those who are currently working in the Kingdom (note that exit and re-entry visas to leave the Kingdom are required for holders of a residence visa). The approval of this visa can only be obtained from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia.
Other considerations for Saudi visas
Certain individuals could be restricted entry into Saudi Arabia. These include passengers with links to Israel and those who do not comply with Saudi regulations, including conventions of behaviour and dress.
It is essential to note that all business in Saudi Arabia is conducted according to the Islamic calendar, being eleven days shorter than the Gregorian calendar that most Westerners are familiar with. This is also the case for the overall length of the visa. It is important that visitors understand when they are required to leave Saudi Arabia because overstaying the visa for as little as 24 hours could lead to serious consequences.
Women planning on travelling to Saudi Arabia must observe certain additional requirements, which may seem rather extreme. Women arriving in the Kingdom must be met by their sponsor at the airport, or they will face problems upon entry. This is non-negotiable.
Leaving Saudi Arabia
One must remember that there are restrictions and regulations that relate to leaving Saudi Arabia. Women who plan on permanently residing in Saudi Arabia should be aware that if living as a member of a Saudi household, for example marrying a Saudi man or having a Saudi father, she will need the permission of the Saudi male head of the household to leave the country.
This is also true for non-Saudi employees in relation to their employer. One cannot leave the country without an exit visa requiring the signature of the employer; and the employer usually holds the worker’s passport. If one wishes to change employers then they will again need the permission of their previous employer.
The sponsorship (kafeel) system
The kafeel or sponsorship system is known, from time to time, to result in various injustices for foreign workers and travellers. Such a severe lack of the personal freedom of movement would undoubtedly seem ludicrous in other countries. Although Saudi Arabia has not ruled out the possibility of cancelling the system, officials have stated that they will do whatever is necessary to protect the rights of both employers and employees.
In conclusion, upon entering and leaving Saudi Arabia, expats cannot take any shortcuts with regards to the immigration authorities and the various visa rules and practices. However, if the expat is eligible and submits the required documentation and is prepared to follow the stated rules and customs, whether considered outdated or not, the visa approval process can be fairly smooth.
*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.
The cost of living in Saudi Arabia currently places the country in line with middle cost of living locations and, comparatively speaking, Saudi Arabian cities generally rank lower than most Middle Eastern cities in terms of international cost of living surveys.
Many highly skilled expats move to Saudi Arabia on lucrative relocation packages, which usually include subsidies for housing, transport, medical insurance, return tickets home for vacation and allowances for education for their children. Those granted these benefits will find that the cost of living in Saudi Arabia can be quite reasonable and they can enjoy a rather luxurious lifestyle when all these expenses are already taken care of.
Cost of accommodation in Saudi Arabia
Expat housing in Saudi Arabia is expensive; the high demand for compound living has seen the prices steadily increase in recent years, and expats will often find a long waiting list for accommodation at the most popular compounds.
Depending on the standard of living one aspires to, accommodation in a Saudi compound can range from around SAR 90,000 to 250,000 per year. It’s therefore important that accommodation is factored into any contract when negotiating a package for relocation to Saudi Arabia.
Cost of education in Saudi Arabia
For expats with children in Saudi Arabia, another big expense will be schooling. Foreign children are not allowed to attend public schools in Saudi Arabia and therefore have to attend international schools. Tuition at some of these institutions can cost in the region of SAR 35,000 to 75,000 a year.
Cost of transport in Saudi Arabia
As a country bound to the oil sector, petrol is cheap. Thus, expats often find that when buying a car in Saudi Arabia many can afford more luxurious vehicles than in their home country.
Cost of food and household goods in Saudi Arabia
Ironically enough, tobacco products are relatively moderately priced. Groceries are also reasonably priced, but dining out can be costly and imported food items can also be expensive.
Electronic goods are generally cheaper due to lower import duties and general lack of taxation.
Money can be easily spent at the country’s many malls or on luxury items; however, bear in mind that entertainment options are limited in Saudi Arabia and there are no bars, movie theatres, night clubs, or other social places that many Western expats may be used to.
The standard of healthcare in Saudi Arabia is high and widely accepted as equal in quality to that of the USA and Western Europe. Both Saudi locals and expats benefit from the numerous medical facilities available in both the private and public sectors, and for the most part, delayed treatment or frustrating waiting lists are non-existent. However, for highly specialised treatment, many expats consider medical assistance outside of the country.
Medical facilities in Saudi Arabia
There are public, private and military hospitals in Saudi Arabia and the standard of each facility varies tremendously. Private clinics and hospitals tend to be of superior quality and are heavily favoured by expats. These facilities come with a hefty price-tag, however, so expats should make sure they have appropriate health insurance before seeking treatment.
Ironically, many of Saudi Arabia’s medical staff are expats themselves, drawn to the area for the same attractive financial rewards and comparative wealth that paint a pretty picture for the rest of the Saudi expat community. Furthermore, numerous hospitals have foreign roots and still operate under the auspices of imported medical discipline.
Health insurance in Saudi Arabia
Though the Ministry of Heath offers a universal healthcare coverage system that locals and public sector expats are eligible to access, it is compulsory for non-Saudi nationals to have some form of formal medical insurance. Typically, it is the responsibility of the employer (sponsor) to provide medical insurance to expats relocating to Saudi Arabia for work purposes. It is highly recommended that expats try their best to negotiate this stipulation as part of their remuneration contract.
Medicines and pharmacies in Saudi Arabia
Medicines are widely available from pharmacies in Saudi Arabia, in many cases without the prescription that one would require back home. A word of caution: be careful bringing medicine into the country without a prescription as it may be treated as an illegal narcotic. For example, the Health Ministry has banned the use of tranquillisers, anti-depressants and sleeping pills. However, if one is dependent on these pills, only in extreme cases of mental illness is it possible to obtain the medication with a doctor’s letter and prescription in Saudi Arabia. It is best to bring these medications from abroad; expats should always ensure they have a script and letter from their doctor back home when bringing these medications into Saudi Arabia.
Most pharmacies are open from 9.30am to 1pm and from 4.30 to 10.30pm. Many hospitals have a 24-hour pharmacy, where one can obtain prescription and non-prescription medicines.
Health hazards in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is mostly desert and rainfall is sparse. The heat is extreme and expats will most likely have a difficult time adjusting to highs that can soar above 113°F (45°C) during the day. Heat stroke and exhaustion are common among expats, especially during the hottest months from May to September. Dust storms can also make outdoor activities difficult, and are a health hazard, especially to those with underlying respiratory problems.
Emergency services in Saudi Arabia
Ambulance services in Saudi Arabia are normally operated and controlled by police and government hospitals. The emergency service telephone number is 997; this service is also equipped with helicopter rescue services, but these are mostly used for road accidents or evacuations from difficult terrain.