The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies the majority of the Arabian Peninsula. Sharing land borders with Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, it also has extensive coastline on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Much of the landscape is desert, and most of the population either lives in large cities or coastal towns. Since its unification into a single kingdom in 1932, the country has been governed by an absolute monarchy, with the current ruler King Abdullah ibn Abdilazīz taking power in 2005.
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state and since 1992 the monarchy has been legally obliged to govern the country in accordance with Sharia law. Religious observance is part of everyday life for Saudis, who pray five times a day. Compared to most western countries and some of the more liberal nations of the Middle East, Saudi society can be restrictive, particularly for women who lack many freedoms allowed to their male counterparts. Men and women are also segregated in many situations. However, with a generous tax system making the financial rewards potentially lucrative, an increasing number of people have decided to accept these restrictions and work in Saudi Arabia.
As Saudi Arabia does not have bars or nightclubs, eating out is a great way to socialise and there is a thriving restaurant scene. Shopping is also a popular pastime – the Saudis are said to have perfected the art of the shopping mall, adding entertainment complexes such as ice rinks or sea life centres. Cinema is making something of a comeback after being banned for many years, although tickets remain limited and expensive. The national sport is football, with basketball also a popular spectator sport. The Red Sea coast is a hotspot for watersports, which Saudis and expats alike enjoy along with more traditional pursuits like horse racing, camel racing, falconry and hunting. Remember that access to spectator events may be restricted for women. However, expat community compounds often provide excellent leisure facilities which are accessible to all.
Food and drink
With its origins in the Bedouin nomadic tradition, Saudi Arabia’s cuisine centres on locally-sourced seasonal food. Similar in style to the cuisine of neighbouring Gulf states, the staple meats include chicken and lamb, while local produce like dates, beans, rice and yoghurt also feature heavily. International gastronomy is increasing in popularity, with large hotels usually offering the best choice. In line with Muslim culture, pork is not allowed and other meats must be halal. Alcohol is also illegal in Saudi Arabia. Although the police tend to turn a blind eye to alcohol consumption amongst expats in residential compounds, drinking is still illegal and being caught drunk outside the compound can land you in trouble.
Saudi Arabia’s official language is Arabic. The vast majority of Saudis speak either Hejazi Arabic or Nejdi Arabic, reflecting the pre-unification divisions of the country. Gulf Arabic, which is spoken in nearby countries like Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, is less common in Saudi Arabia. English is taught in schools and is widely used as an international business language.
The desert climate of Saudi Arabia is typically hot and dry with low humidity. However, as with most desert climates in the region, extremes of temperature are possible. Summers in the central regions of the country can often exceed 40°C (≈104°F). During the winter, temperatures can plummet and sometimes reach freezing point at night. Coastal areas are more temperate, with the cities like Jeddah usually remaining between 20°C (≈68°F) and 30°C (≈86°F) all year round. Rainfall is infrequent but can be heavy, and the south-west of the country sometimes experiences monsoons.
Safety and security
With the severe penalties issued under Sharia law, crime rates remain fairly low in Saudi Arabia, although people should be alert to the potential for petty crime. The fluid political situation in the Middle East does mean the country is at an elevated risk of terrorist activity, so visitors are encouraged to be vigilant, particularly in areas near the Yemeni border.
Although the strict regime serves as a deterrent against crime, the contrary side is that foreign nationals can unwittingly find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Alcohol and drugs are banned and drug smuggling carries the death penalty. Adultery and homosexual activity are both prohibited and can be harshly punished. Publicly practicing a religion other than Islam or failing to adhere to conservative dress codes are also illegal. The rights of suspected criminals are limited, so to avoid falling foul of the law, do your homework and try to live within local laws and customs.
Educational reform has been encouraged by the Saudi government as part of their Saudization employment initiative. Public education is free to all Saudi citizens through school (administered by the Ministry of Education) and university (the Ministry of Higher Education). The state school system is not usually accessible to foreign nationals, leading many parents to place their children at private international schools.
The school year in Saudi Arabia typically runs from September through to June and consists of either two or three terms depending on the type of school. The day usually begins early and ends early, so working parents may need to make childcare arrangements for the afternoons.
As the standards of education in Saudi schools have increased, so has the demand for university places and in response the Saudi Arabian government has opened a number of new establishments in recent years. The creation of private universities has also been encouraged to take some of the pressure off government universities. International students are welcome at Saudi universities, but it is fairly rare for the children of expats to continue into higher education in the country, particularly given that when boys turn 18 they are no longer covered by their father’s Iqama.
While Saudis are funded through university, foreign nationals must pay their way. The government does offer some scholarships to non-Saudis, although some of these offers may be subject to the student passing an Arabic exam.
Universities in Saudi Arabia typically offer associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates. Courses last for different lengths of time depending on the qualification level and subject. Undergraduate courses usually last four years, but some subjects may take up to six years. Although many institutions are segregated and there are some limitations on the types of course that women can take, enrolment rates for females are high and there are now some mixed universities.
Research is a growing area for Saudi universities and is attracting considerable investment. For most information, consult the relevant university directly.
State primary education begins at the age of 6 and lasts for six years, before three years of intermediate education and three years at secondary school. The curriculum is religious with teaching almost entirely conducted in Arabic and schools are segregated by gender. Exams are taken every two years to monitor progress. At secondary level, children have the option to go down a general educational route or to attend a more technical or vocational establishment. International schools tend to follow the structure of their home curriculum and offer qualifications to the same framework.
Preschool and childcare options
Preschool education is not compulsory in Saudi Arabia, but it is popular with Saudi families and expats alike and is increasingly viewed as an important period in a child’s development. Some employers provide dedicated pre-schools or crèches for the children of their employees as private enrolment can be very expensive. Alternatively, some families chose to hire a full-time nanny as labour rates are low and this can sometimes be the most cost-effective form of childcare.
Typically the cost of living in Saudi Arabia is more expensive in the cities and suburbs. Although the country is reputed to have a low cost of living, prices for most goods are not really as low as they seem (with fuel being the notable exception). While locally-sourced produce is cheap, imported goods can be quite expensive. However, with low taxes, less entertainment facilities to spend money on and employers often subsidising housing or living costs, foreign nationals typically find their spending power goes up considerably compared to home.
The majority of foreigners in Saudi Arabia live in expat compounds, but this is not compulsory. Although foreign nationals are no longer banned from buying property in Saudi Arabia, it is not common practice as various permits are required and renting is usually a more cost-efficient option. Because most foreign workers are sponsored by their employer, many companies will arrange accommodation as part of the employment package, at least on a short-term basis. If not, a relocation allowance or the services of a relocation consultant may be offered instead. The transient nature of the expat population means some landlords will only deal with a local contact, so speak to your sponsor before searching for your own accommodation.
A deposit of one month’s rent is usually requested as security in addition to the first monthly payment. However, some landlords will ask for advance payment of six months’ or even a year’s rent. In these situations, employers will normally cover the cost and enable you to pay monthly rent back to them.
In some regions there is a local tax imposed on property. The baladiya covers the cost of local services like road maintenance and refuse collection. Some landlords include it in the rent while others leave it to the tenant, so make sure you ask ahead of signing a contract.
In Saudi Arabia, utility costs are subsidised by the regional authorities through state-owned suppliers. Water is provided through the National Water Company and electricity through the Saudi Electricity Company. There is no mains gas supply, but bottled gas can be purchased fairly cheaply. Watch the electricity bill in summer though – air-conditioning costs can really add to your expenditure. The telephone, mobile phone, internet and TV service markets are more competitive, with state provider Saudi Telecom Company aiming to keep prices low and encourage investment.
Saudi Arabia does not have a TV licensing system, but the state broadcaster only runs one English-language channel. However, paid and free-to-air services are available through companies like Nilesat and Arabsat, offering a greater choice of language services for expats.
Healthcare and medical costs
A good standard of healthcare is provided to Saudi citizens free of charge by the Ministry of Health. While expats are allowed to access the same healthcare facilities, they must pay for treatment which can be very expensive. As a result it is now compulsory for foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia to have health insurance, but many employers will provide this as part of their proposition.
Shopping choice is extensive in Saudi Arabia, with everything from the bargains of local souqs to practical supermarkets and high-end designer stores. Grocery shopping can be fairly cheap, as can white goods which have fairly low import duties. However, clothing can be expensive, and while they have a great choice, the top malls are not the place to go if you are looking for value for money.
In line with its low-tax policies, Saudi Arabia does not charge value-added tax (VAT) on goods and services.
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – SAR1,536.92 (≈£261.47) per month
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – SAR1,141.24 (≈£194.16) per month
Price of apartment in city centre – SAR4,700.00 (≈£799.60) per square metre
Price of apartment outside city centre – SAR3,608.33 (≈£613.88) per square metre
With extraordinarily low fuel prices, road transport is the primary form of travel in Saudi Arabia and the country has an extensive road network. Most is relatively new and well-maintained, although in more remote areas of the desert the road quality drops significantly. Road signs are usually in both Arabic and English, although again this is less common in remote areas. However, the country has notoriously high accident rates and many expats avoid driving altogether.
Should you choose to take to the road, the minimum age to drive in Saudi Arabia is 18 and cars are driven on the right. It remains illegal for women to drive, although there are plans to relax this law over the next few years. Depending on their nationality, some expats may be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia on their home licence or on an international driving permit for up to three months. Once an expat has obtained an Iqama (residence permit), they must hold a Saudi licence to drive, so most long-term residents opt to switch shortly after arrival in Saudi Arabia.
Driving laws are strict in Saudi Arabia and you must carry your licence, Iqama, insurance documents, registration documents and proof of vehicle ownership at all times. Cars must have a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, spare tyre kit and a warning triangle. As alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia, there is no maximum blood-alcohol limit. Driving under the influence of drink or drugs carries heavy penalties.
Taxis are a popular means of transport, particularly for women who are unable to drive in Saudi Arabia. Fares are based on distance travelled and should be agreed before the journey commences. As of 2012 you are not allowed to hail a cab in the street – everything must be prebooked. As a result, taxi booking apps are very popular in Saudi Arabia, so use these to compare prices.
Buses and coaches
The low fuel prices in Saudi Arabia mean that buses are cheap and therefore an important part of the transport infrastructure. Commuter services make regular trips to city locations while tourist-orientated buses run regularly between airports and city centres. Some hotels and residence compounds run private bus services. For intercity travel, coach services are available through companies like the Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO). Although they take longer, they are significantly cheaper than domestic flights. Be aware that men and women must sit in separate areas of buses or coaches, and some services may be restricted to men only.
The railway network in Saudi Arabia is run by the Saudi Railways Organisation, but it is not as extensive as might be expected. The only operational line runs from Riyadh to Dammam, but there are plans for new railways lines, including a high-speed link from Jeddah to Mecca and Medina. To travel on the trains, you need to show your passport or Iqama when you buy your ticket.
Although there are no operational metro lines in Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh has begun construction of one and other major cities look set to follow suit.
Saudi Arabia has a number of international airports, with King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah and King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh the two busiest hubs. Despite this capacity, Saudi Arabia’s tight immigration controls mean it handles less transfer traffic than the neighbouring United Arab Emirates. However, there is also a growing market for domestic flights as people are willing to spend more to save time compared to a lengthy bus trip. The national carrier, Saudi Airlines, has the largest share of this market, but budget carriers like Flynas are also starting to emerge.
Other ways to get around
Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea ports of Jeddah and Duba offer ferry services to other major harbours including Suez and Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt and Aqaba in Jordan. There are also ferries to southern destinations, but the unstable maritime situation in the region means these are rarely used by international travellers.
The typical working week in Saudi Arabia is five or six working days and hours range from 40 to a maximum of 48 per week, although this is reduced during Ramadan. With Friday being the Muslim day of rest, the weekend is officially Friday and Saturday, although some private or international businesses and schools take Thursday as a day off instead of Saturday. Working hours can vary immensely, but government offices and banks tend to open early and close early.
Saudi labour law grants a minimum paid leave entitlement of 21 days a year, rising to 30 days a year after five years of service. However, many employers will offer discretionary increases on this minimum, particularly when trying to attract employees from overseas. After two years of service, employees are also entitled to additional paid leave to perform the Hajj pilgrimage.
Apart from Saudi National Day, which always falls on 23rd September, public holidays in Saudi Arabia are taken according to the major festivals of the Islamic calendar. Dates are announced by the government according to lunar observances, and public sector workers generally receive more leave for these festivals than those in the private sector, so ensure you check with your employer before making plans around them.
Public holiday dates
Eid al-Fitr: 15th – 21st June*
Saudi National Day: 23rd September
Eid al-Adha: 22nd-25th August*
*Dates may change according to the lunar month
Visas and eligibility to work
Although foreign workers are usually welcomed by businesses in Saudi Arabia, the Interior Ministry imposes strict controls on the movement of foreign nationals and the Saudization policy actively promotes the employment of Saudis over foreigners. All visitors to Saudi Arabia, even those just passing through on connecting flights, require a visa to enter and exit permits to leave. Fines are imposed for even minor infringements so documentation must be vigilantly kept up to date. In some circumstances, business visas or other forms of visa may be available. These are simpler to obtain for short visits to the country and can also cover multiple entries.
It is very rare for foreigners to be granted Saudi citizenship, so many expats work there on a long-term temporary basis. To work in Saudi Arabia, you need a work visa and a residence permit (Iqama). To obtain these, a sponsor (usually your employer) must apply for a work visa on your behalf, so it is vital to find work and agree a contract before moving. Your employer will send you a contract of employment and an authorisation number for you to take to the Saudi Embassy in your home country when you make your visa application. You will also be asked for several other documents including various forms of identification, medical certificates and security clearances. Once you have travelled to Saudi Arabia, your residence permit provides a form of photographic identification and must be carried at all times.
Saudi Arabia is a famously low-tax country, and foreign nationals can live and work in the country paying little or no tax to the government. There is no employment tax and no social security deductions from wages, but those who are self-employed may be taxed on their income. Foreign nationals working in the country should always check the tax relationship between Saudi Arabia and their home country as some may require you to pay tax on foreign income.
Saudi Arabia does not currently have a state pension scheme which is accessible to expats. Most foreign nationals living in the country either choose to continue paying into a state pension fund in their home country or take up a personal pension plan. Some employers will offer access to a pension scheme as part of their employment package, while other expats make their own pension arrangements, with many companies offering schemes to help foreign nationals maximise their low-tax salaries.
The relatively small population and high GDP in Saudi Arabia enable the government to operate a number of welfare schemes without the need to tax workers in the country. However, like pensions, social security in Saudi Arabia is largely restricted to Saudi nationals, so expats will need to pay for any services used. It is compulsory for foreign nationals to have medical insurance. Be aware that the trade unions are illegal in Saudi Arabia.
Historically Saudi Arabia had very little legal provision to protect the rights of disabled workers. Recently there have been new initiatives to end discrimination on the basis of disability, including employer incentive schemes, but their impact is yet to be fully realised. Foreign nationals are not entitled to any kind of disability benefits in Saudi Arabia.
Although some of the multinational corporations in Saudi Arabia may have a more international culture to them, business operations are usually very conservative and hierarchical. Showing respect for family and elders is paramount, so you will need to maintain the correct degree of formality. Older people and those in senior positions are treated with the utmost respect and their decisions are rarely questioned. The decision-making process can be very prolonged as Saudis like to take time to weigh up options and get to know people before accepting a proposition.
In Saudi Arabia there tends to be some distance between managers and subordinate staff. Managers reach decisions after lengthy discussions with major stakeholders, but once that decision is made, junior employees are expected to implement it without question. In general, Saudis tend to be quite risk averse and changes may take a long time to implement. Failure is seen as a reflection on both the individual and the group, which goes some way towards explaining the frequently lengthy deliberations.
Civility and manners are important in Saudi Arabia, so adopt a formal approach to make the right impression. Avoid abbreviating people’s names without invitation as this may cause offence. Before meeting a new contact, try to find out the correct form of address for them, particularly if they hold a title such as ‘Sheikh’, meaning ‘chief’. If in doubt, the usual form of generic address is ‘Sayyed’, meaning ‘Sir’ for a man or ‘Sayeeda’, meaning ‘madame’ for a woman, followed by their full name.
Business in Saudi Arabia is a very personal affair. Face-to-face meetings are essential to developing the relationships you need to succeed there. Your sponsor may be able to help with introductions, but patience will be your best friend. Put aside plenty of time for meetings and social occasions as both are frequently interrupted. That said, Saudis enjoy taking the time to get to know you, and even though you may need to make several visits to achieve positive outcomes the effort will be appreciated.
There is a tendency amongst Saudis to judge people on appearances, so it’s important to look the part. Wearing good-quality, conservative clothes will make a good impression. Most Saudi businessmen wear variants on the traditional thobe and keffiyeh for both business and leisure, although some choose western attire. Male visitors are not expected to wear traditional Saudi business attire, but it’s important to respect the conservative nature of society, so men should wear long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt if not a suit and tie. Saudi women wear the abaya in public, although many now choose western clothing at home. Women visiting the country must dress modestly, covering their shoulders, arms and legs at all times. They should also wear a headscarf in public as the police may stop women whose hair is not covered.
The typical business greeting between two men in Saudi Arabia is a handshake. Two women may hug, but men and women who are not acquainted must not greet each other in public. Social situations will most likely be single-sex or segregated, however don’t be surprised if people stand very close to you as the concept of personal space is different in the region.
Appointment times are usually considered guides in Saudi Arabia as the culture is very fluid in timings. That said, you will most likely be expected to arrive on time even if your contacts are not! If you are working to strict deadlines, you will need to continually reiterate the timescales to have any chance of sticking to them.
Small talk is common prior to meetings but you should always avoid personal questions such as enquiring about wives or children. Saudis are tough negotiators and will often start with an excessively low or high price in their own favour. Everything is considered negotiable, but high-pressure tactics are not welcome. Instead, repeat your main points as this will signify that they are true. There is a tendency for Saudis to avoid giving negative answers, so a verbal ‘yes’ may in fact only mean ‘maybe’ and decisions are easily overturned.
The Islamic faith is culturally bound to the Saudi nation and religion has a great impact on day-to-day life. Friday is the Muslim holy day and no business activities take place then. Muslims also pray five times a day, so be considerate of this when scheduling appointments. Although western visitors are not expected to fast during Ramadan, be respectful and avoid eating or drinking in public places during this holy month. Also be aware that Saudi society places numerous restrictions on the rights of women, so it is essential to understand the expectations of your hosts.
Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, but English is widely spoken, particularly in a business environment. As it is a compulsory second language in schools, many Saudis have at least a basic knowledge of English, but it’s still worth getting presentation materials professionally translated. Business cards are usually exchanged during meetings, so it’s useful to have one side of yours printed in Arabic.