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The Truth about Living as an Expat in Saudi Arabia

According to statistics, there are approximately 8 million non-Saudi residents in Saudi Arabia. These levels prove that it is a popular choice for expats and has its appeal. The desert land is run by strict laws and tradition which need to be abided by, understood and respected by expats who move to the country. It can be a culture shock for those moving there from Western countries and is a life experience and learning curve.

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and religion is of huge importance to daily life there. Foreigners are expected to act with decency and comply with the teachings of their national religion and the strict interpretations of the Quran.

The country is ruled by the Al Saud family and public participation in politics, democracy and voting is non-existent. This may take some adjustment for expats from the Western world, who have not experienced a strict way of living and are more used to an open and multicultural society.Although strict, Saudis value tourism and hospitality and are welcoming and friendly if respect is paid to their belief system and rules.

There are a number of things to consider when moving to Saudi Arabia, including:

The Religion

The religious police, known as the mutaween, are given the job of ensuring that religious rules, both written and unwritten, are observed fully. They ensure that dress codes are adhered to, no alcohol is consumed in public and decent behaviour is applied. Religious freedom is not accepted and openly practicing a religion that differs from Islam is definitely prohibited. Expats are advised to learn about the Quran teachings and how they are applied to everyday life in Saudi, to avoid trouble. For example, other than in some of the larger cities, cinemas do not exist as visual arts are limited to geometric, floral or abstract designs, and not human images. The family plays a pivotal role in Saudi society and is a huge part of relationships, culture and business.

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The Rules

Expats moving to Saudi should be, without question, able to abide by the rules of the country and accept various lifestyle practices. These include gender segregation in most public places. Having said this, expat women who might wish to dine alone in a restaurant are usually allowed to do so if they sit in the family section of a restaurant. Women have little rights in the country (for example they are not allowed to drive) and this can take some adjusting for Western women and families. Out on the streets, a single Saudi woman will not walk alone. Freedom of expression is limited, as is freedom of religion.

The Climate

Temperatures during the day can reach 50°C in the middle of summer in Saudi. Women especially, need to dress appropriately for the rules of the land (i.e. cover up), so the heat and sunshine can be a drastic shock when people first move to the country. The country benefits from little or no rainfall, which appeals to people from wetter climates.


Perhaps the largest attraction for expats to Saudi Arabia is the employment opportunities. The country boasts the largest oil reserves in the world, which has attracted multi-million dollar developments, international businesses and works from across the globe. Salaries are high and employment benefits are good. Salaries in Saudi Arabia are tax-free, which means that expats benefit from living off (and saving) vast amounts of money. The cost of living in Saudi is low, which means that living and working in the country for just a short amount of time can set people up financially for many years to come.


People in Saudi Arabia do have a strict way of life, but music, poetry and dance are an important part of the culture in the nation. Literature and the media are subject to strict censorship rules but do exist. Most expats tend to live in Jeddah and Riyadh which enjoy a number of Western familiarities, such as Starbucks. Most people lead a normal life in Saudi Arabia, including going for a jog, meeting up with friends to do a spot of shopping, enjoying barbecues and other social events. With the Internet, more freedom exists than ever before.

The truth about living as an expat in Saudi Arabia is that as long as one abides by the rules and traditions embedded into everyday life there, one can live a normal life fairly easily and enjoy the employment perks that exist. However, this will not be the case for everyone – some expats may find life difficult to adjust to.

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