Saudi Arabia hosts at least two of the world’s most profitable industries (oil refinement and production), and as such it is regularly in need of foreign expertise in these fields. Expat professionals, who have secured work in Saudi Arabia, though this may present the opportunity of a lifetime for them, should be aware that full integration into Saudi society may not be on the table. Though Saudi Arabia is not technically a theocracy like Iran or the Vatican (in that the king is the sovereign rather than the leader of the priestly caste), it is nonetheless a country built upon strict Islamic principles, in which separate resort-style compounds house workers from non-Islamic nations, and letters of approval are needed for trips of 10km outside of a major city.
Though day-to-day living within the expatriate compounds is a world away from that of Saudi nationals (these enclaves are also generally ignored by the muttawah or clerical police), some aspects of the country’s dominant religious conservatism will come into play when entering the country.About the iqama
One of the most important things for married couples to know is the near total command the husband exerts over the family in this society, and the role this plays in the bureaucratic procedures usually associated with immigration. Workers applying for a residency visa in Saudi Arabia will be supplied with an iqama, a sort of equivalent to a national passport, and this is a prerequisite to applying for accompaniment status for any family member (spouse or otherwise). Interestingly, the term iqama also refers to the second call to Islamic prayer. This document exists in numerous other Muslim countries in the form of a passport stamp, though in Saudi Arabia it is a separate identity card.
It would seem that female workers cannot apply for this visa on behalf of a husband. Women entering the country should also be aware of a situation that has additional relevance for leaving the country: if you marry a Saudi national or are born to a Saudi father, you are required to have your husband’s permission in order to do so (unmarried female travelers are required instead to have the permission of their father or closest male relative). Wives of expatriate workers are allowed to enter the country regardless of their religious affiliation, though bear in mind that you will likely spend much of your time in a ‘Westernized’ enclave and not in society at large. There have also been some amusing stories going around on expat fora, in which visa applicants listing their faith as “Buddhist” were approved for visas, yet were listed as “Christian” on them.
Marital status and employment
Any employer contracting out-of-country work is obliged to prove that employee’s marital status. After that status is recognized, employees must still work a 90-day probationary period before their spouses and children are permitted to enter the country. The situation is understandably more complicated for divorcees still in custody of children (and providing care for your children whilst employed here is another complex issue, as state-run, public school and similar institutions are reserved for children of Saudi nationals). Divorce is certainly not illegal within Saudi Arabia, though there is a social stigma against it and honestly declaring a divorced status may present different problems than denial of entry to the country, such as leading a Saudi recruiter to look for other job candidates.
In the event that you are bringing children to the country, you may want to have a serious talk with them about the gravity of certain breaches of conduct within Saudi Arabia, or, better still, to make sure they receive a comprehensive education about the region’s culture and history. Certain events that children encounter in transit to Saudi Arabia – such as the allegedly terminated practice of signing a so-called “death letter” acknowledging the potential penalties for drug/ alcohol trafficking – can color the remainder of their experience negatively if not soberly discussed beforehand.
“Family” is often defined in Saudi law as “immediate family” (that is, not grandparents, cousins, etc.), so transporting any of these individuals to Saudi Arabia requires your proving that they are dependent on you for their survival.
Same-sex partnerships and Saudi Arabia
The status of same sex partnerships within Saudi Arabia is quite simple, and likely to remain so: they are resolutely not allowed. LGBT rights are not recognized within the country, nor are public endorsements of same permitted. While discussion of gay issues is not completely censored in the country, it is limited to a moral context in which it is shown as being exemplary of Western decadence or moral defectiveness. The penalties meted out for homosexual relations include everything from imprisonment and severe flogging to death, and gay couples interested in moving to Saudi Arabia should think very carefully before making any final decisions.