Saudi Arabia is a conservative country with deep religious roots. Since the culture here is so vastly different from western countries, expats may take some time to adjust. While culture shock may be uncomfortable, it does wear off and in the meantime it’s important to stay positive and willing to explore a new way of life.
One of the best ways to deal with culture shock is learn as much as you can about the new place and its people. Here are some facts about Saudi Arabia, and some tips to help you settle into life here.Religion
Saudi Arabia has an Islamic culture that influences all aspects of life. The religious law prevails over the land and is highly respected by all residents. Daily life revolves around prayer times, which take place five times a day, beginning at sunrise and ending at sundown. Shops and business are likely to be closed during these times. Non-Muslims are free to practice their religion in their homes, but an overt demonstration of their beliefs is not permitted. Expats are also advised to avoid wearing any religious jewelry or symbols. While this way of life may seem daunting to expats when they first arrive, they do adjust to it over time and are able to adapt to its rhythm.
Men and women in Saudi Arabia abide by the religious rules regarding dress. Women are required to wear an abaya, which is a long flowing robe either in black or a dark color. They also cover their heads when they go outdoors. Men are also required to dress modestly and cover their legs and shoulders. But it is considered quite appropriate to dress in a jacket and tie for business meetings or events.
Rules regarding women
This may be an area where expats, especially women, take a longer time to adjust. There are specific rules regarding the roles of men and women in Saudi Arabian culture and society. In many cases, women are not permitted to drive a car or step out in public without covering their heads. There may even be regulations preventing them from taking up a job or travelling unless a male relative accompanies them. Men and women also do not socialize together. The religious police or mutaween enforce these rules and expats are also expected to adhere to them. They may also stop foreigners and request them to wear a headscarf in public. It may be best to comply with them during these times.
Cultural etiquette in Saudi Arabia requires men to avoid eye contact and any sort of physical contact with women they are not related to.
Most western expats who reside in compounds in Saudi Arabia are insulated from the local customs to a large extent. These compounds are equipped with all the necessary amenities, and expats can maintain an active social life with each other.
Food and drink
Something most expats would enjoy in Saudi Arabia is its sumptuous culinary fare, which is rich and laden with spices. There are also plenty of global restaurant chains and western food is quite easily available. However, pork consumption is not permitted as per religious rules. Alcohol is also forbidden, although it is consumed within western compounds. But it is illegal to import alcohol into the country.
When eating at a restaurant or someone’s house, remember to use only your right hand, as the left is considered unclean. It is also advisable to use your right hand when giving or receiving a gift.
Ramadan is a holy month for the people of Saudi Arabia and it is especially important to respect the customs at this time. It is not permitted to eat, drink or smoke in public places during fasting hours.
Since Saudi Arabian culture is tightly controlled, censorship is widespread. Theatres and cinemas cannot operate here and there is strict censorship on the press, television and movies if they are perceived as being immoral or politically offensive.
It is easy to become overwhelmed with the conservative nature of Saudi Arabia, but one must also remember that expat life here has its perks such as affordable cost of living, tax-free salaries, free education for children, generous paid vacation and high quality accommodation.