Being an Expat in Saudi Arabia
The Full Guide to Being an Expatriate Worker in Saudi Arabia
Working as an expatriate in Saudi Arabia can be highly rewarding for many, but for others it can end up being nothing short of enforced slave labor. This article will try to show you exactly what it is like to work and live within this highly regulated and at times very confusing country.
I worked within the country as a western expat (from the UK) in both consultancy and senior management roles, while my wife (who is from the Philippines) worked in nursing. So I have had the opportunity to mix with people who have worked in many different roles from street sweepers and maids through to company executives.
I will try to give you a full breakdown of everything you need to know about working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Why Work as an Expat in Saudi Arabia?
There is one very good reason for working as an Expat in Saudi Arabia and that is MONEY!
People come to work in Saudi Arabia from all corners of the globe on the promise of highly paid work, all without tax. In addition to high wages, most contracts also include your accommodation and many of your other expenses. Of course these things will all depend on where you are coming from and the job that you are taking.
The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is relatively low and most expatriates within the Kingdom have few problems saving the majority of their wages.
Expat Wages in Saudi Arabia
You can be sure that if you are coming from the West and taking a management or senior engineering position that your wages will be higher than you would be able to find back home. While the "mega" wages that many boasted about 20 or 30 years ago may not be as available you will still find a very good wage; in my last position I was getting around $11,000 every month tax free! The lack of local tax is a big advantage, but be careful about your home country's tax rules, as you may still be liable for some taxes back home!)
Most Westerners will find themselves offered a wage that is a little higher than a good wage back home, but once you are within the kingdom it is possible to network and find yourself significantly higher wages.
However, if you are coming from a poorer country such as India, the Philippines or Indonesia to work as a maid or a driver you may find that your wage, although "high" for your home country, is very low when compared to other wages within the Kingdom. You will often earn just a thousand Riyals ($375) every month, though you will still have your accommodation and food covered.
Educated individuals from places such as Pakistan can find work at Western rates in some companies; however, they are more likely to find themselves being offered much lower wages than Westerners or even other Arabs for the same position.
Problems Getting Paid in Saudi Arabia
Beware. Although there are rules regarding how people should be paid according to their contracts, the power very much rests with your employer. Many expats that I have met end up being paid far less than they were originally promised back home, especially if they are taking unskilled jobs.
I also know of many expats that go unpaid for months on end. Some can get help from the Saudi Labor Courts, such as the entire staff of one hospital in Jeddah that went without wages for over six months. Others, such as maids, can be really badly deprived of their monies, and often have to resort to running away from their employers.
How Many Expats in Saudi Arabia?
While Saudi Arabia is a huge country, its population is not that big: around 27 million people in total, of which over 8 million are expats!
The discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia has created one of the richest countries in the world, but they know that they cannot rely on this source of money forever! Saudi Arabia has invested very heavily in its infrastructure and in creating industrial cities to bring additional wealth into the country. This has created a huge demand for labor and expertise in the country, as there are just not enough experienced and educated Saudis.
Saudis also do not consider themselves as laborers or common workers, so all manual work is on the whole done by expats, with Saudis taking supervisory or management positions.
Women Must Cover up
Following the Rules in Saudi Arabia
With wages being so high in Saudi Arabia you would think that everyone would be rushing to work there! However, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and one of the most restrictive countries on the face of this earth. Especially if you are used to the freedoms that we experience in the west.
It has many rules and regulations that many from other countries feel that they just cannot live under. I have known many expats that have come to Saudi Arabia believing that they can handle the difference who have then left (If they could) after a few weeks or months unable to handle both the rules and the Saudi culture.
These rules cover everything from ensuring that women are fully covered from head to toe in their abaya whilst in public and full sexual segregation in both the workplace and public places. The Saudis are a very conservative people with regards to things like pornography, and you will see strange sights such as cereal boxes in the supermarkets being covered with sticky labels or permanent black marker pens to obscure the pictures of scantily clad women on them.
You will also find that your internet is highly restricted and censored. You will find that many sites will be blocked and you will not be able to access them. This can be easily gotten around by changing your IP address by using a proxy, but set this up on your computer before you get into the country as you will find that most proxy servers and providers will be blocked by the Saudi censorship also.
The article linked to below runs through in detail all of the various rules and regulations that you need to be aware of if you are going to visit the country.
Work Visa and Iqama
Getting your visa for Saudi Arabia can be a mind altering and stressful experience for many. They do not make it easy to enter the country and you will find that you will have to go through medicals and provide a huge amount of certified information before your visa will be issued.
Your visa is initially requested through your potential employer (your sponsor). If they are able, they will get a work visa approved for you which you then have to process through the Saudi Embassy in your home country (or the country you are staying in.)
In some instances, you will find that your sponsor is unable to get a Saudi work visa approved and you will be offered a "Business Visa" or some other form of short term visa to get you into the country. You have to be aware that these visas do not offer you employment or any form of protection from just being abandoned as an "employee" by your sponsor as you will not be officially employed. They use these visas usually if they have failed to comply with the Nitaqat laws (which specify the percentage of employees that have to be Saudi) or if they have fallen out of favor with the local prince or other official!
Once you have your work visa and enter the country, you will not be able to leave without the permission of your sponsor! Your visa will be converted to a residency visa or Iqama within 3 months of your arrival in the kingdom. You need to carry your Iqama with you at all times as your identification.
Your Sponsor Will Take Your Passport
Your passport will be held by your sponsor (employer) within Saudi Arabia as these are the requirements. Even Westerners will find themselves deprived of their passports and will only have them returned when it is time to leave the country.
Exiting the country is by way of visa also. If you have already gained your residency permit (Iqama) the only way you can leave the country is by your employer issuing you an exit/re-entry visa or a final exit visa.
Finding a Job in Saudi Arabia
If, despite the many problems that other expats encounter working in the country still wish to work there, and believe me the rewards are worth it, then you will need to find a sponsor.
For most people this will involve either searching through the many online job sites or finding an agency in their home country.
There are many different job sites and there are literally thousands of jobs being advertised at any one time within Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East. It can be very simple to find a job to apply for and for many you may be surprised to find that you have little if any competition due to the lack of people wanting to work in such an inhospitable country.
In countries such as the Philippines and India you will find many agencies actively recruiting workers for Saudi Arabia. Most of these companies are legitimate, however, there are many that exist purely to feed off of peoples hopes. Some of these agencies will charge you a fee for just about everything and will either want this money up front or will expect to claw back the money from your employment. It is the sponsor's responsibility to cover all recruitment expenses so it should cost you very little.
The Saudi Workplace
What Is it Like Working in KSA?
Working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not something that should be considered lightly. The culture, rules and whole way of doing things is just completely different to what many of us have experienced.
Saudis have a very different attitude to work than most of us; therefore, most companies prefer to employ expats rather than Saudis. However, with a high unemployment rate for Saudis, the Government of KSA has made many positions (such as human resources) available only to Saudis, and given companies quotas that they have to hit for employing Saudis.
Working with Saudis is also very different. You can't jump into a meeting or into someone's office and launch straight into business and expect action. Their culture is such that they will want to spend a huge amount of time discussing everything except business first. This can be very frustrating if you are not used to it. Also, even if they do promise to do something, don't hold your breath waiting!
If you are on the lower end of the working ladder, as a laborer, maid, driver or some other lower paid employee, beware. Many Saudis treat people as slaves and will not have any problems shouting at you or even using physical violence!
Expats Beaten by Saudi Police
How So Saudis Treat Expatriate Workers?
Many Saudis feel that lower paid workers are slaves and that non-Muslims and even non-Arabs are sub human! I say many and I really do mean many! There are some Saudis that will treat you very well, invite you into your homes, introduce you to your families, but these unfortunately are the minority in my experience. Most will treat you with indifferent respect at the best of times and will rarely be rude towards a westerner.
However, if you are an Asian or even look Asian or from some other poor region you had better keep your head down! I have witnessed many times how some Saudis will treat their "slaves"! I have seen maids, drivers, and even shop workers shouted at, abused and even physically beaten publicly!
I have run a poll on one of my other hubs and have had over 700 people from poorer countries register their information; of those 67% have claimed to have suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of Saudis.
There is a huge labor "black market" in Saudi Arabia, which is on the whole populated by runaway maids, and other workers who have escaped from abusive or non-paying sponsors. I have spoken to many maids that have runaway over the years in Saudi and have been horrified by the stories of abuse. Many have been locked within homes and physically and sexually abused; many having been raped by their employers.
But if you report rape you are likely to find yourself either ignored by the local police who will do nothing to a Saudi or you will be the one who is in trouble as having sex outside of marriage or being with a man is illegal! There are cases of women who have been raped, being jailed and being whipped for their "crimes."
The link in the text box to the right will give you more detailed information about how Saudis treat expatriates within the Kingdom.
Women in Saudi Arabia
Unless you are living in another solar system you will most likely be aware that women in Saudi Arabia are subject to some of the most draconian rules possible.
A Saudi woman, in fact, any woman that visits the country is required to obey all of the many rules that are imposed on them by both Islam and by the Saudi culture. This means that they have to follow a multitude of rules such as;
- They must be fully covered by an abaya in Public
- They cannot mix with men unless they are direct blood relatives (father/brother/son) or their husband.
- They cannot travel without their husband's or father's permission
- They cannot drive
This creates huge problems for any woman that wants to work as they cannot mix with their male colleges and even have major problems just getting to work.
Women Can Work in Saudi Arabia
Where to Stay in Saudi Arabia
If you are coming for just a few days or even a few weeks, then you will find some very familiar hotels to stay with in the major cities. Most of the major hotel chains have branches within Saudi Arabia. In fact the Fairmont hotel in Makkah (Mecca) is the highest/tallest hotel in the world, although you will only be able to visit it if you are a Muslim as only the faithful are allowed to enter the holy city of Makkah.
In the other cities you will find all of the major hotel chains as well as a few-well decorated local hotels, which offer excellent service and some very fine food indeed. Do not stay in a Saudi hotel if you value your waistline!
If you are going to be coming to Saudi to work, you have two main choices, either living in a compound or finding an apartment off compound.
Compound living is generally favored by most westerners as these are secure and provide you with an environment within which you are able to avoid the local Saudi rules. So you will be able to dress "normally" and even drive around the compound as a woman. Many even have bars, although they are strictly still illegal! They also generally have stores, swimming pools, gyms, and other amenities making them often very like a holiday camp.
Villas on compounds vary hugely from prefabricated, but spacious and well furnished homes through to magnificent mansion-like villas. The price of a place on a compound can range from 30k to 40k Riyals per year for a one-bedroom apartment through to many hundreds of thousands of riyals for some of the bigger properties on the more sought after compounds.
Places on compounds are highly sought after; in fact, I spent a day ringing every compound in Jeddah and found only one vacancy! Compound living is much more expensive than living off-compound, but it is highly secure and provides a huge amount of relief from the rest of Saudi Arabia.
Compounds generally have very high walls and are highly secure. There will be armed security forces at the entrance ensuring that only residents and invited guests get to come in. It can take a little getting used to having to drive your car past the barrel of a tank to go home!
Off-compound living is generally avoided by westerners, I met only one other westerner in my time in Saudi that lived off-compound as I did for a few years. Many will not rent to you due to fears regarding your security, in fact, it is generally accepted that westerners are only allowed to live on compound. That being said, I enjoyed three years living in an apartment in Jeddah and really enjoyed myself.
Most people live in apartments. These can vary from very basic, costing between 5k to 8k Saudi Riyals per year for a 1 or 2 bed apartment, to quite nice spacious apartments for 30k to 50K riyals per year. I rented two apartments in my time in Jeddah. The first was a brand new 4 bed apartment with fitted kitchen, living room and dining room which cost me 40k. The second apartment was a slightly older apartment with 3 bedrooms and a huge living area in which I could place a pool table, my sofas and TVs, dining table and still have room to have a disco with all of my wife's friends. This cost me 33K for the year.
Most companies either fully pay your accommodation or they will give you an allowance from which you should pay. This can be an excellent way to add to your savings if you don't mind living somewhere cheaper than your company feels you are entitled to.
Staying in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Compounds will give you information about the various compounds and everything from facilities to their nightlife.
Living on a Saudi Compound
Hotel and Compound Security
Saudi Compound Parties
Shopping in Riyadh
Entertaining Yourself in KSA
What to do in Saudi Arabia?
If you are living on a compound, then you may find that you have everything that you need right there from bars through to a gym. Life on compound does begin to feel a little false with the same faces and the same things to do night after night, week after week.However, if you want to go outside your choices are limited compared to back home.
Alcohol and drinking alcohol is illegal, so you will not find a bar, you also cannot even take a single woman out with you as mixing of the sexes is also not allowed! There is not even a cinema for you to go and sit in!
If you want to go out you have few choices if you are a single man, you can go to the Mall, but sometimes they will not allow in single men at the weekends when there are lots of families there. You could also go to a private beach, but again many will not allow in single men!
If you are married and have children, then the malls are great, many of the larger ones have full amusement parks with rides for the kids. The private beaches are also quite relaxed and many will turn a blind eye (while they are not starring) at women in swimsuits or even bikinis. But be careful as not all will allow it and it will depend on the other guests present.
There are some great restaurants, as the Saudis really like to eat, but everything is segregated so you will either have to sit in the bachelors area (single men) or in the family area (women and families). There is no mixing of the sexes allowed, not even in Mc Donalds which you will find on almost every street corner along with KFC, Burger King and every other US chain you can think of.
You can explore the Souks (Markets) also, but be prepared to bargain well if you want to buy anything. They will try to rip you off as much as they can.
You can also find excursions through most of the compounds, allowing you to go off for everything from trips into the desert to diving in the Red sea.
Meeting Women in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, as you will by now be aware, it is illegal for a single man and woman to be alone together. This, as you can imagine, can make meeting and dating with a member of the opposite sex almost impossible; especially if you want to follow the rules and stay out of trouble!
It is possible to date on the compounds, however, there is a huge shortage of single women as most of the women are the wives or the daughters of the other guests on the compound. This does not stop everyone and I have known of several affairs during my times on compound.
There are also female workers on most compounds, however you will often find that the staff are hurried back to where they stay at the end of their work and locked up beyond the reach of the male guests! That being said, it is not unheard of for staff to end up in relationships with men on the compounds.
There are also women that work illegally as maids on some of the compounds and enter the compound even though they should not be able to. Some of these have been known to offer services other than just cleaning your home! I was even aware of one villa on one compound containing 3 young ladies of African origin who accepted gentlemen callers at all times of the night and day!
Parties on compounds are also a great place to occasionally meet unattached women; they will often be invited by friends who are on compound. Although it can be pretty difficult for an unattached man to get a woman approved on his own invite list!
Off compound things are for some harder while some unattached expats have got it down to an art! It is very simple to catch the eye of women of almost any nationality; although I would advise against trying to pick up actual Saudi women although it can be done (quite easily!!) Once you have caught a woman's gaze and she is showing she is interested you need to pass by and carefully pass your phone number without being noticed. This takes some practice!
You will find in some souks and even malls that there are women actively seeking eye contact with men in the hope of getting passed a phone number. These are not the girls that you can take home to introduce to your mother or that you should be seeking a long term relationship based on love and trust!
Taking women out once you have started exchanging texts and chatting with them can be a dangerous task. You can meet where you are being chaperoned by a married couple or if you want to meet alone, you will have to be very confident and just act as though you are already married; just hope that no one asks to see your marriage certificate or ID! It does happen, so be very careful. If you are the nervous type that always looks guilty do not try dating in KSA!
Don't Get Caught Alone With Women in Saudi Arabia
Traffic: Always Bad in Saudi Arabia
Travel in Saudi Arabia
Getting around in Saudi Arabia as a guy is relatively easy as you can drive or fly just about anywhere you want to within the country. However, as a woman you can not only not drive but you will need a male relative or your husband's permission to fly off!
Most women are driven by drivers hired specifically for them, however, I have known drivers and women arrested for being in the car together as they are not related, so be very aware that this is a risk that you take.
Taxis are a nightmare! Most will try to give you a fixed price way beyond what you should be paying and if they do put the meter on they will take you via an alternative route. So try to act as if you know exactly where you are going and how to get there.
The actual driving in Saudi Arabia is probably the worst in the world. I have lost count of the number of times my car has been hit and the number of near misses I have had; yet before coming to Saudi I have never had a bump! I saw an accident literally EVERY day when driving to and from my work.
Driving across the country is also a real experience, Saudi Arabia is not a small country so it is a lengthy drive (More than 11 hours) from Riyadh to Jeddah for instance. The roads are generally OK, but can get covered with sand so be very careful as this can get slippery or even quite deep if the wind is blowing. Sandstorms are a real experience when you are driving and visibility can be very poor indeed!
Signage is not all that good, within the cities the signs are in Arabic and in English, although outside the city they do not always show English which has caused me some delays in the past; but then back home our signs are not in Arabic so what should I expect!
Flying internally can be a pain also, I have had nothing but trouble trying to book a flight with Saudi Airlines (Saudia) online, in fact, I can honestly say that I have never managed to get through the booking process! Also the automatic terminals in the airport have never worked for me either.
Checking in for flights can be a nightmare, the queues are often long and the Saudis will often just jump straight to the front refusing to queue behind the foreigners!
On board, it is normally OK, although more often than not there is some disruption as people are moved around the plane so that women are not left sitting alone with men!
I have always been lucky when flying from Jeddah as I have friends that work in Saudia, this has always resulted in a "private" check in away from the queues and an upgrade on my seating. Within KSA it always pays to have friends.
Where Is Saudi Arabia?
Help in Saudi Arabia
If you get in trouble in Saudi Arabia you need to be prepared! Always carry a number or two through which you can contact your sponsor (especially if you are a woman). Also, always carry numbers of any friends that may be able to help you. And if you have ever socialized with high ranking Saudis keep their numbers also—you never know when it may help to know the chief of police.
Police will rarely talk English. If you keep talking at them, they will more often than not just wave you on your way just to get rid of you! Don't try this if you are a Filipino or an Indian as you will likely just get locked up!
I have found contacting your home embassy next to useless if you have a problem, as most of the time they will not be able to help you. Certainly this has been my experience and the experience of many people that I know.
Also beware of lawyers in Saudi Arabia. I went to a lawyer to start a case against my employer and handed over paperwork to them, only to find that the lawyer handed all the papers to my employer, and fully disclosed our discussion to them, as they were on retainer to them!
Helpful Information for Saudi Arabia
The following are some additional links to information that may help you if you are staying in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabian Airlines Saudi Airlines (Saudia) is the national airline within KSA and most of your internal flights and even incoming or departing flights are likely to be with this airline.
Saudi Arabia Embassy in the UK. Lots of links and details to help you with getting your Visa for Saudi Arabia. Use this website to find all of the entry and documentary requirements for your visas.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs KSA (MOFA), links here will enable you to monitor the progress of your Saudi work visa or any other variation of Saudi Visa by using the reference number you will be given for your application.
Saudi Government Links is a Saudi Government website. It has many links to other government sites which will help you with finding other information that you may require for your visit to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabian Embassy Washington is the main Saudi Embassy in the US, here you will find all the information required for your Saudi Visa.
British Embassy in Riyadh is the UK Embassy in Riyadh, very useful if you have questions about Saudi Arabia or need any help. I have found them very helpful when I have needed advice, plus they hold events for us Brits in the country at which they serve BEER!
US Embassy in Riyadh is a helpful link for those of you from the US should you be visiting the country. As with the UK embassy they have events and lots of advice for entering KSA.
Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, just to help those of you coming from the Philippines to work on a visa in Saudi Arabia.
Arab News. Newspaper in English.
Hajj Travel Information. Information on pilgrimage to Mecca.
Muslim Sacred Sites in KSA that you could visit once you are there.
Learn to Speak Arabic online so that you can chat up those beautiful Saudi girls.
Muslim date conversion. Saudi Arabia does not use the same calendar as we do, so you may find yourself getting very confused!
Do You Want to Work in Saudi Arabia?
Having read all of the above would you still consider working in KSA?
Expat Saudi Support
If you have any comments or want to ask any questions at all about being an expat in Saudi Arabia feel free to leave them below and I will be happy to answer them.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.