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Moving to Saudi Arabia can be daunting for even the most seasoned of expats. Expats unused to life in the Middle East are likely to experience culture shock in Saudi Arabia. This sense of cultural dislocation can take a long time to wear off. It’s vital that expats maintain a positive outlook and an open mind during this time.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative Islamic state, and Islam dominates all aspects of life in the Kingdom. Expats will find that many of the freedoms they enjoyed back home are strictly regulated. That said, the feeling of culture shock in Saudi Arabia may be tempered somewhat for those living in a Western compound. Many Western food franchises also thrive here, the shopping malls are similar to Western malls, and satellite television can provide favourite shows from home. Although more familiar, life in a compound is also often insular and gives few opportunities to authentically interact with Saudi Arabian culture.
Still, the best method for stifling cynicism and countering culture shock is for expats to educate themselves as much as possible regarding the daily rhythms of life in Saudi Arabia.
Religion in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is characterised by a deeply conservative Islamic culture that governs virtually all facets of life. Sharia is the religious law that provides the basis for judicial law in Saudi Arabia. Its adaptations and interpretations extend to affect politics, economics, family life, business, sexuality and even hygiene.
In Saudi Arabia, religious courts have jurisdiction over a wide range of criminal and civil cases, and they play a significant role in the administration of justice and the interpretation of Sharia law. To understand and stay on the right side of the law in Saudi Arabia, expats will find it helpful to understand the tenets of Islam.
The Mutaween (religious police) are the keepers of social compliance. They once held the same power as the police force and, though they can no longer detain or question someone suspected of a crime, they continue to act as a local authority and should be respected.
Call to prayer
The Islamic call to prayer is sounded five times a day in Saudi Arabia. Daily life tends to revolve around prayer times, which are determined by the position of the sun. During this time, most activities come to a standstill and businesses may close.
Carrying out simple daily tasks and scheduling meetings and appointments can therefore be frustrating, but it’s something expats soon adjust to as they get used to the timing. To keep track of the exact times each prayer will occur, expats can make use of any one of numerous websites and mobile applications designed for this exact purpose.
While non-Muslims are allowed to practise their religion in the privacy of their own homes, proselytising is strictly forbidden. Those caught trying to spread any other religion will be harshly dealt with, so it's generally best to avoid speaking openly about other religions.
Women in Saudi Arabia
Saudi culture imposes distinct roles based on gender in society. Women may struggle to adapt to what they perceive to be misogynistic expectations that, for instance, they cover their clothes with an abaya (long, flowing black or dark-coloured robe). This used to be required by law for all women in the Kingdom – today, non-Muslim women are no longer obligated to wear an abaya, but some expat women find it a good way to blend in. Women are still required to wear clothes that are deemed 'respectful', so clothing should be loose-fitting and cover shoulders and knees.
It should be noted that there have been some positive changes for women in the Kingdom in recent times. New legislation has been passed that allows women to drive, and thousands of women are now getting their driving licences for the first time.
Saudi women still fall under the guardianship of a male relative – usually their father or husband – and require permission for a number of activities. In recent years some of these restrictions have been lifted for women,. Women over the age of 18 can marry without the permission of a male relative, and women over the age of 21 are allowed to apply for a passport and travel. Other restrictions remain, however, and there is no indication that the male guardianship system as a whole will be removed.
Read Women in Saudi Arabia to find out more.
Homosexuality in Saudi Arabia
One of the perplexing aspects about living in Saudi Arabia is that, while homosexual acts are, in theory, punishable by death, gay life flourishes just beneath the surface of everyday life. As long as LGBTQ+ individuals in the country maintain a public front of respect for the strict Wahhabist rules, they are generally left to do what they want in private.
Compound living in Saudi Arabia
Most Western expats living in Saudi Arabia reside in expat compounds, which have full amenities and are often isolated from real Saudi society. Life within the Western compounds can also help dispel the initial glum, grim perception of a society that greatly limits individual freedoms. Behind the high walls and firm security of these complexes, expats have the opportunity to indulge in many of the activities reminiscent of their homelands. Nevertheless, it does limit the interaction expats have with locals and friendships there can be transient as families continually move in and out for their next expat assignment.
Censorship in Saudi Arabia
Many aspects of life are controlled in Saudi Arabia, and censorship is widespread. Although movie theatres, once banned, are making a comeback, many movies and television shows are censored for immorality or causing political offence. Freedom of the press and free speech are also not rights recognised by the government.
Food and alcohol in Saudi Arabia
Islamic law forbids the consumption of pork, so expats fond of this protein will have to find an alternative. Alcoholic beverages are also illegal throughout Saudi Arabia; in practice, however, alcohol is consumed inside Western compounds, with many expats having taken to brewing their own alcohol. The penalty for importing alcohol into the country, however, is severe.
Cultural etiquette tips for Saudi Arabia
The left hand is considered unclean. Only shake hands or receive a gift with the right hand, and avoid eating with the left hand.
Never make physical contact in public with a woman who is not a relative
Public displays of affection should definitely be avoided. Eye contact between a man and a woman is discouraged in public.
Alcohol is banned and should never be consumed in public
During the holy month of Ramadan all religious customs should be respected; do not eat, drink or smoke in public during this time