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Public Holidays in Saudi Arabia




Founding Day

22 February

22 February

Eid al-Fitr

21–24 April

9–12 April

Eid al-Adha

27–30 June

15–18 June

National Day

23 September

23 September

*Islamic holidays are subject to change based on sightings of the moon.

The number of public holiday days allocated for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha may vary.

Accommodation in Saudi Arabia

Most people move to Saudi Arabia on lucrative employment contracts that include free or heavily subsidised housing, furniture and utilities.

Traditionally, expat housing in Saudi Arabia takes the form of Western-style compound living. But with the demand high for spots in these compounds, more foreigners have started renting housing from the local market. 

Navigating the rental markets in Saudi Arabian cities is not easy. Even though agents and landlords will communicate well in English, most of the documents remain in Arabic. For this reason, it is always best for expats to enlist the help of their employer, an agent or a property lawyer when looking to rent property in the Kingdom.

Types of accommodation in Saudi Arabia

Expat compounds

Saudi Arabian expat compounds were first created in the early 1980s as a way for the foreign community to rediscover the democratic freedoms they were familiar with amid the country’s ultra-conservative Islamic law.

Complexes can vary in size from small groupings of houses to sprawling collections of villas. In both cases, these residences are walled, guarded and lauded by expats for their ability to provide an assortment of amenities within, while generally keeping out the Mutaween (Saudi Arabian religious police).

The compounds rate anywhere from three to five stars. This type of housing can come furnished and fully equipped for residents to move in and out with ease. On-site facilities can include swimming pools, tennis courts, libraries, shopping centres, restaurants and bars, and even schools.

In addition to the creature comforts that the self-contained space allows, the neighbourhoods also cultivate opportunities for expats to meet like-minded individuals and to create relationships that ease their transition into new communities.

Unfortunately, as these compounds are in increasingly high demand, accommodation in a compound can be hard to attain – waiting lists can stretch anywhere from six to 18 months. Additionally, a full year's rent must be paid upfront before tenants are able to move in.

In an effort to reconcile this issue, expats should organise accommodation in Saudi Arabian expat compounds through job contract negotiation prior to arriving in the country. In most cases, once an expat has accepted a job in Saudi Arabia, a housing provision is readily stipulated.

Housing in local neighbourhoods

Beyond the high walls of the expat compounds, new arrivals will find the hustle and bustle of Saudi Arabian residential areas. Expats who don't want to live in a compound have the option of renting in a local neighbourhood. Typically, expats would then rent an apartment or villa.

First, expats should decide which neighbourhood will best suit their needs. Then they should spend time driving through the area and looking for 'For Rent' signs outside villas. Property owners will often advertise a vacancy in this manner rather than listing with local realtors. Consulting with local merchants in the area is also a good way to identify availability and get the best deal possible.

Expats should make sure to inspect their potential new home carefully. It is often wise to hire an engineer to inspect electrical wiring and plumbing. While this may appear to be an unnecessary hassle, landlords in Saudi Arabia can be neglectful once they’ve received their annual payment upfront.

Villas and apartments in Saudi Arabia vary in price depending on size, location and amenities. When looking for housing in Saudi Arabia, expats should bring a native Arabic speaker along to help field enquiries and establish trust between all the negotiating parties.

Accommodation in Saudi Arabia is generally furnished. However, the definition of this differs greatly – it can simply include some basic items of furniture or have a full provision of items including bedding, cutlery and crockery.

Finding accommodation in Saudi Arabia

In most cases, the stress of finding accommodation is not an issue for expats in Saudi Arabia as their employer will handle it. In rare cases where an expat is looking for a place on their own steam, they can begin their search online. Online portals will give expats an idea of what is available and the different facilities provided by each complex.

The best option, though, is to enlist the services of a real-estate agent. These professionals are knowledgable about the property market of the given city and can advise on which complexes are most suitable. Some compounds are highly popular and operate waiting lists. The advantage of using an estate agent is that they may have connections that enable their clients to find out about available spots in such places.

Renting accommodation in Saudi Arabia

Signing a lease

To be valid in court, all leases in Saudi Arabia must be registered on Ejar, an electronic services network created by the Ministry of Housing (MOH). The network is designed to streamline communication between tenants, agents and owners. The MOH has also issued a standard lease template known as the Ejar Unified Contract – to register a lease on the platform, users are required to make use of this standard lease format.


Rent is typically paid either annually, twice a year or once every two months. In addition to paying a determined amount of rent upfront, tenants are normally required to provide a refundable deposit that is equal to a month’s rent. In the event of damage to the property, furniture or appliances, the landlord will be entitled to use this security deposit for repairs.


Generally, most rental prices in Saudi Arabia will be inclusive of all basic utilities such as water, gas, electricity, telephone line rental and internet.

Rent for compound properties will normally include all service charges such as cleaning and maintenance of communal areas of the complex.

Visas for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia offers a wealth of opportunity for expat job seekers and companies. It's crucial that expats understand the entry requirements attached to visas for Saudi Arabia. In recent years the visa system in the Kingdom has experienced a few changes. These changes have been made to encourage more foreign visitors to the country and to increase foreign investment.

Everyone entering Saudi Arabia requires a visa, except for nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Holders of a re-entry permit issued by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are also exempted.

It is important to remember that the majority of visas require an individual or company to act as a sponsor. The sponsor is someone who will vouch for the individual’s conduct while in the country.

Visit visas for Saudi Arabia

Tourist visas

Nationals of certain countries, including the UK, the US and all EU states, can either obtain an eVisa online before their trip or obtain a Visa on Arrival upon entry to Saudi Arabia. Those not covered under this will need to apply for a tourist visa in advance from a Saudi embassy or consulate in their home country.

This visa will allow visitors to attend business meetings and practice touristic activities. It will also allow Muslim visitors to perform Umrah.

Tourist visas are valid for one year and can be used for multiple entries. The maximum stay in Saudi Arabia is 90 days per year.

Business visit visa

A business visitor visa allows representatives of a foreign company to travel to Saudi Arabia for business purposes. Applicants must present verification of their employment at such a company and must also submit an invitation from an individual or company sponsor in Saudi Arabia.

Like the tourist visa, business visit visas are valid for multiple entries over the course of one year with the total stay adding up to 90 days or less.

Expats should note that the business visa is quite restricted and is intended for short business trips only. Expats intent on working and living in Saudi Arabia long term should consider applying for a work visa instead.

Family visit visas

This visa is issued to the immediate relatives of expats currently working in Saudi Arabia. In order to obtain a family visit visa, proof of relationship, such as marriage or birth certificates, should be produced.

Work visas for Saudi Arabia

If a person intends to work in Saudi Arabia they are required to apply for a work visa. The employment contract should be accompanied by academic or professional credential documents, and the results of a comprehensive medical examination.

These documents must be presented to the Saudi embassy or consulate in the applicant’s home country or to the authorities in Saudi Arabia via their sponsor (i.e their employer). This will ultimately lead to a visa number, allowing the applicant to be issued their visa. The visa is valid for two years.

Residency in Saudi Arabia

Residence permits

All expats living and working in Saudi Arabia need to apply for an iqama or residence permit. A sponsor, usually the employer, needs to handle the application for this permit. The iqama needs to be carried with foreign residents wherever they go to prove they are permitted to be there.

Iqama holders can also apply for a residence permit for their immediate family. They then have to act as a sponsor for the family member’s permit application.

The iqama is only valid for one year and needs to be renewed annually. The approval of this visa can only be obtained from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia.

Permanent residency for Saudi Arabia

All expats are normally sponsored by a Saudi employer. They also require visas to enter and leave the country. However, in a landmark decision, Saudi Arabia launched its first permanent residency programme in 2019. This allows certain expats to reside in the Kingdom with their families without a Saudi sponsor.

Applications can be made through the Premium Residency Card (PRC) online application platform. There are two types of residency offered: permanent residency and a renewable temporary residency. Permanent residency requires a one-time fee payment only, while temporary residency must be renewed and paid for each year.

Applicants need to be at least 21 years old. They need to submit a valid passport, prove financial stability and have a clean criminal record and clear bill of health. Permanent residency card holders will enjoy privileges such as travelling in and out of the country without restrictions or extra visas. They will also be able to own real estate and private means of transportation.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

Working in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has a healthy economy. Job prospects for foreigners remain positive across a broad spectrum of industries.

The oil and gas sectors are the cornerstones of Saudi Arabia’s economic foundations, but expansion in the logistics sector, as well as retail and consumer goods, provide expats with a larger variety of opportunities to pursue.

Additionally, engineering, construction, IT and telecommunications have been historically active areas of employment. English teachers are always in demand and can earn quite well working in Saudi Arabia. Nurses and doctors are also actively recruited.

Job market in Saudi Arabia

Remuneration packages in Saudi Arabia for highly skilled workers are competitive when compared to those offered in the wider Gulf region. Added to the incentive of a tax-free salary, benefits usually include accommodation, health insurance, transport and education allowances, and annual flight tickets home. Expats will also find that their hard-earned salaries will go further, as the Kingdom offers a lower cost of living than many of its regional neighbours.

Discrimination is widespread when it comes to wages and benefits in Saudi Arabia, though. Western expats generally earn much higher salaries than their Asian counterparts, even with similar qualifications and experience.

Female workers also experience discrimination. Though recent law reforms allow Saudi women to work without the permission of their male guardian, employers often still insist on confirming this.

Finding a job in Saudi Arabia

Most expats moving to Saudi Arabia arrive with a job already in hand, either through a transfer in a multinational company or after being headhunted and hired for a specialised skillset. Today, these are the two most likely scenarios for finding work, though there may be a small chance of finding work via a recruitment agency, networking or an online job portal.

Though foreigners were once hired in droves for both skilled and unskilled work in Saudi Arabia, the government now operates under a policy called 'Saudisation' to encourage the employment of locals over foreigners, thereby decreasing unemployment among Saudi nationals. The government has also implemented restrictions on hiring foreign labour, with Saudi companies facing penalties for hiring too many foreigners.

Foreigners wanting to work in Saudi Arabia are required to apply for a work visa. This visa can't be obtained without a confirmed job offer and sponsorship from an employer. It is therefore not possible to arrive in Saudi Arabia in order to look for work. The process of obtaining a work visa can be a long and convoluted one. Expats should be prepared to have patience and persistence.

Work culture in Saudi Arabia

Expats working in Saudi Arabia may find themselves in a working environment radically different to what they are used to. The culture and customs of Saudi Arabia are essentially Arabic. Islam dominates all facets of life, including business. A central aspect of Saudi life is prayer. Muslims pray five times a day. Work days will therefore be disrupted several times to make provisions for this. Working hours will also be reduced during the holy month of Ramadan.

Arabic is the official language in Saudi Arabia, but English is widely spoken and understood in business circles. Nevertheless, expats would do well to learn Arabic if seeking to fully establish themselves in the Saudi working world.

Keeping in Touch in Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom can feel isolated and restrictive much of the time, so staying in contact with family and friends is an important part of expat life in Saudi Arabia.

The telecommunications sector has seen much improvement and diversification in recent years and with a competitive market, expats will have a variety of options when it comes to keeping in touch in Saudi Arabia.

Internet in Saudi Arabia

Expats have access to fixed-line and wireless broadband, and mobile internet. WiFi is widely available in cities and mobile broadband is increasingly common. However, fixed-line connections are often the cheapest and most reliable option. 

The most prominent internet service providers are STC, Mobily and Zain. Expats generally only need their Iqama (residence permit) to open an account.

VoIP and instant messaging applications such as Skype and WhatsApp are easily accessed, but have been subject to bans in the past.

Mobile phones in Saudi Arabia

Mobile services in Saudi Arabia are extensive, even in remote areas of the country. Pre- and post-paid packages are available. Many expats opt for pre-paid SIM cards, which can be bought at provider outlets or the airport. Post-paid accounts can also be set up at provider outlets. As with the internet, the most popular mobile service providers are STC, Mobily and Zain.

Censorship in Saudi Arabia

Despite the ease of accessing communications in Saudi Arabia, content is heavily restricted. Anyone accessing or publishing information can't be seen to criticise or contradict the values of Islam and the state.

Numerous pages relating to health, religion, education, humour and even entertainment have been banned. But the most aggressive censorship is reserved for content relating to pornography, drug use, gambling and religious conversion of Muslims.

English-language media in Saudi Arabia

Keeping up to date with news back home is also a good way to stay connected. Most English-language media is based on local and international hard news. Electronic and print publications like Arab News also offer information and advice aimed at the expat community.

Articles about Saudi Arabia

Women in Saudi Arabia

At first, some women may find the thought of moving to Saudi Arabia daunting. Questions about personal freedoms immediately come to mind, such as whether women may drive, whether they have to 'cover up' and whether it's safe for them.

These are valid concerns and in many instances restrictions can be frustrating and cause feelings of helplessness and homesickness.

Restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian women were only granted the right to vote in 2015, and up until recently, women weren't even able to drive. But new legislation passed in 2018 has allowed women in Saudi Arabia to obtain a driver's licence.

Despite these positive changes, life for Saudi women remains largely restrictive in terms of what they can wear and how they should behave. With laws gradually becoming more permissive, restrictions are not always based in the legal system but rather are enshrined in cultural and social norms.

Public-decency laws state that clothing must cover knees and shoulders, but there is no legal requirement for women to wear a headscarf or an abaya (a loose-fitting black or dark robe covering the clothes) in public. However, doing so can make it easier to blend in and avoid unwanted attention, especially in more conservative cities such as Riyadh. This is less of a concern in more liberal cities such as Jeddah. At times, expats may be asked by strangers to cover their hair. Again, while not required by law, it is a sign of respect to oblige.

Trailing spouses in Saudi Arabia

Trailing spouses who worked before arriving in Saudi Arabia may find their days suddenly filled with long hours of boredom. In patriarchal Saudi society, it's generally the women who must stay at home.

Sometimes, there’s a lack of understanding from the working partner. It’s easier for men to transition when they’re preoccupied with the workplace. At the same time, they may think it's easier for women because they get to stay home.

These elements of culture shock can be unsettling, but many women enjoy living in Saudi Arabia despite the difficulties. Locals are generally friendly and hospitable and for the most part, it’s safe.

Overcoming culture shock as a woman in Saudi Arabia

Living in large company-sponsored compounds can make life much easier and more enjoyable for expat women than staying in an individual apartment or villa. It’s generally easier to meet people in compounds, and it doesn't take expat wives long before they find themselves having made new friends and acquaintances.

Compounds have everything on site including restaurants, bowling alleys, dry cleaners, grocery stores, golf courses, salons, soccer fields and gyms. There are various activities to choose from that closely mirror what’s available in the Western world and, for the most part, people wear what they like.

Living outside the compounds among the locals, women may find themselves feeling isolated and void of all sources of entertainment. Saudis are quite private, and tend to spend their time with family and close friends rather than inviting new people into their circles. It isn't impossible to make local friends, but it's often difficult.

Regardless of their housing situation, though, it’s important for expat women to get out and meet new friends with common interests. Leave the compound, walk among the locals, and start living life. Women who join expat social groups and expand on existing hobbies will be one step ahead in getting through the adjustment phase. Not to mention, once they're settled in and over the initial shock, women often find that they have a different kind of freedom here to pursue almost anything they'd like.

Buying a Car in Saudi Arabia

As public transport in Saudi Arabia is limited, most expats opt to drive themselves or hire a driver. Many have cars provided by their employer but for those who don't, the process of buying a car in Saudi Arabia can be daunting. Fortunately, it can be greatly simplified with the right guidance and resources.

Factors to consider when car buying in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has some of the cheapest petrol in the world, so gas mileage is less of a factor than in other locations when deciding whether to buy a car. Expats interested in exploring the desert should consider four-wheel-drive vehicles, as standard cars don’t have the ground clearance or power to go over rocks and drive in the sand. Buyers should also consider the price and availability of spare parts.

Buying a new car in Saudi Arabia

Expats purchase new vehicles while in Saudi Arabia for many reasons.

Some prefer having a car they feel they can rely on in the severe weather conditions. Air conditioning is a necessity, and good tyres are important because their lifespan is often compromised by the heat.

Dealerships usually have English-speaking staff. Cars bought from them have the advantage of being under warranty. Also, the dealership will take care of the majority of the paperwork involved in buying a car.

Buying a used car in Saudi Arabia

There are various options for expats who’d prefer to buy a used vehicle.

There’s always a risk involved when buying a used car. Expats should negotiate with the seller to have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic of their choice and ask for maintenance records.

Cars don’t rust with age in the arid climate, but underneath their shiny bodies, the heat takes its toll on less visible parts, like gaskets, hoses and belts. It’s important to find a trustworthy, competent mechanic – ask friends and colleagues for referrals.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a standardised way of calculating car values, so they go for market rates. Potential buyers should get an idea of a car’s base asking price by searching the internet.

Renting a car in Saudi Arabia

Expats have the option of renting a car if they aren’t sure how long they will be in the Kingdom or would prefer not to buy one. Car rental companies are plentiful, usually have a good selection and work on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

Expats should ensure insurance is included in the rental price and read the policy to find out what their liabilities would be if they’re involved in an accident.

Car insurance in Saudi Arabia

Car insurance is mandatory in Saudi Arabia, and comes in two basic forms.  Expats will need one of these before finalising their purchase.

Third-party insurance

Mandatory or third-party insurance covers the damage someone causes to other people or property but not their own vehicle. It’s reasonably priced, but coverage differs between companies, so it's best to shop around.

Comprehensive insurance

Comprehensive insurance covers all damage, including to the policyholder’s vehicle. Each company’s products and prices differ, so expats should consider the options and ask friends and colleagues for referrals.

Transport and Driving in Saudi Arabia

With a limited public-transport system, most people get around in Saudi Arabia with their own vehicles or by taxi. A bus system offers services for both inner- and inter-city transport, and there is a railway line that runs between Riyadh and Damman. However, major improvements are underway with the construction of a metro system in Riyadh and the opening of a new high-speed railway.

Driving in Saudi Arabia

Expats often find they can afford cars they wouldn't have been able to back home. This is thanks to low import duties and cheap petrol.

While the Saudi road network is well maintained, the roads are made dangerous by local drivers who are notorious for driving recklessly, so many new arrivals hire a personal driver. Expats driving in Saudi Arabia should do so defensively.

Historically, women (including female expats) have not been allowed to have driver's licences in Saudi Arabia and were therefore unable to drive. But in 2018, the government implemented legislation to change this, and women are now allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Expats can drive with a foreign or international driver's licence for up to three months, after which they're required to apply for a Saudi licence.

Traffic cameras are increasingly being used to deter running red lights and speeding, and fines can be steep. Expats should check the government website frequently to see if they have any, as it's illegal to leave the country with unpaid fines.

Public transport in Saudi Arabia


Buses operate in Saudi Arabia’s cities and travel to and from neighbouring countries. They're generally well maintained and air conditioned, but are mainly used by locals and expats who can't afford their own vehicles. Women are restricted from travelling on some city buses and some buses have screened-off sections for female passengers.

Most expat compounds offer bus or shuttle services to meet the transport needs of women and children.


The Haramain High Speed Rail (HHR) is a high-speed train that caters to passengers wishing to travel between Mecca and Medinah. The train also connects these holy cities to King Abdullah Economic City, Jeddah and the Jeddah airport. The train is ultra modern and offers a luxurious travel experience.

There are also two major train lines that run between Riyadh and Qurayyat as well as between Riyadh and Dammam. Trains are air conditioned and usually offer a good service.

Taxis in Saudi Arabia

Taxis are widely available in Saudi cities. This is usually the safest and most efficient mode of transport for those who do not drive themselves.

Most taxis are metered and expats should ensure the meter is working and reset before they start a journey. Taxis can't be hailed on the street, and have to be called and booked in advance. Some expats save the contact details of a driver they trust and call them when needed.

Fares can be expensive, and drivers are known to substantially increase their fares during peak holiday times such as Ramadan, Hajj and Eid. It’s best to negotiate a price before entering.

Alternatively, ride-hailing applications such as Uber are available in major cities, which can be useful in overcoming the language barrier.

Air travel in Saudi Arabia

Due to Saudi Arabia's size, cross-country travel is easiest by air. There are several airports, including three major international hubs: King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and King Fahd International Airport in Dammam. Numerous domestic and international airlines operate in the country, including Saudia, the national carrier.

Weather in Saudi Arabia

Expats will find the weather in Saudi Arabia a forceful factor to contend with. Except for the province of Asir on the western coast, the country is mostly desert. Rainfall is sparse, days are incredibly hot and temperatures can drop drastically at night.

Variation in climate in Saudi Arabia largely occurs between the interior and the coastal regions.

Temperatures inland can get extremely high. Expats will most likely have a difficult time adjusting to highs that regularly soar above 104°F (40°C) during the day. Summers are long and dry. On the other hand, winter temperatures can dip below freezing. Saudi Arabia also experiences dust storms which can make outdoor activities difficult.

Expats should be wary of the possibility of heatstroke and exhaustion, especially from May to September.


Doing Business in Saudi Arabia

Expats anticipating doing business in Saudi Arabia should prepare themselves for a unique experience. The Saudi corporate world is perhaps the most unfamiliar of any of the Gulf countries for most Western expats. New arrivals are going to have to remain flexible and learn new skills in order to make a real success of their time in the country.

Fast facts

Business language

The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic, but English is widely spoken and understood in the business world and is the lingua franca between expats. While it will be good to learn basic Arabic, many Saudis speak good English.

Hours of business

Saudis generally work from Sunday to Thursday with Friday and Saturday being weekend days. Business typically operate from 8am to 12pm, and then 4pm to 8pm.

Business dress

Business attire in Saudi Arabia is strictly smart and conservative. Men typically wear suits and ties for business meetings, despite the heat. Women should also wear business suits that cover as much skin as possible. Women should have their head and shoulders covered. Skirts should preferably be ankle-length. It is also advisable for women to carry a headscarf.


It is not obligatory to exchange gifts when meeting Saudi business associates for the first time – though it might be appreciated. Gifts should be wrapped and of high quality. Alcohol, knives or anything made from pork products should be avoided.

Gender equality

In recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has started taking steps to increase the percentage of women in the workplace. However, women in Saudi Arabia still play a very small role in public life, and even less so in the corporate world. Female expats looking to do business in Saudi Arabia are warned that, over and above potential difficulties in getting work visas, they may be seen as inferiors in the business world in Saudi Arabia. This can make it hard to forge the kind of connections that are essential to successful business practice in the region.

Business culture in Saudi Arabia

Importance of Islam

Saudi society is underpinned by the tenets of Islam. Expats, therefore, need to familiarise themselves with the basic guidelines for how to conduct themselves appropriately within Islamic society, so as not to cause offence. Unlike in Western countries, where someone might be devoutly Christian in their personal lives but happy to separate convictions from their professional lives, in Saudi Arabia the presence of Islam is constant and all-pervasive.


The business culture of Saudi Arabia is prototypically Arabic. Great emphasis is placed on personal relationships between associates. Saudi businessmen will always prefer to do business with people they are familiar with, and who they feel they can trust. For this reason, nepotism is a characteristic feature of the Saudi business world and is viewed as both natural and advantageous.

Establishing personal connections

Expats will also have to remain patient during their first business meetings with new Saudi partners. A significant chunk of time will be devoted to getting to know each other before any actual business is conducted. The forging of long-term, personal business relationships in Saudi Arabia is best considered an investment.


The management style that predominates Saudi Arabia is paternalistic and strictly hierarchical. Decisions are made at the top level and clear, direct instructions are then filtered down.

Business etiquette in Saudi Arabia reflects an intimate relationship between spiritual, personal and professional life. When greeting new associates, handshakes are common between men. To show the necessary respect, expats should start with the most senior person present. Physical contact between unrelated men and women in public is frowned upon.

Eye contact is also extremely important in Saudi Arabia and is often considered an indicator of sincerity. However, women should avoid direct eye contact with men they are unfamiliar with.

Attitude to foreigners in Saudi Arabia

There is a clear and massive gulf between fundamentalist Islamic culture and modern Western culture. However, so long as expats conduct themselves appropriately and respect the beliefs and traditions of their hosts, they will be treated warmly and with true hospitality while in Saudi Arabia.

Dos and don'ts of doing business in Saudi Arabia

  • Do remain respectful and observant of Islamic culture and traditions at all times

  • Do look to cement long-term, personal relationships with Saudi business associates

  • Do make an effort to engage with the culture – learn some Arabic words and learn about the religion

  • Don't avoid eye contact with Saudi colleagues when speaking to them

  • Don't forget that in Saudi Arabia, the line between spiritual, professional and private life is blurry – try to remain sensitive of this in all professional capacities

Safety in Saudi Arabia

The country’s strict interpretation of Sharia law and harsh punishments for illegal activity mean that safety in Saudi Arabia is not a major concern. There is normally tight security in and around expat compounds, leaving residents feeling quite protected.

Although terrorism is an ongoing concern in the wider region, there have been no recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, and no incidents that would warrant any concerns for the short term. Protests have taken place on occasion, but Saudi Arabia has not witnessed the level of protests experienced by other Middle Eastern countries in recent times.

Crime in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has harsh punishments for criminal activity. Executions by beheading, stoning or firing squad are common for crimes such as murder, rape and armed robbery. Apostasy, adultery and homosexuality are also subject to harsh punishment, which may seem archaic by Western standards. 

Most expats live in Western compounds where security is tight, and burglary and armed robbery are not a concern. Nevertheless, petty theft does occur on the streets of Saudi towns and cities, and opportunistic theft from vehicles also occurs. Expats should always be alert when walking in the street and keep all valuables out of sight.

Terrorism in Saudi Arabia

Many governments warn their citizens about the risk of possible terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, particularly against Western targets and Saudi oil infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia has a history of terrorist attacks. The Saudi government takes the threat of terrorism seriously and has carried out a number of arrests of suspected militant groups in recent years. Expats should ensure that they stay in secure accommodation, and if in a compound, that adequate security is in place.

Protests in Saudi Arabia

Public demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia. The government has invested heavily in employment and education programmes, which has gone a long way to alleviating dissent among the local population, and protests and demonstrations in the Kingdom are uncommon.

Any demonstrations that do take place in the Kingdom are usually in the Eastern Province, which has the largest concentration of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority.

Road safety in Saudi Arabia

Road conditions vary considerably between cities and rural areas. Larger cities have well-constructed roads, while those in rural areas are often unpaved. Road safety is potentially one of the greatest safety concerns for expats in Saudi Arabia; traffic accidents are a frequent occurrence, aggressive driving and road rage are common, and traffic congestion in Riyadh is an ongoing problem. Expats should drive defensively or, if possible, arrange for a driver who is familiar with the local conditions.

Moving to Saudi Arabia

Situated in the heart of the Middle East on the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia's vast and seemingly endless desert plains, coupled with a conservative society strictly governed by Sharia law, can make the country seem intimidating for many expats.

Though there are certain perks to life in Saudi Arabia, expats seldom move there for the lifestyle, the weather, the food or any of the enticements other expat destinations may offer. Rather, Westerners tend to move to the Kingdom for financial reasons and remain sequestered in Western-style compounds, far removed from real Saudi life while earning their tax-free salaries.

Living in Saudi Arabia as an expat

Most expats in Saudi Arabia live in Jeddah and Riyadh, both of which have the full range of Western amenities, a good selection of accommodation, and most of the Kingdom’s employers. Some expats may also find themselves drawn to Saudi's Eastern Province, pulled by lucrative job offers in the hydrocarbon sector.

Expat life in Saudi Arabia is surprisingly social as fellow immigrants develop strong bonds. Weekends are often centred on compound get-togethers, trips into the desert and diving excursions. The camaraderie and parties make up for a lack of other liberties and luxuries, but the artificial lifestyle can be difficult to sustain over long periods.

Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia law, and Islam is closely interwoven with daily life. Although foreigners are allowed to practise their own religion in private, proselytising is strictly forbidden. For the most harmonious and peaceful experience possible, expats are advised to respect Islamic laws and customs, bearing in mind that they are guests in the Kingdom.

Expat women in Saudi Arabia

Expat women, in particular, may struggle to adjust to life in Saudi Arabia, especially if moving there as a trailing spouse. Many of the freedoms they enjoyed back home are far more limited in Saudi Arabia. The best way to blend in and not attract unwanted attention when out in public is to wear an abaya (a long, flowing black robe) over clothes. Women aren't obligated to wear an abaya by law, but public decency laws do specify that knees and shoulders should be covered in public.

If living in Saudi as a dependant on their husband’s visa, women aren't automatically granted the right to work and will need to obtain their own sponsor and work visa to do so.

Expat families and children

Foreign children don't often attend Saudi public schools due to language and cultural barriers, but there are several international schools that cater to the international community. The standard of education at these schools is generally high. Due to the high demand, space is often limited and parents should consider applying as early as possible to get a place for their child in their school of choice. Fees can also be exorbitant. Expats should factor these costs into their contract negotiations when considering a move to Saudi Arabia.

Working and living in Saudi Arabia is best treated as an adventure and new life experience. To make the most of it, expats should view their move to Saudi as a combination of career advancement, new cultural experiences and financial enrichment.

Fast facts

Population: 35 million

Capital city: Riyadh (also largest city)

Other major cities: Jeddah, Dammam, Mecca

Neighbouring countries: Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen

Political system: Unitary Islamic absolute monarchy

Geography: Saudi Arabia is made up mostly of desert. The population is distributed in the eastern and western coastal towns as well as the interior oases, but much of the country remains empty desert. 

Main languages: Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken and understood in business.

Major religions: Saudi Arabia is a strict Islamic country governed by Sharia law. Although other religions can be practised in private, proselytising is strictly forbidden.

Money: The official currency is the Saudi riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halala. The country has a well-established banking system and expats are able to open a local bank account in Saudi Arabia.

Tipping: 10 percent

Time: GMT+3

Electricity: 110V, 50Hz in main cities, but expats in remote areas may encounter 220V, 60Hz.

International dialling code: +966

Internet domain: .sa

Emergency numbers: 999 (police); 997 (ambulance); 998 (fire)

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road in Saudi Arabia. Most expats get around in their own vehicles or with a personal driver.

Education and Schools in Saudi Arabia

Expat parents moving to Saudi Arabia will most likely opt to send their children to a private international school. Although foreign children are allowed to attend local public schools, the cultural and language barriers make this an untenable option for most.

A number of international schools in numerous cities across Saudi Arabia offer diverse curricula. Expats living in the Kingdom either send their children to a private international school or send them to boarding school back in their home country.

International schools in Saudi Arabia

A portion of the international schools in Saudi Arabia are governed by embassies. Others are privately organised and host multiple curricula under a single roof. It is not necessary for expat children to attend the school sponsored by their country of origin, although the logistical transition between the old and new education systems tend to be the easiest in this situation. For the most part, international schools are not selective with regards to nationality, though in some cases, embassy-run institutions do give preference to their respective nationalities.

The large expat community in Saudi Arabia ensures demand for these schools is high. It's therefore best to make an application for registration as early as possible to obtain a suitable slot. All schools will charge a non-refundable registration fee. Admission requirements vary between schools, and parents are advised to contact the school of their choice directly for clarity on what is required. 

Expat families in Saudi Arabia should consider cost, curriculum and convenience when weighing the pros and cons of schools in their city of choice.

Fees can range from the frighteningly expensive American and British international schools to cheaper, smaller organisations. In addition to basic fees, parents will be expected to cover other costs such as uniforms, textbooks and extra-curricular activities.

The school year in Saudi Arabia runs from September to June and is normally divided into two or three semesters, depending on the school. The school week is Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday being the weekend. School days are shortened during the holy month of Ramadan.

Special-needs education in Saudi Arabia

As expats are largely reliant on international schools, there aren't standard policies across the board and special-needs provisions can vary significantly between schools. Some schools are better equipped than others to provide support for students with special educational needs – networking with fellow expat families and researching schools in depth can help determine which school is most suitable.

Tutors in Saudi Arabia

Local families frequently employ tutors to help children become proficient in English as a second language. Non-English-speaking expat families in Saudi Arabia, especially those with children in international English-speaking schools, can benefit from doing the same. Those looking to learn or improve their Arabic should opt for a local Arabic tutor. Major upcoming exams and trouble subjects are also well served by tutors.

Banking, Money and Taxes in Saudi Arabia

The banking system in Saudi Arabia is robust and has managed to put a progressive foot forward for the past decade. Expats can be fully confident in the banking aspect of their transition to the Kingdom.

Money in Saudi Arabia

The currency in Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Arabian Riyal (SAR), which is divided into 100 halala.

  • Notes: 1 SAR, 5 SAR, 10 SAR, 50 SAR, 100 SAR and 500 SAR

  • Coins: 1, 10, 25 and 50 halala

Banking in Saudi Arabia

Expats can choose between local and international banks. Mobile and internet banking is standard, and facilities are advanced.

Banking hours are usually Sunday to Thursday, from 9am to 5pm.

Opening a bank account

Expats can open a bank account in Saudi Arabia with a work permit and a letter from their employer. It's worth doing this to avoid paying international transfer fees.

Due to Islamic law, banks don't pay interest on balances, don't lend at high interest rates and don't let account holders accumulate debt. Non-payment of debt is a criminal offence that can get expats imprisoned – and this doesn't discharge the debt.

Expats' salaries will be secure in local banks. However, if they want to earn interest on their income, it's best to periodically transfer their earnings to an offshore account.

ATMs and credit cards in Saudi Arabia

Major credit cards are accepted at most shops, hotels and restaurants throughout the country. ATMs are freely available and some permit foreign remittances. Cash is still used for many transactions.

Taxes in Saudi Arabia

Expats won't be taxed on their salaries as there is no personal income tax in Saudi Arabia. However, they should check whether they are liable for paying taxes in their home country.

Shipping and Removals in Saudi Arabia

Shipping goods to Saudi Arabia can be expensive. The price is affected by shipping methods (sea or air freight), the size of the load, and how well insured it is. Since compounds often provide furnished accommodation and plenty of amenities, expats should think carefully about what needs to be shipped out – it may be very little indeed.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has plenty of shopping opportunities to purchase goods so one can easily and cheaply purchase goods that may prove troublesome to ship over.

Customs in Saudi Arabia

All shipped items must pass through customs and the appropriate forms should be completed by the sender. In Saudi Arabia, customs clearance depends on whether goods are either classified as documents with no commercial value or dutiable goods. Dutiable goods are taxed if they are valued over a certain amount.

The customs list of prohibited items includes but is not limited to alcohol and pork. Contrary to popular belief, religious texts may be brought into the country, as long as they are for personal use only.

To ship a pet over one requires an import permit, vaccination certificate and health certificate.

Healthcare in Saudi Arabia

Healthcare in Saudi Arabia is of a high standard and expats will benefit from excellent medical facilities in both the private and public sectors. For the most part, patients don't need to worry about delays or waiting lists, but having adequate health insurance is a must to cover the costs involved.

Health insurance in Saudi Arabia

While expats working in the public sector have access to state-sponsored healthcare coverage, it is compulsory for all non-Saudi nationals to have private medical insurance. It's usually the sponsoring employer's responsibility to provide their expat employees with medical cover. Expats should try to negotiate this into their contract if it isn't included.

It's also important that expats ensure that any coverage provided to them by their workplace is comprehensive. If not, it is advisable to top up with an additional policy.

Hospitals in Saudi Arabia

There are public, private and military hospitals in Saudi Arabia. Most expats use private hospitals and clinics, but these come with a hefty price tag, so expats should make sure they're well covered by health insurance.

Many of the staff at private hospitals in Saudi Arabia are expats themselves and numerous hospitals are affiliated with well-known foreign facilities – so the language gap shouldn't be an issue.

Medicines and pharmacies in Saudi Arabia

Medicines are widely available at pharmacies in Saudi Arabia. Expats should however be aware of customs regulations before bringing medication into the country. For example, anti-depressants and sleeping pills are heavily controlled in the Kingdom.

Most pharmacies are open from 9.30am to 1pm and from 4.30pm to 10.30pm. Hospitals often have a 24-hour pharmacy.

Health hazards in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is mostly desert and expats usually struggle to adapt to extreme temperatures that can soar above 113°F (45°C). Heatstroke and exhaustion are common, especially during the hottest months from May to September. To avoid this, expats are advised to stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day and ensure they are well hydrated.

Emergency services in Saudi Arabia

Ambulances in Saudi Arabia are normally operated by police and government hospitals. For medical emergencies, expats can call 997.

Frequently Asked Questions about Saudi Arabia

From the conservative culture and (lack of) women's rights, to compound life and Saudi Arabia's complex visa system, expats are sure to have many questions about living and working in the Kingdom. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about expat life in Saudi Arabia.

Where do expats live in Saudi Arabia?

Expats moving to Saudi Arabia will most likely settle in the city that their job designates. Once here, most live in one of the many expat compounds. These are closed and secure communities that provide expats with a number of on-site amenities and a sense of camaraderie among like-minded individuals. They tend to have long waiting lists, though the right sponsor or employer can generally circumvent this.

Are visas necessary to enter and exit Saudi Arabia?

Yes, both are needed. Visas are an absolute in Saudi Arabia. Depending on the type of visa needed (business, residence, work, transit), the appropriate documentation will need to be arranged with the help of a local sponsor. It's commonplace for employers to ask to keep the passports of their employees upon entry. However, this is illegal and a fineable offence.

What standard of healthcare can be expected?

The level of healthcare in Saudi Arabia is largely similar to that of the US and Europe. It is now mandatory to have some form of healthcare in order to obtain an iqama (work permit). While the Ministry of Health offers universal coverage for locals and public sector expats, private sector expats should organise with their sponsor for appropriate insurance.

Are international schools the best option for education in Saudi Arabia?

Yes, especially since there are significant language and cultural barriers for expat children when it comes to public schooling in Saudi Arabia. There is an assortment of international schools available in the country that caters to a variety of languages and curricula. Expats should consider cost, convenience and standard when selecting a school for their children.

What job sectors provide working opportunities in Saudi Arabia?

Historically, the oil and gas industry sectors have been primary areas for job opportunities in Saudi Arabia. However, in addition to these cornerstones, logistics as well as the retail and consumer goods sector are increasingly sharing the limelight with their fossil-fuel counterparts. Nurses, doctors and English-speaking teachers are also actively recruited in Saudi Arabia.

How should expats dress in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia is a country governed by Islamic law and expats should do their best to respect the prescribed behaviours. Men should dress conservatively – no shorts, sleeveless shirts or ostentatious accessories. Women are required to keep shoulders and knees covered. To further blend in, expat women often wear an abaya, a full-length cloak that covers clothing, or a headscarf. Both of these items should be black or dark in colour. In the expat compounds, Westerners can dress in the manner familiar to their country of origin.

What rights do women have in Saudi Arabia?

Perhaps the most striking discerning factor between the Western world and Saudi Arabia is the disparity in women’s rights that exists. In Saudi Arabia, society is strictly gender segregated as per Islamic law. Until recently, women were forbidden to drive or enter/exit the country without a male sponsor. Oftentimes they are forced to use separate entrances and isolated areas of public spaces, shops and storefronts. Although there have been slight reforms in recent years, women in Saudi Arabia are expected to be subservient to men and can expect little in the way of independent rights.

Embassy Contacts for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian embassies

  • Saudi Arabian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 342 3800

  • Saudi Arabian Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7917 3000

  • Saudi Arabian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 237 4100

  • Saudi Arabian Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6250 7000

  • Saudi Arabian Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 362 4230

  • Consulate General of Saudi Arabia, Auckland, New Zealand: +64 9 912 7808

Foreign embassies in Saudi Arabia

  • United States Embassy, Riyadh: +966 11 488 3800

  • British Embassy, Riyadh: +966 11 481 9100

  • Canadian Embassy, Riyadh: +966 11 202 3288

  • Australian Embassy, Riyadh: +966 11 250 0900

  • South African Embassy, Riyadh: +966 11 442 9720

  • Irish Embassy, Riyadh: +966 11 407 1530

  • New Zealand Embassy, Riyadh: +966 11 488 7988

Culture Shock in Saudi Arabia

Moving to Saudi Arabia can be daunting for even the most seasoned expat and can be difficult to adjust to. 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 if living within 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. Though more comfortable, life in a compound is also often insular.

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, a version of religious law that ordains the way Muslims should live their life and the path they should follow, is a force to be reckoned with and, beyond all else, respected. Its adaptations and interpretations extend to affect politics, economics, family life, business, sexuality and even hygiene. In Saudi Arabia, religious courts govern all aspects of jurisprudence and the Mutaween (religious police) are the keepers of social compliance.

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 openly speaking about religion.

Daily life in Saudi Arabia revolves around Muslim prayer, which occurs five times a day. During this time, most activities come to a standstill and businesses close. Carrying out simple daily tasks and scheduling meetings and appointments can therefore be frustrating, but it’s something expats soon adjust to.

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 is no longer required by law, as it once was, but it is a good way to blend in.

It should be noted that there have been some positive changes in the Kingdom in recent times. New legislation has been passed that allows women to drive, and thousands of women are now getting their driver’s 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. This guardianship ends at the age of 21.

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. As long as LGBTQ+ individuals in the country maintain a public front of respect for the strict Wahhabist rules, they are 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 stoic security of these complexes, expats have the opportunity to indulge in many of the activities reminiscent of their homelands.

Censorship in Saudi Arabia

Many aspects of life are controlled in Saudi Arabia, and it goes without saying that censorship is widespread. Although 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 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; although in practice, 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.

  • Always comply with the instructions of the Mutaween if stopped in public and instructed to do something, such as putting a headscarf on

  • 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