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Moving to Saudi Arabia can be daunting for even the most seasoned expat. There will be a degree of cultural adjustment required for living in this decidedly strange environment. This sense of cultural dislocation can take a long time to wear off. It’s vital that expats maintain a positive outlook and a sense of humour during this time.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative Islamic state, notorious for its adherence to Wahhabism, a puritanical strain of Islam. Islam dominates all aspects of life in the Kingdom. Expats will find that many of the freedoms they enjoyed back home are strictly regulated. However, 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.
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. Expats should avoid openly speaking about religion and should not wear any overtly religious symbols or jewellery.
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, nevertheless, 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 regulations that, for example, require their clothes to be covered by an abaya (long, flowing black or dark-coloured robe).
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 licence for the first time.
However, women still fall under the guardianship of their father or husband. This means that there are things women aren’t allowed to do without permission, like getting a job. There are also strict laws against women socialising in public with men they are not married to or directly related to by blood. Such rules are actively and aggressively enforced by the religious police, and expats are expected to comply.
Foreign women may struggle with this new-found lack of independence, and it may make for a drawn-out adjustment period, particularly if moving to Saudi Arabia as a trailing spouse.
One of the perplexing aspects about living in Saudi Arabia is that while sodomy is, in theory, punishable by death, gay life flourishes. As long as gays and lesbians 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 to dispel the initial glum, grim grey of adjusting to 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. Theatres, once banned, are making a comeback. However, 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.
Never point the soles of the feet at another person as this is considered rude and bad luck
Avoid talking about religion and don’t wear any obvious religious symbols or jewellery
Always comply with the instructions of the Mutaween if stopped in public and instructed to do something, such as put 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
►Thinking of moving to Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast? Read one expat's views on the pros and cons of living in Yanbu.
Are you an expat living in Saudi Arabia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Saudi Arabia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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