- Download our Moving to Saudi Arabia Guide (PDF)
For centuries, the region now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been a meeting point for different cultures and civilisations, thanks to its geographical location at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe. Moreover, as the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia has centuries of experience welcoming tens of thousands to millions of international pilgrims annually for Hajj and Umrah, contributing to the Kingdom's cultural and ethnic diversity.
On the other hand, the Kingdom has traditionally been more conservative regarding social policies and legal inclusivity. The changes seen today in aspects of accessibility, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights and other facets of diversity and inclusion represent a recent and radical shift in the societal and political landscape of Saudi Arabia.
From driving its Vision 2030 – a strategic framework for a prosperous future – to enacting meaningful reforms and initiatives, the country is gradually transforming its narrative on inclusion and diversity. This progress has not come easily though, and many activists who have campaigned for better treatment for women or minorities are currently imprisoned or under travel bans.
Freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a nation deeply rooted in Islamic principles and traditions, forming the backbone of its legal and societal structures. The Kingdom is unique in that it hosts the two holiest sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and thus holds a special place in the hearts of millions of Muslims worldwide.
However, this deep-rooted religious belief translates into a governance system where religious freedom is strictly limited, particularly for non-Muslims and those who follow different interpretations of Islam. Public displays of non-Islamic religious symbols are not allowed, and conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which can attract severe legal penalties.
Freedom of expression is also highly regulated in Saudi Arabia. The government exercises significant control over the media and online communication, which are closely monitored for content deemed critical of the state, Islam or the royal family.
This has created a restrictive environment for journalists and activists, who often face considerable risks in pursuing free speech. It is essential to note that the interpretation of these laws can vary and is often influenced by broader political dynamics.
There have been signs of a gradual shift towards a more open society. Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 includes objectives related to enhancing cultural expression and promoting a vibrant society. The advent of social media has also provided a new platform for Saudis to voice their opinions and engage in public discourse. That said, it is clear that the journey towards greater freedom in Saudi Arabia is a complex and ongoing process, and much work is yet to be done.
Accessibility in Saudi Arabia
In line with its mission of inclusivity, Saudi Arabia has been implementing significant policy changes to improve accessibility for all, particularly those with disabilities. Additional support is granted to individuals with disabilities and their families through financial assistance and facilitation services. The government offers an amount of SAR 150,000 as a substitute for insuring a car designed for people with disabilities, and a reduction card for passenger fees is provided, giving a 50-percent discount on government transportation. Furthermore, a traffic facilities card allows easy access to public utility parking lots and unrestricted parking in designated spots throughout the Kingdom.
Major cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah have seen considerable improvements in their public transport systems, with features such as ramps and tactile paving aiding those with mobility and visual impairments. Many public parks, shopping centres and government facilities have similarly become more accessible. Taxi services, in keeping with these upgrades, are also becoming more accessible for people with disabilities, as mandated by national regulations.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has ratified various international conventions and enacted national laws like the Disability Act, updated in 2018, to strengthen the rights of people with disabilities. This mandates accessible services and facilities in public spaces and new buildings, and reserves a certain quota of jobs in both public and private sectors for people with disabilities. An electronic service also enables people with disabilities registered with the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development to request a letter of support for an exemption from visa fees.
LGBTQ+ in Saudi Arabia
Addressing LGBTQ+ rights in Saudi Arabia is undeniably challenging. Currently, the Kingdom enforces laws that effectively criminalise and severely punish homosexual activity and transgender expression, making life considerably difficult for individuals in the LGBTQ+ community. Because extramarital sex and same-sex marriage are illegal, homosexuality is effectively prohibited and is punished severely. Transgender identity is also punished under vague laws against cross-dressing and laws against public expression that may impinge on public morals, religious values and privacy.
Despite this, Saudi Arabia claims to welcome LGBTQ+ visitors as tourists. In May 2023, the official Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) added a question to their FAQ section, asking if LGBT tourists are welcome to visit Saudi Arabia. The response reads, "Everyone is welcome to visit Saudi Arabia and visitors are not asked to disclose such personal details." Regardless of these claims, we encourage any LGBTQ+ tourists or expats to take extreme caution when in Saudi Arabia, as there's still no guarantee of safety.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among other international bodies, emphasise the need for change, highlighting the harsh legal penalties, repression, persecution and social stigma endured by LGBTQ+ individuals in the Kingdom.
Despite the challenging socio-legal context, there are discreet and primarily online-based initiatives that offer some semblance of community and support. These covert networks provide resources, dialogue and a shared space for individuals who may otherwise feel isolated. However, caution is necessary due to the severe legal penalties associated with LGBTQ+ identities. The risks are high, but these communities offer solace and solidarity in an isolating society.
Awareness of the challenging socio-legal context, being mindful of public behaviour, and knowing about potential resources for help are crucial for the safety and well-being of LGBTQ+ people in Saudi Arabia.
Gender equality in Saudi Arabia
The past decade has seen Saudi Arabia undergo a profound societal shift, with women's rights and gender equality at the forefront of this change. In 2020, the World Bank named Saudi Arabia the top reformer of the year for expanding women's economic participation and freedom to travel. On the other hand, the codification of male guardianship, whereby a woman requires a male relative's consent for almost everything – including marriage, inheritance and family matters – has concretised a tradition of misogyny.
Saudi Arabia was ranked 127th out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, but the country is making strides towards improvement. The Vision 2030 plan sets further goals for empowering women and reducing the wage gap. The Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (HRSD) and its Women Empowerment initiative is an example of the government's efforts to improve women's participation in the economy, and women now comprise over one-third of the workforce.
While the Saudi workforce has traditionally seen an under-representation of women, the government has proposed several initiatives to address this and the wage gap, although their implementation and effectiveness are yet to be seen. One of the recent changes includes the introduction of a 2022 law that grants ten weeks of maternity leave, extendable for health reasons, and one week of paternity leave.
Despite these advances, the United Nations Women's Report indicates that significant challenges remain. These include the male guardianship system, societal discrimination against women and the detention of women's rights activists, signalling a need for further societal acceptance of gender equality.
Women in leadership in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has seen a rise in women occupying high-ranking positions in recent years, an essential aspect of gender equality.
In 2019, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan was appointed the country's ambassador to the United States, becoming the first Saudi woman to hold such a significant diplomatic position. As of 2022, approximately 20 percent of seats in the Saudi Arabian Parliament are occupied by women, signifying an increase in their political participation. A similar if more limited development is seen in the corporate sector, where women now occupy around 7 percent of board positions in the Kingdom's listed companies.
Despite societal norms and expectations hindering women's advancement in leadership roles, Saudi initiatives like those by Women20 Saudi Arabia continue to advocate for women's participation in decision-making positions. These efforts are pivotal for fostering a leadership culture that is representative of both genders.
Mental health awareness in Saudi Arabia
Mental health awareness is increasingly significant in Saudi Arabia, and although the government is taking steps to address mental health, there are many barriers to overcome. In 2022, PwC reported that 80 percent of Saudis with severe mental disorders do not seek treatment, showing that destigmatisation is a key requirement for improving access to mental healthcare. PwC also found that about 15 percent of the Kingdom's population suffers from mental illnesses, with only 2.85 psychiatrists per 100,000 residents in the region.
For expats, transitioning to a new country can be challenging, possibly increasing susceptibility to disorders such as depression and anxiety. Factors like work stress, societal expectations and unfamiliarity with new surroundings can intensify these issues. In cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, long work hours due to competitive job markets contribute to these mental health concerns.
In recent decades, there has been a shift from a centralised system to community-based services, with increased investment in mental health centres.
Unconscious bias education in Saudi Arabia
Understanding unconscious bias is paramount in Saudi Arabia's rapidly changing social landscape. Unconscious bias refers to unintentional assumptions or stereotypes of individuals towards groups that are different from their own. These biases are not consciously adopted but evolve subtly over time and can significantly affect interpersonal dynamics and decision-making processes.
Historically, societal norms in Saudi Arabia have created biases that can limit full inclusion and equality, particularly in the context of gender and age. These unconscious biases can significantly impact workplace dynamics, potentially influencing hiring decisions, promotion practices and employee engagement, impacting a company's talent acquisition and retention strategies.
Another example of unconscious bias is the traditional social stratification in Saudi Arabia. This places Saudis at the top of the social structure, followed by other Arabs, then white expats, with a large Asian population who perform manual labour under inhumane working conditions.
Nepotism can also influence workplace equality, with colleagues from one's family or tribe seen as more trustworthy and deserving of preferential treatment.
Diversification of the workforce in Saudi Arabia
With its rich cultural heritage and significant expat population, Saudi Arabia has a diverse social landscape that's increasingly reflected in its labour market. According to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, there were 12.9 million workers in 2019, of which 3.1 million were Saudi Arabian. The workforce is becoming more heterogeneous, comprising individuals of various nationalities and skill sets. While Saudis have always been hospitable to foreigners, the individual experience can vary depending on cultural and social factors.
Workforce diversification, a central tenet of the Saudi Vision 2030 strategy, seeks to build an inclusive and dynamic labour market. Despite the progress, certain groups, mainly non-Arab expats, sometimes encounter challenges due to cultural differences and language barriers. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development has devised strategies to enhance labour market diversification, hoping this will lead to a more robust and resilient economy.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has also highlighted the importance of migrant workers in enhancing workforce diversity in Saudi Arabia, finding that migrant workers make up approximately one-third of the workforce in the Kingdom. Although these workers play a vital role in Saudi Arabia's construction, healthcare, domestic work and hospitality sectors, they have also been subjected to unfair labour practices and unfit living conditions. Much more must be done to ensure that all workers are protected by labour laws and have access to decent work opportunities.
Safety in Saudi Arabia
As per the 2022 Global Peace Index, Saudi Arabia is ranked 119th among the countries assessed, indicating that while it maintains a level of security, there are several countries which score higher in terms of peace and safety. It's always advisable for newcomers and residents to exercise vigilance and keep personal belongings secure, particularly in crowded areas.
Travel advisories from the US Department of State emphasise that, despite a moderate peace ranking, Saudi Arabia generally maintains a high level of security. Some of this security, however, is due to the elevated risk of terror attacks from Iranian and Yemeni militants.
Road safety is another crucial concern in Saudi Arabia. The driving culture can be aggressive and unpredictable, particularly during peak traffic hours. Newcomers may initially find the driving environment challenging. Therefore, public transport, particularly in larger cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, could be a safer and more convenient option for expats.
Calendar initiatives in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia, in its commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion, acknowledges a variety of awareness days and months as well as national celebrations. These events offer golden opportunities for residents and expats alike to join dialogues, learn more about various causes and express solidarity:
- February: World Cancer Month
- 2 April: World Autism Awareness Day
- 23 September: National Day of Saudi Arabia
- October: Breast Cancer Awareness Month
- 14 November: World Diabetes Day
- 3 December: International Day of Persons with Disabilities
- December: Human Rights Month
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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