A great urban mass rising from the sands of the Najd plateau, Riyadh is a thriving economic hub and home to the Saudi royals. Perhaps lacking the glamour of the neighbouring emirates, the country is extremely conservative and runs according to Sharia Law. But once over the culture shock, expats begin to see the city as an adventure, enjoying a land so often isolated and hidden from the rest of the world. Adapting may take time, but it can be richly rewarding.
Working in Riyadh
+ PRO: It pays
The biggest allure of moving to Riyadh is usually the handsome salaries on offer. The prospect of no income tax is also a massive drawcard. Opportunities for expats can be found in the banking, construction, engineering, medicine and IT sectors, while employment contracts often include car payments, medical cover and education allowances.
- CON: Business is slow during Ramadan
Don't expect to get much done during Ramadan as most businesses shut down over this period, or at least try to reschedule important meetings for after Eid-al-Fitr. Western expats are advised to treat it like the Christmas holidays, but lasting for an entire month.
- CON: Ethnic hierarchies
Expats from different regions seem to receive varying degrees of treatment and pay. Specific countries and ethnicities are often assigned particular roles, with Western expats tending to occupy more managerial positions while nationals from, say, India and the Philippines are hired into the production side of things.
Accommodation in Riyadh
+ PRO: Home comforts
Almost all expats live in compounds of apartments and villas found in the northern and eastern suburbs of Riyadh. Living outside these compounds is highly unusual. While life in the streets of Riyadh may feel extremely alien to Western expats, the compounds present a more relaxed way of life. The presence of gyms, shops, restaurants and schools means leaving isn’t a necessity.
- CON: Threat of boredom
Having said that, things can get quite stale after a few months in these gated communities. If expats aren’t encouraging themselves to venture into the rest of Riyadh, they’ll end up running into the same people and may become frustrated, bored and quite disenchanted with their new lives.
Cost of living in Riyadh
+ PRO: Groceries are good prices
Regular goods such as groceries and electronics are reasonably priced, with most income swallowed up by accommodation costs. The most expensive products will be imports. Also, eating out can be a costly affair so expats may want to seek out the many indoor and outdoor markets. Petrol is dirt cheap even if expats are more inclined to hire a driver.
- CON: Expensive digital services
Internet, mobile communication and TV services are all far more expensive than in Western countries, with some estimating it at three times the regular rates.
- CON: High accommodation prices
Rent in expat compounds can also be expensive. Along with a 10 percent deposit, six to 12 months of rent is expected to be paid in advance. Additionally, tenants must pay for utilities such as water, electricity and gas, with an expected rise during summer when aircons are required. That said, employers usually include housing allowances in contracts.
Lifestyle in Riyadh
+ PRO: New shopping experiences
Many of the leisure activities common to Western tastes aren’t present. But Riyadh certainly has a huge array of shops to counter this, with thriving indoor and outdoor souqs and sprawling malls.
- CON: Treatment of women
Saudi Arabia is notorious for its treatment of women who, up until 2018, were not even allowed to drive. They still require permission from their fathers or husbands to marry or enrol at university. Expat wives may not be allowed to work if on their husband’s work visa and must remember to wear an abaya, a flowing black robe, in public or outside compounds.
- CON: Difficult to adapt to Sharia customs
Saudi Arabia operates under Sharia law, existing as a strict Islamic state. Expats should be mindful to respect this, with at least a basic understanding of some cultural expectations and taboos. Expats who follow other faiths may find it quite restricting, while meetings and events need to be scheduled around prayers which happen five times a day.
- CON: Westerners can become bored
Riyadh is a fiercely conservative city, with many Westerners struggling to adapt to its cultural norms and expectations. There is no real nightlife to speak of and alcohol is banned. The extremely hot weather can also be a factor in the development of listlessness.
- CON: Bureaucracy
It’s best to be safe when dealing with officials in Riyadh, so expats should be absolutely sure they have up-to-date identification, travel documents and passports. Saudi Arabia is a stickler for red tape and expats will probably endure their fair share of forms and bureaucratic slogs.
Safety in Riyadh
+ PRO: Very safe
Because of strict laws and extremely harsh punishments, expats can feel pretty safe in Riyadh. There are usually strong security measures around compounds, with high walls and guards commonplace.
- CON: Intolerance
Homosexuality in Saudi Arabia is punishable by death and means gay expats in Riyadh should practise extreme caution. But because of the implementation of high gender segregation, many may find it easier to be in gay relationships as same-sex gatherings at parties, restaurants or hotels aren’t viewed with suspicion.
Raising children in Riyadh
+ PRO: Lots of international schools
Due to its historically large expat population and it being the centre of commerce and diplomacy, foreign families will be pleased to find a large number of international schools in Riyadh. But parents should know that competition for places is high, as are the school fees.
+ PRO: Compound life easy for kids
Taking care of children in compounds often turns out to be a breeze as there is usually affordable domestic help and lots of entertainment amenities to keep them busy. Even outside the compounds, the sprawling desert offers thrilling quad bikes and is a quick flight to places such as Dubai, Qatar and Egypt.
► For an overview of life in Saudi Arabia check out Moving to Saudi Arabia.
Are you an expat living in Riyadh?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Riyadh. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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