Saudi Arabia: What Challenges do Expats Face?

This post is an attempt to answer some specific questions posed by a reader.  Each question has been addressed but please note that each question can also have its own detailed post in regards to the specific challenges an expatriate can face.

Many expatriates will come to Saudi Arabia to work in the medical and education sectors.  That’s not to say they are not employed in other sectors; they are.  However the medical and teaching sectors are most prominent.  An expatriates experiences in working in the teaching or medical sectors really depends on where they are located, who their employer is and the terms of the contract.

Most expatriates in the medical and teaching sector will be housed with other expatriates.  I say most for some of the smaller or lesser known schools or hospitals may offer an expat a contract but may not have all the full standard benefits as larger employers.  Some expats in these sectors may be responsible for finding their own housing rather than living on a compound.  If so, this can be problematic depending on the expat’s familiarity with the area, the ability to know some Arabic, the ability to negotiate a rental contract and budget constraints.

If having to acquire own lodging an expat may wish to first stay someplace like Boudl Suites for a few weeks or months to learn the area(s) which are of interest to live in.  Go by these areas at different hours to get a real feel for the neighborhood.  Look carefully and ask multiple questions about possible places to stay.  Try to find out from others in an apartment building how well the building is maintained or how quickly problems are attended.  Bear in mind that for most rentals (apartments and houses alike) rent is expected to be paid one year in advance.  Some realtors may agree to a six month lease but then the lease would probably be increased at the end of that period.  Oftentimes when rent is paid in advance there is little incentive for a landlord to be prompt on complaints or problems.  It has not been unusual for expats to attend to issues needing attention simply to get them resolved rather than wait on an errant landlord.

If an expatriate does live away from a compound and makes a concentrated effort to learn Arabic, there is a greater opportunity to become involved in the neighborhood community and know neighbors.  Other ways to become involved in local activities are to go to local events, bizarres and/or visit a local Islamic Centre.  Just remember that it may take time to become friends with local residents, especially if a female expat and wishing to know Saudi women.

Bear in mind it is also unusual for a single expat woman to be allowed to live by herself in an apartment or a rental house due to the Kingdom’s strict stance on a male mahrem.  Also for a woman’s own safety reasons, it is best for her to live on a compound.  The exception to this rule is if a woman lives alone in an apartment or a rental house within the diplomatic quarter.  There have been several women who will choose to rent a large apartment or house together in the diplomatic quarter rather than stay at a compound as they feel they have more freedom and independence away from the compound.

If an expatriate is living on a compound near the job, it will make it a little more challenging to meet locals and learn more about local life and customs to a degree.  However if a female expatriate works with some Saudi women she may find herself invited to weddings and perhaps after a solid friendship has been formed to dinner or out shopping.

One question asked is how much does an expat actually learn about Saudi Arabia if living on a compound?  While the knowledge may be filtered, an expat can actually learn a lot, especially with working in the educational or medical sector.  These are areas which bring the expat in touch with many Saudis and their extended families.  An expat will see and experience many of the customs, cultures and traditions.

An expat should not feel shy to invite a Saudi to their home for dinner, keeping in mind the customs and culture and likelihood of segregation.  It is appropriate for an expatriate female to ask some Saudi women over to her home for dinner or dessert.  However the expat should make sure that if she is on a compound if there are special regulations of having Saudi guests.  An expat female should not invite a single Saudi male to her home as a guest.

Traveling to neighboring countries while working in Saudi Arabia may or may not be problematic.  It depends on the Saudi sponsor and ability to apply for respective visas.  Most Saudi sponsors do not provide multiple entry visas so exit visas and reentry visas will be required.  However if permission is granted, there are many interesting places where one can travel over a weekend.  Bear in mind that Saudi’s weekend is Thursday/Friday which does not necessarily apply to the neighboring states.  However I would first recommend taking local trips within Saudi to places of interest before traveling outside of the Kingdom.

It would be interesting to hear of the typical problems expats working in Saudi Arabia have encountered, typical working conditions for various jobs such as teaching English, and how easy it is to mix with the locals if one truly makes an effort to become involved in the community. How much does one typically learn about Saudi Arabia if one is working there living in a compound near the job? How easy is it to travel to neighboring countries while working there? Is permission needed from the sponsor to go away for the weekend? Sorry for all the questions. It is likely that some of these have already been answered previously.


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