Saudi Arabia: What Makes a Good Expatriate?

Expatriates generally come to Saudi Arabia for an employment opportunity.  A smaller percentage of expatriates find themselves in Saudi Arabia either as dependents of another expatriate or as the foreign spouse of a Saudi man.  I am not factoring in those expatriates who come to the Kingdom each year to perform umrah or Hajj.  This post focuses on those who have come to the Kingdom to take up residency for a period of time.

Each expatriate in the Kingdom by virtue of being a foreigner becomes an automatic “goodwill ambassador” of their own respective country.  To the Saudis who have not had the experience of traveling outside of the Kingdom, the expatriate will be the representative of his or her respective country to them.  Therefore what makes a good expatriate?

The question should be a “no-brainer” yet in actuality as I am sure this post will illustrate, the answer may differ depending on who responds and whether a respondent is a Saudi or an expatriate within Saudi Arabia.

Making my own short list of criteria, a good expatriate will:

  • Arrive with their best foot forward.
  • Be cognizant of customs, culture and tradition.
  • Will not expect their own customs, cultures and traditions to supersede those of Saudi Arabia.
  • Want to know and learn more about Saudi Arabia and its people.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Disagree with dignity.
  • Comply with the laws.
  • Explore Saudi Arabia as opportunities allow.
  • Do not remain within an “expatriate bubble” such as contained to a compound.
  • Not purposely associate only with other expatriates.
  • Remember that he or she can leave a lasting impression on Saudis about expatriates.


What do YOU believe makes an individual a good expatriate in Saudi Arabia?  Better yet, share your experiences of someone you believe is or has been an excellent exemplar of an expatriate in Saudi Arabia.  A generic description rather than identifying an individual by name is acceptable.


18 Responses

  1. Nicely presented question. I am an Indian expat in Saudi Arabia. Have been living here for about 3 yrs now. Before arriving here, i had a lot of misconceptions both about Islam and the Saudis, Sad to say this, but many of them still hold water. I have always abided by the laws here, have made friends with almost all my neighbours in the apartments we live, but mostly Indians. Though i love to socialise with local women, the avenues for such meetings are less, and i happen to see them only in shopping malls. One notion that totally changed was the fact that most Saudi people are lazy. But astonishingly, on my long tours to the far south of the Kingdom from the North, i have seen men who work, toil and are sincere. We saw a gentleman in a traffic signal in Wadi Dawaser and asked him for directions to Riyadh. He was returning from work, his pick up stuffed with grass. He was kind enough to give us the right direction and said these words- ” I like Hindi. Marhaba”. That was the best compliment we ever had from some one in the Kingdom. I never had a bhurkha earlier, owned one when i came here;) But i have learnt to cover my head properly and go out in full hijab. I have learnt a lot about Saudi culture and try to visit cultural fairs wherever possible. Many Indians who come here abide by the laws perfectly, especially the Muslims.

  2. Thanks, Cloud Nine for sharing your perspectives and experiences. I know that for many expats who come from what is viewed as “3rd world countries” have additional challenges as expatriates in Saudi as compared to ‘Westerners’ who come to the Kingdom.

    It is challenging for expatriate women and Saudi women to be able to meet and really chat with one another. Probably, without the benefit of specific organizations to facilitate opportunities, the best way for an expatriate woman to get to know Saudi women is to go to a local Islamic Centre. However it is a given that any woman who does visit an Islamic Centre will likely be approached by well-intentioned women who would want her to convert to Islam.

    When I was in Riyadh a Saudi friend and I had started a group we called “WEE,” Women Exchange Experience. She invited Saudi friends, I invited expatriate friends. In turn we asked friends to invite friends. It was really growing and popular. However the group and the initiative got abandoned when my husband was diagnosed with his cancer. No one else was comfortable with taking the initiative to continue WEE. I wish it could be re-instituted. We met monthly and always had an agenda towards facilitating understanding of the different nationalities present. We also had a monthly newsletter too. If another woman in Saudi, whether expatriate or Saudi wishes to try and get a WEE going again, I’m happy to do what I can to assist from afar. A woman only needs to email me at

  3. That was a cool idea carol, In saudi it’s hardto meet saudi women nthei oun territory, so i think expats stick together, the first step would be to make friends with women who ar married to sudi and slowly build bridges from there.

    Your list makes sense, irrespetive of if it’s nice or not or fir or not, i’d abide by the loacl customs, i think it’ important for anexpat to realise that it’s more like a long cultural vacation . It’s nice to be able to sit back and soak up the different ways of that place.
    I envy those who can be expats and dplomats, it thinkit’s a vry rewarding experience.and so much possibilities ot have frinds from around the world.

  4. Thanks, Radha! I enjoyed each and every moment of my diplomatic and expatriate life. I think most successful expats, as in those who adapt and adjust easily to differing cultures and traditions have an innate desire for adventure!

  5. Dear Carol, one imporatant issue here is the respect the Westerners get from Arabs and the seemingly off the hook remarks and ‘i dont care’ attitude towards other expats, especially Indians. We are always looked down as the less-fortunate ones. I just wanted to ask, why is this? Even in corporate offices, the treatment to Saudis, Europeans and Americans is different and that meted out to Indians, Pakistanis and Filippinos is totally different, starting from pay to basic courtsies. Saudization is a good drive, but many of those who derive the benefit of the so-called scheme never attend office, leave alone work! Even in allotment of an office vehicle, a Brit has prcedence to the latest and new vehicle, the Indian gets a weathered pick up…My husband is a manager with a 7 yr old car, whereas another British colleague, same portfolio has a brand new one, specially ordered for him:( How is my husband’s service lesser than him, i cannot comprehend:(

  6. Cloud Nine:

    I hate to agree with you on this matter but I do. I am an Australian and work with predominantly Indian colleagues and there is sometimes a very obvious difference between the way I am spoken to and the way they are by our superiors. I have discussed this with one of my colleagues (who is in a higher position than I am) who claims that due to her sex and the colour of her skin she often receives a very negative attitude from her bosses. However, the same people will treat me with a much higher level of respect.

    I don’t like it one bit and have let her know that I think its absurd for me to be treated better than her, someone who has significantly higher qualifications than myself. It doesn’t make sense.

  7. […] Bedu, an American living in Saudi Arabia, shares with us her tips on what makes a good expatriate in Saudi […]

  8. I have to say in defense of many saudi’s not all are like that, a majority are but i have worked with some amazing collegues that that treated me with respect and friendship.

    Of course there are most other saudi’s who treat non westerm people especially women like crap, so no surprises there.
    A few of my collegues did look down on me but were scared to do it openly– see it’s not a good plan to piss of the big neuro guy by being nasty to his wife.

    I would say don’t let it botehr you, it’s not right or the act of a good person but there is also such a thing as social conditioning, i don’t think they can be taught to change overnight or change at all, it’s their country if they want to treat non-westerners badly then there is a choice, don’t go there or go there get your money & leave 🙂

    i think it’s more hurtful when family does it, random strangers thinking i was the maid didn’t bother me. but whenf’s family did it it hurt ,and you learn to cope, and dish it out . Insult me no access to my family – for anything…

    But for all this bad attitute and blatent discrimination i enjoyed the friends i had & enjoyed saudi. i just want to say not everyone is like that, the educated ones were slowly changing…there’s nothing we can do from outside, that’s social conditioning.

  9. Thanks, Radha! I enjoyed each and every moment of my diplomatic and expatriate life. I think most successful expats, as in those who adapt and adjust easily to differing cultures and traditions have an innate desire for adventure!

  10. Cloud Nine:

    Subservience to hegemony has a trickle-down effect.

    That’s my sticking it to the man.

    And yes, many Saudis have a complex regarding skin color (eyes and hair especially). The running joke here is that a man will go to his mother and ask for a woman of fair skin, blond hair, blue eyes…..but she has to be Saudi.

    My own mother as a child used to make me tame my curly (messy in her words) hair, and always adored my cousin’s straight blond hair (quarter German). As a grown up I’ve not hesitated to point this out to her and explain how racist it is, how for a while I experienced self-loathing towards my own appearance that I otherwise would not have had she not kept associating beauty with straight hair and fair skin.

    Now only Mathew Maconahay turns me on. Can’t help it. Anyone know of a look-alike? 😛

    In any case, fair skin is ‘desired’, darker skin is ‘shunned’, and it is ingrained in one’s subconscious. I have been called Indian (which I am not, but it’s fun confusing people) on too many occasions by other Saudis to count on my hands, and that label doesn’t hurt me. It’s the fact that there is some derogatory connotation to it, i.e. you’re not really one of us, you’re not originally Saudi, you’re a subhuman….

    But that’s not the whole story.

    Indians, Pakistanis, and other 3rd world expats are usually treated worse because they have traditionally served the role of…….guessed it?

    Chauffeurs, maids, construction work, heavy lifters….. all those jobs that have a Saudi playing the role of the boss or manager or whatever…..there are obviously no Australian drivers here.

    So, you’re treated differently.

    Even I have to deal with it.

  11. Sadly it has been explained well by those who have commented previously on the distinctions of expats. Although not mentioned, there are pay scales for expats based on nationality. Yes; two expats from differing countries can be in the same position, same job yet have different salaries due to nationality.

  12. Saudi Arabia joined the WTO (World Trade Organization) so it has automatically set itself up to changes that should be more in line with American/western thinking on human rights issues and women’s rights.

    I do not think it is shameful to want or expect what is written in a contract….for marriage or otherwise in any foreign country. I’m happy to see the positive changes that King Abdullah has made during his rein, and I hope that all future Kings will follow his lead.

  13. Occupied Brain- I dont see a valid point when you say third wrlders do odd jobs ab=nd so they are treated like that. I am stating a particular case here, an INDIAN MANAGER. Must he be treated like a labour is my question here. One thing i must point out here, atleast third worlders do a day’s honest work, rather than many of those Saudis who are enjoying the benefits of Saudization of attending office once or twicw a month and signing rolls to get a handsome salary. One must give respect to some one who works, not sitting at home lazy and unoccupied.

  14. @Cloud nine,

    my point was:

    this is how Saudis are accustomed to dealing with Indians and Pakistanis. Again, I’ve been at the brunt of such behavior until I state that I am Saudi, then I am given some mumbling apologies.

    And yes, your question is valid. No, that’s not how they should be treated, which is why I believe that laws should be instated to protect their right to being treated just like anybody else.

    One thing i must point out here, atleast third worlders do a day’s honest work, rather than many of those Saudis who are enjoying the benefits of Saudization of attending office once or twicw a month and signing rolls to get a handsome salary. One must give respect to some one who works, not sitting at home lazy and unoccupied.

    I agree, though there are also many Saudis who do an honest day’s work or are unemployed and cannot find work even though they have good credentials. You have only to check the news.

  15. A case in point; I know an outstanding Bangladeshi doctor in Saudi Arabia. He is highly respected at the work place yet when he is outside, say at a market or elsewhere, he is viewed as “just another Bangla expat.” It is not right, as occupied pointed out and is a mindset that somehow needs to be changed.

  16. There is always the Golden Rule to live by: Treat others as you want to be treated. I never run into trouble as I try to treat each person as an individual due my respect regardless of their social or education ranking. I listen as intently to the workers on our construction project as I do to our highly educated professional engineers. If we run into any of the people I know at any of the shopping malls, I say hello to them shake their hand and introduce them to my wife. We of course observe the customs and culture of the Saudis as we are guest in their country. We have attended Beduion weddings as friends of the groom and my wife has had a great time. We have Saudi, Philipino, Indian, Pakistan, Philistine, Jordian, Sudan, Syrian and Egyptian friends in which we have shared meals in each others homes. we play with their children as they do and if they have any problems I try to help them as I would my own children. Anyone who lives on a compound misses making these connections and truly being able to enjoy life here in Saudi Arabia. My wife is still amazed sometimes as people stop us in stores and say hello to me like I am their long lost brother. It all goes back to treating one as one wants to be treated with respect and dignity for the human being.

  17. @Gene,

    that’s really hopeful for me, that this sort of respect and multiculturalism can become a vibrant and integral part of the lives of Saudis. Really enjoyed your comment.

    It’s still only one part of the big picture, IMHO.

    There’s, of course, the legal recourse that should be instated and available to anyone who is not given the same quality of treatment as Saudis would wrt the workplace, restaurants, businesses, etc. And there’s the racism, which is a problem and does exist, like in many other places.

  18. @Gene- I do sincerely wish u come out of your compound once and see what life is for other poor immigrants:( I have been here for 3 years, have not even said a word more than a Salam to the Arab women in the restrooms. Leave alone socialising. Racism exists in the most primitive form here and even if u paint a rosy picture of equality, there is no undenying the fact- Racism is here to stay…

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