The Ultimate Guide to Saudi Life

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The Ultimate Guide To Saudi Life The ultimate Saudi thread……. For all of those unanswered questions…….

As a concerned and caring citizen of The Bored, I sense a number of the longer-standing members (so to speak) are getting rather tired of all the ‘sorry to ask this again, but what’s Saudi like?’ threads. So here it is – The Dean’s Unofficial Guide To The Magic Kingdom.

UXB, Nottmbantam, whufc4life, madmidwife, etc, etc……. read on………. Lionheart, please just tolerate me for a moment, as I will certainly be including some negatives. (I’m also including a brief edited and updated cut-and-paste jobby from something I posted some months ago). If there are any queries about Saudi in future, please just bump this thread up.

And anyone is welcome to add comments later if they feel they have a different view, or that I have missed something out.

Anyway, I’m back in Riyadh myself now, for my FOURTH tour of duty in the last 15 years, although this time it’s only a 6-month project, at least initially, ending in mid-Feb. My opinion is therefore – at the very least – up-to-date.

A number of the other threads/replies have covered a lot of sensible ground, and I quite understand why some of the alarmists are urging caution. However, Saudi is fine once you get used to it, although it has obvious restrictions, especially for a woman/wife. They have to wear an abaya (the black overalls) in public (though not necessarily at work – it depends on the type of work, and whether any men are likely to enter the office), although the need to “Cover Your Hair!” no longer seems to be enforced. It was never the law that you had to – but the muttawa (see below) enjoyed flexing their muscles in pretending it was. Also – the biggest culture shock for most people – women will not be able to drive.

The terror threat seems to have eased somewhat (probably helped by the huge rewards the authorities have been offering for ‘information’ leading to arrests). If anyone has been there before, at a very unstable time, Riyadh in 2008 won’t bother them unduly.

I visit other cities on a regular basis, but have never been based in them full-time. The Eastern region is the most relaxed (Khobar, Dammam, Dhahran), perhaps due to its immediate proximity to the neighbouring island of Bahrain (a wonderful weekend r-and-r destination), while Jeddah in the Western region is more cosmopolitan and business-like, but horribly polluted (you can SEE the brown air on the hottest days).

The East and West are uncomfortably humid during the summer months, but pleasantly mild in winter. Riyadh is in the middle of the desert, so has virtually zero humidity (which makes the scorching summers curiously bearable). There are no rivers in the whole country, so only the coasts ever get the humidity.

Safety/security - The security aspects can be quite daunting at first (six machine gun posts and a couple of armoured cars guard my compound), but it’s everyday life as we know it here. The commanding officer at my compound always stops me to talk about Manchester United – which, come to think of it, is a more terrifying subject than the guns themselves.

Saudi locals - Most people who hang around this website are Dubai-based, although some have also done the Riyadh thing but, as someone who has worked in every GCC country except Qatar, I can tell you that work-wise, the locals you will meet in Saudi are streets ahead of Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and the other local nationalities in the region. Better-educated and genuinely willing to work hard and learn.

The ‘muttawa/muttaween’ – members of an organization known officially as the Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, but essentially self-appointed guardians of all things Islamic. They are NOT – as is sometimes popularly assumed – a sort of ‘religious police’, as they have no powers to act unless accompanied by a police officer. As they are always male (police AND muttawa), and are not allowed to touch, manhandle or arrest a female, their reputation is largely based on intimidation. They seem to have virtually disappeared recently however – not sure why, or if it’s a permanent change.

And Islam has no equivalent to a ‘priesthood’ or ‘clergy’ as such, so there are no officials or staff employed directly by the mosques. The preaching you hear over the mosque loudspeakers is usually done by volunteers.

Employment: obviously it’s tax free as things stand. There are often rumours that do the rounds that tax will be introduced but the big family firms (Olayan, Bin Laden, Juffali, etc) are known to have lobbied the government to resist introducing this, as they fear the loss of their skilled expat workforce.

A similar story applies to “Saudisation” – the official policy aimed at replacing us infidels by locals within a given period of time. In practice, senior Western management will be here for many years to come, but middle managers will gradually be replaced by locals.

Once resident, you will be given an ‘iqama’, a sort of ID card that MUST be carried at all times. Failure to produce it when asked means a mandatory trip to jail for 24 hours, or longer if nobody turns up there to show it to the nice man on your behalf.

I have only spent one night in jail, way back in 1992, but at least I survived the experience – unlike the rat that was staring at me from the corner of the cell. Well, at least I had fresh meat for breakfast……. Anyway you soon learn to carry your iqama with you.

In terms of employment contracts, the previous norm was to get your salary agreed (usually quoted monthly), then the employer added on another bit to cover somewhere to live, travel costs, etc, but now it tends to be a ‘lump sum’ deal, because…..

…….accommodation is a major issue – it is ESSENTIAL to get this sorted out before arriving. Women need the compound lifestyle around them, and this applies to non-working wives as well as working women. Compounds are full right now (with long waiting lists), but a number of employers simply hang on to apartments/villas even when they have nobody to live in them. That is simply because they know they will never get another one if they let that one go.

If the firm is simply offering you an ‘allowance’ instead of actually finding you a place to live, be very blunt and at least ask them for their help in finding you a place. Tell them you have heard there is NO accommodation available. Do NOT assume you can turn up, stay in a hotel for a few days, and then find suitable accommodation. You won’t.

The British School is said to be OK but only goes up to pre-GCSE age groups. To study the Baccalaureate or A Levels, your little angels will have to be sent back to the UK, which of course (depending on your family circumstances) involves considerable extra cost, and social upheaval. Not all packages include school fees, or a contribution to them, but some do. I have no information about waiting lists, etc, but they have a decent website so you can follow up that line of enquiry yourselves.

Cost of living is generally reasonably low, although flats and villas have gone up with the effects of supply and demand. A surprising (considering it’s one bloody great desert) amount of fresh food is grown locally, and is very cheap. Tomatoes to turnips – all locally grown and cheap in the supermarkets here. And the dairy and fresh meat industries are superb – a number of the big farming producers are my clients, and what they produce is usually superb. I have visited the farms and in most cases you could eat off the floor.

Petrol is even cheaper than Dubai – the equivalent of six pounds or thereabouts will fill any gas tank on any car I’m aware of. Cars themselves are about half of the UK price (no VAT, no car tax). Even more so – some of the Asian manufacturers have been dumping cars on the market here (also true of Dubai I believe).

Someone asked about buying a car here – the second hand market is very patchy, but that’s partly because of new cars being so cheap. You need to be resident here (not just a visitor) to buy one. As a ‘temporary contracting consultant’ I cannot buy, but I can rent. Taxis cheap-ish, such that many people never feel the need to buy or rent.

There was also a query about whether GBP 3-4k was enough to get a car – I didn’t fully understand that, so can you please repeat it, whoever you are?

You cannot buy a second-hand car privately without the MOT-style inspection documents being completed – so all purchases and sales are put through an agent anyway (he does all of that in return for a modest fee). The ownership and registration document is known as an ‘istimara’.

Car insurance is officially compulsory, but in practice is still largely voluntary in the second-hand market. As elsewhere in the region, if you are involved in an accident, you MUST wait for the police to turn up and issue the necessary papers apportioning blame, giving repairers authority to proceed, etc.

Usually – if the other driver is a Saudi local, YOU will be told you are to blame, but if you are a white expat, and the other driver is a NON-white expat, HE will be blamed. Which brings me to…..

Social matters - If you are not white, watch out, whatever your nationality. In many ways, it’s even more racist than Dubai. Thousands of non-whites (particularly from the sub-continent) are employed here of course, especially in accounts and finance related roles, but racism is rife. You’ll see it in the passport queues at the airports, which is a hell of a culture shock to first-time visitors.

And of course, for unskilled non-whites (e.g. road sweepers, toilet cleaners, etc), life is virtually equivalent to being a prisoner. Saudis will not do that sort of work. Period. And of course it affects salary negotiations. A Saudi who is only “earning Indian money” is not highly regarded (and, yes, you will hear that expression).

Mrs Lionessheart is African, so she and Lionheart will also have their own views to add. (By the way – does the offer for the Elton John tickets still apply??)

I have probably missed out loads of stuff. If I think of anything else I’ll re-post, or just post your specific queries and I’ll reply to those too.

There - a whole weekend's work just to benefit the readers of The Bored - what a good boy I am........

With many thanks to BE Member "The Dean" who originally wrote this in the ME Forum