Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. A deeply religious country that places Islam and family as the most important things in life, Saudi Arabia expects all citizens and foreigners to respect Islamic and Saudi law.
Saudi Arabia is an interesting country with a large expat population. The coexistence of locals and expats is largely harmonious, as most expats live on compounds, where life is freer than outside. Most expats live in and around three main cities: Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dhanhran/Dammam/Al Khobar.
Saudis are warm, friendly, and interested in foreigners, especially those they know well. The cities are vibrant and the vast beauty of the desert can be mesmerising.
Cultural life, architecture, and creative pursuits are governed by Islamic law, which forbids representations of humans and idolatry and is censored at all levels. Music, dance, and Bedouin poetry are the centres of cultural life. Food is one of the few ways Saudis can indulge, and thus the food is, on the whole, interesting, filling, and delicious.
Religion is an underlying principle in all areas of Saudi life, including business. If Allah wills it, it will happen, and keeping this in mind will help foreigners understand how the business culture works.
As in much of the Middle East, business relationships are based on trust. Nepotism is rife as it ensures trust between employer and employee. Many Saudi businesses are built around family units, with senior positions held by senior family members. It’s important to maintain a wide network of associates and invest time in work relationships, especially in a society as connected as Saudi.
Decisions are often made slowly, as Saudi society is bureaucratic and decisions require many levels of approval. Pressure or comment on this way of working can damage relationships beyond repair.
Business meetings often have no clearly defined agenda or time limit, though most should be scheduled well in advance. Expats are expected to arrive on time, though it is an accepted custom to keep foreigners waiting. Small talk is expected before getting down to the details. Asking about someone’s family is fine, but refrain from asking about any female members in particular. Expect frequent interruptions. Meetings may also be cancelled at the last minute.
The weekend is Friday and Saturday.
Expats are expected to respect the Holy Month of Ramadan and refrain from eating, drinking, cigarette smoking, and gum chewing in public. The workday is restricted to six hours.
Expat spouses need their own work visas to work, and must have permission from their husbands. They will be expected to wear an abaya and the clothing beneath must cover the collarbone, elbows, and knees. Women may not have meetings with Saudi men without another male in her party.
Saudi Arabia requires an exit visa to leave, which must be approved by the sponsoring company.
All salaries are tax-free and are usually higher than those in the US or Europe for the same work. Savings potential depends on lifestyle.
Islam is at the heart of most laws in Saudi Arabia, and all foreigners must ensure they abide by Saudi law. Everything stops at the call to prayer, five times daily. The Muslim Holy Day is Friday and many places close on Thursday, too. Religions other than Islam must only be practiced in the privacy of one’s home.
Saudis take their responsibility to their families seriously. Extended families are large and tight, and the family and tribe are the basis of their social structure.
Alcohol and pork are strictly forbidden, as are the theater and cinema.
Both work and social lives are strictly divided by gender. Outside the family circle, men and women do not mix at all. Dress is conservative for both men and women. Women must wear an abaya in public. Men should not wear shorts in public.
Photography is not permitted in Saudi Arabia, but this is a loose law; be careful not to photograph anyone without his or her permission. It is also best not to photograph any building, place or installation without seeking permission.
In the three main cities, supermarkets carry most Western products. Shopping malls have familiar brand names, and a wide range of medicine is available without a prescription.
Summers are hot and dry, though it gets very cold at night. Consider buying a space heater before the winter arrives.
Compound living is common for Saudi expats. Compounds often include swimming pools, gyms, spas, sports clinics, bowling alleys, and restaurants, as well as active social calendars. To learn more about life inside a compound, click here.
It is illegal for women to drive. Men must obtain a Saudi license within three months of relocating.
The train system is underdeveloped, although the bus system is reliable if slow. Four airports serve the country.
Within Saudi Arabia, the fascinating city of Madain Saleh includes stone-carved temples by the Nabataeans, who carved the city of Petra and chose this as their second city. Sweeping sands and beautiful rock formations make this a must-see. The Red Sea reefs make the coast a popular destination for scuba divers.