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From the conservative culture and the question of women's rights to compound life and Saudi Arabia's complex visa system, expats are sure to have many questions about living and working in the Kingdom. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about expat life in Saudi Arabia.
Where do expats live in Saudi Arabia?
Expats moving to Saudi Arabia will most likely settle in the city that their job designates. Once here, most live in one of the many expat compounds. These are closed and secure communities that provide expats with a number of on-site amenities and a sense of camaraderie among like-minded individuals. They tend to have long waiting lists, though the right sponsor or employer can generally circumvent this.
Are visas necessary to enter and exit Saudi Arabia?
Yes, visas and residence permits are an absolute necessity in Saudi Arabia. Depending on the type of visa needed (business, residence, work, transit), the appropriate documentation will need to be arranged with the help of a local sponsor. It's commonplace for employers to ask to keep the passports of their employees upon entry. However, this is illegal and a finable offence.
What standard of healthcare can be expected?
The level of healthcare in Saudi Arabia is largely similar to that of the US and Europe. It is now mandatory to have some form of healthcare in order to obtain an iqama (work permit). While the Ministry of Health offers universal coverage for locals and public sector expat workers, those in the private sector should organise appropriate insurance with their sponsor.
Are international schools the best option for education in Saudi Arabia?
Yes, especially since there are significant language and cultural barriers for expat children when it comes to public schooling in Saudi Arabia. There is an assortment of international schools available in the country that caters to a variety of languages and curricula. Expats should consider cost, convenience and standard when selecting a school for their children.
What job sectors provide working opportunities in Saudi Arabia?
Historically, the oil and gas industry sectors have been primary areas for job opportunities in Saudi Arabia. However, in addition to these cornerstones, logistics as well as the retail and consumer goods sector are increasingly sharing the limelight with their fossil-fuel counterparts. Nurses, doctors and English-speaking teachers are also actively recruited in Saudi Arabia.
How should expats dress in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia is a country governed by Islamic law, and expats should do their best to respect the prescribed behaviours. The dress code is conservative.
For many years, it was compulsory for all women in Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya (a dark full-length cloak that covers clothing). This law was recently lifted for foreign women in order to encourage tourism, though some prefer to continue to wear an abaya, sometimes paired with a headscarf, to blend in.
Today, the requirement is 'modest dress' – meaning loose-fitting clothes that cover the knees and shoulders. Men should follow this standard too. Within expat compounds, Westerners can dress in the manner familiar to their country of origin.
What rights do women have in Saudi Arabia?
Perhaps the most striking discerning factor between the Western world and Saudi Arabia is the disparity in women’s rights that exists. In Saudi Arabia, society is strictly gender segregated as per Islamic law. Until recently, women were forbidden to drive or enter/exit the country without a male sponsor. Oftentimes they are expected to use separate entrances and isolated areas of public spaces, shops and shopfronts. Although there have been slight reforms in recent years, women in Saudi Arabia are traditionally expected to defer to men and can expect little in the way of independent rights.