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Most people move to Saudi Arabia on lucrative employment contracts that include free or heavily subsidised housing, furniture and utilities.
Traditionally, expat housing in Saudi Arabia takes the form of Western-style compound living. With high demand for spots in these compounds, however, more foreigners have started renting housing from the local market.
Navigating the rental markets in Saudi Arabian cities is not easy. Even though agents and landlords generally communicate well in English, most of the documents remain in Arabic. For this reason, it is always best for expats to enlist the help of their employer, an agent or a property lawyer when looking to rent property in the Kingdom.
Types of accommodation in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabian expat compounds first emerged in the early 1980s as a way for the expat community to maintain the lifestyle they were familiar with, despite the country’s conservative Islamic law.
Complexes can vary in size from small groupings of houses to sprawling collections of villas. These residences are walled and guarded, and lauded by expats for their ability to provide an assortment of amenities within, while largely keeping out the mutaween (Saudi Arabian religious police).
The compounds rate anywhere from three to five stars. This type of housing can come furnished and fully equipped for residents to move in and out with ease. On-site facilities can include swimming pools, tennis courts, libraries, shopping centres, restaurants, bars and even schools.
In addition to the creature comforts that the self-contained space allows, the neighbourhoods also cultivate opportunities for expats to meet people who share their culture and language, and to create relationships that ease their transition into new communities.
As these compounds are in increasingly high demand, accommodation in a compound can be hard to attain – waiting lists can stretch anywhere from six to 18 months. Additionally, a full year's rent must typically be paid upfront before tenants are able to move in.
Most expats moving to Saudi Arabia for work will have some kind of accommodation benefit included in their contract. Many companies keep a number of houses in a particular compound for their own employees and in some cases, rent is entirely paid for and organised by the employer. The downside of this is less choice, but it certainly eases the process.
In other cases, companies may be willing to pay the year's rent upfront on behalf of the employee, with the understanding that the money will be paid back through a monthly salary deduction. Expats should make sure they know the full details of any accommodation benefits offered by their employer.
Housing in local neighbourhoods
Beyond the high walls of the expat compounds, new arrivals will find the hustle and bustle of Saudi Arabian residential areas. Expats who don't want to live in a compound have the option of renting in a local neighbourhood. Typically, expats would then rent an apartment or villa.
First, expats should decide which neighbourhood will best suit their needs. Then they should spend time driving through the area and looking for 'For Rent' signs outside villas. Property owners will often advertise a vacancy in this manner rather than listing with local realtors. Consulting with local merchants in the area is also a good way to identify availability and get the best deal possible.
Expats should make sure to inspect their potential new home carefully. It is wise to hire an engineer to inspect electrical wiring and plumbing. While this may appear to be an unnecessary hassle, landlords in Saudi Arabia can be neglectful once they’ve received their annual payment upfront.
Villas and apartments in Saudi Arabia vary in price depending on size, location and amenities. When looking for housing in Saudi Arabia, expats should bring a native Arabic speaker along to help field enquiries and establish trust between all the negotiating parties.
Accommodation in Saudi Arabia is generally furnished. However, the definition of 'furnished' can differ greatly – it can simply include some basic items of furniture or have a full provision of items including bedding, cutlery and crockery.
Finding accommodation in Saudi Arabia
In most cases, the stress of finding accommodation is not an issue for expats in Saudi Arabia, as their employer will handle it. In rare cases where an expat is looking for a place on their own steam, they can begin their search online. Online portals will give expats an idea of what is available and what facilities are provided by each complex.
The best option, though, is to enlist the services of a real estate agent. These professionals are knowledgable about the property market of the given city and can advise on which complexes are most suitable. Some compounds are highly popular and operate waiting lists. The advantage of using an estate agent is that they may have connections that enable their clients to find out about available spots in such places.
Renting accommodation in Saudi Arabia
Signing a lease
To be valid in court, all leases in Saudi Arabia must be registered on Ejar, an electronic services network created by the Ministry of Housing (MOH). The network is designed to streamline communication between tenants, agents and owners. The MOH has also issued a standard lease template known as the Ejar Unified Contract – to register a lease on the platform, users are required to make use of this standard lease format.
Terminating a lease
In Saudi Arabia, tenants are typically required to give at least one month's notice before terminating a lease agreement. Additionally, landlords may have the right to terminate the lease in certain situations, such as if the tenant fails to pay rent on time or damages the property.
Rent is typically paid either annually, twice a year or once every two months. In addition to paying a determined amount of rent upfront, tenants are normally required to provide a refundable deposit that is equal to one or two months' rent. In the event of damage to the property, furniture or appliances, the landlord will be entitled to use this security deposit for repairs.
In general, pets are not allowed in apartments in Saudi Arabia, although some landlords may make exceptions. It's a good idea to ask beforehand. Additionally, although many Saudis keep dogs, they are considered unclean in Islamic culture and are generally not allowed in public.
Short-term lets for a few weeks or months are not common in Saudi Arabia, and most rental agreements are for longer periods. However, some furnished apartments may be available for shorter-term leases, particularly in larger cities and tourist destinations.
Landlords or property management companies may require expats to provide references from previous landlords or their employers. Additionally, some landlords may conduct background checks to ensure that tenants have a clean criminal record.
Generally, most rental prices in Saudi Arabia will be inclusive of all basic utilities such as water, gas, electricity, telephone line rental and internet. Rent for compound properties will normally include all service charges such as cleaning and maintenance of communal areas of the complex.
In case tenants have to set up and pay their own utilities, they will have to coordinate with a few different suppliers, most of them state-run public companies. The Saudi government has streamlined this process through their online portal, Hesabi ('my account' in Arabic). Here, they can view and pay their water and electricity bills and access information related to other utilities, such as local gas providers, waste management and recycling and environmental initiatives.