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Moving to Saudi Arabia can be daunting for even the most seasoned expat and can be difficult to adjust to. This sense of cultural dislocation can take a long time to wear off. It’s vital that expats maintain a positive outlook and an open mind during this time.
Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative Islamic state and Islam dominates all aspects of life in the Kingdom. Expats will find that many of the freedoms they enjoyed back home are strictly regulated. That said, the feeling of culture shock in Saudi Arabia may be tempered somewhat if living within a Western compound. Many Western food franchises also thrive here, the shopping malls are similar to Western malls, and satellite television can provide favourite shows from home. Though more comfortable, life in a compound is also often insular.
Still, the best method for stifling cynicism and countering culture shock is for expats to educate themselves as much as possible regarding the daily rhythms of life in Saudi Arabia.
Religion in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is characterised by a deeply conservative Islamic culture that governs virtually all facets of life. Sharia, a version of religious law that ordains the way Muslims should live their life and the path they should follow, is a force to be reckoned with and, beyond all else, respected. Its adaptations and interpretations extend to affect politics, economics, family life, business, sexuality and even hygiene. In Saudi Arabia, religious courts govern all aspects of jurisprudence and the Mutaween (religious police) are the keepers of social compliance.
While non-Muslims are allowed to practise their religion in the privacy of their own homes, proselytising is strictly forbidden. Those caught trying to spread any other religion will be harshly dealt with, so it's generally best to avoid openly speaking about religion.
Daily life in Saudi Arabia revolves around Muslim prayer, which occurs five times a day. During this time, most activities come to a standstill and businesses close. Carrying out simple daily tasks and scheduling meetings and appointments can therefore be frustrating, but it’s something expats soon adjust to.
Women in Saudi Arabia
Saudi culture imposes distinct roles based on gender in society. Women may struggle to adapt to what they perceive to be misogynistic expectations that, for instance, they cover their clothes with an abaya (long, flowing black or dark-coloured robe). This is no longer required by law, as it once was, but it is a good way to blend in.
It should be noted that there have been some positive changes in the Kingdom in recent times. New legislation has been passed that allows women to drive, and thousands of women are now getting their driver’s licences for the first time. Saudi women still fall under the guardianship of a male relative – usually their father or husband – and require permission for a number of activities. This guardianship ends at the age of 21.
Homosexuality in Saudi Arabia
One of the perplexing aspects about living in Saudi Arabia is that, while homosexual acts are, in theory, punishable by death, gay life flourishes. As long as LGBTQ+ individuals in the country maintain a public front of respect for the strict Wahhabist rules, they are left to do what they want in private.
Compound living in Saudi Arabia
Most Western expats living in Saudi Arabia reside in expat compounds, which have full amenities and are often isolated from real Saudi society. Life within the Western compounds can also help dispel the initial glum, grim perception of a society that greatly limits individual freedoms. Behind the high walls and stoic security of these complexes, expats have the opportunity to indulge in many of the activities reminiscent of their homelands.
Censorship in Saudi Arabia
Many aspects of life are controlled in Saudi Arabia, and it goes without saying that censorship is widespread. Although theatres, once banned, are making a comeback, many movies and television shows are censored for immorality or causing political offence. Freedom of the press and free speech are also not recognised by the government.
Food and alcohol in Saudi Arabia
Islamic law forbids the consumption of pork, so expats fond of this protein will have to find an alternative. Alcoholic beverages are also illegal throughout Saudi Arabia; although in practice, alcohol is consumed inside Western compounds with many expats having taken to brewing their own alcohol. The penalty for importing alcohol into the country, however, is severe.
Cultural etiquette tips for Saudi Arabia
The left hand is considered unclean. Only shake hands or receive a gift with the right hand, and avoid eating with the left hand.
Never make physical contact in public with a woman who is not a relative
Public displays of affection should definitely be avoided. Eye contact between a man and a woman is discouraged in public.
Always comply with the instructions of the Mutaween if stopped in public and instructed to do something, such as put a headscarf on
Alcohol is banned and should never be consumed in public
During the holy month of Ramadan all religious customs should be respected; do not eat, drink or smoke in public during this time