The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an oil-rich, conservative Middle Eastern country where Islam is the dominating force. Expats seldom move to Saudi Arabia for the lifestyle, the weather, the food or any of the enticements other expat destinations may offer. Rather, Westerners tend to move there for financial reasons and remain sequestered in Western-style compounds, far removed from real Saudi life while earning their tax-free salaries.

Expat life in Saudi Arabia is intensely social as fellow immigrants develop strong, quickly formed bonds. Weekends are often centred on compound get-togethers, trips to the desert and diving excursions. The camaraderie and parties are second to none, but the artificial lifestyle can be difficult to sustain.

Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia law, and Islam is closely interwoven with daily life. It's essential that expats become familiar with Islamic customs and laws to avoid transgression and the consequences thereof. Although foreigners are allowed to practice their own religion in private, proselytising is strictly forbidden. There are harsh consequences for those disobeying Islamic laws and flouting local customs.

Expat women, in particular, may struggle to adjust to life in Saudi Arabia, especially if moving there as a “trailing spouse”. Many of the freedoms they enjoyed back home are no longer available. Women are expected to wear an abaya, a long, flowing black robe, when out in public, and are not usually allowed to work if living there as part of their husband’s visa.

Most expats in Saudi Arabia live in Jeddah and Riyadh, both of which have the full range of Western amenities, a good selection of accommodation, and most of the Kingdom’s employers. Some expats may also find themselves drawn to Saudi's Eastern Province, pulled by lucrative job offers in the hydrocarbon sector.

Foreign children are not able to attend Saudi public schools, but there are numerous international schools catering to the international community. The standard of education at these schools varies. Due to the high demand, space is often limited and parents should consider applying as early as possible to get a place for their child in their school of choice. Fees can also be exorbitant. Expats should factor these costs into their contract negotiations when considering a move to Saudi Arabia.

Working and living in Saudi Arabia is best treated as an adventure and new life experience. The key is to make sure one is going for the right reason – if it’s solely to make money, think again. Expats need to see a move to Saudi as a package of career advancement, cultural experience and financial enrichment.

Fast facts

Population: 33 million

Capital city: Riyadh (also largest city)

Other major cities: Jeddah, Damman, Mecca

Neighbouring countries: Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait to the north, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates to the east, and Oman and Yemen to the south.

Political system: Islamic absolute monarchy

Geography: Saudi Arabia is made up mostly of desert. The population is distributed in the eastern and western coastal towns as well as the interior oases, but much of the country remains empty desert. 

Main languages: Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken and understood in business.

Major religions: Saudi Arabia is a strict Islamic country governed by Sharia law. Although other religions can be practised in private, proselytising is strictly forbidden.

Money: The official currency is the Saudi riyal (SAR), divided into 100 halala. The country has a well-established banking system and expats are able to open a local bank account in Saudi Arabia.

Tipping: 10 percent

Time: GMT+3

Electricity: 110 volts, 50Hz in main cities, but expats in remote areas may encounter 220 volts, 60Hz.

International dialling code: +966

Internet domain: .sa

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the right side of the road in Saudi Arabia. Most expats get around in their own vehicles or with a personal driver.

Emergency numbers: 999 (police); 997 (ambulance); 998 (fire)

Education: Foreign children don't have access to local public schools. There is a range of international schools catering to the expat community, although the standard of education can be variable.