A modern metropolis with skyscrapers that emerge from the desert like a mirage, the Saudi capital was once a small oasis known for its palm trees and dates.
Now, expats move to Riyadh to advance their careers in Saudi Arabia's commercial hub. Foreigners make up almost half of the city’s population, which can be a reassuring factor for those who are wary of its strict Islamic laws. But expats are bound to experience some culture shock in Riyadh.
The city is one of Saudi Arabia’s most conservative, with Muslim prayers that occur five times a day dictating the daily rhythm of life. New arrivals often struggle to adjust to a restrictive social environment where alcohol is banned.
The climate is another factor to contend with; summer temperatures can skyrocket over 122°F (50⁰C) and the dry winds that blow through the city are often accompanied by a haze of sand.
Most Western expats live in residential compounds in the northern and eastern suburbs of Riyadh. In some of them, life is more liberal than the general situation might suggest. Men and women socialise more freely in these neighbourhoods. These self-contained developments have all the modern amenities expats might need, including shops, gyms, tennis courts and schools. Lower-level employees tend to live downtown.
With its strict Sharia laws, there isn’t much crime in Riyadh. Despite some concerns over the threat of terrorism, security around Western compounds is tight and if expats follow their respective governments’ travel advisories, they should be safe.
The biggest risk for expats is driving in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has a poor road safety record and erratic driving and high speeds are the norm. An integrated bus and metro system is scheduled to start operating in 2021, but as it stands, most expats use taxis and their own vehicles.
Despite its glitzy malls and futuristic architecture, Riyadh is very much an Arabic city. If the ancient mosques dotting its tree-lined highways aren’t enough of a reminder, the strict adherence to Islamic law will be. Moving to Riyadh is often a challenging experience, but one that can be financially rewarding and culturally enriching for expats who approach it with an open mind.