A great urban mass rising from the sands of the Najd plateau, Riyadh is a thriving economic hub and home to the Saudi royals. Perhaps lacking the glamour of the neighbouring emirates, the city is extremely conservative and runs according to Sharia law. But once over the culture shock, expats begin to see the city as an adventure, and start to enjoy a land so often isolated and hidden from the rest of the world. Adapting may take time, but it can be richly rewarding.
Working in Riyadh
+ PRO: It pays well
The biggest allure of moving to Riyadh is usually the handsome salaries on offer. The prospect of no income tax is also a massive drawcard. Opportunities for expats can be found in the banking, construction, engineering, medicine and IT sectors, while employment contracts often include car payments, medical cover and education allowances.
- CON: Business is slow during Ramadan
Don't expect to get much done during Ramadan, as most businesses shut down over this period – or at least try to reschedule important meetings for after Eid al-Fitr. Western expats are advised to treat it like the Christmas holidays, but lasting for an entire month.
- CON: Ethnic hierarchies
Expats from different regions seem to receive varying degrees of treatment and pay. Specific countries and ethnicities are often assigned particular roles, with Western expats tending to occupy more managerial positions while nationals from, say, India and the Philippines are hired on the production side of things.
Accommodation in Riyadh
+ PRO: Home comforts
Almost all expats live in compounds consisting of villas and apartments found in the northern and eastern suburbs of Riyadh. It's unusual for Western expats to live outside these compounds. While life in the streets of Riyadh may feel extremely alien to Western expats, the compounds present a more relaxed, familiar way of life. The presence of gyms, shops, restaurants and schools means expats hardly have to leave these compounds.
- CON: Threat of boredom
Having said that, things can get quite stale after a few months in these gated communities. If expats don't push themselves to venture into the rest of Riyadh, they’ll end up running into the same people and may become frustrated, bored and quite disenchanted.
Cost of living in Riyadh
+ PRO: Groceries are well priced
Regular goods such as groceries and electronics are reasonably priced, with most income swallowed up by accommodation costs. The most expensive products will be imports. Also, eating out can be a costly affair, so expats may want to seek out the many indoor and outdoor markets. Petrol is dirt cheap, even if expats are more inclined to hire a driver.
- CON: Expensive digital services
Internet, mobile communication and TV services are all far more expensive than in Western countries, with some estimates putting costs at three times the regular rates.
- CON: High accommodation prices
Rent in expat compounds can also be expensive. Along with a deposit, landlords expect tenants to pay several months to a year of rent in advance. Additionally, tenants must pay for utilities such as water, electricity and gas, with an expected rise during summer when air-cons are required. That said, employers usually include housing allowances in contracts, and some rental costs include certain utilities.
Lifestyle in Riyadh
+ PRO: New shopping experiences
Many of the leisure activities common to Western tastes aren’t present, but Riyadh certainly has a huge array of shops to counter this, with thriving indoor and outdoor souks and sprawling malls.
- CON: Treatment of women
Saudi Arabia is known for its treatment of women who, up until 2018, were not even allowed to drive. They still require permission from their fathers or husbands to marry or enrol at university. Expat wives may not be allowed to work if on their husband’s work visa, and this can be a big change for those used to a more independent lifestyle. Expat women aren't required to wear an abaya (a flowing black robe), but wearing one can be a good way to blend in, and this in itself takes some adjustment.
- CON: Difficult to adapt to Sharia customs
Saudi Arabia operates under Sharia law, existing as a strict Islamic state. Expats should be mindful to respect this, with at least a basic understanding of some cultural expectations and taboos. Expats who follow other faiths may find it quite restricting – though they are free to practise whatever religion they choose in private, it's best to do so out of the public eye so as not to risk being accused of proselytising, which is illegal. Meanwhile, Islam is everywhere, with meetings, events and day-to-day errands scheduled around prayers which happen five times a day.
- CON: Westerners can become bored
Riyadh is a fiercely conservative city, with many Westerners struggling to adapt to its cultural norms and expectations. There is no real nightlife to speak of and alcohol is banned, although many compounds have bars. Some even have their own breweries.
- CON: Bureaucracy
It’s best to be safe when dealing with officials in Riyadh, so expats should be absolutely sure they have up-to-date identification, travel documents and passports. Saudi Arabia is a stickler for red tape, and expats will probably endure their fair share of forms and bureaucratic slogs.
Safety in Riyadh
+ PRO: Very safe
Owing to strict laws and extremely harsh punishments, expats can feel pretty safe in Riyadh. There are usually strong security measures around compounds, with high walls and guards.
- CON: Intolerance
Homosexuality in Saudi Arabia is punishable by death, and this means gay expats in Riyadh should be extremely cautious. Ironically, because of the implementation of gender segregation, many may find it easier to be in gay relationships because same-sex gatherings at parties, restaurants or hotels aren’t viewed with suspicion.
Kids and family in Riyadh
+ PRO: Lots of international schools
Thanks to its historically large expat population and it being the centre of commerce and diplomacy, Riyadh is home to numerous international schools. Parents should know that competition for places is high, though, as are the school fees.
+ PRO: Compound life easy for kids
Taking care of children in compounds often turns out to be a breeze, as there is usually affordable domestic help and lots of entertainment amenities to keep them busy. Even outside the compounds, the sprawling desert offers thrilling adventures such as quad bike rides or four-wheel-drive 'dune bashing', while exciting destinations such as Dubai, Qatar and Egypt are a quick flight away.