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Moving to Riyadh

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.

Working in Riyadh

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is transforming into one of the world’s most competitive economies and has long attracted workers from other countries.

Expats working in Riyadh find themselves in the Saudi capital, a hub of commerce and industry. As the city’s infrastructure expands, so do opportunities in banking, construction, engineering, IT and medicine.

Skilled expats are usually managed in a fair but controlled way, are paid well and rewarded for their efforts.

Salaries in Saudi Arabia are usually similar to or greater than those paid in Western countries, and no personal income tax usually means great net income. Provisions for medical cover, car payments, education, paid annual leave and air tickets back home are frequently included in contract packages.

The working week in Riyadh is Sunday to Thursday and employees are expected to work for between 40 and 48 hours in a week, depending on their employer.


Sponsorship for working in Riyadh

All expats need a sponsor to live or work in Riyadh. The sponsor acts as a type of guardian and guarantor for paperwork, including Saudi visa applications, opening a bank account, buying a car or renting accommodation.

Sponsoring employers can be government organisations, individuals, companies or institutions like hospitals and banks.

Most contract and freelance appointments are made outside Saudi Arabia because of its strict visa regulations. Very few expats arrive in Riyadh looking for a job, and those who do usually have local contacts.


Recruitment agencies for Riyadh

Most of the companies that recruit expats aren’t based in Riyadh and operate outside the Kingdom. Many agencies specialise in particular areas of work like medical and nursing staff, teaching, accountants, construction, executives and office staff. Employers normally pay agency and consultancy fees.


Teaching English in Riyadh

There is a growing demand for English teachers in Riyadh as the population of school-going children increases. The English language acts as a bridge between locals and expats, and staff in hotels, airports, hospitals and other services are often required to speak the language.

English is taught as a second language in Saudi public schools, but there are few native speakers in the city. Private English lessons are popular with local families and can be a good source of employment for trailing spouses.

Qualified expats also have opportunities at numerous language centres and private schools in Riyadh, while those fluent in English and Arabic could work as translators and interpreters.


Business etiquette in Riyadh

Expats working in Riyadh will most likely need to educate themselves about local workplace etiquette. It’s the most conservative city in Saudi Arabia, so customs in the business world should be respected and adhered to.

  • Never show bare shoulders, stomach, calves and thighs

  • Visitors are expected to abide by local standards of modesty. Avoid discussing political and religious issues.

  • Men should avoid wearing visible jewellery, particularly around the neck

  • Women should always wear modest clothing in public

Accommodation in Riyadh

Expats looking for accommodation in Riyadh can choose from numerous Western-style compounds. However, availability can be limited despite the variety. It’s therefore often best to have the help of a sponsoring employer during the house-hunting process.


Types of property in Riyadh

There is not a great deal of choice when it comes to accommodation options in Riyadh. Expats are generally restricted to living in expat compounds. Apart from availability, individual needs and personal preferences dictate which compounds expats are interested in.
 
These self-contained complexes vary in size from small apartment clusters to sprawling collections of villas. They’re usually walled, guarded and include amenities like gyms, clinics, restaurants, shops and schools.
 
The restrictive rules of normal Saudi life can feel far away within these secluded neighbourhoods. The Mutaween seldom enters and expats have more opportunities to foster relationships with fellow expats that ease the transition. Women can also socialise freely inside compounds, and don’t have to wear the abaya.


Renting property in Riyadh 

Demand for compound housing is high among Riyadh's expat population and rental prices are expensive. 

Rent is usually expected to be paid six months to a year in advance. A deposit of 10 percent of the annual rent is also standard. Service charges and maintenance are usually included, but tenants are responsible for paying utilities like electricity, gas and water.

For many expats working in Riyadh, employers will supply accommodation in a Western compound or at least be in a position to be able to assist in the process of finding a home. It’s important that expats discuss getting a housing allowance during contract negotiations. This could be a specific sum of money, a percentage of their salary, or, as with some larger companies, even the provision of a property.

Areas and suburbs in Riyadh

Most Western expats who relocate to Riyadh have their accommodation needs taken care of by their employer. As such, they will usually be housed in a Western compound in the northern or eastern suburbs of Riyadh within close proximity to their place of work.

The decision on which neighbourhood in Riyadh to choose is therefore out of most expats' hands. Compound living tends to be a self-contained affair as most people, especially women, rarely venture out beyond their compound. Many compounds come equipped with a range of facilities such as gyms, grocery stores, laundry facilities, cafés and shops.

Here is a brief overview of the Riyadh neighbourhoods that host a large expat population.

Al Olaya and Sulaymaniyah

These areas are part of Riyadh’s business district to the north of the city. For those with offices in the centre of the city, the manageable commute is the major advantage of living in Al Olaya and Sulaymaniyah, although the housing in these areas tends to be smaller and the surroundings less spacious. This type of accommodation is most suitable for young professionals who want to live close to the office and are less interested in having access to large recreational spaces. Living here also offers residents access to a number of shopping malls which offer a good escape from compound living.

Al Muhammadiyah

This is a prestigious neighbourhood in Riyadh. Accommodation within Al Muhammadiyah's Western compounds tend to be sought after. Properties are usually spacious and luxurious, and compounds here have great facilities which give residents little reason to leave. However, the surrounding area is also home to a number of good top-end restaurants which are excellent for residents who are looking to treat themselves. 

Al Nakheel

Al Nakheel is another popular expat neighbourhood in Riyadh. There are lots of luxury complexes in this area and it is particularly popular with families due to the presence of a number of good international schools. Most complexes in Al Nakheel have lots of housing options suitable for families with larger properties with gardens. Some compounds here even have preschools onsite.

Healthcare in Riyadh

Healthcare in Riyadh is given priority. Expats have access to numerous public and private facilities. The capital's hospitals provide complete medical care and expats usually only travel abroad for highly specialised treatment.
 
For the most part, doctors in Riyadh speak English. Many medical professionals are expats themselves or were trained in Europe and the USA.

There are public, private and military hospitals in Riyadh. Standards vary greatly between facilities. Private hospitals and clinics tend to have the best standards and are favoured by expats. But these facilities come with a hefty price tag and expats will need private health insurance which is compulsory for all foreigners working in Saudi Arabia.

In most cases, health insurance is part of an expat contract and is paid for by the employer. Some employers may not offer health insurance, but might have an agreement with a particular hospital. Either way, expats should address this when arranging their employment package.


Hospitals in Riyadh

Below are some of the most popular hospitals in Riyadh for expats:

King Fahad Medical City

Websitewww.kfmc.med.sa
Address: Sulaimaniyah, Riyadh 11525

King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre

Websitewww.kfshrc.edu.sa
Address: Zahrawi St, Al Maather, Riyadh 12713

King Khaled Eye Specialist Hospital

Websitewww.kkesh.med.sa
Address: Umm Al Hamam St, Umm Al Hamam Al Gharbi, Riyadh 11462

Education and Schools in Riyadh

As Saudi Arabia's formal centre of commerce and diplomacy, Riyadh has historically had a large expat community. As such, the city has a good selection of international schools to serve the needs of its foreign population. 

Expats don't have access to public schools in Saudi Arabia as admission into these institutions is usually restricted to Saudi citizens and naturalised Arabs. This increases demand at international schools, resulting in limited places and often hefty fees. It's therefore important that expats apply to several schools as early as possible.


International schools in Riyadh

The requirements for securing a place at an international school in Riyadh vary from one institution to the next. Some schools may require written references from a child's previous schools while others require students to sit an entrance examination. While most international schools in Riyadh are not selective, others, such as the British and American schools, give preference to students according to their nationality. Although it is not necessary for children to attend a school sponsored by their country of origin, the logistical transition between systems tends to be easiest in this sort of situation. 

A non-refundable application fee is a standard procedure. Some schools also require parents to pay an extra seat deposit. In addition, parents often have to fork out for uniforms, textbooks and extra-curricular activities. Therefore it is advisable for expats to negotiate a schooling allowance into their expat relocation packages wherever possible. 
 
The school year in Saudi Arabia runs from September to June, and is normally divided into two or three semesters, depending on the school. The school week is Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday being the weekend. School hours in international schools are usually from 7am to 3.30pm. Schools days are shortened during the holy month of Ramadan.


Homeschooling in Riyadh

Homeschooling is not generally recognised in Saudi Arabia and expats living in Riyadh may struggle to find resources. However, it is not illegal, so numerous expats do follow this option, even just temporarily until they manage to secure a place for their child at an international school.

International Schools in Riyadh

Most international schools in Riyadh are well managed and equipped to offer expat children from a variety of backgrounds a high-quality education. Schools should be contacted directly for specifics regarding tuition and admission.

Below is a list of some of Riyadh's recommended international schools.


International schools in Riyadh

Al Yasmin International School

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: Indian (CBSE)
Ages: 5 to 18
Website: www.alyasmin.org

American International School

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American
Ages: 3 to 18 
Website: www.aisr.org

British International School of Riyadh 

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: National Curriculum for England
Ages: 3 to 18
Website: www.bisr.com.sa

Ecole Française Internationale de Riyad 

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: French
Ages: 3 to 18
Website: www.efi-riyad.com

Abdulaziz International School – Al-Sulaimaniah

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: SABIS
Ages: 3 to 18
Website: www.aisriyadh-sabis.net

Lifestyle in Riyadh

The lifestyle in Riyadh doesn't incorporate as many of the leisure-based activities most Western expats are used to. The Saudi capital is primarily a business destination, and it strictly adheres to Islamic social codes.

To mitigate this, Saudi Arabia seems to have turned to shopping, and Riyadh woos its residents with monstrous malls and sprawling souqs.


Shopping in Riyadh

Buying the latest fashions from high-end international boutiques and sifting through the city's indoor and outdoor markets (souqs) for local items such as Persian rugs, leather goods, handbags and local jewellery is a staple pastime for expat residents in Riyadh who have little scope to indulge in other ways. The Antique Souq (Souq Al-Thumairi) is the oldest of these and overflows with brassware, carpets, clothing, jewellery, sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh.

Expats will find almost anything their heart desires at one of the local malls, with the most popular being Al Faisaliah, Riyadh Gallery and Kingdom Centre Tower. Most shopping centres have some restrictions on visiting hours for men, women and families. Expats should familiarise themselves with any restrictions before planning their shopping spree.


Eating out in Riyadh

There’s no shortage of restaurants in Riyadh, and food prices are generally reasonable. The city hosts a large selection of Middle Eastern fare and a growing international cuisine scene. But one side-effect of being an Islamic country is that Saudi Arabia has different dining establishments for different demographics. ‘Singles only’ venues are exclusively for men, while ‘family sections’ are for married couples and groups of women.

Family sections are supposed to be partitioned to protect women, and in traditional restaurants, each table is completely closed off from the others, allowing women to remove their headscarves. Some have table buzzers so diners can contact their server.

Restaurants in Riyadh also don’t serve pork or alcohol – ‘cocktails’ are in fact juice mixes and ‘Saudi Champagne’ is like sangria with carbonated water or lemonade, but without wine.

Wherever they eat, expats should use their discretion, follow the cues of other diners and go with what seems appropriate for the establishment. Tahlia Street is known for its fine dining and cheap eateries alike, with even American chain restaurants appearing on either side of the avenue. For expats who want a five-star experience, many of Riyadh’s hotels have excellent options and some have done away with gender-segregated sections.

Expats who’d rather indulge in something that reminds them of home will have access to plenty of grocery stores and vegetable markets to gather ingredients.


Sports in Riyadh

Alternative ways to stay entertained include the King Fahd football stadium, camel racing tracks and several recreational parks.

Temperatures in Riyadh limit the time that one can spend exercising outdoors. However, many compounds come equipped with gyms and swimming pools which are great for those that enjoy staying fit. 


Compound life in Riyadh

While locals may find these options sufficient for creating a good lifestyle, many expats become frustrated or concerned by what seems like a closed society with few outlets for enjoyment. There isn't much of a nightlife in Riyadh either. Alcohol is prohibited and women's rights are limited, with females needing an escort when they leave the house. As a result, many expats shape their lifestyles around what happens behind the high walls of their compounds.

The kind of lifestyle expats can expect in Riyadh often depends on the amenities in their compound and the rapport they have with their neighbours. Most expats negotiate sizeable salary packages, so there's usually no shortage of creature comforts. As long as expats can cope with a small social circle and the isolation that can accompany life in Riyadh, they can have a rich and satisfying experience.

Weekend Breaks in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia seems restrictive from a Western perspective, and the capital is the Kingdom's most conservative city. It's forbidden for unrelated men and women to socialise, alcohol is banned, and there are no clubs or performance venues. Many expats find themselves wishing for an outlet, especially on weekends.

Luckily, taking a weekend break from Riyadh's working world is certainly possible with advanced planning.


Weekend breaks in Riyadh

Desert drives and hiking

Activities in and around Riyadh may be limited, but there's no shortage of activities in the surrounding desert where soft red sand becomes rougher terrain that transforms into magnificent escarpments.

There are no designated camping areas, but most areas that aren't fenced off are opportunities for exploration.

That said, going into the desert alone can be dangerous and expats should go with formal groups or experienced people who know the terrain.

It's also possible to drive through the desert using four-wheel drive vehicles. Several organisations plan day trips and weekend campouts. Some even offer GPS and sand driving courses.

Desert safety tips:

  • Heat stroke is a risk for all. Expats should bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat with good coverage or a scarf, and bring snacks for energy and to replace lost minerals.

  • They should also travel with another car in case of any malfunctions, and make sure someone in the city knows what they're doing – depending on where they are, their mobile phone  may be out of range.

  • A GPS is highly recommended and can be bought in the city with all the necessary maps preloaded – everything looks similar out in the desert. 

  • While the desert is hot during the day, temperatures fall at night and expats should be prepared. Luckily there are plenty of camping stores in Riyadh.

Diving in the Red Sea

Expats often have no idea that Saudi Arabia is perfect for snorkelling, fishing and diving. Jeddah is an hour-and-a-half flight from Riyadh and is a popular weekend getaway that offers amazing sea life without the sizeable crowds. Expats could also visit the Farasan Islands off the coast of Jizan.

Visit Dubai, Bahrain or Qatar

Expats who want a more drastic change of scenery could also consider a weekend break outside of Saudi Arabia.

It's an hour-and-a-half plane ride to Dubai, which provides a stark contrast to austere Riyadh. Alternatively, Bahrain is a four-hour drive away and it takes seven hours to drive to Qatar (but flying is an option too). It's advisable to leave early in the day so there's enough daylight to watch out for camel crossings. 

Although all of these destinations are Islamic states, they're more liberal than Saudi Arabia. Expats can mix with the opposite sex, visit a hotel bar, take in a museum and indulge in other sorely missed activities. 

If they are driving, expats must own the car or get the required documentation from their sponsor and local police. Border guards may request to see ownership documents or paperwork for rentals.

Depending on their nationality, expats can usually purchase a visa at the border. However, they should check each country's regulations before they travel.

To exit and re-enter Saudi Arabia, expats will need to get a multiple-entry visa. These are valid for six months and must be purchased through a sponsor.

See and Do in Riyadh

Once little more than a desert outcrop, the Saudi capital is one of the Middle East's fastest growing cities, and there are plenty of activities in Riyadh to entertain the eager expat. Westerners will need to adjust their social expectations, though, as local Sharia law bans alcohol, nightclubs and bars.

But even with these restrictions, expats can find plenty to see and do in Riyadh. Here are a few of the most popular attractions and activities to enjoy in Riyadh:

National Museum (King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre)

The National Museum is a local landmark that gives strong insights into the history of Saudi Arabia. Its eight floors contain captivating displays of Saudi culture in its past and present forms.

The Old City of Ad Diriyah

Ad Diriyah is located northwest of Riyadh. It served as the first Saudi dynasty’s capital. From his seat in the old city, the Prince of Ad Diriyah, Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud, championed the largest religious reformation movement in Islam. The Turaif district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are various historical attractions to explore in the area.

Masmak Fort (The Justice Palace)

Expats can head downtown to Masmak Fort and watch a documentary about how the city was conquered. They should also visit Al Zal Market where they can buy antiques or see how Saudi Iqal (headbands) and carpets are made.

Barbecues

The Wadi Hanifa is a 75-mile (120km) valley that cuts through the city. Various public spaces have developed along the valley. These make for ideal weekend barbecue locations. Several small towns dotted along the Wadi are also popular local attractions.

Coffee shops

A beloved activity for locals and expats is sipping coffee at one of the numerous coffee shops in Riyadh. Tahlia Street is especially known for its modern and uniquely decorated cafés, and weekend nights are particularly good for getting a caffeine dose, and watching million-dollar sports cars tearing down the strip.

Picnics

A burst of green against the desert backdrop, Salam Park features lush lawns, date trees and an artificial lake. Expats can go boating, have a leisurely lunch or simply lie back in the shade while the kids entertain themselves on the playground. Several restaurants provide snacks, but packing a picnic basket and relaxing at the lakeside is highly recommended.

Camel races

Camel races are a test of endurance for both rider and animal, who usually run between six and eight miles (10-14km) around an oval track. The annual King's Camel Race is one of the world's largest, attracting around 30,000 spectators who come to watch more than 2,000 camels and their riders compete. Otherwise, camel races take place every weekend. The racetrack can be found along Al-Urubah Street in the Thumama district, while extra winter races are held at the King Fahd International Stadium.

Camel markets

The Souq Al Jamal, located next to the Janadriyah Site, is one of the Middle East’s largest camel markets and takes place on Mondays. Expats will get the opportunity to buy their own four-legged friend, or at least try fresh camel milk. Try visiting in the late afternoon when the traders really find their voice.

Water parks

Several water parks on the road between Thumama and the airport offer a weekend of fun in the sun for expats who don't mind getting a bit wet. Many of them have various water sport and child-friendly activities. Fantasy Land is one of the most famous.

What's On in Riyadh

It's a fascinating place, but expats might be dismayed at the lack of annual events in Riyadh. Nevertheless, expats who aren't afraid to immerse themselves in the local culture will find a number of events in Riyadh.

A lot of what happens in the city doesn't have any specific time or date due to the severe weather conditions, but annual festivals usually take place in the same quarter every year.

Annual King’s Cup Camel Race (February/March)

The Annual King's Cup Camel Race is held during February or March. More than 2,000 riders participate in the competition, most of whom have been trained in the art of camel riding since childhood.

Al-Janadriyah Festival (March/April)

The vibrant Janadriyah Annual Heritage and Cultural Festival is held every year, showcasing the best of Saudi culture, customs and traditions. Visitors can take part in numerous activities and view displays of regional architecture, craft, cuisine, markets and folklore. It's a unique opportunity for expats to go back in time to the beginnings of Arab culture.

Riyadh Date Festival (June/July)

Saudi Arabia produces more than 100 varieties of dates. This festival gives expats a taste of the famous varieties like Ajwah, Amber, Nabt Tat Ali, Nabut Sultan and Suqri dates.

Riyadh Festival for Shopping and Leisure (July)

Held every year in July, this festival is a shopaholic's dream. Goods like garments, accessories, electronics, traditional jewellery and shisha are all available at the appointed souqs.

Riyadh Motor Show (November/December)

The annual Riyadh Motor Show is the region's oldest and most important car show. It attracts large crowds who are eager to get up close to the latest luxury products, and draws buyers who are interested in the latest models from the motoring world's top names. Expats can also spend time in the impressive Hall for Luxury Cars.

Reem International Circuit (October to April)

The Reem International Circuit is a motorsports venue near Riyadh. Situated in the desert, it has a go-karting track, drag strip and an area for off-roading. The circuit holds international car and motorcycle races, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha Festivals

The two annual Eid feasts are the biggest Muslim festivals and are celebrated with great ceremony in Riyadh. Eid Al-Fitr comes right after the holy month of Ramadan. Eid Al-Adha takes place after the Hajj pilgrimage. There are massive celebrations all over the city at malls, embassies and in the streets. Residents get into the spirit by decorating their homes and preparing sumptuous meals for family and friends. Many shopkeepers also show their generosity by providing free Eid gifts with each purchase, like chocolates and toys for children.

Getting Around in Riyadh

Expats may feel somewhat restricted when it comes to getting around in Riyadh, especially women who have, up until now, not been permitted to drive. Cars are cheap so most new arrivals opt to get a personal vehicle with a driver. While some expats do drive themselves, it can be a frustrating exercise for most. 

Public transport in Riyadh is very limited. The bus network is not user friendly, especially for foreigners who do not understand Arabic. Taxis are a good alternative, especially for expats who are in Riyadh on a short-term contract. 


Driving in Riyadh

Expats in Riyadh often find they can afford cars they wouldn't have been able to back home thanks to low import duties and cheap petrol. Roads in the city are well maintained, but local drivers are notorious for being aggressive and reckless, so many new arrivals hire a personal driver.

Speeding, cutting across lanes to turn, not indicating and ignoring right-of-way rules aren't uncommon, so driving defensively is advised. Expats can drive with a foreign or international driver's licence for up to three months, after which they're required to apply for a Saudi licence.

Traffic cameras are increasingly being used to deter running red lights and speeding, and fines can be steep. Expats should check the government website frequently to see if they have any – it's illegal to leave the country with unpaid fines.

Cars in Saudi Arabia drive on the right-hand side of the road.

There have been some positive changes with regards to the rights of women to drive in Saudi Arabia. Although women were previously not permitted to have driver's licences in the Kingdom and were thus unable to drive, the government has implemented legislation to change this. By mid-2018, women were allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.


Public transport in Riyadh

Historically, the bus network in Riyadh has been very limited. However, as part of the government's vision for 2030, it has been investing heavily in expanding public-transport systems in Riyadh. This means that more extensive bus routes are on the way.

Other good news is that further improvements are underway with the construction of a metro system, which is expected to become fully operational by 2021. Until the completion of the project, however, taxis provide a useful alternative for getting around in Riyadh.

Taxis

Taxis are abundant in Riyadh and are a good option for expats who don't want to buy a car. They are reasonably priced and drivers will usually use the meter if the passenger doesn’t negotiate a fixed price.
 
Women are legally allowed to take registered taxis in Riyadh. Though many local women still opt to travel in their own car or with a personal driver. While men can sit in the passenger seat next to the driver, women should take the back seat.
 
The level of a taxi driver's English can vary from fairly decent to non-existent, so it's best to have the destination written down in Arabic before starting a journey.

Buses

While buses do exist in Riyadh they are rarely used by expats and wealthy locals. It's quite difficult for new arrivals to get to grips with the bus system in Riyadh as there are no posted stops and routes are usually written in Arabic.