Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom rich in culture and heritage, with plenty of energy-related job opportunities. It’s the birthplace of Islam and because of this, it has developed a strong religious identity. When travelling to Saudi Arabia, you must have a good understanding of local culture and law to ensure a safe and enjoyable assignment.
1. Saudi Arabia's Culture
The culture of Saudi Arabia can seem daunting to those unfamiliar with the country, however, you will find that the Kingdom offers a high quality of life for expatriates.
Saudi Arabia’s legal system is driven by Islamic Sharia law, which determines the culture and behaviour of the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim society and visitors should respect the laws and social conventions of the faith – these vary from Western cultures so you need to be aware of the laws to avoid criminal prosecution.
To ensure you’re abiding by the laws, take note of these etiquette tips:
- Modesty is of the utmost importance. You should conform to the Kingdom’s idea of decency and never wearing anything that is revealing or close-fitting. Women must abide by the national dress code in public and wear an Abaya over clothing. Some Saudi women also veil their faces or wear a head-scarf but this is not a mandatory requirement.
- The right hand is used for handshakes and also accepting or giving most items. The left hand is designated for personal hygiene; therefore you should not offer your left hand for a handshake.
- Avoid public displays of affection - this includes holding hands with your spouse. Pointing or beckoning can be considered offensive.
- Do not show the sole of the foot because this is considered insulting.
Celebrations and festivals
Muslim festivals are timed according to the moon, meaning that the dates for Islamic religious holidays are approximate and the precise dates are not announced until a day or so before they occur. If a public holiday falls on a weekend, the holiday is usually taken at the beginning of the next working week. Some celebrations to note are:
- Eid-ul-Adha: A time for sharing and giving to the poor, this three-day holiday in the twelfth month marks the end of the period assigned for Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) in Saudi Arabia.
- Ramadan and Eid-Al-Fitr: Occurring in the ninth month of the Islamic year, this celebration involves a month of fasting, prayer, and retreat. Between sunrise and sunset, there is no smoking, eating, or drinking (not even water) and non-Muslims are expected to refrain from doing so in public. The end of Ramadan is marked by a three-day holiday, Eid-Al-Fitr.
It’s also important to note that the weekend in Saudi Arabia is Friday and Saturday, with the working week running from Sunday to Thursday.
Being female in Saudi Arabia
Men and women are strictly separated and interactions between them are governed – contact is kept to a minimum and unmarried men and women should not touch at all. Public transport, parks, beaches and amusement parks tend to be segregated and women generally do not go out alone. The kingdom abides by a ‘male guardianship’ law which means Saudi women need male permission for some aspects of life - these laws have been relaxed, allowing women to drive, but male consent is still needed for administrational transactions such as applying for a passport or renting an apartment.
The restrictions imposed on women may come as a shock to those accustomed to western culture, but it is important to abide by the law whilst you are a guest in the country.
2. What's the weather like in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia boasts beautiful landscapes ranging from oases and dramatic mountain-tops to enormous expanses of undisturbed coastlines with white sand beaches.
It’s surrounded by three major water bodies meaning that weather conditions can vary hugely. The hottest month is July and the coldest is January, with a noticeable temperature increase towards inner regions. The south has more moderate temperatures, and during winter nights the temperature can dip below freezing across the country. Rainfall patterns are erratic however rain is more common in cities due to cloud seeding. The average max temperature is 45 degrees Celsius so it’s important to stay safe in high temperatures!
- Drink water periodically
- Use sun / UV protection when outside
- Consider using hats, good-quality sunglasses and lightweight clothing that covers your skin
- The dry heat and blowing dust can make contact lenses uncomfortable; have glasses handy as a backup and ensure you have a good supply of eyewash!
3. Safety and Security in Saudi Arabia
Travelling within a highly conservative Islamic society can cause complexities; there are harsh penalties imposed on offenders by a judicial system based on strict Islamic law. It’s important to:
- Abide by Islamic Law. The judicial system is based on Sharia (Islamic law) for both criminal and civil cases and can be used to try non-Muslims as well.
- Avoid the borders with Iraq and Yemen. Saudi Arabia has suffered a series of terrorist attacks, but the authorities have significantly degraded the operational capabilities of formerly active extremist groups in recent years. The Iraq and Yemen borders though are vulnerable to conflict spillover.
- Do not drink alcohol. There is a blanket ban on alcohol in-country with strict penalties for offences.
In the unlikely case that you get arrested, you should attempt to contact your diplomatic representative as soon as possible as this often resolves the situation quickly: visitors are rarely held for more than a few hours.
4. Finding accommodation in Saudi Arabia
Generally, expats within the Kingdom live in compounds that have been arranged by their company or sponsor before their arrival. The compounds are designed to offer some of the home comforts and facilitates that expats would come to expect from day-to-day life such as sports and leisure facilities and restaurants. Also, expatriate women find that they can function and dress much as they would do at home. It is important to note that alcohol remains illegal, even inside the compounds.
If you are a legal resident in the Kingdom, you may purchase real estate for a private residence only with the permission of the Ministry of Interior. This is only possible for those expatriates, who have been granted licenses that have been approved by the Ministry, so most will rent.
Rent is expected to be paid in advance of one year, not monthly. Security deposits vary and real estate agents will charge a fee to renters that can be 5% of the annual rent. If you rent an individual villa, you should sign a comprehensive maintenance agreement that covers plumbing, electrical wiring, air-conditioning, and structural repairs. Landlords usually do not assume responsibility for renovations and maintenance, meaning that the onus is on you, the tenant. Move-in time after signing a lease is 2-10 days in Riyadh and 10-30 days in Jeddah. Utilities are often included in the rent, but it is up to you to determine exactly which are included before signing a lease.
5. Relocating to Saudi Arabia with children
Relocating with children can be challenging, but there are many international schools available specifically for expatriate children, offering an international curriculum. They are usually co-educational, unlike the Saudi schools which segregate genders.
The demand for education within the expat community is very high, and often international schools operate at full capacity with long waiting lists, meaning that being accepted into some schools can be difficult and competitive. You should apply to schools as soon as possible to increase the chances of successful registration. Please note:
- All schools will charge a non-refundable registration fee.
- All schools offer classes from kindergarten through the secondary level.
- The school year in Saudi Arabia runs from September to June and is normally divided into two or three semesters.
- Most schools observe the Islamic week, with classes occurring from Sunday through Thursday.
- The King may give notice and close schools during Ramadan completely.
- School hours in international schools are usually from 7am to 3.30pm, with much shorter days during the holy month of Ramadan.
NES and Saudi Arabia
NES opened our first Middle East office in Doha in 1999. Since then, we have expanded across the region establishing operations in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Damman, Erbil, Basra, Muscat and most recently Mumbai. We have placed thousands of contractors in the Middle East and can help international clients to mobilise their workforces.
Relocating is one of the most stressful experiences a person can do, so it’s important you seek help and advice from experienced professionals. At NES, we can help candidates experience a smooth relocation via our designated assignment support services.
NES can help clients and candidates, every step of the way.