Saudi Arabia is one of the most popular counties in the world for ex-pats. In fact, nearly 40 per cent of the population of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) was born abroad. Skilled ex-pats and migrants from every corner of the world come here looking for better opportunities. With one of the strongest economies on the planet, the appeal is obvious.
At the same time, moving to Saudi Arabia comes with some unique challenges, with climate, culture and traditions shaping to a large extent, most peoples lives; with added nuances if you are a female.
To understand what daily life is truly like, let’s take an in-depth with particular attention on a foreign women’s perspective lives in KSA. From culture to taxes to workplace norms, here’s your complete ex-pat guide to Saudi Arabia.
According to the United Nations, foreign workers make up 38.3 per cent of the total KSA population, on top of the millions of foreigners who are undocumented within the borders. Around 80 per cent of foreigners and Saudis alike live in one of the ten major cities: Riyadh, Mecca, Jeddah, Medina, Hofuf, Ta’if, Khobar, Yanbu, Dhahran, Dammam.
With an average age of 30, the county has a young population. With a relatively high birth rate and strong international draw, the population is growing quickly.
When it comes to expats, you will find people from all over the planet. In particular, you’ll find strong Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Filipino, and Syrian communities.
It is an exciting time for women living in Saudi Arabia. In the past handful of years, women have gained more rights than during all of the previous centuries combined. KSA is indeed becoming more progressive and equalitarian by the year. At the same time, there are many who remain critical of women’s rights and the fight for equality is certainly far from over. Compared to their European and North American counterparts, women in Saudi Arabia are significantly more restricted.
When you are moving to Saudi Arabia as a woman, it is essential to leave the international comparisons behind. Knowing what to expect and, just as importantly, knowing what to accept is fundamental to making it work as an ex-pat.
Within KSA, you will find there are two different worlds. Foreign workers typically live within compounds that are starkly different from the outside. You could compare them to all-inclusive holiday resorts where you never really need to leave the property.
Compounds are managed by foreign companies who typically offer a full range of amenities including shops, restaurants, and leisure spaces. Saudi laws are largely unenforced and the atmosphere is not unlike what you would find at any international holiday resort. Males and females interact professionally and socially with few restrictions.
While foreign women often spend most of their time in the highly international compounds, when you are moving to Saudi Arabia as a woman it is essential to understand the wider culture.
In the “Global Gender Gap Index 2016” by the World Economic Forum, KSA ranked 141 out of 144 countries, with only Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen ranking lower. Things, however, have been changing in recent years.
Just before his death in 2015, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in elections. His successor, King Salman, allowed women the right to access education and healthcare without the approval of a guardian (typically a father or husband). He also removed the world’s only ban on female drivers and granted women licenses.
In 2019, rights were further extended to women that allowed them to apply for and register official documents without a guardian’s permission. Travel restrictions were loosened and women were given access to high-level military jobs.
Saudi Arabia has been recognised as a top reforming country by the World Bank for its “significant improvement’ in the areas of workplace rights, sexual harassment, mobility, and pensions.
Before looking at the average salaries in Saudi Arabia, it is worth looking at the unusual array of benefits that are offered by the typical KSA-based employer. It is common to see that your housing, transportation, mobile phone, and health insurance are covered within your employment contract. You will also typically find a retirement plan, educational cost coverage, and annual plane tickets to your home country. You might even find that all of your meals are covered by your employer.
These numerous job perks are one of these reasons that many expats find it incredibly easy to save money. While the cost of living is not comparatively low and the salary is on par with other popular expat countries, it is the number of benefits offered by companies and freebies within international compounds that make it such an expat-friendly country.
Migrants often find that various expenses can vary quickly significantly in KSA. Certain things are very inexpensive in Saudi Arabia, while others are similar in price to Western Europe. The average cost of living for a family of four is around 20,000 Saudi Riyal or 5,300 US dollars. If your company provides free housing and other amenities, your costs could be far lower than this.
The best way to get a good sense of the value of your potential employment contract as well as your expected cost of living, is to compare the city you are considering with your current home. If you are now in Dubai, for example, you would need AED 9,890 in Riyadh to have the same standard of living that would cost you AED 18,000 in Dubai.
While Saudi Arabia can be a perfect destination for ex-pats looking to save money, your success will depend on choosing the right employer and making certain your contract of employment is carefully considered and caters to all you and your dependants’, requirements.
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In total, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has 12 types of visas. Here is a rundown of the complete list of options available for foreigners entering KSA.
Unlike most counties, KSA didn’t previously offer a tourist visa. It was created by the Saudi government to meet its 2030 goal of getting 100 million visitors to the kingdom by 2030.
Finding work in Saudi Arabia is the biggest step, though depending on your industry, this could be relatively easy. As soon as you have been offered work in Saudi Arabia, your new employer will start working to get your visa securities.
The HR department or the recruitment company will first send you the contract along with details on the visa application process. To complete the process, you will be asked for the following:
Note: If any of your documents are not in French or English, you will need to have them translated. Be aware that all of the copies must be original or certified.
Of all of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counties, Saudi Arabia offers the highest earning potential. The best wage varies significantly across different sectors so get to know the industry averages before you go. Look at the helpful stats in Saudi Arabia salary guide to get started.
Things have been changing for women in the world in recent years. Within the native-born Saudi workforce, women used to make up just 13 per cent of the total workers in 2015. By 2019, that had already increased to 34.4 per cent.
While an increasing number of local women are working, foreign women moving to KSA are still far less common. In fact, the country sees half as many female expats and migrations as males.
Moving to Saudi Arabia as a woman may, however, become more commonplace as restrictions are lessened and the native workforce becomes more female.
Some banks do ask for a PPS number. This is your Irish Personal Public Service Number. You can find the details for obtaining a PPS number on the government website. Do note, however, that you will also need proof of address to get this PPS number so you will need to be settled in.
One of the reasons that Saudi Arabia is such a popular destination for expats is because there is no income tax. Of course, this dramatically increases the amount of money that you are going to have in your pocket every day.
While Moving to Saudi Arabia as a woman will indeed present challenges, many women find it well worth the trouble. This is particularly true for those looking to move temporarily to save up money.
In fact, many female expats in Saudi Arabia do indeed say they are pleased with the choice to move. Not only is the financial incentive strong, but living in an international compound allows women to live a lifestyle that is not unlike what they had experienced in their home counties.
The climate of Saudi Arabia is famously hot. The summer lasts around six months and temperatures reach well above 50 degrees Celsius. Even in the coldest months of the year, around December and January, you will see sunny afternoons over 20 degrees.
In a country with such an extreme climate, the weather does indeed have an impact on the culture. You will find that many people only venture out in the late evening hours when the weather is cool. During the hottest periods, it’s common to go from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned office then onto an air-conditioned shopping mall.
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One great perk of moving to Saudi Arabia as a woman (or a man, for that matter) is that housing is typically incredibly straightforward. If you work for an international company, it is very likely that they will provide you with housing in an international compound. These Western-style neighbourhoods typically have all of the amenities you could need so many expats find that they spend all of their time within this home space.
While KSA is an extremely safe county, many employers prefer to have all of their employees living with the destination space. Since the local culture is so fundamentally different and restrictive, companies are nervous to risk employees breaking the rules in the outside space. Meanwhile, inside of the company compounds, female ex-pats wear whatever they like, ex-pats drink, and life is largely not subject to local law. With all comforts of home, ex-pats tend to be happier and stay longer.
If your job does offer you the option to live anywhere you would like, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Compared to other Middle Eastern countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, rent is very affordable.
The process is quite simple and you will typically be offered a yearly contact with utilities and maintenance included on the price.
The primary thing to be careful of in these cases is the terms and conditions of the lease. While you may be offered a contact in Arabia, it is crucial to get a well-translated copy that you fully understand. The terms and conditions may surprise you So take your time reading it.
Whether it is a corporate compound or a place offsite, you will often see a range of restrictions in your lease. From the typical pet ban to requiring guests to show their ID before entering the compound, it might feel a bit restrictive. If you are moving to Saudi Arabia as a woman without a spouse, you may find that single men aren’t able to visit you (though this is less likely in international compounds).
Once you are having a contract that you are happy with and have signed off, it is legally required for your details to be entered into the online EJAR system. This keeps all of the details on you, your landlord and the agency. It ensures transparency and prevents fraud. It’s also very important for ex-pats as your work visa cannot be renewed without having a lease on file.
Foreigners can buy real estate anywhere in Saudi Arabia, except Mecca and Medina. You will need to be approved by the licensing authority, but it is generally a simple process. Saudi Arabian banks and mortgage companies lend up to 85 per cent of the price of a home.
Healthcare in Saudi Arabia is managed by the national healthcare system of the government. It is ranked amongst the best systems in the world and is offered for free to citizens of the country. Expats, however, can’t access public healthcare in Saudi Arabia. If you move to Saudi Arabia, you will need to get your own health insurance coverage arranged. In pretty much every case, your employer will get this taken care of for you.
At the moment, there are 26 health insurance companies in Saudi Arabia so you may have a few choices through your company. The average premium is SAR 1,759 to give you a starting point.
Moving to Saudi Arabia as a woman, one of the first things that you will notice is that many public spaces like shopping malls and restaurants have areas that are labelled with “family-only” and “single men” signs. As a woman, you are expected to always use the family sections. If you are moving with your husband, however, he will only be able to use the “single” men section when he isn’t with you.
Many female expats in Saudi Arabia find that living in a compound has its perks. In these residential communities, you will be surrounded by other foreigners and the communities tend to be quite close-knit. Moving to Saudi Arabia with kids, you will find that you are quickly on a first-name basis with every other parent in town.
Growing up in compounds, kids can enjoy an extraordinarily safe neighbourhood. Though some expat families do argue that their kids have a relatively sheltered existence, many parents are thrilled at the high standard of living.
Saudi Arabia puts an extraordinarily high value on education. In fact, compared to other countries, the country spends double the average amount on education, It is the second-largest expense of the government. With this funding, all education is provided for free in KSA.
While it is an optional level, many families enrol their kids in kindergarten from ages three to five. Starting at age six, it is required to attend primary school. For six years, six will attend a single-sex educational centre. To move onto the next level, kids will need to obtain an Elementary Education Certificate. Children then move onto Intermediate education, which lasts for three years. Following this, this can continue on to secondary and post-secondary if they choose.
Many expat families opt for international schools, though they are quite expensive. With the average international private school in Saudi costing 30,000 USD a year, it is a major, though often worthwhile investment. For post-secondary options, many expat families in Saudi opt for distance learning through prestigious programs like the one from the University of Leicester.
Moving to a new country can be a little disconcerting, and left unchecked these feelings can develop into anxiety and stress. Moving to Saudi Arabia, as we have seen, brings with it both exciting opportunities with some potential challenges. However, embracing the changes and adopting a proactive approach through the advice, tips and links we have provided sets you firmly on course to a successful relocation to Saudi Arabia.
Before you take the leap, be sure to read our guide: Life in Saudi Arabia Today: Essential Laws & Customs to Understand (Especially if You’re a Woman).