Expat Guide To Living In Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia illustration of Jeddah of

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes

Saudi Arabia is a glamorous destination for millions of international expats enticed by low taxes and many multinational businesses offering prestigious career opportunities.

In this guide, we’ll run through some of the most crucial aspects of enjoying life in Saudi Arabia – and everything expats needs to know before they start packing their bags.

Saudi Arabia isn’t all about business, as some may think.

Expats here can dive in the Red Sea, explore desert fortresses and trek across magnificent mountain ranges that all lie within easy travelling distance of the major cities.

With around 26,000 British expats living there, Saudi is popular with families and retirees, offering safe cities, exceptional year-round sunshine, and some of the highest living standards in the world.

Talking of climate – you need to like the heat to consider a permanent move.

You won’t want to sunbathe or venture far from the nearest air-con unit during the summer.

Saudi Arabia is beautifully warm for the rest of the year, with people thronging pools, beaches, and dining outdoors to make the most of the sunshine. 

Saudi is also a perfect spot for travellers, serving as a central hub with direct links to nearby Dubai.

Best places to live in Saudi Arabia

First, you’ll want to think about where to live – and most British expats head for the cities of Riyadh, the capital, or Jeddah.

Assuming you’re not keen on a nomadic lifestyle exploring the expanses of the Rub’ al-Khali desert, we’ll stick with these two vibrant cities to explore some of the top places to put down roots.

Riyadh as an expat destination

Riyadh is the most prominent Saudi Arabian city, with a population of more than 6.5 million.

If you are looking for work and a high tax-free salary, Riyadh is the place for you.

Most expat homes are in private compounds, mainly in the north and eastern suburbs of the city, where the communities are more liberal and have a relaxed vibe.

These self-contained developments allow men and women to socialise more freely than in public, and most have a fantastic array of amenities, including schools, gyms and shops.

  • Al Nakheel is popular with expats, with lots of luxury complexes and several quality international schools.
  • Al Olaya and As Sulaymaniyah are part of the northern business district, with a short commute into the city centre. Houses are smaller, and there isn’t as much open space, but professionals and younger expats tend to prefer these suburbs for the short travelling distance and shopping malls.
  • Al Muhammadiyah is a prestigious address with spacious properties and excellent facilities, including some top-rated restaurants.

The city offers glitzy malls, distinctly modern architecture, but all offset by traditional Arabic values.

You’ll pass ancient mosques along the tree-lined highways and need to be conscious of the strict Sharia law – which is a factor in the impressively low crime rates.

Jeddah as an expat destination

Saudi’s second city, Jeddah, is the largest Red Sea port and another sprawling metropolis where around 3.9 million people live.

Unlike Riyadh, the desert doesn’t surround Jeddah, so the climate is quite different and a little more forgiving to new expats.

  • Arabian Homes is one of the best-known companies managing expat compounds in Saudi. They offer villas and apartments, primarily aimed at families.
  • Sharbatly Village is close to the airport, with manicured grounds and first-rate facilities.
  • Al Basateen Village is another comfortable residential community with many properties, green spaces, and private security.

The weather in Jeddah is still tropical, but the city is a world away from its roots as a small fishing village.

Visas and residency For UK expats in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian visas aren’t the easiest to apply for, and the entry requirements are relatively strict given how many expats want to move to the country.

You will require a visa, whatever your reason for travel, and need to apply through a visa agency with accreditation from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia or through the eVisa portal for permits lasting up to one year.

Breaching any visa rules can mean deportation and a steep fine, so it’s wise to tread carefully.

Saudi Arabia work visas

Suppose you wish to move to Saudi Arabia to work. In that case, you’re going to need an Iqama (residency permit), which needs to be supported by a sponsor, who is in turn registered with the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It takes a good couple of months at least to apply for a work permit, so it’s best to leave plenty of time.

The sponsor is responsible for your conduct, including fines if you breach any visa terms. You’ll need an offer of work, and to provide:

  • A written letter of invitation from your sponsoring Saudi employer.
  • Copies of your work contract, qualifications, and CV.
  • Certificates from the UK police confirming you do not have a criminal record.
  • A complete medical report, validated by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

For Saudi citizens looking to get permanent residency in the UK, look at our Tier 1 Investor Visa guide.

Finding work as an expat in Saudi Arabia

To get an Iqama permit to work, you’ll need to find a job first.

The most significant industry is oil and gas. However, there are often roles in IT, healthcare and education.

The easiest way to find a position is to look for posts in skill shortage areas, where you’ll be far more likely to be approved for a permit.

Skills shortages in Saudi Arabia

In-demand skills include:

  • Water resource management
  • Transport infrastructure
  • Engineers and IT technicians
  • Construction
  • Teaching

You’ll need to have at least a university degree for most jobs and provide copies of certificates and qualifications as part of the visa application process.

It’s worth pointing out that you cannot change your job in Saudi since your sponsor is an integral part of the visa system.

Your sponsor will often retain your passport, and unless they agree to your transferring your sponsorship, you’re stuck with them until your contract expires, or your visa runs out.

There are lots of online job sites and recruiters – some of the most popular include:

The language barrier can make it tough to find a high-level role in Saudi.

So if you can learn a little Arabic before applying for any vacancies, you will have a distinct advantage over other foreign nationals with no local language abilities.

English is spoken in business, with Arabic used for day-to-day conversation.

Make sure you get the correct expat healthcare insurance and cover before moving to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabian permanent residency

Expats can become Saudi permanent residents, but it’s not easy.

The rules on qualifying for residency are strict, and you’ll need to have been resident for at least ten years, speak fluent Arabic, work as a high-demand professional and have a flawless ‘record of behaviour’.

As you might know, the culture in Saudi has traditionally been restrictive for women, although that’s starting to change.

On arrival in the country, their sponsor must meet women, who can experience long delays if travelling alone.

Married women in Saudi need permission from their husbands to leave the country, and unmarried women must have consent from their father or a male guardian.

Saudi Arabian customs and cultures for British expats

Saudi laws are different from those in the UK, and punishments for breaking them are severe, including the death penalty.

Society is private and religious. However, provided you respect the culture and are receptive to learning the Saudi way of life, it isn’t unforgivable to make a few mistakes, as long as you put them right.

If the police ask you to put on a headdress or tap you on the ankles for leaving them uncovered, comply without question.

However, Jeddah is becoming more laidback, and you’ll find most expats live a relatively free lifestyle within their home neighbourhoods.

  • Men and women tend to live separately in public. For example, it is normal to have different offices or spaces in workplaces or restaurants.
  • Women should usually cover their body, from neck to ankle, with an abaya. No such rules exist for men, although the residential complexes are generally much more relaxed.
  • Alcohol is forbidden, but western compounds have more liberal rules with bars and restaurants allowed to serve alcohol.
  • Drugs are prohibited, and the punishment for illegal substance abuse is harsh. You must even check you don’t have any UK prescription medicines that are illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Laws for female expats living in Saudi Arabia

Covering the body with abayas is no longer mandatory for women as the law changed in 2019 when the Saudi government announced the new tourist e-visa pass.

Now, tourists can wear western clothes, provided they are suitably covered. However, many women still wear a hijab or abaya as a religious or cultural preference, and away from the beaches, you’ll see little bare skin.

Given the massive differences in living styles, many expats spend most of their time in compounds with swimming pools, markets and restaurants.

While that doesn’t make it easy to make friends and integrate into Saudi communities, it’s a way to socialise with other expats and live without the pressure of conforming to laws defining what to wear and how to interact socially.

You can find more information about laws in Saudi Arabia through the Foreign Travel Advice website.

Accommodation in Saudi Arabia for expats

The most expensive outgoing in Saudi is rent. As a result, homes in compounds are in high demand, and rental property price comes at a premium.

Next, living costs are coming in between £1,000 and £1,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a good location.

It’s rare for westerners to live outside a residential complex, but the cost of living is substantially lower if you do.

Here are some tips about picking the right neighbourhood to live in:

  • Expect to wait up to 18 months to rent a home in a compound. Almost all western expats choose to live in a compound since they exclude the Mutaween (religious police) and allow a more relaxed lifestyle.
  • Rental companies will usually be happier to offer a property if you have an agreed job contract, and it’s wise to start applying alongside the visa application process.
  • Employers tend to help find accommodation for foreign national employees. Still, you can also look through online portals or inquire through local estate agents who can usually signpost you to upcoming vacancies.

Finding a Property in Saudi Arabia

In addition, some of the property search websites include:

Foreign nationals can own land and property in Saudi with approval from the licensing authority.

Expats cannot buy a home in the religious centres of Mecca or Medina but can invest in property elsewhere with the correct permission.

Most expats tend to rent, but private purchases are possible.

Suppose you are considering purchasing property as an investment or living in the middle east. Then, make sure to check out our guide to buying a property in Turkey.

Saudi Arabian cost of living

One of the positives to living in Saudi is that you pay no income tax. Like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, no one has to pay income tax.

However, there is a flip side.

While employers may offer them, there is no mandatory pension, and expats cannot claim any benefits.

The Saudi currency is the Riyal (SR), and we’ve collated a few general living costs and expenses compared to the UK average.

ExpenseAverage Saudi Cost (SR)Average Saudi Cost (£)Average UK Cost (£)
Monthly rent – one-bed central apartment1,470 SR£284£750
Monthly rent – three-bed non-central home1,915 SR£370£965
Nursery fees per month1,044 SR£202£931
Annual international school fees20,965 SR£4,047£13,184
Monthly gym membership332 SR£64£31
Monthly utilities348 SR£67£154
Monthly broadband255 SR£49£31
Litre of fuel1.72 SR£0.33£1.26
Monthly public transport pass150 SR£29£65
Loaf of bread2.86 SR£0.55£0.98
Bottle of milk5.20 SR£1.00£0.91
Cup of coffee11.95 SR£2.31£2.75
Meal for two120 SR£23£50

Overall, compared with the UK, prices in Saudi Arabia are:

  • Homes are 62 per cent cheaper to rent
  • Supermarket check-out prices are 27 per cent lower
  • Restaurant bills are 56 per cent less expensive

The national average monthly salary is 6,364 SR (£1,228), compared to £1,949 in the UK, so although there are no income taxes, average earnings are slightly lower.

Professionals with managerial or technical skills can command substantially higher salaries, often with generous perks and benefits, including accommodation and travel allowances.

Interested in other countries in the same region, read our article about the Top 10 Middle East Countries For Expats.

Public transport and driving in Saudi Arabia

Petrol in Saudi Arabia is cheap, but driving isn’t always the best option.

Accidents are common, and many drivers seem erratic, and it isn’t unusual to see cars running through red lights.

If you do decide to drive, you can use a British licence for up to three months. The laws were changed in 2018, permitting women to drive a car in the country.

Expats moving on a sponsored work visa will usually have assistance from their employer to switch to a Saudi driving licence.

Drivers in Saudi must carry their driving licence and documents proving they own the vehicle at all times. Police can issue fines if you don’t have the paperwork with you.

Public transport in Saudi Arabia

There are also plenty of public transport options:

  • Locals call taxis limousines, which are cheap to hire and available almost everywhere. Cabs are safe, and you can either rely on the metered fare or negotiate a price before the taxi leaves.
  • Ubers are also available and permit women to travel alone, providing they sit in the back.
  • The leading airline is Saudia, with short-haul flights between all the major cities. Flynas is a lower cost, budget airline flying to fewer destinations.
  • The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company manages buses. They are air-conditioned, cover longer distances, and allow women – although you must have your passport and residency permit with you.

Trains in Saudi are limited. There is only one route, between Riyadh and Dammam, so taxis are the most common public transport for general daily travel, and buses for longer trips.

Living in Saudi Arabia FAQ’s

Below is a list of some of the common questions expats ask about living in Saudi Arabia.

Can I get free state healthcare in Saudi Arabia as an expat?

No, you will need private medical insurance, which is a mandatory requirement of any visa application.

There are emergency medical healthcare facilities, although most hospitals and doctors will ask for your insurance before offering treatment.

How can I check if my prescriptions are illegal in Saudi Arabia?

Drub rules are strict, so you must verify that you’re not bringing a banned substance into Saudi Arabia even by accident.

The best way to check is to look at the Controlled Drugs List. You’ll usually need a letter from a GP confirming they have prescribed the medication.

If you are travelling to Saudi with prescribed medication, you will need prior approval. In addition, the government bans some medicines.

What is education like in Saudi Arabia?

Public schools are only open to Muslim children, and expats almost always enrol their kids in a private international school.

There are some exceptional schools in Saudi, but the costs range significantly.

A lot depends on the child’s age. Term costs tend to increase the older they are. As a rough guide:
• Annual nursery fees for a preschool child at Al Noor International School are around 11,000 SR (£2,124).
• Tuition at the British International School for a child aged 16 costs around 90,000 SR (£17,381) per year.

School fees exclude uniforms, transport, meals and activities, although private tuition remains lower than the UK, US, and most European expat destinations.

What is the average salary for expats in Saudi?

Salaries tend to be a bit lower than Qatar and the UAE but are comparable with the UK. Averages are a little lower, but the lack of income tax and lower living costs make spending power in Saudi similar to those in the UK.

Incomes also vary depending on the location – averages are:
• 260,500 SR a year in Riyadh (£50,309)
• 233,500 SR in Jeddah and Dammam (£45,095)
• 197,500 SR in Medina (£38,142)
• 161,400 SR in Tabuk (£31,170)

Is it safe to live in Saudi Arabia as an expat woman?

The laws and cultural norms in Saudi Arabia are different from those in the UK.

Whereas the UK recognises gender equality, the same isn’t true in Saudi Arabia.

However, women can do most things that men can, and the government has lifted many restrictions in recent years.

For example, women have been allowed to drive since 2018, travel alone within the country, and apply for jobs, although families expect married women to stay home.

Overall though, Saudi is a safe country.

People are friendly and hospitable, crime rates are low, and most parts of the country are safe to travel, provided you are familiar with the area or accompanied by a guide.

The regions considered unsafe for foreign nationals due to terrorism include Abha Airport, Qatif, and within 50 miles of the Yemeni border.

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