Culture Shock | Saudi Arabia


Fraser Clarke

‘Culture Shock’ can be a major factor in preventing expats from getting the most out of their new life overseas. Defined as: “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”, it’s something that will have been experienced in some degree by anyone who has previously taken their career to a foreign environment.
In order to try and help you and your family work through the symptoms, we’ve taken a look at the most common factors likely to affect you in each country we work with, and how to combat them. After all, preparation can be the key.
In the final article in our exclusive ‘Culture Shock Cures’ series we’ll take a look at the issues potentially facing expats moving to Saudi Arabia - a unique Kingdom that can lead to even the most experienced expats facing a serious case of Culture Shock.

Religion Dominates Everyday Life

The first thing that shocks many expats as soon as they touch down in Saudi Arabia is just how much influence religion has over everyday life in the Kingdom. Saudi society is built around Islam, with the Kingdom coming to a complete halt five times a day for prayers, and the call to prayer can be heard coming from mosques throughout the country.

This is especially the case in Riyadh, which is far more conservative than Jeddah in the West coast or Jubail City in the Eastern Province. As well as the regular daily prayers, pork and alcohol are banned, whilst practicing other religions in public (including the wearing of religious jewellery) can lead to a lengthy jail term.

Top Tip: Do your research before arriving to avoid any nasty surprises. Just how big a say religion has on everyday life comes as a shock to many (especially non-Muslims) and so understanding as much as you can beforehand will help you to settle in more quickly.

Segregation and Discrimination

Ask anyone what they know about Saudi Arabia, and the chances are one of the first things they will say is that women can’t drive. That’s correct, although attitudes towards this do look to be gradually changing. It’s far from the only way in which things are very different for women in the country, and they are far from the only group to face difficulties.

Gender segregation will become apparent as soon as you set foot on Saudi soil (or sand as that should be). Men and women are expected to use different entrances to buildings, stay apart in workplaces, and are even kept apart in some Saudi dinner parties.

The gender divide isn’t the only one which will become evident however, as discrimination happens towards many different groups in Saudi’s class society. The natives are at the top of this, and so don’t be surprised to see Saudi colleagues handed preferential treatment. Westerners are normally treated well, however expats from locations such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines will often be treated as second class citizens.

Top Tip: Unfortunately there is little you can do to overcome this. Life in the large compounds will be much like home, however when leaving these (and especially in the more conservative areas) be prepared to be shocked.

A Social Workplace

In a country renowned for being private and conservative, the social nature of the workplace comes as a shock to many people. Saudi colleagues will often take an interest in your family and personal life, and invitations to visit their home for dinner will be a regular occurrence.

At meetings it’s commonplace for conversations to take place beforehand about the attendees personal life, and this can lead to them lasting far longer than scheduled.

For medics this can be especially important when interacting with Arab patients. Building up a personal relationship and rapport with them can be the key in gaining trust, and (if you’re working in a private facility) boosting your patient list.

Top Tip: Accepting invitations from Saudi colleagues can be a great way to help settle into the Kingdom. Not only that they can also help provide you with invaluable information to help adapt to life in a very different environment.

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