Five Culture Shocks to Prepare for in Saudi Arabia


Fraser Clarke

Few locations on the planet require such a change in lifestyle as Saudi Arabia. The secretive ‘Desert Kingdom’ attracts plenty of expats every year thanks to high-tax free salaries, and modern facilities, however it remains an option that many people won’t consider.

The country is becoming more liberal, however it remains drastically different to the West. Here are five things to prepare for if you’re considering a move:

1 - Religion and Life

No matter where you decide to stay, religion will have an impact on your life in Saudi Arabia. You’ll become used to hearing the call to prayer, and the laws which govern many aspects of everyday life.

You can limit the impact it has however. Riyadh is ultra-conservative, and not really suited to non-Muslims, whilst Jeddah is more relaxed and open. If you’re looking for as little Islamic influence as possible however then a move to the Eastern Province is the best option - with these areas far more relaxed and open than elsewhere.

2 - The Heat

Many people aspire to a move in order to escape from the freezing winters and wet summers we deal with in the UK - however adapting to the Middle East’s climate can certainly take time.

As you would expect in a country that’s mainly desert Saudi Arabia is warm. Very warm. All year round. 

It’s not the heat that gets to you though, it’s the humidity which is often overlooked by expats. Combined with temperatures that are regularly above 40°C going out during the day can be tough - leaving newly arrived expats stranded at home until dusk.

3 - The Growth of Liberalism

Lead by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is rapidly becoming more and more liberal as it tries to move away from its outdated image.

Last winter it was revealed that, from June, women in the Kingdom would be able to drive, whilst in April Cinemas were legalised for the first time in over 30 years. Other areas have seen growth too - comedy clubs and operas have opened, and women are being encouraged to get involved in sport - something that was almost exclusively for males previously.

In an attempt to move away from an oil-centric economy, the Kingdom is changing dramatically. It may still be deeply conservative by Western standards, but the changes will undoubtedly make it more appealing to a wider group of expats.

4 - Still No Speaking Out

Despite an increasingly friendly image, it is worth remembering that openly criticising the Government and Royal Family could still land you in prison for a lengthy spell.

Saudi is becoming more open - however it has been strongly criticised for the heavy handed approach taken towards journalists and bloggers who have questioned decisions made by the rulers. 

Starting an online blog can be a great way to keep track of your adventures - and allow you to publish any worries or frustrations - but make sure that you don’t publish anything that could land you in trouble.

5 - Discrimination and Segregation

One of the first things that always comes as a shock to expats is just how widespread segregation and discrimination remain in Saudi society.

Men and women are separated in many different areas throughout the Kingdom. There may be different entrances at malls, different rooms to eat in at work and even seperate dining tables for the genders in fellow employees homes.

Segregation isn’t just an issue, discrimination is very much widespread - and this can come as a real shock to many.

If an employer is looking for a ‘native English speaker’ then they usually mean a white British person, not someone of Indian or Pakistani heritage. The number of roles solely looking for people within this criteria does appear to have dropped in recent years - however it is still noticeable.

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