For most people the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a mysterious place. Despite its proximity to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar it is a staunchly conservative Islamic country, where religion still plays a big role in everyday life.
Whilst religious practices are arguably the most notable thing about moving to Saudi Arabia, it does have plenty to offer expat medics. The healthcare industry in the country is extremely well funded, and private investment is ensuring that it has a bright future.
Often people don’t realise quite how unique a country Saudi Arabia is, and so either don’t consider a move to the area, or head in blind. To avoid this here’s Odyssey’s guide to 5 things you need to know before you move to the desert Kingdom.
1 - Religion Controls Every Aspect of Life. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most religiously controlled countries. Five times a day the country effectively shuts down for prayers, meaning that even non-Muslims are unable to go into any shops, restaurants or facilities or even purchase something from a small market stall.
Saudis pray five times a day, starting before sunrise with the Fajr, before Dhuhr - which takes place near midday, Asr which is in the mid-afternoon, Maghrib in the early evening and Isha’a after sunset.
The times for these prayers change everyday, but fortunately mobile applications are available to help you keep track. During these times everything in Saudi Arabia stops, shops will close, malls will stop doing business and people will leave their workplaces. Having to plan your life around prayer times is certainly something that will take a bit of getting used to, but thanks to modern technology it is now easier than ever.
Prayer times aren’t the only way in which religion controls life in the country, religious Police - known as The Mutawa or Hayaa - also act to make sure that strict Islamic laws are being followed at all times.
Whilst they have recently been warned by the ruling Al-Saud family to be less aggressive in their approach to dealing with the public - and have had their right to arrest people stripped from them - they remain feared by many living within the country.
The Mutawa don’t take anything to do with the (mainly Western) compounds where people can act almost as freely as they would at home. Outside of the compounds however they will pursue anyone guilty of offences such as not dressing correctly, being caught interacting with the opposite sex or being caught in possession of alcohol - which is strictly forbidden in the country.
Most expats who take the time to learn about the country’s rules won’t experience any issues with the religious police, so before you move to the country ensure that you are aware of some simple things to adhere to, to avoid finding yourself in any trouble.
2. Gender Segregation is Still Widespread. Life for a woman in Saudi Arabia remains extremely different to that of a man. Perhaps infamously woman cannot drive vehicles in the country - although attitudes to this do seem to be slowly changing - and females aren’t allowed out without the company of a male relative.
It’s often commonplace to see buildings having separate entrances; one for women and children and one for men. Even the vast shopping malls may have days specifically for men or women, whilst attitudes from traditional Saudis towards women can still be hostile.
This is not the case in the Western compounds, where women will be free to do as they wish and socialise with other people - something that certainly cannot be done when people are out and about, even in the major cities.
Life as an expat women in Saudi Arabia is definitely not for everyone, and you should be aware of the potential restrictions that could come as a shock. If you are aware of these however then it can be an extremely rewarding, and fascinating, place to call home.
3. Things to do. The holy cities of Medina and Mecca are two of the most significant in Islam. These breathtakingly beautiful areas are regarded as the most holy in the religon, and for anyone with a Muslim faith are must visit locations.
Whilst many of the attractions within the country are related to Islam, there is a variety of things for non Muslims to do.
There are no cinemas, concert venues or theatres in the country, so most expats with an interest in the arts will have to travel to neighbouring Oman, Qatar or the UAE to indulge their interests.
Shopping malls are the most popular place for people to spend their time. These stunning, modern structures are amongst the biggest in the world, with major brands like Adidas, Calvin Klein and DKNY all represented along with businesses like McDonald's, Marks & Spencer’s and Debenhams creating the feeling of a home away from home for many people.
Natural beauty can also be found throughout the country. Saudi is a much larger, less developed country than neighbouring Qatar and The UAE and so is full of plenty of stunning natural areas of beauty.
The peaceful Farasan Islands, Asir National Park and Wahba Crater can take you into the heart of the region's natural beauty, and can provide a relief from the busy cities and developed compounds.
Sport in Saudi Arabia remains a developing area, but there are plenty of facilities and clubs providing access to the major sports like soccer and the more traditional camel racing.
Whilst life in Saudi Arabia will have its frustrations, it can provide a more traditional Arabic experience for those looking to immerse themselves in a truly unique cultural experience.
4. Working Attitudes Are Very Different. The first difference that any expat in Saudi Arabia will notice about the country is that the working week runs from Saturday until Wednesday - with Thursday and Friday as the weekend. This might take some time to get used to, but isn’t an issue for anybody living in the country after the initial adaptation phase.
Time in Saudi Arabia seems to move at a slower pace, and as such turning up late (or not at all) for meetings is fairly common for many Arab people. The phrase ‘Inshallah’ - meaning God willing - is something you will become accustomed to in every aspect of life within the country. If someone cannot make a meeting, or if something goes wrong then it is God’s will and so nothing can be done about it.
Non-Muslims in the country may find this frustrating at first, but will grow to accept it as an everyday part of life.
5. Salaries are Tax Free. It may seem harsh on a country with plenty to offer the expat worker, but the simple truth is that the prospect of a generous financial package is the main reason why many Westerners elect to move to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi is one of the world’s richest countries, with vast oil fields and an increasing medical tourism industry - which the government hopes to grow to become one of the world’s largest by 2021. As well as this there is no income tax on workers’ earnings, meaning that already generous salaries are increased further.
All of this, as well as a relatively low cost of living, can make a move to Saudi Arabia very rewarding. Always remember when comparing a salary in offer in Saudi Arabia with one in a country where there are income taxes to deduct the tax that you will have to pay - it may seem simple, but many people will look at a salary on offer and fail to take into account the amount in their pocket after tax. In Saudi Arabia this isn’t an issue.
Saudi Arabia is a unique country, and it’s certainly not suitable for everyone. This guide will hopefully have helped you to work out if it is right for you, and if you think it is then register on our website https://www.odysseyrecruitment.com/ to start your journey to the desert Kingdom today.