Relocating can be both a daunting and exciting experience, especially if you are moving to a country or region which you have never visited or know very little about. However, with a bit of research and some first-hand advice you will be able to make a well-informed decision.
I left London, UK at 24 years, and have lived and worked across the Middle East for the past 5 years. My initial move was to Dubai, United Arab Emirates in 2014, and in July 2018 I decided to relocate to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to help deliver the Kingdoms 2030 vision. An aspiration to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify the economy, and develop public service sectors such as Healthcare, Education, Infrastructure, and Tourism.
I know that a lot of people wonder what it’s like to live an expat life in the Middle East, where women are seemingly oppressed, and men walk around brandishing AK47’s. This is far from the truth, and I would like to shed some light on the realities with the hope of providing an insight for anyone wanting to live and work in the Kingdom.
Riyadh is located in the heart of Saudi Arabia and is the capital of the country. The population is estimated at 34 million, of which 8 million are foreigners. Supposedly, 70% of Saudi’s are under the age of 30, which means the country as a whole is pretty young. The climate in Riyadh is harsh, dry with great temperature extremes. I found winters to be a lot colder, however less humid in the summer months in comparison to UAE. I’d say lows of 10 degrees (Celsius) and Highs of 50 degrees (Celsius)! Don’t worry your body will climatize!
Settling in the UAE was a lot easier in contrast to Riyadh. This is largely due to the cultural and language differences. Saudi Arabia as a whole has a comparably smaller population of western expats than UAE, which means there is far less people speaking fluent English. However, most people are hospitable, welcoming and generally inquisitive especially if you have a thick English accent!
Tip- with improved technology and access to smart phone apps including Google Translate, Uber Eats and Careem (Uber of the Middle East) has really help to overcome day-day challenges. I also use Hunger Station (food delivery), Talabat (food delivery), My STC (mobile) and iPray (prayer times)…. I think It’s time to learn Arabic! :D”
Like most countries in the Middle East, most expats are required to be on a sponsored visa. Prior to leaving the UAE, I invested in a Freezone License which allowed me to retain my residency, bank account and Emirates ID. Should you be relocating alone and/or have family in the UAE this is the best way to retain your visa – (there is little or no impact on obtaining your Iqama (Saudi Visa)).
“Tip – There are many different companies who can offer you these services. I chose RAK Freezone, however, some of my colleagues have used TECOM (DCCA), Dubai Silicon Oasis, Fujairah Freezone, Ajman Free Zone etc.”
Living and Accommodation
Most expats prefer living in compounds, which are enclosed and guarded with security, the facilities provide plenty of leisure opportunities. Pools, gyms, and various sports grounds are frequently standard features. Compounds are completely restricted to the public as such women are permitted not to wear abayas and there is no segregation between sexes.
Compounds provide advantage if you are utilising all the facilities or with family. As a bachelor, I personally prefer living outside the compounds in a mixed (Saudi/Expat) residential/hotel community which provides value for money and aligns better to my lifestyle/budget.
“Tip- Here are several compounds which you may want to consider; Al Bustan Village, Al Ghadeer Compound, Al Hamra Oasis Village, Al Malga Village, Al Nakhla, Al Reem, Al Hamra, Oasis Village, Arizona Golf Resort, California Resort, Cordoba Oasis Village, Wadi Qortuba and Yamami Residence”
Socialising & Networking
While alcohol is completely banned in Saudi Arabia, life in Riyadh doesn’t have to stop! In 2018 Saudi entertainment chiefs lined up a calendar of more than 5,000 events in an unprecedented year of cultural and leisure activities. KSA has of recent lifted a ban on cinemas and have organised many events across the region including Formula-e, Saudi Comic Con and Winter at Tantora.
The city caters for all cultures when it comes to food whether it is fast food or fine dining you will see most of your commercial food chains that you would find in Dubai, New York and even India notably ‘Cheesecake factory’, ‘Nozomi’ and ‘Farzi Café’…. It also caters for gym goers/fitness enthusiasts (Lean Meals, Zero Fatty or Diet Center), vegans (Freshii or Eataly) and coffee lovers (Draft Café or Urth Caffé)
However, if you are new to the city, you’ll have to get used to ‘fizzy pop’ with your meals – i.e. apple juice mixed with lemon soda and sparkling water! When out shopping or dining, expat men should take care to enter the “Single section” of shops and restaurants.
Myself like most of my friends and colleagues have wasted no time exploring Saudi Arabia either to the desert (Edge of the World), travel around the region (Bahrain) or play golf (Dirab Golf & Country Club, Riyadh Golf Course or Arizona Golf Resort)
Tip- Vision2030 has created huge demand for skilled workers from UAE and surrounding regions so if you are thinking of travelling on weekends it’s best to book your tickets well in advance. Tickets to UAE can be in excess of SAR 3,000 if booked last minute. However, some may fly to Sharjah or Al Maktoum airport. If you can plan in advance (1 or 2 months ahead) you may find fares for as cheap as SAR 1,100! (BARGAIN)
Banking and Telecoms
One of the benefits of working in the region is tax free salary, this makes Saudi Arabia one of the most attractive places to work in the world. Banking with SABB (HSBC equivalent) allows you to transfer money either to UAE or UK with ease through their intuitive ‘Global Baking Services’. This for me is the safest, quickest and most convenient way to transfer money (domestically and international). Transfers between SABB to HSBC are also FREE!
Here are several Banks to choose from including Alahli Bank (NCB), Alawwal Bank, Alrajhi Bank, Bank AlJazira, Emirates NBD, Riyadh Bank, SABB or The Saudi Investment Bank
There are a few mobile providers in the region namely STC (Jawwy), Mobily or Zain. Prices are competitive, and coverage depends on where you live, however most people I know prefer to use STC.
Overall, like any emerging economy Saudi Arabia is going through a massive cultural, economic and social change and I’m proud to be part of it. It is such an exciting time to be in Saudi Arabia. There is a massive focus on supporting and nurturing young talent through various employment programmes (PIF Graduate Scheme), leisure and tourism projects like ‘The Red Sea Project’ which will put Saudi Arabia on the global map for sustainable tourism and various other initiatives which will transform Saudi Arabia whilst staying strong to its traditions, culture and identity.
I hope this article has provided guidance and rational advice to help with the decision-making process should you be considering the move.
Shyam Visavadia Founder of Graduate Surveyors