Living and Working in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the centrepiece of the Middle East and is the home of Mecca, the Islamic holy site. Unlike most other countries there are no political elections, or even political parties to elect. The country is governed completely by its Royal Family and by Sharia (Islamic) law. Life here will be very different to what you were used to back home, but that’s not to say it can’t be fulfilling and prosperous. The strictness of Sharia law will prove to be the most difficult factor in terms of adjusting to Saudi life; but advantageously crime rates are very low. The weather is generally very dry and hot, but there is some rainfall usually between January and May.

Employment, Work Permits and Visas

view of the Kingdom Centre building, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Working in Saudi Arabia can be most advantageous for a UK expat. Your pay will be largely tax-free and you will also enjoy benefits including healthcare, housing allowances, paid holidays and educational support. Foreigners wishing to gain employment will need a Saudi sponsor to obtain a work permit. You will need documents proving all of your qualifications, your passport and financial records. You will also be required to undergo a full medical examination including an HIV test. With all this in place you will then be give a visa reference number with which you can apply for a residency visa. When this is approved you will be given your permit, known as an ‘Iqama’. Oil accounts for 45% of GDP so it comes as no surprise that many expats work in the oil industry. Many work for Saudi Aramco, the national oil company.  Plenty work for the big multinational oil conglomerates, such as Shell and BP, who all have extensive projects in the country. There are also lots of expats employed in finance, hospitals, technology, education and telecoms. You will need in-demand specialised skills in order to find employment in Saudi Arabia; and be aware that it will be much harder for women, due to the strict Islamic laws.

Business Culture

Muslim sensibilities are prevalent in the working environment so ensure you don’t offend colleagues. Business and friendship go hand in hand in Saudi Arabia; be prepared to put in the necessary effort and get to know your new associates. Saudi Arabians usually shake hands as a greeting with foreign visitors, and may kiss close friends on both cheeks. As an expat it is good to note that the traditional Saudi greeting is “Asalaam 'Alaykum" which means ‘peace be upon you’. The traditional response is “Wa `Alaykum as-Salaam”. Saudis take great pride in their culture, learning this small phrase will endear you to your colleagues.

When meeting, you should shake hands with everyone present, starting with the most senior and proceed anti-clockwise around the room. Good eye contact is crucial as this will indicate sincerity. Saudi Arabians have a different sense of personal space to westerners and are likely to stand close when talking to you. Importance is placed on politeness and the building of relationships, so always be courteous.

You should always dress in a professional manner, and be wary that a westerner wearing traditional Saudi attire may cause offence. Always address people by their appropriate title, referring to someone by their first name may also cause offence as it is usually only done only if you are close personal friends.

The Saudis have a relaxed attitude towards timekeeping and meetings are generally given an ‘around about’ time as opposed to a strict hour. With emphasis placed on personal friendships you may find that business meetings have a somewhat haphazard feel to them. Lengthy discussions may be frequently interrupted by small talk or even unrelated visitors simply popping in to say hello.

All decision making will ultimately come down to the superiors of the company as the Saudis operate through a very hierarchical structure; decisions often take time but never show impatience as this will be regarded as a sign of weakness or cause offence.


As an expat in Saudi Arabia you will almost certainly live in an exclusive expatriate compound.  In these compounds you will be afforded a more relaxed way of life where you can meet fellow expats and not worry about Sharia law. These expat housing estates vary in size and scale, some will be small and have just a few homes and others will be vast, sprawling complexes with homes, shops and entertainment facilities. These options should be discussed with your sponsor before moving.

view of Medina at night


If you wish to drive an automobile while in Saudi Arabia under the current laws you will be able to do so with your existing driving licence for a total of three months. When the three months expire you will be required to gain a Saudi licence. Fortunately UK driving licences can be converted without having to take a test. What you will need to do is have your current licence translated, place it in a green file folder along with a letter from your employer and a copy of your ID card. With all these documents in hand you will then have to go to the Driving Licence Office, have a sight test and a blood test, and then, providing everything checks out, pay a small fee and claim your new Saudi drivers licence! As mentioned though women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia.

As an alternative to driving yourself there are scores of reasonably priced taxis and bus services throughout the country and also in the vast expat compounds where you will most probably find yourself living and spending most of your time, unfortunately, women aren’t allowed free reign of the public transport services and will have to board special “women only” sections.


Another bonus of working in oil rich Saudi Arabia is the excellent healthcare available; there are a number of fine hospitals, many of which supply some of the best treatments in the world. As you can imagine there are both public and private facilities available. The price of this healthcare can be high however, so there is a good chance that your employer will give you health insurance, if this isn’t the case then you will be required to take out a mandatory insurance package yourself.


Saudi Arabia has a strong education system but unfortunately children of expats are not permitted to attend state schools in Saudi Arabia so the only option would be a private school. Fortunately there are a number of private schools, most of which offer British or international curriculums. Fees can be fairly expensive, however there is the chance your employer will offer to contribute towards or even outright pay them.


classical Saudi architecture

Saudi Arabia is a strict Islamic country and so your lifestyle will be considerably different with many customs and traditions that you will have to learn. For a start you can forget about eating pork, and alcohol will be very hard to come by. Saudi’s have a conservative dress code at all times, and many other aspects of Sharia law will have to be adhered to. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden, punishable by the death penalty; women will find that things are even stricter. Women are not permitted to drive and will also have to adhere to strict dress codes by covering their arms, legs and hair. Random photography is also prohibited, this includes taking pictures of locals, military buildings, palaces and government premises. It is also against the law to have two passports. During the holy season of Ramadan these rules are stricter, even eating during the daytime fasting hours should be kept discreet.

Outside of the expat havens leisure facilities are few and far between. Cinemas and such are non-existent as Islam does not look on such activities favourably. However, there are certainly things to see in Saudi Arabia, Madain Saleh is home to historical ruins and of course you could relax by taking a dip in the Gulf, or Red Sea. One activity that westerners can enjoy is shopping! You will find that Saudi Arabia is considerably cheaper than the west, and you will find all the big brands that you are used to back home in the large shopping centres. Luxury items such as jewellery and gold are very cheap here, as are high-end electronics. There are also numerous places to enjoy a good meal, eating out being another popular pastime amongst Saudis.

The Saudi embassy in the UK can be found here: