Life in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a unique, beautiful and fast changing country, where the reality of living and working is often in stark contrast to the negative perception portrayed in the West.
We hope that the following information on this page will help you decide whether working in Riyadh and at BISR is for you.
Compound living, lifestyle, a generous tax free salary, opportunities to travel, quality of life and a safe environment for children are some of the many ‘pull’ factors attracting people to BISR and Riyadh. These same factors also encourage our staff to stay for multiple contracts, in many cases for 5 or more years.
Saudi Arabia, by its very guarded and reserved nature, is a land of mystery. At the same time it is a land of wonder and immense variety. Visitors can spend time in the many modern shopping malls of the big cities, all of which offer the latest goods from all the recognized names; or they can experience and explore the stillness and serenity of the Rub al Khali, the largest sand desert in the world. In between these extremes, there is history, Arab culture, volcanoes, souqs, the Red Sea and Persian Gulf and much, much more.
Before you start your exploring in this beautiful country, you must bear in mind that Saudi is still a conservative country: women, outside the residential compounds, must ensure they are modestly dressed, covering arms and legs. Until recently women had to wear the abaya, an all-black dress that covers your neck down to your ankles. Whilst this is now not compulsory for foreign women, many do still wear this out of cultural respect. Shorts are prohibited for both men and women.
Muslim prayers are observed five times a day and many places still close for the 25 minutes of prayer. Shopping trips have to be planned to fit in with these times – which also vary according to the time of year. Uber is widely available and very reliable, and compounds have a free shopping bus service. The school provides transport when possible for teachers and there is a booking system for this. Since the introduction of driving licences for women in 2018, many female staff now have a Saudi Arabian driving licence and drive themselves around the Kingdom.
Riyadh is a rapidly growing city with a population of close to 5.2 million. There is a large expatriate population which forms a part of this. Making friends and mixing with people of many different nationalities, whether through one of the many clubs or casually in a residential compound is an important aspect of living in Riyadh. Any classroom at the British International School will be composed of students from several different nationalities. Expatriates in the professional community come from Western Europe, Southern Africa, the Antipodes and the Asian sub-continent mostly. These workers are involved in IT, banking, medicine, education and a host of business activities. They stay between two years and a lifetime.
These are mostly based around shopping, club activities and social gatherings. Shopping malls have significantly grown in number in the last ten years. There are two larger ones in the high towers of Faisaliah and Kingdom but equally large and luxurious ones have appeared all around the city. Clothing, mostly women and children’s, features prominently but there are the usual collection of electronics, including computers, sporting goods and houseware. Riyadh, like many other Middle Eastern cities, has all the latest trends. Large stores include Debenhams, Marks and Spencers and Next. Many of these malls feature large supermarkets; Carrefour and Hyperpanda are prominent. However, there are several Tamimi supermarkets which have a wider range of imported products which you may be familiar with at home. However, they do not stock the range you will find in Tesco or Sainsbury, and, of course, no pork products. Online shopping is also a growth area, with the availability of Amazon via the Saudi version, Souq, or via Desert Cart.
The souqs offer an alternative to the malls. Batha is part of the old centre of Riyadh. It is a busy, bustling area where most of the Asian community collects. Within Batha, there is a speciality area for electronics known as the 5 buildings; there is the tent souq where you can get any type of canvas product sewn from bag to Bedu tent; the spare parts souq where you can get anything for your car – roof racks, audio equipment, seating covers, alarm systems etc, etc – all fitted cheaply and quickly; simply leave your car and shop for an hour or two and enjoy a shwarma while you wander; there is a tailoring section where these men can copy any item of clothing you wish, simply following the command ‘same, same’. Kuwaiti souq, to the north end of the city is another must to wander and shop for tailoring, furniture, carpets, gold, materials and spices.
There are many sporting clubs, off-road driving clubs, drama, music and a whole variety of leisure/pastime pursuits. There are two championship, grass golf courses and several smaller courses and, of course desert courses which have to be experienced at least once. Dirab golf course is the most established and is about a 45 minute drive from Riyadh down the spectacular escarpment.
There are many different styles of restaurants ranging from the usual fast food outlets to the more sumptuous restaurants, mostly found in hotels such as the Four Seasons in Kingdom, and Mondos in The Intercontinental. There are many Turkish restaurants offering the ‘flat’ bbq chicken with hummus, tabula and methabula. There are also many Chinese, Indian, Thai and Italian eating places. More recently, American chains as such as Chillies and TGIF have appeared. There are even the ubiquitous fish and chip shops. Online food ordering services such as Uber Eats are also growing in popularity around the city.
The true beauty of Saudi Arabia lies outside the cities, yet only a minority of people take the opportunity to explore one of the world’s most undiscovered landscapes. There are a range of clubs that our staff are members of, including the Riyadh scuba diving group and InterNations. These groups provide opportunities for like-minded people to explore the on-land and underwater beauty of Saudi Arabia or just to meet and make friends at events in the cities.
Compound life is a significant part of living and working in Riyadh. Many of the compounds are relatively luxurious and include all the facilities you would expect to find in a 5 star hotel. There will be swimming pools, tennis and squash, large gymnasiums, restaurants, coffee shops, shops and many other features. Life in the compounds is leisurely as many expats enjoy the freedom from house and garden chores, with domestic help easily available and at an affordable price. To some, the routine of pool, chatting, gym, tennis and shopping can become tedious; to others it is heaven. These compounds have buses to take non-working spouses on daily excursions to malls or occasionally for other more interesting visits to museums or farms.
Children wander and play safely but being able to swim is essential. There are many organized sporting and play activities for younger children. Swimming is a popular competitive sport for young children with regular training and meets. There is perhaps less for older children who tend to meet with friends on compounds.
Since the introduction of e-visas for tourists in late 2019, it is easier than ever for friends and family to visit you in Saudi Arabia and together you can explore this wonderful country. The Kingdom is rapidly changing with more events and activities taking place. Recent events have included a stage of the Dhakar Rally, Formula E, Cirque du Soleil, International Boxing and concerts. For the first time in 2019, Riyadh hosted its own version of Winter Wonderland, with events, rides and fun for the whole family.
There are many opportunities to make friends with like minded people from different nationalities, and also to join them on one of the many weekly camping excursions to one of the many sites within 100 km of Riyadh. These are places of natural beauty where the landscape may be canyonesque or made up of sand dunes. Dune driving is an art which can be learnt and used widely in Saudi. Some of the local sites are intriguingly known as Graffiti Rock, Jebel Baloum, Edge of the World, Natural Arch and several more. You may want to go searching for desert diamonds or sharks’ teeth, or you may simply want to improve your off-road driving skills and enjoy the campfire company of friends at a chosen camping location. Camping, by the way, is rough and ready, usually with no facilities whatsoever. Often, people dispense with a tent and sleep on ‘cots’ under the stars and fall asleep while gazing in wonder at the Milky Way on a clear night.
For more information about life in Taif please click the link below.
For more information about life in Tabuk please click the link below.
For more information about the history of the region and Saudi Arabia’s place within it please click the link below.