Hello everyone and welcome back to my blog, the best place to learn about expat life, intercultural skills, and business abroad. Today I’m going to answer 10 burning questions about Saudi Arabia, the questions you always wanted to ask, but didn’t know who to ask! Stick around to find out what you always wanted to know about Saudi Arabia!

First of all, I should mention that I was lucky enough to live in Saudi Arabia for 4 years, which were some of the best years of my life both professionally and personally. Secondly, it’s my duty to educate YOU, my audience members, on the REAL Saudi Arabia. 

Most of what you hear about Saudi is:

  • Out of date
  • Negative
  • Simply untrue

Contrary to the vast misperceptions out there, Saudi is a very safe country.

Saudi Arabia is:

  • Open to & accepting of expats
  • Extremely hospitable people
  • A wonderful place to work or take a vacation

Saudi has gone through some amazing and unforeseen changes in the last 6 years, due to the Vision 2030, which is the government’s plan to diversify the country’s economy away from dependence on oil revenues.

Many sectors are developing at break-neck speed, and the result is plenty of opportunities. Now is one of the most exciting times in history to visit the Kingdom, or even spend some years working there, since it currently offers some of the highest salaries in the world for expats!

Due to the Vision 2030:

  • Many sectors are developing
  • So many opportunities
  • Exciting time to visit or work in Saudi
  • Highest salary in the world for expats!

But far beyond the economic benefits are the wonderful experiences you will have and the lifelong memories that you will create while living there.

Now, onto the questions:

10 Questions about Saudi Arabia

1. What should I wear?

Generally speaking, for both men and women, Saudis prefer a conservative and formal style of dress in the office.

General rules for women are to wear:

  • high neck shirts
  • long sleeves
  • loose-fitting clothes
  • skirts below the knee
  • no transparent clothes
  • no collarbone or shoulders exposed
what should I wear in Saudi Arabia

Saudi women usually wear the abaya, or long gown which is often black but can be other colors, and then various forms of head covers: the hijab, which covers the head, and some wear also the niqab, which also covers the face.

Abaya = long gown

Hijab = head cover

Gata = full face cover

If you are a woman and wondering if you have to wear an abaya, the answer is no, you don’t have to. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared in 2018 that it is no longer necessary to wear the abaya.

However, most women in Saudi still wear it. It’s a matter of culture and tradition, and in fact, many women even still wear the hijab and/or the niqab. If you ask me whether I wear an abaya when I’m in Saudi Arabia, the answer is yes, I always wear an abaya in public.

wearing abaya

I always wear an abaya in public.

(However, I didn’t wear an abaya at my workplace, KAUST)

Personally, I love the abaya. I find it to be elegant, beautiful, and comfortable. Moreover, I feel better when I wear an abaya because I feel it shows respect to their cultural values and helps me blend in. Finally, if I’m not sure whether my clothing is appropriate or not, wearing the abaya over it covers everything.

As for men, Saudi men normally wear a thob and shemagh. Foreign men usually wear suits, or at least button-down, collared shirts with dress pants and dress shoes.

Thob = long gown (white or other solid color)

Shemagh = Headscarf

thob and shemagh

Please note that formal dress is necessary to enter government offices in Saudi Arabia. If you are wearing shorts, chances are you will not be able to enter. So please save yourself the trouble and dress formally when you go out.

Formal dress is required to enter government offices in Saudi Arabia.

 

2. Is it safe?

Despite what you may have heard in the news, Saudi Arabia is a very safe country. There have been countless stories of people leaving their personal belongings unattended in public places, and nobody touches them. It’s very rare that your things will get stolen if you leave them sitting somewhere. In fact, there is very little crime in all of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia ranked:

And don’t believe it if you have heard that it’s not safe for women – Saudi Arabia is one of the safest places in the world for women, with strong rules and protection laws in place. Personally I have never once felt unsafe as a woman there.

Saudi Arabia is one of the safest places in the world for women!

 

3.       Can I talk to the opposite gender?

Of course you may talk to the opposite gender. The thing is to respect the invisible boundary between you and the other person. I often get asked about greetings, for example.

The general rule is that there is no touching, not even a handshake, fist-bump or a friendly pat on the shoulder, between opposite genders. 

Note: Shaking hands is becoming more common, especially with expats.

  • If you are an expat man greeting a Saudi woman, wait to see if she extends her hand.
  • If you are an expat woman greeting a Saudi man, wait to see if he extends his hand.

The general rule is that if the other person doesn’t extend their hand, don’t extend yours.

Also, certain topics should be avoided. You should not reveal much about your personal life back home, and refrain from talking about your past relationships, partying, drinking alcohol, or anything else that falls outside the scope of their societal rules. The bottom line is to be respectful, and adopt a cordial attitude.

Tip: Be discreet, cordial, and respectful.

The topics that are always safe to talk about with Saudis are the following:

  • Anything about Saudi culture, food, & history
  • Family
  • Travel within Saudi & abroad
  • The Vision 2030
  • Business, entrepreneurship, & economic changes
  • Cars
  • Sports
  • Films
  • Free time activities

4.  Will I be treated fairly as a woman? 

Of course, and you will find that treatment is actually quite special as a woman. There are separate lines in airports and other public places, which in many cases means less waiting time. And as an expat woman, you will find that they will roll out the red carpet for you.

They really want to make sure you are feeling comfortable and happy in their country. I have never once felt disrespected in my years of living in Saudi Arabia, and I was working mostly with Saudi men.

My Saudi colleagues and participants in courses that I taught all called me “sister” from day 1. 

They assured me that I could call on them if I ever needed help, and I was sure that if I ever needed help, they would arrive at any given moment of the day or night.

Finally, as a side note, I would like to mention that more and more Saudi women are entering the workforce. A BBC news article on February 17, 2022 mentioned that 28,000 Saudi women applied for 30 open positions as a train operator.

saudi arabia women apply for train operator

Also, a couple weeks ago, I read an article in Arab news which reported that there are currently more female tech start-up entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia, than in all of Europe.

more female entrepreneurs in saudi arabia

 

5. Do I need to speak Arabic?

No, you don’t need to speak Arabic to work in Saudi Arabia. Of course, it’s always a good idea to learn some Arabic, because knowing the language of a place helps you build bridges with people. But you certainly don’t have to, as most Saudis speak excellent English.

Especially in global workplaces like multinational companies, international schools and universities, and international projects that expats typically work in, in Saudi Arabia, the official working language is almost always English.

For you ambitious people out there who want to learn Arabic, I highly recommend these two resources:

italki.com

Italki is the website I used to study Arabic for more than 4 years. My amazing teacher was Mahmoud Assy, and I am so grateful to him for teaching me how to read, write, and speak Arabic.

Italki is a like a giant global marketplace of language teachers, with many options of teachers to choose from, and then do live, online lessons through Skype, Zoom, or other video call method. Studying on italki gives you a lot of flexibility, because you have the lessons from the comfort of your own home.

    For me, it was the best solution. In the beginning I was taking private lessons in person with a teacher in the evening, but as I was so tired after work, I couldn’t really learn much in that situation.

    Italki allowed me the flexibility to have lessons when I felt fresher, for example during lunch break, or in the morning on the weekends. 

    Plus I saved a lot of time by not having to commute to the language school. Of course, there are obvious benefits and advantages to taking classes in person, and we all have to find what works best for us.

    Arabicpod101

    Arabicpod101 is a wonderful website with recorded lessons in Arabic. The wonderful thing about it is that the lessons are short, informative, entertaining, and well-structured. There are many levels, and the method is based on conversations with native Arabic speakers that the teachers then break down for you line by line. 

    Embedded in every lesson is some interesting cultural information, and there are written translations of all lessons. They even have a handy app, which is what I usually use to study when I’m out taking a walk.

      6.   How can I be respectful of the local culture?

      To be respectful of the local culture, just use your common sense. Keep in mind that cultures are different, and that’s what makes the world an interesting and beautiful place.

      Understand that you are a guest in their country, so there is a kind of unspoken expectation that you will conform to their society’s rules and laws. Of course, Saudis respect expats and their differences.

      By no means do they expect you to convert to Islam and start praying five  times a day. But you do have to keep in mind that, if you are a manager, you have to allow time in the workday for your team to have their prayer breaks, for example. So just keep an open mind and please be ready to adapt.

      7.   Can I drive a car? 

      Yes, in fact most expats do get cars when living in Saudi Arabia, and women can drive as well. 

      It became legal for women to drive on June 24 (my birthday!) in 2018 when I was living there. Expats have to get a Saudi license, your foreign license is not valid in Saudi Arabia, so please keep that in mind.

      woman driving in saudi arabia

      It became legal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018.

      All expats must obtain a Saudi driving license.

      8.   Why should I go there? 

      I advise you to open your mind and give Saudi a chance, simply because the experience will enrich your life in countless ways.

      Trust me, my experience far exceeded my expectations. What I found was an extremely safe, clean place, with welcoming culture, wonderful food, and amazing professional opportunities.

      Saudi Arabia:

      • Is extremely safe
      • Is very clean
      • Has welcoming culture
      • Has wonderful food
      • Has amazing professional opportunities

      Honestly, working there changed my life for the better, and I will never be the same. I am so grateful to Saudi for all the professional opportunities I have been given. I worked at the wonderful KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) and my original position was a Business English instructor, and later I ended up starting the cross-cultural training program at the university.

      The Saudi administration of the university was open enough to let me start teaching this new topic as part of my job. Then, 3 years down the road, I thought it might be a good time for a change, so I requested to move into a new role.

      The HR department at KAUST allowed me to move into a new role, which I had never done before, and they even provided me with all the training I needed. It was a wonderful professional experience that I can never forget.

      → Set up a business in Saudi Arabia

      9.   Can I live a normal life there? 

      Saudi Arabia is becoming more and more modern and you will find the Saudi cities to be very similar to cities in other parts of the world. You can find all the familiar and famous international coffee shops and restaurant chains,

      You’ll find comfortable accommodation options, and entertainment like spas, beaches, movie theatres, and beautiful resorts. You also have access to all of the communication apps you would want to use to stay in touch with people back home.

      You can speak English in the workplace and you will be praised, respected and appreciated for the application of your unique talents in Saudi Arabia. 

      10.   Can I go there as a tourist? 

      Yes, Saudi Arabia now has a tourist visa option. You can apply for it online through a simple application that takes around 15 minutes.  There is also the visa-on-arrival option for many countries, so please check online to see if your country is eligible.

      saudi tourism

      Well that brings me to the end of the 10 questions about Saudi Arabia. You may have been a bit surprised by all of the positive responses. I encourage you to spend some time in Saudi Arabia and see for yourself what an amazing place it is to live and work. It just may change your life, too!

      Thanks for reading, hope you found it useful, and don’t forget to leave a comment below to keep getting informative articles about expat life, intercultural skills, and business abroad. Bye for now!

      —> Discover How Saudi Arabia changed My Life

      Cheryl Obal

      Cheryl Obal

      Founder of Cheryl Obal & Associates

      Cheryl Obal & Associates is a cross-cultural training and consulting company that helps businesses improve their cross-cultural competence.

      Subscribe to my YouTube Channel to get more information about expat life, intercultural skills, and business abroad.

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