I like the idea of recording my first impressions as an expat in a new country. It’s always interesting to look back at those precious first moments. While we tend to think we’ll remember, the truth is, moving to a new country is often overwhelming and we tend to forget a lot of what makes us go WOW when we first arrive.
First thing you need to know about living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is that your experience there depends largely on the city you choose to call home. The capital city Riyadh, for instance, is by far much more conservative than Jeddah, which is considered more “liberal”.
My decision to live in Jeddah was both a professional and a personal one. One of the best job offers I received was from a university in Jeddah. I was also very keen on living as close as possible to the Holy City of Makkah so Jeddah totally made sense.
As I have recently moved to Saudi Arabia, this page will be updated often so you can find out, like me, how things turns out. Scroll down to read it all or simply click on the links below to pick up where you left it on your last visit:
- Before moving to Saudi Arabia
- First couple of days
- Five months in Saudi Arabia
- Two years in Saudi Arabia
I’m sure many would expect a major culture shock when moving to Saudi Arabia but actually Jeddah is not much different from other large cities in the world and life here feels western enough. Of course the Arabic language, the Islamic dress code adopted by Saudi women as well as the fact that Saudis live at the rhythm of the 5 daily prayers may come as a shock at first but this is something you soon get used to. Don’t forget that Jeddah is home to millions of expats from all over the world and the city feels very international.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Expectations and Concerns
I have never been to Jeddah, or Saudi Arabia for that matter, and I really don’t know much about the city apart from the obvious: it’s on the sea, it’s very close to the Muslim Holy city of Makkah, it’s hot and humid there, it’s about 800km away from the capital city Riyadh… and that’s about the extent of my knowledge.
I kinda like it this way, more surprises to come my way, more excitement to this new move. While I do like to research my expat destinations I also like the unknown. There are many things i’m looking forward to in Jeddah:
- A visit to Makkah to perform Umrah
- Discover a new city, the gigantic shopping malls, the beach
- Find out how life in Saudi compares to life in the UK and Libya where I’ve lived before
- Leaving the winter in the UK and feel the heat again. I just love the heat!
- A better work environment. I’ve heard a lot about teaching in Saudi, looking forward to take on a new professional challenge.
- To live once again in a Muslim country
There is nothing I’m afraid of about this move to Saudi (unlike some of my friends and family who seem to think Saudi Arabia is a scary country lol) but I’m wondering about the following:
- The logistic of living, working, doing the school runs and so on… in a country where I’m not allowed to drive
- What kind of house/flat we’ll be provided with by my employer?
- Is living in a compound like living in a golden prison?
- Will I have to start wearing the Niqab (the full face covering some Muslim women wear)? I’ve heard that Saudi women wear it but expats are not required to. As a Muslim, I wear the Hijab (head covering) all the time but not the niqab. I think i won’t be required to wear it but then I’m often told i look like an Arab and i’m wondering if I won’t attract unnecessary attention if I’m not wearing it.
For now anyway it’s the waiting game, waiting for the visas, waiting for the flight to Saudi… and as usual just before a new move… I just can’t wait!
Expat in Saudi Arabia – Day 1-3
My experience as a serial expat has taught me to write down my first impressions within 24 hours of arrival. No matter what you may think those first moments will NOT stick in your memory: you’ll be exhausted, there will be too much to take in, you will have jobs to do pretty much straight away… many things contributing to wipe out those precious memories.
So here were my first impressions stepping off the plane onto Saudi soil and 24 hours into my new life:
- Where is the green? getting out of the airport felt like someone had placed a colour screen over the whole place and had forgotten to include some green. Everything was sand/orange colour. Really had to wait a long time into the drive to my new house to see some green.
- So many construction sites: roads, buildings, bridges, train station…. you name it, every piece of land is being built on. Honestly, there were cranes and road blocks and construction sites everywhere.
- One thing I noticed and which I was not ready for is that Saudi desert is more rocks and mountains than sand. Unlike Libya or Tunisia the soil here is very rocky and the city is constantly pushing mountains (literally) and carving them to make more space.
- The weather is GREAT: nice and hot. Remember I arrived end of December after 2 months in London so the heat was welcome. The air was fresh and pure and had that quality that you find near the sea: a very slight smell of sea air. The day I arrived temperature were around 30 degrees Celsius. You gotta love Jeddah and I do!
That’s about all I got from my first 24 hours. Let’s face it I was exhausted and now, only a few months later I really can’t remember much of the first 3 days… so glad I wrote it all down.
Expat in Saudi Arabia – 5 months
I’ve been living in Jeddah for 5 months now (almost 6), I’ve settled down well, sorted out all the loose end at work, my children’s schooling, banking, internet, phones… it’s all operational now.
I’ve also had more time to discover my new home but you know what? In almost 5 months I still don’t know much about the city of Jeddah because:
1* I live quite far from the center and when I travel there it is to shop, that leaves me little time to explore, especially with 2 kids in toes. I did go to check out the impressive King Fahd water fountain which is a landmark in Jeddah.
2* I currently live on the housing compound of my university and, I’ll write more about his point soon, I do feel a little cut out from real Saudi life and culture. Most of the people here are non-Saudi, accommodations have been designed for westerners, everyone speaks English… not exactly the cultural integration is was hoping for.
Having said that there are a few things I’ve noticed about Jeddah:
City of light
The city of Jeddah is much prettier at night. During the day, Jeddah looks like all desert cities: a dull cream/sand colour everywhere, very little green to brighten the scene. But at night, the city becomes alive and funky as many buildings are decorated with coloured neon lights. Suddenly the city looks vibrant and exciting.
Modern vs Traditional
Despite the modern and high tech society around them, a lot of locals seem to prefer the simple and traditional ways that we could associate with desert people historical and cultural backgrounds. Driving around at night you will see loads of cars parked in the middle of nowhere and the whole family having a picnic right there on the floor… even though restaurants and other facilities are within walking distance.
There are a lot of rich and very rich people in Jeddah, with access to everything money can buy, yet Saudis tend to be simple people. It’s of course hard to generalise but so far I’ve met lovely people who are content with simple pleasures. I know it’s not the image of Saudi but from what I’ve seen so far, I feel certain that there is a lot of decorum and that people are ultimately much more modest than you would imagine.
The dress code in Jeddah is not as strict as I had read prior to moving. While the dress code remains modest, expat women don’t feel obligated to wear the full hijab (head covering) and the niqab (face covering) is worn pretty much only by Saudi women. I have seen many women in the shopping malls with only a small coloured scarf loosely worn over their hair, abayas (long overdress) are not only black but coloured too and some women even choose to do without the hijab altogether. Within the housing compounds, men and women dress in western style clothing.
Food and Drink
Eating out in Jeddah is a pleasure as food tend to be absolutely delicious. I’ve noticed that eating out is very common among locals and expats. Let’s face it this is one of the few forms on entertainment in this country. Eating out is also much cheaper than in the UK, whether it’s fast food or restaurant, the whole thing won’t cost you much. Another good point is that eating out comes in all sorts of flavours with options from around the world… literally. In any given food court, you’ll find food from China, Japan, Italy, France, Mexico, India, Morocco… you name it.
On the downside however, one thing I’ve noticed is that the quality of the products you buy is pretty low, tending on rubbish. Already many of the toy sets I’ve bought for my children are broken. My youngest son is now using his second bike as the first one simply fell apart within weeks. I’m not saying there aren’t any quality products but it seems that you have to chose very carefully because those low-end products are everywhere and not necessarily advertised as cheap. So here you are thinking you’re buying something good, paying a reasonable price for it and it turns out it’s not good enough to last. Very disappointing.
Finally, let’s talk about the weather (if you’ve been following my blog you know I’m borderline obsessed with temperatures). Well Jeddah has got the perfect climate (if you enjoy summer weather). It’s summer all year round. This winter (2014-2015), temperatures didn’t go below 25 degrees Celsius during the day and were often close to 30. At night temperatures dropped to a chilly 17 or 18 degrees Celsius but that’s it. Now that summer has arrived I was bracing myself for scorching desert heat but so far (it’s now June 9th) temperatures never really went over 40 degrees Celsius. I was expecting, hoping even, for much more than that. I guess Jeddah benefits from some coolness from the sea. Funnily enough, the worst of the heat comes when it’s cloudy: here clouds create a kind of bubble trapping the heat and those days staying indoors is the only option.
After 5 months in Saudi Arabia, I couldn’t be happier that we decided to move here. It was quite hard settling down but now that pretty much everything is in place I feel confident we can make it home.
Right now, living in a compound makes sense for us but iI do hope that we will have the opportunity to move to a Saudi neighborhood before our time here is up.
Expat in Saudi Arabia – 2 years
It’s been 2 years! I’ve been in Jeddah for 2 whole years now and I have learnt a lot about expat life in Saudi Arabia since.
On the bright side:
Some things haven’t changed. I still looooooove the weather in Jeddah with summer skies and temperatures all year long. Winter this year lasted no more than 3 weeks max and is already over. The major downside of summer weather and heat all year round is that Saudis don’t like the heat, so…. they blow the AC like mad all year round. While it is between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius outside, it’s between 18 and 24 inside! Combined with the fact of working in a university packed with students and teachers and staff means that I am constantly sick. I’m sick of it!
On the other hand, I still feel totally blessed to be living so close to Makkah that I can go as often as I like. In fact Makkah is an amazing city and every time I go there, I always feel like I don’t want to leave. The atmosphere there, the people, it’s simply incredible. Being so close has given me the opportunity to observe a lot of what is going round there and one of the aspect of Makkah that truly impresses me is the security. Those security guys do an amazing job of crowd control, informing and directing people, as well as helping out pilgrims in distress. The more I observe them the more I am impressed.
People in Saudi are nice. I know there are nice people everywhere in the world, but it seems that there is a great concentration of nice people in Jeddah. Honestly, everywhere I go, people are friendly, welcoming, helpful, open, generous… (not talking about business) and most importantly for me: they love kids! Everywhere I go, people have the sweetest attention for my kids. At work, at the shop, in the street, in Makkah, in the restaurants… kids are king in Saudi Arabia and as a parent, this feels wonderful.
On the not-so-bright side
However, in the 2 years I’ve been an expat in Saudi Arabia, I have come to realize that a few things are far from perfect.
Schooling / Education
Schooling young children is proving to be a huge challenge. And not just for me! Every parent I have talked to seem to face the same difficulty in finding a nursery/school that meet their needs and then getting their kids in it. I’ve written a whole post about it. You can read it by clicking HERE.
Going to the Beach
Something else that I find very disappointing is how hard it is to go to the beach. You heard me right! It is hard to find a beach in the coastal city of Jeddah. There are basically 2 options: private beach or open beach. Private beaches are rather fancy but you need to pay and/or have a membership t o access them. Open beaches are plain and simple and opened to all but lack some basic amenities like toilets. Tough choice!
At the beginning, we tried to find some fancy beaches we heard about on the Internet (blogs and Facebook groups). We drove to north Jeddah a few times, spent hours looking for those beaches and could never find them. They were either closed, or they wouldn’t let us in, or they looked way to shabby for our taste… and we gave up.
We also tried some open beaches. We found Sword Beach by chance. It was OK but the lack of toilets or washrooms made it impossible to spend the day. Beside, while the beach was beautiful, the access to the water was so DISGUSTING that we didn’t even dip our toes. There was trash, soiled nappies, cigarette butts… No chance we walked through that.
Then someone gave up the location of an open beach in Obhur (north Jeddah). We went there for a day. We found a clean beach, a safe swimming area, beautiful surroundings, a little supermarket nearby, a large car park… but again no washroom, no toilets. The boys did have a lot of fun. There were a lot of families with young children. This is probably where we’ll go next time.
For someone like me who lived in the south of France, in front of miles and miles of beautiful, open, free, serviced beaches it is hard to have to struggle so much to spend a day at the beach. They have a different idea of the beach here. Beaches are beautiful and the turquoise waters inviting but they are either restricted to a few behind high walls or neglected for the others. It’s sad.
New Rules Against Expats
Sadly, things are not changing for the best for expats in Saudi Arabia. Lately (since September 2016), a bunch of new laws have emerged which are clearly meant to encourage expats to go home. For instance, this year, I will not received the salary bonus I was expected, and which is in my contract. That’s a loss of about 700sar per month and it is even more for some people. New contracts for ESL teachers will no longer be as advantageous as the one I signed when I arrived and ESL salaries for teachers will be lower from now on.
In the context of Vision 2030 (Saudi Arabia’s new economic vision whereby they switch from 100% oil based economy to a more diverse economy), Saudi Arabia is looking for ways to save money and make sure that the money they spend on expats stays in the country as much as possible. They have created a new “tax” against expats: starting this year, expat will be required to pay 100sar a month per dependent (read all about it HERE). There are also talks (they can’t seem to agree on that one) of taxing expat remittance up to 6%… In short: less money coming in! More money coming out! Not sure how long being an expat in Saudi Arabia will be worth it?
Last but not least, it’s been 2 years since I moved. 2 years… you know what that means for a serial expat like me? No matter how much I love Jeddah and Makkah, I can’t help feeling the call of travel. My feet are itching. I don’t think we are ready to pack up and move just yet but if something else happens and things become more difficult, it wont take much to convince me to move on.
I’ll be back in a while with an update on expat life in Jeddah…