So much to be said about Saudi Arabia – where do we begin! An ancient country in a modern world, it’s perfect for those with a sense of adventure and people wanting to experience a rich culture at its most authentic. It often receives mixed reviews in the media however for those who have travelled and worked there they’ll tell you a different story, one full of wonder and awe. You can find out more about peoples personal experiences in Saudi here. For now though, let’s dive into the country and find out more about this hidden gem.
Saudi Arabia is located in the Middle East with population of 33.4 million. It’s still a very young country, only transitioning from a land with nomadic tribes, to what is now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
There are three main cities
Jeddah – located in the west along the coast of the Red Sea. Perfect for those wishing to live a more carefree beach lifestyle & yet still have access to cafes, restaurants,, shopping malls & an international airport.
Riyadh – the capital city located in the heart of the country. A thriving cosmopolitan city filled with high rise buildings, modern architecture, mega shopping malls, 5-star hotels, days spas, cafes & restaurants serving a wide range of international cuisine.
Mecca/Medina – the birthplace of Islam with deeply religious roots. Thousands flock here each year to perform the annual pilgrimage of Hajj.
From ancient to Modern:
In the past 2 years, Saudi has seen a huge shift as it navigates its way into a new modern era. Women can now drive, tourism visas are widely available, artists such as Mariah Carey and Andre Bocelli perform live concerts, festivals are abundant throughout the year, the traditional abaya is slowly being worn less and less – these are just a few examples of how the country is developing and constantly growing. In the same breath though, visitors to the region can still experience the traditional hospitality of the nomadic Bedouins tribes, view the 10,000 year old petroglyphs of ancient civilisations, and experience the peacefulness of the beautiful vast desert. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch a country transform itself and find the balance between staying true to traditional roots and adapting to an ever changing modern world.
There are a large number of expats in the Kingdom with approximately 38.3% of the population comprising of foreign workers. The local people are overwhelmingly kind, and hospitality is deeply rooted into their culture. You’ll find that the countries citizens are more than willing to offer you a cup of traditional Arabic tea and are proud to tell you about their country and culture.
In summer, the country can get up to over 50 degrees Celsius. In the heart of the country, this can be quite a dry heat however along the coast, you canexpect a lot of humidity. Luckily everywhere is air-conditioned! In the winter, temperatures can drop down to freezing, with snowfall even occurring in the mountainous ranges. Being a desert country there is very little rainfall but when it rains, it pours and there can sometimes be flooding in the more urban areas that have poor drainage systems.
Islam is the official religion and Shari’a (Islamic law) is the main source of legislation. Call to pray occurs five times a day, however, unlike other Middle Eastern countries the call to prayer puts everyday life to a standstill. For example, grocery stores will close, often leaving expats inside to continue shopping. Many religious holidays occur throughout the year, with varying social expectations. For example Muslims fast during daylight hours of Ramadan and feast late into the evenings. During these times, finding local eateries is difficult, however international hotels will still serve expats.
Arabic is the official language. However, English is widely spoken, especially within hospitals with interpreters readily available. Older generations may not have as proficient English as younger locals. Most hospitals offer free Arabic courses when you arrive and there are also some great apps available now to assist you with the language. Once you’re immersed in the language you’d be surprised how quickly you pick it up.
You’ll never go hungry in Saudi with a wide array of cuisine available. In addition to the traditional Middle Eastern food of meat, rice, dates and those delicious spices, you’ll also find the creamy aromas of European cuisine, the tantalising spices of India and Asia, the delectable shared plates of Africa. From a local shwarma (similar to a kebab) to the 5 star international Michelin restaurants, Saudi has something for everyone. You can buy most of the same groceries as you do at home as many familiar food brands are sold in Saudi Arabia. Local fresh fruit & veg is excellent. Those who are vegetarian or eat a gluten free diet, don’t worry, Saudi Arabia has you covered with plenty of options.
Traditionally, clothing is steeped in the value of modesty. The usual image of a Saudi Arabian woman is a long black cloak, however, with changing fashion trends you will find that the Abayas now a days are quite colourful. For local women this is a personal choice and can vary from the full face covering (niqab)¸ the head covering (hijab), or a simple abaya covering just the body. Expat women are not required to cover their faces or hair, however were previously required to wear the abaya. In recent months this has changed people are slowly transitioning to more western styled clothes with long tops, long skirt or pants. For local men you’ll find they wear a long white garment similar to a robe (thobe). This is often accompanied by a head covering called the Ghutrah. Expat men are expected to wear long pants in local areas with sleeved tops.
The roads in Saudi Arabia, particularly large cities like Riyadh, are intense, with lots of traffic, limited road rules and, unfortunately, accidents are common. As such, many international residents in Saudi do not drive. However, taxis, Uber or personal car services with drivers are very common and inexpensive. Local bus and train services are also available. Interstate these are relatively easy to navigate however within the city expats don’t often utilise them due to the complicated network and language difference. A new metro within the capital city of Riyadh is in the process of being built which will increase the public transport options throughout the city.