The capital of Saudi Arabia, a strictly Sunni Muslim country in the Middle East, is Riyadh. The local currency is the Saudi Riyal, which consists of 100 ‘Halalas’. The riyal is pegged to the US Dollar, which means that irrespective of market conditions, one us dollar would fetch 3.75 riyals. The weather reaches extremes – up to 52C in summer to 0C in winter. Summers are extremely uncomfortable with humidity reaching up to 99%.
Islam is the official religion with strict adherence to Shariah law. Propagation and public practice of any other religion is strictly prohibited. However, non-Muslim expats are allowed to practice their religion inside their homes, as long as nothing is heard or noticed outside. Expats must note that apart from the regular police, there also exists a religious police, called muttawas, whose role is to ensure strict adherence to Islamic laws. All shops and business establishments must necessarily be closed during times of prayer (5 times a day). Anyone caught inside such shops by the muttawas face imprisonment followed by deportation. All women (including expats) are required to cover themselves with a black robe called abaya when stepping out of their homes. Non-Muslim women generally do not cover their heads, but are advised to do so during prayer times when going out of their homes. Alcohol and drugs are strictly prohibited in the country and so are cinema halls and other forms of public entertainment. Public flogging is common for those caught with alcohol, while the punishment for drug peddling is beheadment. Taking photographs out of your home is also prohibited.
Entry into the kingdom is strictly regulated and difficult. Expatriates planning to work in Saudi Arabia must have a passport with a validity of at least 6 months and should not have any visible evidence of any connection with Israel. In other words, if you are an Israeli passport holder or even have an entry stamp into Israel in your passport, you will not be given a Saudi visa. Expats already working in the kingdom are advised not to visit Israel for the duration of their employment in the kingdom (for instance during annual vacation) as you are likely to face imprisonment followed by deportation.
Expatriates transiting through the kingdom also need a transit visa. If you plan to change flights in Saudi Arabia (even within just 24 hours), you will be asked to surrender your passport, which will be returned just prior to your departure by the Saudi immigration. If you plan to enter the kingdom by road from Kuwait or Bahrain and want to drive down to Jordan, you will be issued a transit visa too. Of course, prior permission is required before you do this.
This is the most common type of visa used by expatriates. The procedure is complicated and takes at least a couple of months to complete. Once you are interviewed by your Saudi employer (“sponsor”) and a contract signed, you will be required to undergo a complete medical examination in your home country, mainly for AIDS. Usually a recruitment agent, authorized by the Saudi Embassy, does all the paper work on behalf of the Saudi sponsor. You will have to submit your original qualification papers, passport, medical reports and contract to the Saudi Embassy through this agent. After scrutiny, you will get back your passport with the Saudi visa stamped on it.
BRINGING FAMILY INTO SAUDI ARABIA
When you get your Saudi visa in your passport, make sure to translate the profession mentioned in the visa, written in Arabic, into English. If it is a non-supervisory profession, eg., labour, painter, carpenter, etc., you will neither be able to bring your family nor change the profession to some other category, once you arrive in the kingdom. Note that the visa profession is not necessarily your occupation, but for all Government-related matters, the visa profession is the one which would be considered valid, not your actual profession.
The passports of all expatriates are held in the custody of the employer. You would be given a small booklet called ‘Iqama’ in lieu of the passport. The iqama, which is green in colour for Muslim expats and maroon for non-Muslims, must be carried at all times by expatriates. This all-important booklet is universally used as an identification document until you leave the kingdom. Getting a new iqama in replacement of a lost one is an extremely complicated process, so expats must take care of this.
There are no permanent jobs in Saudi Arabia for expatriates. All the opportunities are contract-based which usually get extended. Note that after the first contract, all further contracts are treated as “contract extensions”. What this implies is that at any point of time after the first contract, the employer or the employee can break the contract with 30 days notice on either side, unless otherwise agreed upon in writing in the original contract. Expats must read their contracts thoroughly before signing them. Saudi Embassies in certain countries require production of a “No-Objection-Certificate” from the current employer if an expat wants to return and work with another employer in the country.
Women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia. Getting a driving license involves undergoing a practical and a theory test in one of the authorized driving schools. Saudi Arabia has one of the worst records for road safety and the highest number of road fatalities in the world. Reckless driving is common, so expats are advised to adopt defensive driving techniques, particularly at traffic lights where accidents are common. If caught in an accident, never move your vehicle from the spot until the police arrive on the scene and never sign any document in the police station under pressure until the Government Relations Officer of your company arrives. Obtaining a third-party insurance is mandatory, but expats are advised to obtain a comprehensive insurance covering the car as well as the occupants. While driving on highways, expats are advised to be on the lookout for camels which may cross the way. Note that if any camel dies or is hurt by a speeding car, it involves hundreds of thousands of Saudi Riyals as a fine and imprisonment.
SECURITY FOR WESTERN EXPATRIATES
Most western expats prefer to stay in “compounds” which comprise several independent villas. These compounds usually have tight security and there is relatively more freedom, particularly for women, inside these compounds as they need not wear the abaya (black robe) as long as they are inside. Western expats are advised not to go out alone or attract attention (for example travelling in flashy cars, etc.). Try to take a different route to work each day. There is no reason for undue worry, but expats are advised to keep a low profile, be alert and of course, use common sense.
Hospitalization and medicines are quite expensive. It is mandatory for all employers to cover their employees with medical insurance. However, due to a large number of insurance companies and a wide variety of premia, certain employers may choose to take the insurance policy with the lowest coverage. Expatriates are advised to carefully give thought to this before signing their contracts, so that medical and dental treatment is covered 100%. (For example, certain insurance cards require that you have to pay 20 Riyals for each visit to the hospital despite the fact that you have medical insurance).
Hospitals are generally clean, and most of the hospitals in bigger cities have the latest facilities. However, one cannot expect the high standards of specialized doctors as can be found back home and it is quite common to see even the locals going out of the kingdom for specialized treatment.
Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world which requires a visa for even going out of the country. Simply having your passport and ticket in your hands is not adequate to take you out of the kingdom. Your passport must have either an exit visa (if you are going out for good) or an exit/re-entry visa in case you want to return. This is done with the concurrence of the sponsor. Expats are advised utmost caution by noting down the date by which they must return, particularly while going on vacation. In case they return after the date mentioned in the re-entry visa, entry would be barred. Note that the date mentioned corresponds to the Islamic Hijri date and not the Gregorian date. Each exit / re-entry visa costs SR200 and once such a visa is stamped on your passport, you must leave the country within 30 days or else face a fine of SR1000. Expats usually prefer to buy a multiple exit/re-entry visa, costing SR500. This visa is valid for 6 months and one can go out and re-enter any number of times within this period.
HAJJ AND RAMADAN
There are only two official holiday periods in Saudi Arabia – Hajj and Ramadan. Eating, smoking or drinking anything (even water) in public between sunrise and sunset during the Islamic month of Ramadan is strictly prohibited and faces severe punishment including imprisonment followed by deportation. This is applicable to all irrespective of their faith. The official working hours for Muslims during this month is only 6 hours. Non-Muslim expats usually drive to their homes to have their lunch or eat privately after locking all doors. After a month-long fasting, all offices are closed for about 7 to 10 days. Throughout this month, all Government-related work literally comes to a standstill. The second set of holidays, called Eid-ul-Adha, falls a couple of months after the Eid-ul-Fitr holidays. Expats must avoid all Government-related work such as visa renewals, iqama, passport stampings, etc., during these periods.
There are 3 telephone companies – STC, Mobily and Zain – operating in the kingdom. STC is the largest phone company among them and the oldest. You have a choice of either pre-paid or post-paid connections. Tariffs are still quite high and it is quite common for expatriates to call home and request an incoming call as this works out to be much cheaper. Internet facility came to the kingdom only in the year 2000. Broad band connectivity is available but not very stable. There is strict censorship and you may find several sites barred. VOIP services are still illegal, but used widely.
Life in Saudi may not be the same as other countries, but considering that there is no tax of any kind and that you can repatriate 100% of your savings, working in Saudi Arabia is still attractive at least in the short-term, for expatriates.