In a country that’s quite extreme from where I came from, I had so many lessons learned while living and working there. It would be unfair to label Saudi Arabia as a country with strict Islamic laws, one-dimensional views on politics portrayed by international media, and news headlines that often involve employer abuse and brutal punishments for convicts.
Plus the fact that the Kingdom has some of the harshest climates in the world that it mandated companies to implement mandatory rest for workers in the middle of the day.
For those who have lived in Saudi Arabia, life may land on a tough start as a newcomer adjusts to a new environment, climate, and way of life. But the longer you stay here, the more you understand from a local’s perspective. For the sake of those who ask, here are the things that I learned while living and working in Saudi Arabia.
It is a family-oriented society
Saudi Arabia families have closely-knit relationships. There are plenty of opportunities to gather and bond with immediate members of the family as well as extended families by generation. Once a woman divorces her husband, she can go back and is welcomed with open arms by her parents, brothers and sisters who may offer to raise her kids. They are treated with respect and never seen as a burden. Children and grandchildren gather regularly to meet their grandparents and gather for a big meal.
Many migrant workers come to Saudi Arabia to work without bringing their families with them. Realizing this makes me feel sad, and wish these folks have plenty of time to spend with their families back in their home countries.
The value of privacy over freedom
One might argue that Saudis have been deprived of their freedom, especially from those who are exposed to other cultures. With authorities deploying staff called Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, it’s not surprising to hear narratives about the suppression of human rights. But a closer examination of its culture shows respect for privacy and not deprivation of freedom of, say, mingling with members of the opposite sex.
In other countries I will not name, both petty and violent crime is prevalent and can cost lives and limbs. In Saudi Arabia, young delinquents do exist but most Saudi people are at least polite and courteous towards foreigners. Crimes rarely happen in Saudi Arabia because of the laws in place.
Local public transportation doesn’t exist
While the road and streets are in good condition, it’s a pity that local public transit in many cities doesn’t exist. That’s why the most popular mode of transportation is a private car or a taxicab. Intercity flights and railway links are also available.
Until recently, women cannot drive or travel without consent from their male guardians.
Plenty of rest days
If you are a non-Muslim ex-pat in Saudi Arabia, expect a generous portion of days off. Besides the mandated laws on paid holiday leaves, expatriates can live, with a good income and a stable company, luxury.
Working hours vary but usually start at 7:30-8am and have a generous noon break before afternoon shifts begin. Unlike the Monday to Friday work week, Saudi Arabia adopts a Sunday to Thursday week. Expect shorter working hours during Ramadan, giving you more hours to yourself
Entertainment is available
A common myth about Saudi Arabia is that it bans several forms of entertainment that it looks like a society of killjoys. Yes, cultural life is restricted under the Kingdom’s strict Islamic social code, so much so that even cinemas are banned (prompting Saudis to fly to Dubai for entertainment). But there’s no absolute ban on entertainment and it comes primarily in the form of cable TV and Internet services.
Censorship on “inappropriate content” is also in place so you cannot simply watch all shows or access all Internet websites. Content that centers around topics about pornography, anti-Islamic sentiment, gay and LGBT themes, or content targeting the royal Saudi family are censored and cannot be accessed. However, there are pockets of black-market shops peddling pirated CDs here and there.
The practice of religion is strictly a private affair
Unlike Dubai which allows people who have faiths other than Islam allowed to openly practice their religion (and allowed churches to be built), Saudi Arabia only allows non-Muslims to practice their religions in private such as inside their households. However, it disallows the entry of religious articles (rosaries, idols, Bibles, etc), among other prohibited materials.
Foreign citizens can’t own real estate properties
Expats cannot own land or houses and in order to live on one, a lease transaction must be made with a Saudi citizen. This is often not a big issue as ex-pats are viewed with short-term stays and not expected to stay long enough to warrant owning a home property.
Also, many companies shoulder accommodation (transport means and insurance policies) for their staff thereby cutting off potential expenses drawn from workers’ monthly budget.
Harsh penalties that we don’t worry about
If there’s an effective way to deter crime it’s the tough penalties on crimes under Saudi law. The law can be viewed as discriminatory against ex-pats, women and non-Muslims. For example, a foreign maid who killed her Saudi boss for repeated sexual abuse was beheaded.
In many countries, the common penalty includes fines and jail time. But in Saudi Arabia, the death penalty is also imposed, and to a lesser degree of crimes, flogging — the convict is subjected to a number of lashes — and amputation of limbs for theft cases. Many of these punishments, mind you, are carried out in public and aims to act as a deterrent for others to commit crimes.
The blood money system is also imposed in Saudi Arabia. Under this system, if you have caused damage or loss of life, health or property of another individual, the victim or his/her family is given the choice to accept money — to be determined by the victim’s party — as recompense from you or accept the verdict by the court.
Many people who stayed longer than they intended to, say they cannot believe calling Saudi Arabia their home, after an initial struggle to acclimatize with the country upon arrival. It’s not perfect, but what country is it?
As the country unveils its Vision 2030, it opens up to the world more fully, diversifies its economy, and depends less on oil revenue, Saudi Arabia won’t be much different from the rest of the world.