Home About Saudi Arabia Basics An introduction to Saudi Arabia
Last update on November 28, 2019
Written by Mark Lazell

With more than a third of its population being from overseas, Saudi Arabia is an archetypal expat destination. This helpful guide serves as an introduction to Saudi Arabia for those looking to live and work there.

Expat life in Saudi Arabia is about opportunity and adventure. And with a hugely ambitious national economic and social reform program (Vision 2030) currently in implementation, the Kingdom is moving into a new era which will benefit locals and expats. 

This essential guide to Saudi Arabia covers the following topics:

Living in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s largest country. In 2018, there were 12.6 million expats living there, comprising 37.7% of the total population (around 33 million).

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom is the classic oil-rich state. It holds about a fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves and has the world’s largest oil field. It is also the world’s second-largest oil producer (after the US) and the largest oil exporter. As a result, it wields significant global strategic, political, and economic clout.

Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest sites, including the cities of Mecca and Medina. Religion plays a central role in day-to-day life, influencing culture, society, and even working conditions.

Saudi Arabia is roughly twice the size of Western Europe; however, it is only the world’s 206th most densely-populated nation. The land mass is mainly deserts (including one of the world’s largest sandy deserts, the Rub Al Khali) and there are large distances between villages, towns, and cities. Only 1% of the land can support agriculture, so the Kingdom imports the vast majority of food.

Geography of Saudi Arabia

Covering an area of approximately 2.15 million square kilometres, Saudi Arabia accounts for about 80% of the Arabian Peninsula land mass. The country is flanked to the west by the Red Sea, and to the east by the Arabian Gulf, so it lies on major international shipping lanes. 

Map of Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom has land borders with Iraq, Jordan, and Kuwait in the north, Qatar and the UAE in the east, Oman to the south east, and Yemen to the south. 

Saudi Arabia comprises 13 regions. The largest is the Eastern Province, followed by Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, Najran, Tabuk, Northern Borders, Ha’il, Jawf, Asir, Qassim, Jizan, and Bahah.

Although mainly desert (there are no permanent rivers or lakes anywhere), Saudi Arabia has impressive mountain ranges, particularly in south western Asir Province. Here, peaks rise to more than 3,000 metres and coniferous forests dot the hillsides. The 2,300km coastline, meanwhile, features stunning, largely unspoiled beaches and world-class diving, especially along the Red Sea.

Main cities in Saudi Arabia

The vast majority of skilled expats in Saudi Arabia work and live in one of the country’s three main urban centres. These are as follows.

Riyadh

The capital city has a population of approximately seven million and is located on a desert plateau; this is the seat of power of the royal family and government. As the city is located in the middle of a parched desert, some 950,000 cubic metres of water are pumped here every day to meet water demand. This comes from sea water desalination plants located on the coast 600km away.

Riyadh

Riyadh is home to a sizeable expat community with workers assigned to large infrastructure projects and government positions. Unlike the Eastern Province, Riyadh has no oil. Social life in the city revolves around large expat-orientated gated communities, eating out at a luxury hotel, or attending functions at one of the embassies in the heavily fortified Diplomatic Quarter. The world’s largest integrated public transport, the $27 billion Riyadh Metro, is currently under construction in the city, which promises to transform life there.

Jeddah

This historic city of 3.5 million sprawls along the Red Sea coast. It is home to the country’s largest cargo port; therefore the local economy is based on trade and commerce. Jeddah’s proximity to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina means it is also a key transit point for millions of pilgrims from all over the world.

Jeddah

The city is also within easy driving distance of spectacular mountain and coastal scenery. This includes the area of Taif (Mecca region), Asir, and hundreds of kilometres of beaches stretching north and south of Jeddah. The first flights from the new Jeddah airport started in 2019 and this has dramatically improved transport links. The high-speed Haramain rail service has also been linking Jeddah with Mecca and Medina since 2018.

Dammam/Al Khobar/Dhahran

Located in the Eastern Province, this metropolitan area of around 4.5 million people is Saudi Arabia’s economic heartland. Oil installations and some of the world’s biggest industrial plants dot the landscape; this region is also where most skilled expats in the country work and live.

Dammam

Principal expat employers in the Eastern Province include Saudi Aramco (the state oil company) and Sabic, an industrial conglomerate exporting products around the world from massive facilities in Jubail. 

Saudi Arabia: facts and figures

Society and economy

The Kingdom’s socio-economic development program, Vision 2030, has 13 strategic programs which aim to transform the economy, create new jobs, and support a wider role for women in the workforce and society.

Work is under way on the $500 billion NEOM project in north west Saudi Arabia. Covering 26,500 square kilometres, NEOM will be the Kingdom’s first ‘smart city’. Furthermore, located along 460km of Red Sea coast, it will be a major tourist draw.  

The world’s largest oilfield, located in the Eastern Province, produces some 3.8 million barrels per day of oil alone; this is equivalent to the amount produced by China.

Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest dairy farm, with 95,000 cows producing one million litres of milk annually.

Saudi Arabia does not levy any income tax; it launched a 5% VAT on 1 January 2018.

Oil industry

Riyadh

In 1965 Riyadh had a population of approximately 155,000; today, it is more than seven million. 

The capital city, Riyadh, is currently building the world’s largest integrated public transport system. The $27 billion project will have 176km of metro lines with 85 stations on six lines. The first revenue service will be in 2020.

The country’s first public cinema opened in Riyadh in June 2018 after a 30-year ban on public screenings was lifted.

Women’s rights

Tens of thousands of women are reported to have obtained driving licenses following the lifting of a ban on 24 June 2018.

Women currently make up 17% of the workforce.

General facts

Around 70% of the Kingdom’s population is under the age of 30.

About 50% of the country’s drinking water comes from the 31 desalination plants along the coast.

The world’s tallest building, Jeddah Tower, is under construction and will be more than 1.6km high when complete in 2021.

Saudi Arabia: key historical dates

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (formerly the Kingdom of Nejd and Hejaz) was established by royal decree on 23 September 1932. People commemorate the date every year on that day with a public holiday. 

The first oil was discovered on 3 March 1938 in Dhahran (Eastern Province), paving the way for an economic boom which still continues.

Economy and living standards in Saudi Arabia

With a gross domestic product (GDP) of $782.5 billion in 2018, Saudi Arabia has the world’s 18th largest economy. Often perceived as one of the world’s richest countries, its per capita GDP of $23,219 in 2018 lagged Qatar, Kuwait, and UAE in the Middle East.

Imports and exports

Oil sales and exports account for about 70% of export earnings at present. Overall, the value of the country’s global exports topped $294.5 billion in 2018; approximately 16% of the overall GDP. The value of imported goods, meanwhile, was worth $101.7 billion; down almost 20% year-on-year. The government forecasts that the budget deficit will fall this year to SR131 billion ($34.9 billion), from SR136 billion in 2018.

The national deficit

The Kingdom plans to issue $31.5 billion in debt this year to help finance the national budget deficit. At the end of 2018, it had around $150 billion in outstanding government debt. The Kingdom issued $7.5 billion in international bonds in January. By the end of 2019, Saudi Arabia plans to have around $181 billion in outstanding debt, corresponding to 21.7% of GDP.

The oil sector

The Saudi economy grew at 2.21% year-on-year in 2018, buoyed by strong oil sector growth, according to government data. The Kingdom has predicted a gradual acceleration in growth of the non-oil economy in 2019; this is due to increased government spending. The state budget for 2019 calls for spending increases of 7% year-on-year to an all-time high of SR1.106 trillion ($294.92 billion), from an actual SR1.030 trillion in 2018. The Kingdom requires an oil price of $80 to $85 to balance the current budget, according to the IMF. 

Vision 2030 plan

The Vision 2030 economic and social reform plan aims to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on oil, encourage new sectors such as tech, leisure, and entertainment, and small and medium sized enterprises. It also aims to tackle high unemployment among Saudi nationals, which stood at 12.5% in the first quarter of 2019.

The Saudi currency is the riyal (SR), which is pegged to the US dollar (1 US$ = SR3.75).

The Kingdom currently has the world’s 91st freest economy.

Saudi Arabia people and society

The population

Of the Kingdom’s 33.4 million population, almost 38% are expats on short-term employment contracts. The Kingdom’s population live mainly in the three main metropolitan areas of Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam/Dhahran/Al Khobar. Around 70% of the population is under the age of 30.

A Saudi Arabian woman wearing an abaya
A Saudi Arabian woman wearing an abaya

Except in very rare cases, expats are unable to obtain Saudi citizenship, even if they were born in the country and have lived there all their lives. It may be possible if you marry a Saudi citizen. See our Guide to citizenship in Saudi Arabia.

Religion and ethnicity

The expat population consists of diverse ethnic and linguistic groups from South Asia, the Far East, Europe, and North America.

Islam is the sole religion among Saudi citizens and many expats. It is against the law to practice other religions in the country.

Spoken languages

Arabic is the national language, although English is widely spoken in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam, and is used in many day-to-day business communications. 

As an expat, it pays to invest in understanding the Saudi culture and way of life. A little bit of Arabic knowledge will go a long way. While it is virtually impossible for expats to truly integrate and assimilate, the warmth and hospitality of the Saudi people can make your stay a memorable and enjoyable one.

The Koran

Social etiquette

Saudi Arabia is a conservative country. Expats living in here are expected to respect traditional social attitudes and conform to social etiquette. This includes, however is by no means limited to, not eating or drinking in public during the Holy Month of Ramadan; never showing the soles of your feet; dressing conservatively (women don’t need to cover their face or head); and not criticising Islam, the royal family or the country.

Society and future developments

Saudi society is arranged along tribal lines, led by the royal family, and this structure (and the influence of the different tribes) is part of every day life in the country. A common practice in Saudi Arabia (and the rest of the Arab world) is wasta, which relates to a well-connected individual who has influence to get things done.

The country is embarking on a new era of social openness and mobility under a raft of reforms (under the National Vision 2030) being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This includes greater freedoms for women, who since 2018 have been able to drive.

Saudi Arabia lifestyle and culture

Life is what you make it – and that’s as true in Saudi Arabia as anywhere. While the quality of life in Saudi cities could be improved (Riyadh is 164th, Jeddah is 168th), things are changing, fast.

The King Abdulaziz Race Track
The King Abdulaziz Race Track

There has never been more to do for expats living in Saudi Arabia than now. Entertainment, arts and culture – previously almost non-existent in the country – are flourishing. Global music superstars, theatre productions, and high-profile sports events – which were unthinkable just two years ago – are now social circuit fixtures. Andrea Bocelli, David Guetta, Enrique Iglesias, Jason Derulo, The Black Eyed Peas, and One Republic are just some of the household names to have taken to the stage in the Kingdom in the last year. 

And if you like competitive live sport, Saudi has you covered. Motor racing is gaining traction, and on 7 December 2019, the world heavyweight title boxing rematch between Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua will take place in Riyadh.

Cultural festivals are must-see events, too. Check out Winter at Tantora (the setting really couldn’t be more spectacular). If you’re in Riyadh in February/March, then make a beeline for the famous Janadriya Festival to get your fix of culture, architecture, and food from the Kingdom’s different regions. If you’re a film buff, you’re also in luck, because the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival (to be held in Jeddah next year) will showcase emerging film-making talents from Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. 

Riyadh is the world’s 35th most expensive city in which to live. Jeddah is ranked at 100.

Food and drink in Saudi Arabia

Let’s be clear. Saudi Arabia is no foodie heaven. Yet, as with much in the Kingdom, things are changing. Nevertheless, expect great quality, good hygiene, and reasonable prices. From street-side shawarmas and grills to opulent buffets in luxury hotels, your only constraint is your budget.

Najd Village heritage building and restaurant
Najd Village heritage building and restaurant

Tuck into kabsa;a biryani-like dish which the Saudis have claimed as their national dish. There’s also ghoozi; another rice dish where the star of the show is the tenderest lamb imaginable. And make sure to leave room for the venerable umm ali; the Arab world’s delicious equivalent of bread and butter pudding.

Because one third of the population are expats, you can expect huge diversity in available cuisines; from every fast food chain known to mankind, to Indian, Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, Italian, and Mexican, wonderful seafood (on the coast), and steak. It’s important to note, however, that no alcohol or pork are served anywhere.

Beverage options are as diverse as the food. You can try a creative mocktail mixed on practically every street corner, or juice from every fruit under the sun. Karak chaiis a very sweet and comforting tea, and qahwa(coffee) is flavoured with cardamom and served in small cups.

Note that people, even families with kids, tend to eat late in Saudi Arabia. It is normal to sit down to a meal at 10pm midweek. Many cafes stay open until 2am and even later at weekends. Note that restaurants and cafes shut their doors during prayer time; newcomers will have to wait outside until after prayers. If you’re inside you can stay, but service will only resume after prayer. Check out some of the best restaurants in Riyadh.

Politics, government, and administration in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy ruled by a Al Sa’ud family. Islamic Sharia law is the primary source of legislation. King Salman combines legislative, executive, and judicial functions. As Prime Minister he presides over the Council of Ministers, which is responsible for foreign and domestic policy, defence, finance, health, and education. 

In 1993, the Consultative Shura Council was established, and this body has the power to draft legislation and, along with the Council of Ministers, promote it for the King’s approval.

In practice, major policy decisions are made informally through consensus, which is sought principally from within the royal family. The views of religious scholars, tribal leaders, and the heads of prominent trading families are also considered.

The kingdom is divided into 13 administrative regions, each organised into districts. Regional governors, typically from the royal family, preside over one or more municipal councils. Along with their councils, governors are responsible for functions as finance, health, education, agriculture, and municipalities. The consultative principle operates at all levels of government, including governing villages and tribes.

A major Middle East economic and political power, Saudi Arabia enjoys excellent relations with the US, the European Union, and western nations. Its main regional rivals are Iran and Israel, while the Kingdom, along with Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt, severed diplomatic relations with its GCC neighbour Qatar in 2017. Read our Guide to the government and political system in Saudi Arabia.

Rights and freedoms in Saudi Arabia

According to the Fraser Institute’s Human Freedom Index, Saudi Arabia ranks 145th globally. Furthermore, it has the world’s 172nd freest press. However, the Kingdom is making huge strides in terms of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, in particular those of its women.

Saudi females are required to have a male legal guardian (typically father, husband, or brother) who are authorised to make decisions on their behalf. In mid-2019, however, the government announced that women can be granted passports and travel abroad without the consent of their male guardians. In addition, legally, women no longer need permission to work or study, though in practice some employers and universities still require permission. The authorities lifted a ban on women driving in the Kingdom in mid-2018. Homosexuality is against the law in Saudi Arabia.

Crime and policing in Saudi Arabia

Serious crime is rare in Saudi Arabia, and as an expat it is highly unlikely that you will be a victim of one. According to the authorities, crime rates are falling; in 2018 the homicide rate declined by 6.5%, honour crimes by 14.5%, and thefts and armed robberies by 2% and 10.5%, respectively.

As an expat, your most likely interaction with the police will be on the roads. Saudi Arabia’s road safety record makes for grim reading; 6,025 people died on the Kingdom’s roads in 2018, and around 30,000 were injured.

Drug laws

The import and distribution of drugs is punishable by death. Petty crimes such as theft and mobile phone snatching are not uncommon in crowded areas such as markets. 

In 2018, the government launched a major anti-corruption drive, recovering more than $106 billion through settlements with senior princes, ministers, and high-profile businessmen.

The Saudi justice system is based on Sharia law. 

Health, welfare, and social security in Saudi Arabia

The three main cities in Saudi Arabia have excellent hospitals, medical, and healthcare facilities. Most expats visit a private hospital or clinic for treatment. Private health insurance is compulsory for expats (and is typically provided by the employer). Expats working in the public sector can access state healthcare facilities.

Medication is widely available at pharmacies across the country. Take note of what you can’t bring into the country, however, as tranquilisers, sleeping pills, and anti-depressants are heavily controlled.

Common health hazards include heat exhaustion and respiratory problems; due to the choking dust storms which can occur.

Expats cannot access the Saudi social welfare system.

Life expectancy in Saudi Arabia is 73.5 for men and 76.5 for women.

Saudi Arabia ranks as the 28th happiest country.

Read our Guide to the healthcare system in Saudi Arabia and Guide to Social Security in Saudi Arabia.

Education in Saudi Arabia

Children of expats in Saudi Arabia cannot attend state education. There are, however, great international schools in Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Eastern Province; these cater to primary and secondary school age students. Check out the American International School in Riyadh, International Schools Group in Dammam, and Jeddah International School.

School children

Work and business in Saudi Arabia

Put simply, expats come to Saudi Arabia for one reason: to work. Salaries for skilled, qualified positions are good, and there is no income tax. Although the economy has been impacted by lower oil prices and regional geopolitics, there are still good job opportunities for expats.

The oil industry, and the many downstream industries which support it, remains the principal employer in the country for expats. 

There are efforts to encourage entrepreneurship and the creation of small and medium sized businesses, though few expats choose this route due to perceived (or real) bureaucratic obstacles. These include the need for Saudi business partners, high start-up costs, and unclear formalities.

Work and residence permits

Due to the strict visa policy, expats rarely come to Saudi Arabia to look for work. Work and residence permits (iqama) are arranged by the employer prior to travel to the Kingdom. These will be contingent on the employee passing background security checks, having a relevant educational qualification, and undergoing a thorough health check.

Note also that many expats choose to move to Saudi Arabia without their families. 

Unemployment among Saudis stands at 12.5%. This is as much a result of the Kingdom’s young demographic as it is the gap between academia and the needs of the labour market. That said, many young Saudis attend top overseas and prestigious local universities, and the vast majority return home to begin their careers.

Saudi labour law stipulates that a certain percentage of a company’s workforce must be Saudi citizens. The percentage depends on the activity of the business.

Environment and climate in Saudi Arabia

While temperatures in Riyadh can reach 50 degree-plus in the summertime, it isn’t all extreme heat and suffering. Saudi Arabia has seasons (and pleasant ones at that), and it’s a big country, therefore there are always regional differences in environment and climate. 

Summer (May to September) is inescapably hot and dry, unless you’re on top of a mountain. Winter (November to February) is generally cool and comfortable, although it can be surprisingly cold in the north and interior. It can even snow.

Humidity is high on the coasts (you will rarely need a jacket in Jeddah), and very low in the interior (bring lots of moisturiser to Riyadh). 

Riyadh is subject to intense and unpleasant dust storms, particularly around April and May. Rain only falls in winter, spring, and autumn, and is uncommon, except in the southern mountains. When rain does happen, beware. Flash floods are real (and can be lethal), and city streets can become dangerous during downpours.

Current environmental issues

Environmental issues are beginning to enter the public conscience, which is a real step in the right direction for a country whose economy is based on the extract of fossil fuels. The Kingdom is now exploring renewable energy to take advantage of solar power potential, while state-of-the-art public transport systems aim to reduce car use and carbon emissions.

Saudi Arabia has a number of protected areas and nature reserves which are safe havens for native flora and fauna. Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area is the second largest completely fenced reserved region after South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

See our Guide to the climate and seasons in Saudi Arabia.

Great places to visit in Saudi Arabia

Madain Saleh

Awe-inspiring desert archaeology site of the ancient pre-Islamic archaeological site. Think Petra in Jordan, but without the crowds – or any crowd. This is likely to change so go as soon as you can.

Masmak Fort, Riyadh

This is where it all began for the modern Kingdom. There remains an arrowhead embedded in the thick wooden door of the fort lodged during battle when the late King Abdul Aziz ibn Al Saud in 1902 stormed the citadel in the heart of the city.

Rock Art, Ha’il

Fascinating petroglyphs and inscriptions on rocks at Jebel Al Manjor and Raat near Ha’il, north of Riyadh. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Public holidays in Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom has just three public holidays: Eid Al Fitr (4 days), which in 2019 started on 4 June; Eid Al Adha (4 days), which started on 12 August; and Saudi National Day (1 day) on 23 September. Note that the dates for the two Eid holidays are based on the Hijra calendar and are subject to moon sightings.

Saudi Arabia: myth-busting

Water is cheaper than petrol; as of June 2019, petrol prices were $0.58 per litre. 

And the country is not always blisteringly hot. Heading to the north west of the country in January? Pack your snow shoes just in case.

Useful resources

As an expat in Saudi Arabia, it makes good sense to join community groups and social clubs to make friends and pick up tips on how to adapt to life in the Kingdom. Facebook is, as ever, a great way to connect. Check out:

Meetups are another fantastic way to make friends and pursue interests with like-minded people in RiyadhJeddah, and the Eastern Province