Home to the two most sacred sites for believers of the Islamic faith - Mecca and Madina, Saudi Arabia beckons foreigners seeking well-paying jobs in the Middle East.
Areawise, Saudi Arabia is the largest of the Middle East nations occupying more than 3 quarters of the Arabian peninsula. However, compared to its physical size, a population of around 35 million makes it a sparsely-populated nation. The expansive deserts are a dominant feature of the landscape of the Arab nation coupled with the architectural wonders that reflect the rich history of the region.
If you are considering Saudi Arabia as the Middle East nation for your next career move, here’s a guide to help you go about it.
Of its 35 million inhabitants, over 30% of the population in Saudi Arabia comprise foreign workers. The capital city of Riyadh is one the urban centres that sees a wide influx of skilled expats. Jeddah and Damman are the two other metropolitan cities with expats in large numbers.
A oil-rich nation
Like most of its Middle-east neighbours, Saudi Arabia is an oil-rich nation. Oil is therefore the primary source of income. It has 17% of the oil reserves of the world, making it the second largest supplier after the United States.
However, over the past few years, the government is reducing its dependence on oil. It has made its foray into other industries opening up well-paying opportunities here. Chief among these are engineering and construction, logistics, retail and marketing and IT and communications. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also sees a great demand for doctors, nurses and English teachers.
Saudi nationals are likely to have it easier when it comes to landing well-paying jobs. Besides, there are limitations on the industries open to expats.
Work permits & Visas
A residence permit or a Iqama is compulsory if you want to work in Saudi Arabia. The Iqama is valid for a period of one or two years, contingent on the work contract, following which it must be renewed.
The employer shall sponsor the foreign national. Not only this, the company should be approved by the Saudi Ministry of Labour and thereby be permitted to grant visas to foreign nationals.
The Iqama will be granted only after you receive a work visa; your employer will apply for the work visa. 90 days after your arrival in the country, you can initiate the process of applying for a residence permit. The Iqama serves as your primary identification card as an expat and must be carried at all times. Failure to present the card when asked could invite a fine.
In addition to the Iqama, which permits long-term employment as a foreign national, one can apply for a business visit visa. A business visit visa authorises business transactions on a short-term basis with a Saudi Arabian company. Businessmen could apply for single or multiple entry visas.
Applying for a residence permit involves furnishing a range of documents including - passport, photographs of employer and employee, visa sponsor letter, signed employment contract, academic qualification certificates, police verification and medical examination report.
The cost of the residence permit is usually covered by your employer. The employer shall renew the Iqama on expiry of the visa.
Given that the Iqama is issued by the employer, in the event of a change of job, the expat will require a no objection certificate from the past employer.
Saudi Arabia allows women to work. Earlier, it required approval from a male guardian, but not anymore. However, few employers may demand it.
Family members are registered on the expat’s Iqama. However, as of 2017, the government has levied an additional annual fee for dependents.
Dependents cannot take up employment without seeking prior permission from authorities.
Salary & Benefits
The salary slabs are reasonably high in Saudi Arabia and hence you can expect to make a decent income working here.
The salary is commensurate with the skill level. Skilled workers earn more than blue collar jobs. Not only this, salaries could vary depending on the nationality of the expat. Asians earn much less than their Western counterparts.
The biggest benefit is a tax-free income. The employment contract is inclusive of other benefits such as accommodation allowance, health insurance, transport and education allowance (not all) and annual flight fare.
End of Service Benefits
If an employee is terminated or if he resigns, he is entitled to end of service benefits which includes half the monthly for the 1st five years and 1 monthly salary for the following years.
The end of service benefits also depend on the number of service years before termination or resignation. For instance, if an employee resigns before completing 2 years of service, he shall not be entitled to any end-of-service benefits.
Cost of Living
The cost of living is low in Saudi Arabia, when compared to the other Middle East countries. Expats find themselves living comfortably, often being able to hire the services of maids and drivers.
Education for Expat Children
As an expat moving with kids, getting quality education for your children could be a major concern too. The options are varied - private/local, medium of instruction, curricula and fees.
Children of expats do not have access to public schools. They are available to Saudi national students only. Expats can enrol at local government schools on the condition that they are Muslims. Education at a public school is free of cost.
In many schools, public and private, Arabic is the medium of instruction. They also give importance to Islamic studies. International schools allow for more freedom in subject selections and medium of instruction. Private schools offer British, American, Indian and Pakistani curricula.
The cost of education at an international school however is more expensive. An academic year in Saudi Arabia extends from September to June.
Medical and Healthcare
Private health insurance is compulsory for all foreign nationals to cover medical costs. Expats employed in the public sector can take advantage of the medical insurance sponsored by the state.
For the rest, it is the responsibility of the sponsor to provide health insurance to an expat employee. If the employer-sponsored medical cover is basic, you can always have it topped up with a private policy.
Saudi Arabia provides state-of-the-art medical facilities at its public and private hospitals and clinics. The cheaper state-run hospitals are available for access to Saudi citizens only. Expats however have to visit private clinics and hospitals in case of a medical emergency. Private hospitals are expensive. Nevertheless, they have shorter waiting lines.
One of the biggest challenges of living in Saudi Arabia is adapting to the cultural aspects of the nation. Saudi Arabia is the most conservative of all the Middle East nations.
Saudi Arabia frowns upon the free intermingling of the sexes in public. Many expats take a while to get used to the gender segregation practised there. It isn’t unusual to find separate seating arrangements for families and single men at restaurants and cafes.
Women are expected to dress conservatively in an abaya and must use a headscarf to cover their hair in public. Most women also cover their face completely revealing only the eyes. Women are not allowed to move out without a male family member escorting them. Men are not permitted to roam in shorts.
There have been relaxations in the laws in recent years. However, it is good to know what is and is not allowed to avoid aberrance.
Consumption of alcohol is prohibited. Learning Arabic for an expat can be of great help when living in Saudi Arabia. The legal system is governed by the Sharia laws.
As an expat, there are two options to choose from. You can live closer to the natives or rent homes in expat neighbourhoods. These expat compounds and villages mimic the less-conservative lifestyles of the homeland and hence are preferred by foreigners.
Renting is the preferred housing option by expats. Rental agreements are renewed annually and are registered using the Ejar electronic system. The cosmopolitan city, Riyadh, is the most expensive in Saudi Arabia.
To boost investments in real estate, the government offers low-interest or interest-free loans to expats and locals alike.
Travelling by taxi or private vehicle is the easiest and most convenient method to get around the country.
The lower cost of a car coupled with cheap petrol prices makes owning a car economical. Expats can use their international driver’s license for the first three months on arrival. After that they will have to apply for a Saudi Arabian driving license.
There is a public bus transport system for intracity and intercity transport. One can also travel using the railway lines connecting Riyadh and Dammam, Mecca and Madinah and in Jeddah city.
Prior to 2018, women were not granted a driver’s license; however, there has now been an amendment to the law. Gender segregation with screened off spaces is common on public buses. Women are not allowed to ply on selected buses and bus routes.
An adverse climate is one thing most expats coming to Saudi Arabia complain about. It is very hot. It will take a while getting used to the climate.