Life In Riyadh
Riyadh (or Ar-Riyadh) is the capital of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the place where I have spent nearly two decades as a foreign national. The life in this city is peculiar in many ways and has a typical Arabic-dominant multicultural touch to it. The wealth and the influx of expatriates have played a big role in shaping its current form.
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom. The head is a powerful king instead of a ceremonial one. All the big postings are handpicked and mostly out of the big royal family. Current Saudi king is Salman bin Abdal Aziz, who succeeded king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz on his demise in 2015, and current mayor of Riyadh is Abdullah bin Abdulrahman Almogbel, appointed in 2012.
Either you plan to work in Saudi Arabian capital or visit it, my first-hand account of life in there would hopefully benefit and interest you.
King Khalid Airport; The Entry Point
Unless entering Riyadh by road you'll see King Khalid International Airport on arrival. Exquisitely designed, it's one of the most beautiful airports. Treatment of the officials may vary, depending on your origin and their mood!
Be careful in packing luggage as it goes through extensive screening to ensure unwanted items are not included. A slight carelessness can cause real inconvenience.
We hear Saudi Arabia is a dessert. It really is, but the center of the city doesn't look like one. Long stretches of sand only surround the highways like UAE.
Goods That Get Screened
Must Not Be
Books And Magazines
Inappropriate(vulgar, contrary to Islamic teachings) or by state banned author
CDs And DVDs
Food And Drinks
Alcoholic, Pork, Meat That Is Un-Halal
Other Than Medical
Riyal, the currency of Saudi Arabia, is composed of 100 halalas. A halala is the smallest unit. Only half Riyal i.e. 50 halalas (called "Nus" Riyal) and quarter Riyal i.e. 25 halalas("Ruba" Riyal) are used in coin form.
Cash payment to shopkeepers is dominant in everyday transactions while payment with credit and debit card is also getting popular.
Saudi Riyal comprises of one, five, 10, 50, 100, 200, 500 currency notes and the above mentioned coins.
Note design changes rarely all over the world but in Saudi Arabia each currency note of Riyal got completely changed after the demise of King Fahd and crowning of King Abdullah. I was in Riyadh and witnessed the change. At first both old and new versions were accepted for transactions. Gradually it settled for the new.
Income And Living Conditions
As the case in the rest of the world Saudi citizens also fall into different classes; lower, lower middle, middle, upper middle and upper classes. The citizens of the later two are mostly "Kafeels". Apart from other businesses they rely on the steady income that comes from expatriates under them. The terms and conditions of such payment by an expatriate may not be mentioned in a written contract, which is a source of permanent grudge for foreigners.
The middle or lower class Saudis are mostly found in government jobs: Police, fire brigade, Government medical staff, army, Mutawa etc. Other than that they are present in private sector, or self-employed as hard working traders.
To date people of "Bedouin" live in dessert and have nomadic and tribal traditions. Bedouins are not specific to Saudi Arabia but inhabit the whole Arab world. In Riyadh one can see these simple people in the desert on the right and left of the highways connecting to the city.
An expatriate generally lives a good life in Riyadh even with less income. The living conditions are much better than that of Europe where dozens of people are crammed into a small apartment and take shifts to sleep. A property cannot be bought except by a Saudi citizen so accommodation on rent is the only option and foreigners prefer much affordable flats over costly separate houses.
Lower income expatriates with little or no education prefer to come here alone and share an apartment instead of bringing their families along. This way they save a lot and get well-off back home. Labor is always in high demand in this city.
A decade ago educated middle-class people of foreign countries used to get good jobs but now it's getting more and more difficult as Saudis are preferred over foreigners. To get a reasonable job it comes down to a lot of networking, Arabic speaking skills, working relatives(father, uncle, brother that can use contacts) etc. Many boys in their teens start low-paid jobs to support their families. Women can work as a doctors, nurses or teachers and that's about all the professions they can choose.
A European, British, American, Canadian or Australian national with a good education is guaranteed to earn much higher and live a high standard life(which might not be possible in their own country due to the fierce competition). It is the reason Saudi Arabia is the choice of work for second passport holders as well.
For highly-paid western citizens companies offer a compound. I have known and seen American, British, Irish, German and Swedish people living and I personally never saw or heard anyone living on their own and out of a company compound. One of the reasons is that no one comes here for a low paid job from these countries.
If you're an Asian and plan to stay in Riyadh with family or alone a flat in places like Batha, Haara, Dheera, Sharah Khazaan, Olaiya, Shumaisi, Jaradiya, Naasriya, Malaz will suit you, as they are more or less in the center of the capital and makes travelling to work and school much less costly and easier. All of these locations are inhabited largely by South, Southeast and East Asians, so you'll get along well without Arabic.
Though lower and middle class Saudis do live in the above mentioned locations, well-off Saudis have villas, most of which are located in the suburbs of Riyadh city and few in the central locations. In any case their colonies are quiet and free of unnecessary noise. Riyadh is a big city and locations away from the center are hard to count. Al-Naseem and Sinaya are the examples. Some emigrants choose to live in these locations but it's not an ideal spot if you have to travel all the way to the center of the capital every day.
Cost Of Living
The best thing about living in Saudi Arabia especially Riyadh is the rare fluctuation in prices. Even if fluctuation occurs it's by a small margin. For example, the price of a Khubz pack(contains four freshly baked traditional flour breads), a yogurt(Zabaadi) pack, a small milk(Haleeb) bottle, a 300 ml Pepsi can, and many other things remained 1 riyal for many decades. The price of Pepsi was only increased by half a Riyal just few years ago. 100 Riyals can buy you a lot of things even today.
The house rent is a different story. Rents of apartments have gone sky high recently and is the cause of concern for working expatriates with families. Three to four rooms flat was easily available at rent of 10000 Riyals per annum at maximum but now the limit has increased up to 15000-20000 Riyals. The reason is the constant large influx of working force into Saudi Arabia over the years and choosing the desired locations to stay. Therefore, it's becoming more and more difficult to find a flat at a good location. Even one is successful, finding a car park is a constant problem.
Health Facilities And Insurance
The Health sector in Riyadh is satisfactory. Both public and private hospitals(and clinics) work side by side. In recent times health insurance companies got important when the government of Saudi Arabia made the coverage compulsory for Iqama renewal of an expatriate.
Insurance companies offer different categories. In each category a person is only required to pay a small amount(20 riyals or more) to start seeing a doctor. All follow ups are included. For other processes like x-rays and tests, hospitals have to confirm their coverage which the companies rarely decline. Most of the general medicines are covered by the insurance.
The presence of Saudi medical staff is increasing day by day whereas it was difficult to find a local doctor in a foreign-dominant health sector. Nurses are still non-Saudis mostly belonging to Philippines, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
All in all it's best to have yourself insured as medical treatment is quite expensive in Saudi Arabia.
Theoretically, Citizenship Is Never Awarded
Citizenship is yet another account in which Saudi Arabia is different than most nations. No matter how long you stay in the country or how extraordinary is your contribution in its development you're still not entitled to the citizenship. Once or twice the suggestion was made but with strange conditions attached to it the idea never truly materialized.
There are thousands of immigrants in Riyadh who spent decades in this city and would like to avail the opportunity of getting Saudi passport. But as of now you can be a Saudi citizen only if you fulfill near to impossible criteria.
All the essentials goods are easily available at a walking distance. Following is the grocery-buying culture in Riyadh:
General store is called "Baqalaa" or "Tamwiyanaat" and is found at every corner of the street and provides all the stuff for daily needs including frozen chicken and meat.
- 20 litre drinking water bottle is preferred by most of the people over tap water. An empty bottle is replaced with a filled one. Available at general store.
- Vegetables and fruits have a combined shop called “Khizaar Wal Fawaka”(Vegetables And Fruits).
- Butcher shop is found in abundance if you need fresh mutton or beef.
- Many big supermarkets have sprung up over the years(on the pattern of Walmart), that provides more or less everything(Hyper Panda, Panda, Al-Othaim, Euromarche, Carrefour)
- Bread shop(Arabic: "Makhbaz", Urdu: "Tandoor"; operated mainly by Pakistani origin Pashtoons) is commonplace and bakes wide range of breads. It includes a Saudi style "Tameez", "Biskuweet" and Pakistani "Naan".
- There is no underground propane gas pipelines to provide gas to consumers. Instead cylinders are used which are kept in big stores. You buy two or more cylinders and get an empty one replaced each time you want a gas refill.
Riyadh is full of canteens and restaurants of every nationality. Some big names, many small names. Pakistani restaurants are in abundance. Indians have good presence too besides the usual Chinese and thai restaurants. Turkish and Labonese food is really delicious and "Sheesh Tauk" is my personal pick.
Canteens(called “Boofiya”) on the other hand are run mostly by Pakistanis and Indians but the menu is not subcontinental. It consists of Shawarma, Samooli(with egg or tuna inside), Fool(name of a dish in Arabic) and Falafil. "Humus" is a delicacy that comes as a side order with salad of olive, carrots and cucumber.
I don't know the origin of “Mandi” but this can be called Saudi national dish, the way they eat it. "Mandi" is big round tray of rice with roasted lamb at the centre. Many people eat from the same tray. There are special hubs which prepare Mandi on order. The variant of Mandi is called "Khabsa" or "Kabsa", which is found in restaurants: the same rice but with a roasted chicken instead.
And of course big chains have their presence too: KFC, Hardees, Pizza Hut, Burger King, McDonalds. Herfy and Al-baik(not opened in Riyadh yet) are the local fast-food chains with ever increasing popularity. In short, one can simply live without cooking!
Quality Control And Strict Shop Timings
Riyadh district government keeps a strict watch over restaurants and stores. Restaurants with substandard cooking conditions or stores with expiry products are heavily fined. That is made possible with sudden and unannounced visits of Government officials. Furthermore, all the shops except medical stores and restaurants are to be closed before or at 12 am sharp. Breaking this law means a night in jail. Month of Ramadan is the exception to this rule, where shops are opened till dawn.
To Riyadh water is supplied from the desalinated plants at Persian Gulf through a pipeline of more than 450 kilometers. Being a rich country, more than 50% of water consumed is pumped from sea and desalinated. Still, due to lack of proper infrastructure on-time water supply is not guaranteed and water tankers have to be called in occasionally.
Law Enforcement Agencies
Police is called "Shurtaa". In brown uniform and always up-to-date blue and white painted American cars(Chevrolet and Ford) they roam the streets continually. Traffic is controlled by another department within them (only the car color is green and white). Police awe is one of the Saudi phenomena everyone feels in the city and Kingdom.
Always keep the identification papers or "Iqama" with you, as police can ask for it anytime.
Mutawa, The Islamic Religious Police
One of the things Saudi Arabia is famous for: Mutawa force. An empowered official state entity that ensures the implementation of Islamic laws in the country. They have blinking Land Cruisers in which officials go from place to place. Their presence is really important to be aware of to live in or visit Riyadh. Following rules must be kept in mind which comes under Mutawa force jurisdiction:
- A Woman is not allowed to drive vehicle. Probably the only country with this restriction, based purely on religious grounds. I don't know the exact punishment as I have never heard this law break.
- A Woman must wear an "Abaya". It's a special black dress worn on top of everything. The rule is applicable right from the time of entrance in the Kingdom.
- A Mutawa may ask a man with a woman of their relationship. Unrelated couples are contrary to the Islamic norms so better keep identification papers with you all the time.
- Pork, alcohol, drugs are not allowed. Neither you can bring nor you can find them. So don't try both.
- All shops remain closed during prayer time. That is compulsory. If caught open at prayer time a night in jail is the result.
- A grown up Muslim man must not be found not praying. At the time of prayer a man must be praying in the mosque. If found outside he has to spend one night in jail and as a punishment his head is trimmed.
- Man without family is not allowed to stay at public places like parks etc. So either go there with family or avoid walking purposelessly.
- Intermingling of men and women is not allowed.
Crime Rate And Situation Of Justice
Crime rate in Riyadh has always been exceptionally low. The reason is the severe punishment given to the criminals. A killer and a drug smuggler is guaranteed to have his head cut off and a professional thieve's left hand is severed.
Despite the good law and order situation, discrimination does exist. For a petty issue between a foreign citizen and a Saudi citizen the later is generally given the preference. The police may not register a report of small crimes of Saudis. However, western embassies or high commissions take care of their citizens which makes them less vulnerable to discrimination than Asians. But for every foreigner it's advisable to avoid confrontation at all cost.
Arab Children; Saudi And Non-Saudi
Saudis have their own subsidized school system with government-approved curriculum taught in them. Once other non-Saudi Arabs were allowed in for free but later government changed the rule, after which other Arabian nationals prefer private education for their children. They teach them at home and after every year or two go back to their homeland for exams. Otherwise they afford heavy fee of private education as I have never heard about their embassy-operated schools.
There are number of options available. South Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all have their own schools run by or affiliated to their embassies. All of them have acceptable standards and affordable fee structures.
Expensive options, that serve everyone including westerners, are Minarat-ul-Riyadh, American International School, British International School and Middle East School.
Number of good universities exist in Riyadh like King Saud University, Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University (IMSIU) etc. The only trouble is they are way too expensive for a foreign student. Unless someone is studying on scholarship all expatriates go back to their countries or opt for USA, UK, Australia, Japan, Malaysia or China.
For Saudi nationals, higher education is subsidised and government is spending huge budget on it. Still many students prefer to go to USA.
Riyadh is extremely hot and so are majority of the Saudi Arabian cities. Only exceptions are Abha and Taaif. The winter is short and rainfall is little. Due to affordable electricity bills air conditioners are common. Dessert cooler is another option which works perfectly well provided good ventilation is present. It saves a lot of electricity.
Weekends And National Holidays
Thursday and Friday used to be the official weekends but recently Government changed it to Friday and Saturday. There are few national holidays throughout the year; minimum of 6 holidays are confirmed due to both three day Eids, while 23rd September is the Saudi National Day.
Places To Visit
Justice Square, Dheera Mosque And Masmak Fort
All three of these are attached to one another. The Justice Square(Maidan Al Adl) separates the mosque and the fort. It has fountain holes on one side of the ground which emit water in summer till evening which is a pleasant site to see in hot weather. The offices of Mutawa force is adjacent to the ground. The name justice square comes from the capital punishment which is given here publicly so that people can see and be cautioned.
Dheera mosque is the central mosque of Riyadh. Its real name is Imam Turki Ibn Abdullah. Here Saudi chief cleric leads the prayers, the one who delivers grand sermon on Hajj. The side of the mosque towards main road has honey shops that keep pure honey in jars imported from far-off Saudi villages and countries like Yemen.
The Masmak fort is an important symbol in Saudi Kingdom history. It is made of clay bricks and has four watchtowers. On one side of this fort there is a small street having shops that attract tourists especially American and British.
Dheera Hotel is located on walking distance of these places. As a tourist you can choose the center of the city to stay and visit these places to start with.
A big family park, with an inexpensive entrance ticket. The park has peddle boats to drive and horses and mules to ride on in addition to the long stretches of pathways for walking. On certain days fishing is also allowed, otherwise feeding fish is a nice time pass. All in all a good place to visit on weekends.
National Museum Of Saudi Arabia
Filled with items related to the history of the kingdom and Saudi royal family, this is a must watch museum. There is an open ground adjacent to the museum where families come and sit while children enjoy playing football and cricket. Though museum has a ticket, some old cars of Saud family are placed outside and can be seen for free.
It is not a specific place or park but a region outside Riyadh city having many recreational parks in the dessert along the road. Although these parks do not offer much but for barbecue and three and four wheel scooter drive for children they are best.
Al-Jenadiryah is a cultural festival that takes place in Janaadriyah region every year. It lasts for several weeks and is famous for camel race, traditional music and dance. Tourists in great number around the world attend this event.
Intra City Transport
In Riyadh city public transport is almost nonexistent. On few routes, old smoke-emitting noise making, buses are allowed to Saudi drivers exclusively. The same person is both the driver and the conductor.
On big scale taxis and personal cars are the mode of transportation. Taxi is called "Ajra" and is so common that you can't miss it on road. The drivers mostly are Pakistanis or Indians. Only few are Saudis. No old model car is allowed as a cab. Brand new Toyota Camry or Hyundai are common. Although meter is a requirement, nobody cares. The distance to a place decides the fare, and bargaining is a routine.
Buying a car is not a big deal, so most of the people have it. Those who don't either hire a taxi or a private van on permanent basis. Same is the case with school pick and drop of children as parents can't do that due to same office timings.
Saudi Arabia has one of the best road networks in the world, yet its infamous for high number of yearly accidents due to rash driving.
Iqama; Residence Visa And Work Permit
Only for the immigrants. If you're coming to Riyadh to work an Iqama is the foremost requirement you'll need to take care of, unless you've been hired by a company that makes the process easier for you. The Iqama is a working permit for expatriats that is both a residence visa and an identification card, issued by the immigration and passport department of Saudi Arabia known as Jawazaat. This card can be renewed for a period of one or two years and must be renewed before expiration to avoid illegal stay.
The Kafeel is always a Saudi citizen. Both Iqama and Kafeel go hand in hand. The literal meaning of Kafeel is that of responsible or sponsor. So Kafeel sponsors you and your family and is responsible for the rest of your stay. He's the one who renews your Iqama and arranges for exit re-entry.
List Of Non-Saudi Nationals Living In Riyadh
Found in huge numbers and everywhere. Mostly belong to lower-middle class. National dress "Shalwar Qameez".
Big presence too but less than Pakistanis.
Hard working and friendly people. Called "Bundu" or "Bundu Bhai". United when it comes to fight. Don't cross with them!
Met one or two people ever.
Rare presence. Easily confused with Chinese/Japanese due to appearance.
Straight forward people with good public dealing. General stores keep certain stuff especially for them.
Nice people. Hard to find but present
Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Tunisian
Unfortunate but true: Being Arab don't earn them a special status. Really difficult to tell which one belongs to which country. Physique is different though. Egyptians more chubbier(my opinion) than Syrians and Palestinians who are slim and smart. But all of them are evident from their appearance to be non-Saudis. Lebanese food is really delicious.
Also Arab but black. Humble and decent people. They are distinguishable from Saudi blacks due to lighter color and appearance. They usually wear long white turban.
Only found in big companies. Their weak point is English speaking skills.
Highly paid employees in multi-national companies. Also seen as tourists sometimes.
Never met one. Only heard of a working Irish. I was told of an interesting information he gave: Back in Ireland family members help each other out and build their houses themselves since labor is too costly.
Tough people with tough expressions as usual.
Down to earth and great people. Not an iota of arrogance. Drink a lot of coffee and cross all limits of hard work in office!
At the end I'm sharing the traditional Saudi sword dance. This, I captured back in 2006 in Riyadh at Dheera Justice Square. It's the rehearsal for the dance on Eid celebrations. Sorry for the low quality, but I only had mobile to capture this.