No matter how well informed you are, there will be a degree of cultural adjustment needed when moving to Saudi Arabia. Many westerners find it easier to live and socialise in western-style compounds, which are far removed from Saudi life.
Saudis are predominantly Muslim and they take their religion very seriously. Sharia is the religious law that dictates the way Muslims should live their life. It is highly respected and affects absolutely everything from politics, economics and family life to business, sexuality and even hygiene. The religious police or ‘Muttaween’ are there to enforce compliance and do so with gusto, even if you’re a non-Muslim expat.
It’s crucial to familiarise yourself with the basic rules on how to conduct yourself appropriately in this society.
Extreme importance is placed on politeness and social decorum and you’ll soon cause offence if you don’t learn the correct way to behave.
Expats should use the Arabic greeting of 'Salaam Aleikum' in preference to the western ‘hello' or ‘hi’.
Use your right hand when eating and when giving or taking things: the left hand is considered ritually unclean.
It’s normal to shake hands with other men but physical contact with women is heavily discouraged, even if you know them well. Holding hands is just about tolerated between
married couples but never ever kiss your wife or husband in public; restrain yourselves until you get home!
Eye contact is also extremely important in Saudi Arabia; your sincerity and credibility may be judged according to your ability to hold someone’s gaze.
Business meetings are often long-winded and you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re interrupted by family members or personal phone calls. You may even find you get ignored altogether while a lengthy personal conversation takes place. While this is obviously not how westerners are used to conducting meetings, don't become frustrated. Try your best to fit in and treat everything as a necessary part of becoming accepted.
Saudi Arabia is a heavily patriarchal society and in women have a submissive role. Although there have been slight reforms over the last few years, women are expected to be subservient to men and have little independence or rights.
As a woman, you can’t enter or leave the country alone unless you’re being met by a sponsor or male relative. You have no right to vote and you may be expected to use separate entrances and areas of public places and shops. This sometimes applies to workplaces, too. Females can own a car but are not permitted to drive. This means they have to hire a male driver or get chauffeured around by a male family member. It’s not unusual to see Saudi women being driven around by their very young sons.
Saudi women are also forbidden from
socialising in public with men they’re not married to or related to by blood. These rules are actively enforced by the religious police and expats are also expected to comply.
Clothing should be conservative and must be covered by a long black robe (abaya) that covers their body, legs, head and face. Non-Muslim women are not required to cover their face but are still expected to wear an abaya and must never show any bare flesh.
Alcohol and pork:
One of the most glaring differences an expat will encounter is the fact that alcohol and pork products are both illegal. Although, in practice, alcohol is often consumed inside western compounds.
Many expats choose to live in western compounds in order to escape the many restrictions. Life within these communities is intensely social and it’s easy to form strong bonds with fellow expats. Most foreigners live in the cities of Jeddah and Riyadh - both of which have the full range of western shops and other amenities: restaurants, bowling alleys, cinemas, dry cleaners, supermarkets, golf courses, hair salons, football fields and gyms.
Expats might find the weather in Saudi Arabia difficult to contend with. The country is mostly desert and rainfall is very sparse. During the day it’s incredibly hot - sometimes over 45°C (113°F) - but temperatures can drop below freezing at night.