My opinion of living in Saudi Arabia
“It’s not that bad.”
Within weeks of landing in Saudi, my housemate and I had probably exchanged that line a dozen times.
Everyone says Saudi’s not for everyone. Many of the ones who’ve lived there say it’s not for anyone. It can be hard. It can be hard to socialize. It can be hard to entertain yourself. It can be hard to teach Saudi students. The culture, climate, and lifestyle can be a lot different from what you’re used to.
Here’s a bit of a sporadic rundown of the standout joys (?) and annoyances for me.
First off, blocked out prayer time is annoying. If you’re Muslim and you pray, fine. But for the rest of us, it’s annoying. It’s hard to get used to having everything shut down five times each day, shut down and kick you out. I think the general consensus is that you don’t ever get used to it either. It’s always a pain.
The climate, on the other hand, isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Sure, it’s blazing hot for eight months out of the year. It’s dry and hot, and you just don’t go outside much then, not even at night (it’s still hot at night). During the winter months, though, it’s nice, like southern California nice, at least in the eastern province where I lived. I’m guessing it’s similar in other regions as well, although I know if you live in some of the mountainous areas, it can get cold.
Safety isn’t a concern. This felt like a big one before I arrived, like are there terrorist threats or whatever? No, there aren’t. No one who lives there worries about their safety. Well, maybe if you’re a soldier or working security or something. But if you’re living there as a teacher, like I was, or an engineer or something, you don’t really have anything to worry about. Like other places outside the states, I felt safer in Saudi Arabia than in most cities in the United States.
Getting out and about can be tough. Taxis are kind of close to western prices, at least compared to Korea or Thailand. Where I lived, we didn’t have any bus or metro systems. I don’t know if they have these in other places, maybe in Riyadh or Jeddah. That would have made a difference. We didn’t work on iqamas, the permanent work visas. That meant we couldn’t buy cars. We could rent them, for about $500/month, but that was about it (although with insurance included in that price and gas selling at roughly $.25/gallon, maybe that wasn’t such a steep price).
Still, even if we could get out, there wasn’t much to do. Again, Jeddah or Riyadh or even Dammam probably had better expat communities. In Jubail, though, we felt pretty isolated. I joined a basketball league in the beginning of my contract. I took an Arabic course too. Other than that, I didn’t interact with anyone outside of our work program. This could have made a big difference if the expat community and our interaction with it had been better.
There was an upside to Saudi, though, in that its location in the Middle East made it a great jumping off point for travel outside the country. Guys visited Africa, Europe, and Asia for a fraction of what it would have cost from somewhere like America. It also changed things up for the typical ESL teacher who works in Asia, moving us from the east side of Asia to the west. Combined with the generous amount of vacation time, we got to explore the world quite a bit from Saudi.
Saudi’s location in the Gulf also made it a great place for foreign workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. This meant most of the grocery stores carried spices and other ingredients from each of these cuisines. I enjoyed this. I also enjoyed frequenting the local Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Filipino restaurants, where meals tasted delicious but usually cost only two or three dollars max. The grocery stores were cheap too, thanks to the rich Saudi government subsidizing most ingredients.
Lastly, I made great friends. Something about struggling through such a unique culture and experience probably helped deepen friendships that otherwise might not have ever happened. In any case, I enjoyed the people I met and the people I hung out with. As usual, the friendships were the best part about the entire thing. Plus, okay, well, at least at this point in my life, I enjoyed the dorm-style lifestyle.
But overall, what’s my opinion of living in Saudi Arabia? My opinion is that, like my housemate and I said almost from the beginning, it’s not that bad. I feel like guys complained about it more than they should have. I feel like it has a reputation for being worse than it is.
Most guys who end up in Saudi lived adventurous lives in other places before Saudi, places like southeast Asia or whatever. Compared to these places, Saudi might be a little dead. But there are tons of places in America that are slow like Saudi too.
So yeah, in the most general terms, it seems to me like Saudi’s like most countries: you’re going to get out of it what you put into it. If you want it to be a good place to live, if you try to get out and about, if you make friends, if you’re thankful for the things it does have, then you’ll be fine there. If not, though, unlike other places, it’ll be the worst place you’ve ever lived.