Inside Story — Expat Exodus to Saudi Arabia

WorkPanda
9 min readFeb 22, 2021

A few years ago, I wrote an article about relocating to Saudi Arabia as a British expat. I received an overwhelming amount of messages, likes and shares. The number of people relocating to Saudi has jumped fivefold in the past 2 years, which prompted me to provide more insight and guidance.

Over 7 years, I’ve been fortunate to live and work across Europe and the Middle East, understanding first-hand how difficult it can be to uproot and start a new life. Staying somewhere for a few days and living abroad are two completely different experiences. While it may be exciting to embrace a new culture and explore possibilities in a foreign country, you will also have to make incredibly important, life changing decisions. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to know where to begin

Background

I relocated from Dubai to Saudi in July 2018 to help deliver the Kingdoms national 2030 vision, to help transform the country for the future. The aspiration to deliver a number of overarching plans, programs and reforms that will enhance the Kingdoms status across the world. This included:

  1. Becoming a global powerhouse in Investment through the Public Investment Fund
  2. Be at the epicentre of global trade
  3. Investing in their people and the potential of their younger generation
  4. Promoting major corporations, across borders
  5. Expand various digital services

The vision is built around three themes: A vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation. You can read more on the Giga Projects here

The decision to relocate

We live under a cloud of uncertainty in the Middle East. Most of you will agree that Dubai, whilst an amazing place to live and work there remains little stability. One minute you’re having the greatest time of your life, the next you’re working down a 30-day tourist visa. It’s so uncertain.

In 2018, The Public Investment Fund had announced a series of ‘Giga Projects’ (never heard that term before), Including a luxury resort destination; a project compared to the size of Belgium. Generally, project unveils are notorious in this region “the biggest, the most expensive, the tallest…” only to be canned following further feasibility. At that time, there was little in the media, so I was trusting my gut as well as the few people in my network who had already relocated.

Earning Potential

One of the reasons many expats consider moving to Saudi Arabia is the prospects of making money. Similar to the UAE, expats can benefit from a tax-free salary, which is a huge incentive. For many Brits this is particularly appealing as in the UK you may be expected to pay over 40% in income tax!

In 2018, Saudi Arabia companies were offering lucrative remuneration packages to lure in professionals from abroad; golden handshakes, competitive salaries, allowances etc. However, as the market has matured packages have dwindled due to abundance in the labour market (leading from completion of key, project delays and financial contraction).

Some expats may have little choice in negotiation due to the limited number of jobs available in the UAE, therefore it’s a choice of accepting market rate packages, or the road home. For many the decision has been tough; particularly with school fees, mortgages and loans.

Career Progression

Attracting and retaining talent is now one of the most important strategies for organisations to promote future success. The learning curve and experience working in Saudi, particularly on one of the giga projects is exponential. Day in day out you’re working with subject matter experts, world renowned consultants and experienced professionals from all parts of the world. What you will be working on will leave a legacy for future generations to come.

As a twenty something year old, you’re learning curve is exponential as you’re absorbing all the knowledge and experience from those around you. This is what help me accelerate my career and build a robust professional network. Working in Saudi allowed me to meet people that I’d never get to meet if I was stuck behind a corporate desk in London or Dubai. Bumping into old colleagues at King Khalid International, on the plane or DXB was always fun.

Planning

Before leaving the UAE, some expats have registered Freezone businesses to keep their residency. This will allow you to retain your Emirates ID, VISA and Bank Account. For me, this was my contingency plan, if things didn’t work out I’d relocate back to the UAE without any trouble. Having some sort of contingency plan is key.

If you have dependents or do not wish to relocate your family; you can approach any Freezone entity to discuss licensing options. With the exodus of expats leaving the region (4%), the UAE has made it even easier for people to register their business and obtain visas. I suggest you shop around for the best price before you move ahead. I chose Ras Al Khaimah Freezone (RAKEZ), as it was the most competitively priced; however, since then hundreds of other license types have become available.

Spending x Savings

Living in Saudi can be cheap; however, this is very much based on your own standards and expectations. You can eat at Nozomi every night, daily ‘food deliveries’ or cook! I chose a combination of cooking x ordering (if you opt to eat out you should visit La Rustica, Farzi Café, Urth Café and Circle Cafe). If you’ve lived in the region long enough, you’ll soon realise that there’s a massive coffee and burger eating culture — similar to Al Wasl road, Dubai.

You need to be smart if you’re planning to go Saudi. You can easily go on a spending spree, especially when you convert your Saudi Riyals to GBP. Have fun, but don’t be silly! Financial planning is key. I used online platforms such as TransferWise to send money between Saudi and my international accounts. This really helped me save up for a house in the UK, pay off debts and to support the early stages of my startup (WorkPanda).

Accommodation

Accommodation quality varies; you can stay in a modern and secure compound like Wadi Qortuba, Al Nakhla, Al Bustan, California or Arizona; great for families but it’s expensive. Or you can opt to live in a serviced apartment outside a compound ( GenX Centre, Al Mather). I spent a lot of time travelling between Dubai and London, thus the service apartment route was adequate for me and catered to my every need (Large TV with BEIN sports).

The money that I could have splashed out on living in a ‘plush’ compound, I spent on renting a room in Dubai (with friends). This meant I could go back and forth between countries and enjoy it in my own comforts. You have to remember back in 2018, there were not many young expats, and it was still quite conservative. Pre pandemic, if you booked flights in advance you could get a return fare for as little as SAR 1,000, however I’d usually pay SAR 1,800 (Airlines are smart) 3 weeks before. A few days before could set you back SAR 3,000 — SAR 5,000.

Working remotely (Site based)

Most of the giga projects whilst headquartered in Riyadh are based in remote locations on the West Coast of Saudi Arabia (Giga Projects). If you’re applying for a role, please please please check whether the role is located in the city or in fact on site. If you are aware that the role is site based, seek further clarification from HR on working hours, compensation, facilities. On site accommodation is likely provided by your employer and fresh hot meals through on demand catering facilities. You’d be saving a ton!

I’ve visited site before, but I haven’t lived there long term. Speak to your hiring manager and seek insights from others before making a decision to move. Whilst living on site may be difficult, Saudi Arabia (pre covid) offers the enchanting Red Sea; you can spend your past time snorkelling through colourful coral reefs or strolling down the sandy beaches. Base camps provide entertainment, fitness facilities and recreational sports to keep you busy. You can also cross the border to Jordan or visit sites such as Al Ula or Haql (Shipwreck). Many people drive to the closest city; Yanbu which is located close by and YES they have a McDonalds (Life changing).

I don’t want to paint a distorted picture. Remote working is tough, but only you can make the decision whether it is the right one, or not.

Transformation

Since the announcement of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman introduced several reform plans to diversify the economy and improve well being for all. Some of the key events included the abolishment of religious police in the streets, IPO of Saudi Aramco (5%), introduction of Saudi Women on the roads, launch of e-visas for foreign tourists and much more.

The national transformation is tangible, whether physical or emotional you can see change almost on a day-day basis. Unlike any other country i’ve lived in, the Saudis remain determined to create and implement changes imminently e.g. gender mix in public spaces.

Socialising

Saudi hosted several prestigious events in the 2 years I was there. The highlight for me was Anthony Joshua winning his title from Ruiz in Riyadh ( Clash on the Dunes). It was held in Diriyah, the old quarters of Riyadh and attended by royalties and celebrities including rap artist Akon, singer Usher and UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov

Winter at Tantora is an annual cultural festival held in the old town of AlUla, The first festival began in December 2018, and was running a series of eight-weekend concerts for world-class musicians; Artist included pop legend Lionel Richie, Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli, Latin sensation Enrique Iglesias and British urban act, Craig David

The Edge of the World is an unexpected and dramatic geological wonder in the rocky desert northwest of Riyadh. If you’re an ‘outdoorsy’ person, or a ‘wannabe’ Instagram influencer I’m sure you’d love it. There are group tours, and a fantastic way to meet people outside of work.

The Diriyah ePrix powered by Formula E championships was another successful event that brought in crowds from all around the world.

There are also many events hosted by the respective Embassy’s (UK, Ireland USA etc) which are located in the DQ district. Most memberships are invite only, however with a close knit expat community it’s easy to get invited either through friends or work colleagues. Use your ‘Waste’ (who you know — arabic).

Conclusion

I’m sure most of you have seen the adverts whether on television, magazines or social media… It actually looks like that. The bluest waters on the west coast (Visit Haql), snow in the mountains (and the picturesque landscapes (visit Abha — image below).

Despite what the scaremongers may say, you won’t find friendlier people then the Saudis. Whilst there may be some language barrier amongst elders, many ‘youngsters’ are western educated; you will find yourself with good, decent and hospitable people. Never did I feel unsafe, threatened or ill-treated. Yes, there driving is pretty crazy but where in the world is safe! (drive in India or Vietnam I dare you!)

If you’re thinking of moving, speak to your network in region, friends, family and former colleagues. Don’t rely on social media alone. It’s so easy to forge opinions through the media. If you’re moving with family, plan in advance. If you’re a bachelor then try it out for a year. The country has a lot to offer, it’s what you make of it which counts.

Good luck!

Originally published at https://workpanda.io on February 22, 2021.

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