The Saudi Economy
The country’s prosperity is largely founded on oil, since it’s also the country with the largest oil reserves worldwide. The petrochemical industry accounts for 45% of the GDP, 80% of the state’s budgeted revenues, almost 90% of all exports, and 90% of the earnings from the export sector.
The oil industry in Saudi Arabia is very much in the hands of the government. Saudi Aramco, a formerly US American petroleum company, was nationalised in the 1970s. Nowadays, it’s the biggest oil producer in the world.
In stark contrast to big business, the local Saudi economy is often dominated by small and mid-sized enterprises, frequently run by family members. Such family-owned SMEs working in Riyadh and other major cities are mostly active in trade. Since the nation has only a small agricultural sector and little industry other than petroleum, it needs to import lots of food, textiles, vehicles, and machinery. Thus, commerce and marketing seem a logical choice. However, in recent years, despite the environmental restrictions placed on farming in the Kingdom, companies across dairy, poultry and snack foods have seen solid growth levels, with FSR’s long standing client, Almarai, being one such organisation.
Future Growth Sectors
The Saudi government recognises the importance of diversifying the economy. In the long run, they must end their exclusive dependence on the petrochemical sector, or the national economy will collapse once the oil reserves are exhausted. The plan to support other industries is also a chance for foreign companies, investors from abroad, or expatriates interested working in Riyadh.
Diversification is also opening up new opportunities, for both locals and expats moving to the country, in a variety fields: information and communication technology; natural gas production, to find an alternative to oil; power generation and renewable energies, to satiate the growing population’s demand for electricity; transportation, to transform a sprawling cityscape made for cars and to improve the nationwide transport infrastructure; recycling, waste water treatment, and desalination; medical equipment and healthcare in general, to maintain the hard-won quality of life.
Labour Market Trends
The country will need an even larger, more industrious labor force to realise plans for economic diversification, from specialised university graduates to menial workers. Ironically, Saudi Arabia has a high unemployment rate. Officially, 10.5% of the (male) population doesn’t have a job. Among younger men, the figure may even be as high as 25% or 30%.
To increase the number of Saudi nationals working in Riyadh’s private sector and in all sorts of jobs, the government has repeatedly tried to push a “Saudisation” quota. The latest resolution was passed in 2011 and had to be implemented in 2013. It means that companies with more than 10 employees are classified according to four different categories (red, yellow, green, and premium), depending on the percentage of Saudi nationals among their staff. The poorer the company’s compliance with the quota, the more difficult it will be for their HR department to hire new foreigners, to renew work permits, etc. How this will affect expats living and working in Riyadh remains to be seen.
Saudi women normally have a good tertiary education. The state-of-the-art campus of Riyadh’s Princess Noura bint Abdul Rahman University is an excellent example. Most working women are employed in education and healthcare. These two fields offer job opportunities for expat women who consider working for a while. Although more and more Saudis complete their medical training at home, a large percentage of the staff working in clinics and health centers is still foreign-born. Female doctors and nurses are sought after for women’s and children’s hospitals.
For expats, the quality of life in cities, such and Jeddah and Riyadh is fairly good, as far as creature comforts are concerned. The residents of expatriate compounds enjoy a lot of amenities. Behind the heavily guarded gates of such communities, the facilities provide plenty of leisure opportunities. Pools, gyms, and various sports grounds are frequently standard features.
As the mutawwa (Saudi Arabia’s religious police) cannot enter these areas, expat women living in Riyadh’s foreign residential areas do not have to adhere to the strict local standards there. The “modest” dress code is abolished; both genders can mix freely during sports and other leisure activities.
If you prefer a quiet evening in, you should get a decent Internet connection, buy a satellite dish, and stack up on books. Most local TV programs are in Arabic, so if you are nowhere near fluent in the language, you may be glad to have other channels.
Exploring the City
As nice as your expat life in Riyadh may be inside your compound, it can feel somewhat stifling after a while. Due to the religious and cultural restrictions on public life in Riyadh, there are no movie theaters or stage performances, but the city has some sights of interest. The National Museum, the Masmak Fortress, and the Kingdom Center with its spectacular skybridge are particularly recommended. You should also seize the opportunity for an organised daytrip to the Arabian Desert through a reputable agency.
Shopping and Dining
The most popular activities in the Kingdom include shopping and eating. The Souk al-Thumairi in Riyadh is a traditional Arabian market where you can buy beautiful handicrafts, jewelry, incense, and rugs for your loved ones at home. Furthermore, there are several upscale malls, in business districts, where affluent customers can shop Gucci, D&G, and Versace.
There are a broad range if cuisines on offer from Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine to Italian dining and Japanese specialties and in the capital, Riyadh, restaurants are surprisingly varied. When out shopping or dining, expat women should take care to enter the “family section” of shops and restaurants. In Riyadh’s Kingdom Mall there is even a ladies’ floor, where you can take off your abaya, which can provide the perfect break from moving about the city in such restricting clothing.
Another way of avoiding the “cabin fever” among expats in Riyadh is making friends outside your compound. Getting to know Saudi residents can be hard because the extended family has a far higher status in Saudi Arabia than, say, in North America or Western Europe. A lot of socialising takes place among relatives, and making friends with non-family members – let alone foreigners – is not always high on the agenda. But you should definitely try to meet other expatriates that aren’t your next-door neighbors. Cultural evenings at foreign embassies, networking events at business associations, the community events at your kids’ international school, are perfect for foreign assignees living in Riyadh.
People and Languages
According to the 2004 official census, Riyadh had slightly more than four million residents. However, a survey in 2006 estimated the number at 4.6 million. In 2013, the population is said to have grown to 5.2 million people.
Due to the many non-Saudis moving to Riyadh, you needn’t be fluent in Arabic. English is spoken in Riyadh’s business world and widely understood among the urban middle and upper classes. Of course, a little politeness goes a long way everywhere. Some basic Arabic phrases will help you feel more welcome in your new home. Brush up your language skills before you move!
Safety in Riyadh
When it comes to personal safety, there are a few things you should keep in mind after moving to Riyadh.
- If possible, keep your original passport and visa in a safe place. If your sponsor has your passport, make sure to have several copies at hand.
- Always carry your iqama (ID card) with you.
- The crime rate in Riyadh has been on the rise, but it’s still comparatively low. The most common crimes are petty theft and car-jacking.
- You should be aware that Riyadh is a more conservative place than Jeddah. Remember that alcohol consumption, drug abuse, adultery, homosexuality, and prostitution are all criminal offenses.
- Adhere to the local dress code when outside a compound (long pants and long-sleeved shirts for men, abaya and an “emergency” headscarf for non-Muslim women).
- Expat women shouldn’t socialise in public with men who aren’t relatives and should use the “family section” of public buildings.
- Respect the Ramadan and prayer times.