Your guide to expat life in Saudi Arabia

Working in Saudi Arabia

Career advancement and high earning potential are the main attractions for expats moving to Saudi Arabia. In addition to its booming oil and gas industries, there are lucrative opportunities in engineering, construction, IT and telecoms.

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Doing business

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of oil, but it has diversified its economy in recent years and now produces and exports a variety of industrial goods.

The country’s healthy economy makes it a popular destination for expats. Saudi Arabia is often associated with high earnings and an overall low cost of living, and according to our 2018 Expat Explorer survey, the country was ranked 16th out of 31 countries for disposable income.

In the Expat Explorer survey, Saudi Arabia also ranked 2nd out of 31 countries for savings and 9thth for job security. And in The World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Survey, it came 92nd out of 190 countries, scoring particularly well for registering property and protecting minority investors.

The Saudi business environment is likely to be radically different to your home country, especially if you’re from the West. It takes time to adapt – and some expats find their contract comes to an end before they’ve had the chance to settle into working life.

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Business culture

Saudi business culture is underpinned by the principles of Islam – and Saudis believe that nothing will happen if it hasn’t been divinely ordained. While this may be a difficult concept for expats to understand, everyone who works in Saudi Arabia is expected to respect the country’s way of doing business.

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Personal relationships

Saudis prefer to work with people they know and trust – so it’s worth building personal relationships with your associates. You’ll also have to accept that nepotism is prevalent in the Saudi business world.

Management style

The Saudi work environment is patriarchal and strictly hierarchical. Decisions are always made at the top and clear, direct instructions are filtered down.

Communication style

Saudis tend to express their emotions passionately. This is seen as a sign of engagement – and you’ll often hear raised voices in meetings and discussions.

Meetings

Saudis spend a lot of time getting to know each other before any business is done. Meetings rarely stick to an agenda – so you’ll have to be patient and flexible.

Fast facts

Business language

The official language is Arabic, but English is widely used in business.

Business hours

Usually from 8am to 6pm, Sunday to Thursday, with a lunch break between 12pm and 3pm.

Dress

Both men and women dress very conservatively. Arab men wear a traditional thawab, but suits are acceptable for male expats. All women must wear an abaya over loose-fitting clothes and have a scarf to cover their head in public places.

Greeting

A handshake is the standard business greeting, but associates who know each other well may kiss on the cheek. Men should avoid any physical contact with women. Eye contact is important in building trust – and you’ll be judged by your ability to hold someone’s gaze.

Gifts

It’s not obligatory to exchange gifts with Saudi associates, but it’s often appreciated. Gifts should be wrapped and of a high quality. Never give alcohol, knives or anything made of pork.

Gender equality

It’s rare to see women in the Saudi business world. Most expat women struggle to get a work permit – and those who do are regarded as inferiors by local businessmen.

Expat salaries

Expats in Saudi Arabia earn very high salaries compared to other countries in the Gulf region. Most employers also provide housing and education allowances, medical insurance and annual air tickets home.

Research the culture well and ensure you have adequate local support from your employer.

Expat Explorer Survey respondent

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All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in June 2018. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you are aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.