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Expat Living and Working in Saudi Arabia - Rules, Regulations, Laws

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Tony worked across Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, Al-Khobar, and Jeddah, where he met his wife, who has worked there for 12 years.

Women Dressed in Abaya

Follow rules, regulations, and laws even at the beach

Follow rules, regulations, and laws even at the beach

Rules, Regulations, and Laws in Saudi Arabia

Living and working in Saudi Arabia (officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or KSA) is like nowhere else in the world that I've experienced. They enforce their rules to the letter, and the punishments are severe. Punishments for foreigners may be even more severe than for locals; most Saudis in the kingdom would just get their wrists slapped.

You also have to remember that your employment is linked to your behavior. If you were arrested for drinking or womanizing for instance, you would not only find yourself jailed and deported, you would also lose your job and any accrued benefits you may have earned. So that one drink could cost you a huge amount of money if you were expecting a few months-worth of a tax-free bonus at the end of a couple of years of hard work there in Saudi.

Saudi Arabia is also one of the most hypocritical societies that I have ever encountered. In a society that constantly preaches about not using alcohol and the sanctity of their women's virtue, the queue to leave the country at the end of the working week over the bridge between Khobar and Bahrain is at least four to five hours long. The queue is made up mainly of Saudis, and I don't think they are all going to Bahrain to visit the mosques. The fact that Bahrain has many bars and nightclubs where people can drink and chase women (and not the sort of women you can take home to mother, I hasten to add) may have more to do with the length of those queues. But maybe I am wrong; perhaps if you visit the bars in Bahrain you can let me know.

Even within the kingdom, it is very easy to find just about anything you want, on or off the compounds where most expats live. Most Saudis that I know have a bottle of two of the strong stuff hidden away for when they have visitors. So it is very much a case of "do as we say, not as we do" when working in Saudi Arabia.

That being said, with high wages and generous benefits, it is a hard place to ignore for employment—and many expats (myself included) would rather endure the restrictions placed on us to work there and make that extra tax-free cash.

Where Is Saudi Arabia?

Working in Saudi Arabia

Just in case you are ever fortunate enough to visit or work in Saudi Arabia, I will summarize the main rules, regulations, and laws that you need to know.

Please, whatever you do, follow these rules—especially in public places. Saudis take their traditions and their religion very seriously. They are not known for their leniency towards foreigners who break their laws, and their prisons are for punishment, not reform.

Carry Your Iqama at all Times

Don't get caught without your ID

Don't get caught without your ID

Don't Leave Home Without ID

You have to carry your passport/visa with you at all times unless you have your residency card (Iqama). Once you have your Iqama, you must keep it with you at all times. If you get stopped with no valid ID, you will be treated like an illegal and will be taken to jail. Most of the police officers do not speak (or choose not to speak) English and will not generally be helpful.

If you are with a woman, she'd best be your wife—and you must either have an Iqama that proves this relationship or you must carry your marriage certificate.

Daily Prayer

Muslims pray five times per day. Here in Saudi Arabia, everything stops and shuts down for prayer, which lasts 20-30 minutes each time. So if you are going out, check the prayer times before you leave or you will end up waiting. You will know when it is prayer time as every mosque will start its call for prayer. The first compound I stayed in had four mosques nearby, one just off each wall. The call for prayer begins at dawn. If you are a light sleeper, this will be when you get up every day.

When prayer is called, every business will close. You will be asked to leave smaller shops, but large supermarkets will allow you to wander and fill your trolleys during prayer (although I once witnessed a group of matawa, or religious police, drive everyone out of a Riyadh supermarket at prayer time, but that was only once).

Laws About How to Dress

When working in Saudi Arabia, you have to dress respectfully. For men this means no vests or shorts in public. Women must wear an abaya (long black dress/cloak covering the entire body) at all times outside, and they must also cover their hair. Most foreign women do not cover their hair; however, it is good practice to always carry a headscarf. If asked to cover your hair, do so without argument.

No Pornography Allowed

Porn is against the law

Porn is against the law

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Pornography Is Illegal

Pornography is illegal in Saudi Arabia, and "pornography" can cover a surprising range of items. Even glossy magazines with scantily clad women will be classed under this category. Whatever you do, don’t bring anything like this with you when you arrive to work here. Remember, this is a country that is concerned about the naked flesh on cereal boxes and other items in the supermarket. They uses black marker pen to cover it up!

I often get asked about whether your laptop and other devices will be searched when you come into the country. I have yet to meet or hear of anyone who has ever experienced this. Although a laptop search is not likely to happen to you, it is probably best to ensure that anything out of the ordinary is hidden away from the usual directories on your computer.

I have, however, known several women who have had cell phones snatched and searched by religious police, or mutawa. Quite frankly, most of these guys are just looking for an excuse to take away women from less well-off countries and abuse them. If you are a woman, be very careful with what you have on your cell phone, especially if you are in an area known for predatory mutawa.

Pork Banned

Pork is illegal

Pork is illegal

Regulations About Pork

You won't find any bacon sandwiches in Saudi Arabia. Not only do they not eat pork, all pork products are actually illegal. If you are caught with pork, the police will throw you in the slammer!

If you know someone, however, who is able to open a tin can without leaving any evidence, you can easily smuggle bacon in a can disguised as fruit or something else. Not that I have ever done this (too often). Forget banning alcohol, for me this is the biggest problem about living in Saudi Arabia.

Laws Regarding Mixing with the Opposite Sex

Unless you are married or a direct blood relative, you are not allowed to mix in private with someone of the opposite sex. This is generally extended to the public sphere as well, so walking and talking to someone of the opposite sex is likely to get you into very hot water—perhaps even jailed or deported. Again, your origin will also affect how you are treated here. As a Westerner, I have never been stopped or questioned with any woman, nor have any of my friends—but it does happen, so beware (I hasten to add that I am actually married). On the other hand, I have both seen and heard frequent reports of Filipinos and Indians, as well as others, being stopped and arrested.

Illegal to Mix with the Opposite Sex

Rules Regarding Segregation of the Sexes

Segregation of the sexes is strictly upheld. If you go to a restaurant, even a fast food joint such as McDonalds, there is a “singles' section,” which is for the men, and a family section, which is for women as well as for families. Even within the family section, there are often screens arranged so that one table cannot see another, so that everyone is isolated.

When working in this country, you will find that the sexes rarely mix in the workplace. The women are required to have their own areas within the workplace.

Strict Adultery Laws

If you have an affair, be warned. The penalty for adultery here is death, and the penalty for a woman even “consorting” with a man can run to many lashes. Even a rape victim here was recently lashed, and her husband called for the death penalty in response to her “infidelity."

Rape Victim

Public Shows of Affection

When Saudi men meet, they will often kiss each other on the cheek. Women will do this when they meet one another, as well. However, do not think that this gives you the right to kiss your wife in public! Affection between men and women is not tolerated in public. It is okay to walk hand in hand with your wife—but no kissing and cuddling, even if meeting at the airport for the first time in a year. Control yourself until you get somewhere private.

If someone tells you to stop doing something, stop straight away and do not try to argue the right or wrong of it. It is best to remove yourself from the area as quickly as possible in these situations. You do not want the people telling you to stop deciding that further action is required.

Kissing in Saudi Arabia

Don't Curse God in Saudi Arabia

Rules About Bad Language and Gestures

Do not swear or make obscene gestures. People are easily offended (or choose to be offended just to give you trouble), and things can escalate out of control. If someone takes a dislike to you, remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. The general rule here is that a Saudi is always right. Even if you are in the “right” in a dispute, if the dispute is with a Saudi, you (as the foreigner) are wrong. Otherwise the decision tends to follow a hierarchy of origins: a Middle Eastern gentleman will always be given preferential treatment over a Westerner (unless there is a possible diplomatic fallout), and the Westerner will always win out over a Filipino or an Indian, and so on. There is a very definite pecking order here in Saudi Arabia.

Do not give the finger when you are driving, no matter how bad the Saudi is driving. This is not your country, and you will be in the wrong.

And never, ever blaspheme the name of God or the prophet!

Women Are Not Allowed to Drive

Women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia; therefore they must have a driver. However, a problem arises because a woman cannot be alone with a man who is not her direct blood relative or her husband. Some men will not allow their wives to have a driver for this reason. There is a very real danger that a woman can be accused of having an improper relationship with her driver if the police want to cause a problem.

In order to get around this problem, I have seen boys as young as 10 or 11 driving their mothers around.

Women Driving

Rules About Women Alone

Women in Saudi Arabia who travel and walk alone are generally regarded with suspicion. Many people may think that she is a prostitute and will treat her as such. My wife occasionally walks from our apartment to the hospital opposite where she used to work (around 100 yards away); cars will often stop and men will beckon for her to get in—and we live in a “nice” neighborhood.

On one occasion in the past (several years ago), she was grabbed and dragged into a car by a man who tried to hold something over her nose and mouth to knock her out. Luckily she carries a knife, and the man stopped and let her out when she started to stab his seats and threaten him. My wife is a Filipina, not a Westerner. I have not heard of Western women being treated in this way, but I have heard several similar reports regarding Filipina and Indonesian women, which have ended horrifically in rapes and beatings.

Alcohol Is Illegal

Alcohol is not allowed at all—not even in mouthwash and perfumes—so be careful what you bring into the country. It is not difficult to find alcohol in the kingdom, but don’t go asking Saudis unless you know them very very well.

Making your own alcohol is not exactly hard; it is easily made when sugar is fermented by yeast (ordinary baking yeast is sufficient). So sugar and yeast added to nonalcoholic beers or to fruit juices will quickly ferment to produce an alcoholic version. Fermentation normally takes one to two weeks, and it takes another two to three weeks for the cloudiness to clear. Or so I am told, as this is strictly illegal.

Finding alcohol on the compound is very easy—some compounds have their own residents' bar. Non-homemade quality stuff is harder to come by but not impossible. Expect to pay as much as $250 for a bottle of Jack or Smirnoff when supplies are low.

Penalties for having alcohol are stiff, so don’t travel off-compound with it. If you are caught, you are likely to get sent home unless you are very lucky and someone manages to smooth-talk the police for you. If you have Saudi friends, let them transport the alcohol—they will only get their wrists slapped if they are caught. (Most Saudis I know drink and have supplies of many types.)

Whatever you do, do not sell booze under any circumstances. If you are caught, you will be so deep in excrement that you will not see the light of day for a long time.

Drugs Are Illegal

Drugs are a big problem in Saudi Arabia. Hashish is a major problem here; many Saudis smoke far too much of it as well as other drugs. I am not in any way, shape, or form someone who uses drugs, but I know that they are freely available. The penalty for trafficking drugs here is death, so before you bring some into this country with you, or try to pass to your “friends,” remember this.

Censorship in Saudi Arabia


If you travel on Saudi airlines and watch a film, you may be surprised to see women’s legs and cleavage “fuzzed” out—as if they were people who should not be identified on a news program. The kissing scene where the hero steals a little peck from the heroine? Missing. I am not talking about a sex scene here; I am talking a peck on the cheek. Censored.

As for the internet, if it has to do with sex, drink, gambling, scantily clad women, anything that is anti-Muslim, news about Saudi Arabia they don’t like, etc., you won't be able to access it.

Even when you read the newspapers, you might notice that there is just too much good news about how wonderful everything is in Saudi Arabia!

Rules About Having Fun

Basically, if you think it is fun, then there is a good chance that it will be illegal here in Saudi. Working in Saudi Arabia may seem very restrictive, but at the end of the day we are here for the money and the lack of taxes.

But remember, if it goes on behind closed doors, quietly without disturbing anyone, no one will stop you.

Working in Saudi Arabia: Additional Information

If you are still considering working in Saudi Arabia, then my full guide to working as an expat in Saudi Arabia will tell you everything you need to know.

Saudi Arabia is not somewhere to visit or work in unless you have done your homework. There are just too many things that you could do wrong and too many ways to easily offend the Saudis. Always do your research, and understand what it is that you are letting yourself in for. Punishment in Saudi Arabia can be severe.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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