The essential regulations, laws and social customs you need to understand when living in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi laws and moral standards are considerably stricter than those of the UK and in certain cases, notably involving dress, drink, moral behaviour and mixing with unrelated members of the opposite sex, what is not a crime in Britain is treated as a crime in Saudi Arabia. This guide gives British residents advice on how to live in Saudi Arabia without difficulty.
Passports in Saudi Arabia
If you are a British citizen living in Saudi Arabia, you must hold a valid British passport. There is a minimum passport validity requirement of 6 months, so you should ensure that you are aware of the passport renewal process whilst you are in Saudi Arabia. Emergency Travel Documents (ETD) can be issued if your full validity passport is unavailable, but they are only valid for exiting Saudi Arabia, and a final exit stamp must be obtained by immigration before the ETD can be used. It is common practice in Saudi Arabia for your sponsor to hold your passport, under the labour law guidelines, whilst you retain your Iqama (residency permit) for day to day purposes. Even if you retain your passport yourself, you cannot leave the country without an exit visa being granted.
The Saudi Embassy will refuse to issue a Saudi visa if the passport reflects travel to Israel or indicates that the place of birth of the applicant is Israel. Women visitors and residents must be met by their sponsor upon arrival. Women who are travelling alone and are not met by sponsors have experienced delays before being allowed to enter the country or to continue on other flights.
Women considering relocating to Saudi Arabia should be aware that women and children residing in Saudi Arabia as members of a Saudi household (including adult UK-citizen women married to Saudi men, adult UK citizen women who are the unmarried daughters of Saudi fathers, children born to Saudi fathers, and UK citizen boys under the age of 21 who are the sons of Saudi fathers) require the permission of the Saudi male head of their household to leave the country. Married women require their husband’s permission to depart the country, while unmarried women and children require the permission of their father or male guardian.
Dual Saudi-British nationality
Dual nationality is not legally recognised in Saudi Arabia, which may limit the ability of officials to provide consular services. If you are a dual national, you will be recognised as a citizen of the passport which you used to enter Saudi Arabia, as this will be on your visa. If you are dual British citizen, but you entered Saudi Arabia on the other passport, the Saudi authorities will not recognise you as a British citizen. If things go wrong, the British Embassy will have very limited access and ability to provide assistance.
Dual nationals of Saudi descent are not permitted to travel outside Saudi Arabia on their UK passport. They can transit via another Gulf country if they wish to travel to the UK or to a foreign country. The UK Border Agency will not grant visas or indefinite leave to remain in the UK for those who hold a UK passport because they are British citizens and dual citizenship is recognised in the UK.
Visas and residency permits in Saudi Arabia
There are complex visa requirements for entering and exiting Saudi Arabia. You may hold a residency permit (Iqama), a visitor visa, or a business visa and reside in Saudi Arabia on a temporary or permanent basis. If you are in Saudi Arabia on a permanent basis, you need to obtain an exit visa every time you wish to leave the country for any purpose. There are heavy fines, sometimes accompanied with prison sentences if you overstay your visa or do not hold the correct type of visa. Contact the Saudi Embassy in your home country before you travel to find out more about different types of visas and ensure you have the most appropriate type.
Your invitation to visit and stay in Saudi Arabia will be provided by your sponsor. This is normally your employer. Sponsors are responsible for the both the welfare and conduct of expatriates under their sponsorship during their stay in the Kingdom. Sponsors can also be fined heavily if you break the terms of your visa, and may pass these fines on to you. A husband can sponsor his wife and children if he has a profession that allows him to do so. It is illegal to work without your sponsor being noted on your Iqama. Some spouses work without transferring their sponsorship to their employer, but this can lead to legal difficulties.
On entering Saudi Arabia, foreigners’ fingerprints are routinely taken (at the airport) and linked to your visa. Fingerprints will be re-taken at exit (and sometimes in between times) in order to check that there are no outstanding legal issues.
Foreign citizens who enter Saudi in order to work will need a Iqama. The sponsor usually processes the Iqama within three months of the date of entry to Saudi Arabia. Any foreign citizen wishing to resign from employment before the end of the probation period should refer to their employment contract or seek legal advice.
You cannot change your job or transfer your sponsorship without the agreement of the current sponsor. As sponsors pay for accommodation up front (normally for the year), many are reluctant to grant a transfer of sponsorship, or exit visa, if the fees they have paid out are not repaid to them in full. Visitors who overstay their visit in the Kingdom are subject to a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals and incarceration pending deportation proceedings. You should request clarification from Saudi immigration authorities upon arrival as to your permitted length of stay. A common mistake among visitors is confusing the validity of their Saudi visa with the permitted length of stay in the Kingdom. Dates are calculated in accordance with the Hijri Islamic calendar.
The UK Embassy in Saudi Arabia has received several reports of UK citizens fined for inadvertently overstaying their permitted time in the Kingdom. This problem cannot be revoked unless the Saudi sponsor can do something about it. However, even then, it can take several months to resolve such an error with Saudi immigration authorities. You may now check your permitted length of stay online at the Visa Validity Service by entering your passport number and Saudi visa number.
On leaving Saudi Arabia after living here, you will need to obtain a final exit visa. Before the visa can be granted all debts and fines must be settled, and all vehicles/mobile telephones/lines of credit must be transferred out of your name. Bank accounts must be closed also. A visa will not be issued before this has been done and your fingerprints have been taken. It is also prudent for you to apply for a police clearance certificate prior to leaving the Kingdom, as these cannot be issued after residency has ended.
Saudi Arabian local laws and customs
Riyadh is the capital of the Central region of Saudi Arabia, and of the country. It is a deeply conservative city, and in the main Saudis keep themselves to themselves. Invitations to the homes of Saudis in the capital city are rare, and if issued will normally just be to males. Shopping is the main pastime in Riyadh, enjoyed by women and men. Women will normally be fully covered, including veils.
Jeddah is the capital of the Western region (the Hijaz)and is home to Saudis who have settled here over centuries from other parts of the world or been influenced over time by foreign traders – introducing a different, maybe more relaxed sense of living than one might find in other parts of the Kingdom. In Jeddah life starts in the evenings and there is nothing Jeddawis enjoy more than socialising at night around dinner. Invites are normally to people’s homes and are for Mr and Mrs.
The evenings are family time whether that is for business or social events. Many spend their evenings along the Jeddah Corniche, barbecuing or picnicking. It is not uncommon to see women – admittedly in full abayas - but with their trainers, speed walk or jog along the paved walkways of the corniche or on green embankments which separate dual carriageways. However, it is still Saudi Arabia and visitors should be mindful of the culture and customs.
There are some changes afoot in employment in Saudi: there is the issue of Saudisation (replacing foreign labour with Saudi nationals) and also the recruitment of more women. The number of women employed is still on the low side, however the floodgates are open and women are entering the labour force. Whether as sales staff or engineers, women are increasingly visible.
While both cities are distinctly different, they are both equally interesting. It is important for expatriates to familiarise themselves with the customs and laws that govern the land to ensure that they do not offend or unwittingly break any laws. Life is not like it is in the West. Religion and culture ensures, that in relative terms, all women may not enjoy the freedoms we take for granted.
Religion in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is an exclusively Islamic (Muslim) kingdom and Islam governs nearly every aspect of life. The public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Severe punishment including imprisonment and deportation can result should such activities come to the attention of the authorities. The authorities also stamp firmly on attempts at proselytisation or conversion of Muslims to Christianity; however, non-Muslims are free to worship privately in their own homes. Entry to Mecca and Medina (the two holiest cities of Islam) is strictly forbidden to all non-Muslims, though access to the outskirts of Medina is allowed, for instance the Medina airport which is situated outside the Haram (Muslim only zone).
Saudis take their religion very seriously. Over a billion Muslims throughout the world face Mecca five times daily in prayer and it is a major expression of faith for every Muslim to make the pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca once in his/her lifetime. The Muslim holy day is Friday; many offices are shut on Thursday as well as Friday, and the working week starts on Saturday. During prayer times shops close for at least 30 minutes and many businesses stop working.
Muslims follow a lunar calendar of 12 months, which is 10 or 11 days shorter than our Gregorian calendar. The ninth month of the Muslim year is Ramadan, when no Muslim must allow anything to pass between his/her lips between sunrise and sunset. No-one, including expatriates, should eat, drink or smoke in public during the fasting hours: strict penalties, including deportation, can be incurred if caught. All restaurants and eateries are closed during daylight hours throughout Ramadan.
The two major public holidays of the year are religious festivals. Eid al-Fitr lasts for about two weeks and celebrates the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha, about two months later, lasts for about 10 days and celebrates the sacrifice during the pilgrimage to Mecca. Christmas is not recognised in Saudi Arabia and most expatriates are expected to work on Christmas Day. During Eid, shops and businesses are open for reduced hours. During the month of Ramadan, work is usually conducted during the evening, after sunset prayers.
Saudi legal system
The British government strongly advise all UK nationals going to Saudi Arabia to get to know the difference between UK law and Saudi law and to abide by the laws of Saudi Arabia while they are there. You will find that Saudi laws and moral standards are considerably stricter than those of the UK and that in certain cases, notably involving dress, drink, moral behaviour and mixing with unrelated members of the opposite sex, what is not a crime in Britain is treated as a crime in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi laws are based on the Muslim Holy Book, the Quran. The system is often known as “Sharia law”. Punishments for some offences are harsh by British standards. The Saudis understand that the ways of non-Muslims are different from their own and they will not generally interfere with what foreigners do quietly, privately and discretely. But foreigners who take advantage of this to break the law are running serious risks. The Saudis are jealous of their reputation of having a well-ordered society. They will not allow foreigners to put it at risk.
British consular staff will do what they can to assist UK nationals who are caught disobeying Saudi law. In most cases this is restricted to giving advice and attempting to ensure that the correct Saudi legal processes are followed. A British Consul cannot save UK nationals from the consequences of their own actions, eg the implementation of customary punishment (like lashes for alcohol offences) or custodial sentences.
Murder and certain sexual behaviour like adultery or homosexual acts carry the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. So does apostasy (renunciation of the Muslim faith). The death penalty is carried out in public, usually by beheading. Serious and/or persistent theft is punished by cutting of the thief‟s right hand. This, too, is done in public, usually in front of the main Mosque after mid-day prayers on Friday.
Under Sharia law, non-payment of debt is considered a crime and sufficient reason for imprisonment; imprisonment itself does not discharge the debt. It is therefore important both to avoid getting into debt personally and to keep careful accounts of any employer‟s funds or goods which pass through your hands. You can be held personally responsible for company debts if you are considered the sole company representative in Saudi Arabia. Experience shows that debt cases are often the most difficult to resolve.
Sentences for alcohol offences range from a few weeks’ or months’ imprisonment for consumption to several years for smuggling, manufacturing or distributing alcohol. Lashes and a hefty fine can be part of the sentence if smuggled alcohol is involved. The authorities also hand out stiff penalties to people found in possession of equipment for making alcohol.
The Saudis take a particularly serious view of drug offences. The death penalty is frequently imposed on drug smugglers, including foreigners, and sometimes also on minor traffickers found guilty on a second or subsequent charge. Possession of even the smallest quantity of drugs can lead to a 2-year prison sentence.
Imprisonment in Saudi Arabia is a trying and uncomfortable experience: its purpose is punishment, not rehabilitation. Prisons are generally overcrowded and, for much of the year, hot. Exercise, if any, is an occasional privilege. Visits are allowed, though under difficult conditions.
Illegal and restricted activities in Saudi Arabia
Criticism of the royal family or Islam is strictly prohibited by Saudi authorities and can lead to severe punishment.
Common-law relationships, homosexual relations, adultery, and prostitution are illegal and are subject to severe punishment, including the death penalty. In public, physical contact (eg holding hands) should be avoided. The importation, use, or possession of any item that is held to be contrary to the tenets of Islam is also prohibited, such as pornographic materials and weapons. Imported and domestic audiovisual media and reading materials are censored. Religious proselytizing is not permitted. Penalties for the importation, manufacture, possession, and consumption of alcohol, pork, illegal drugs or products containing their ingredients are severe.
Saudi authorities practice zero tolerance and make no distinction with respect to soft or hard drugs, and using or trafficking. Drug offenders are regularly sentenced to death. It is forbidden to photograph official buildings (government, military institutions, etc.) and holy sites. People should not be photographed without their permission.
The crime rate is low. Petty crime, such as pick-pocketing and purse snatching, occurs, especially in crowded areas and at holy sites or in the streets. To reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim, showing signs of affluence should be avoided and personal belongings, passports, and other travel documents should be secure at all times.
Employment disputes in Saudi Arabia
The British Embassy receives a high volume of telephone enquiries from British nationals who are having disputes with their sponsor, usually regarding their terms and conditions of employment. The embassy is not permitted to become involved in employment disputes, as these are essentially a contractual (legal) debate. We always recommend that a peaceful resolution is sought, as this is often a faster way to a resolve a case than pursuing it through the labour courts.
Once a case is open in the labour courts it can take many years to be finalised, during which the employee is not permitted to leave the country. British nationals are advised to ensure that they are happy with the terms of their contract before signing, and to seek legal advice before accepting a new contract if they are unsure.
British Nationals seeking advice on employment issues are advised to consult the British Embassy’s guidance - Employment Disputes Saudi Arabia (PDF, 162KB, 1 page)
Similar to other Diplomatic Missions in Saudi Arabia, the British Embassy received an official circular - MFA note RE Circular regarding Diplomatic Missions Nationals Complaints (PDF, 182KB, 2 pages) - clarifying the whole process of how foreign expats living in Saudi Arabia can raise their employment disputes to the concerned local authorities and follow up accordingly.
Out and about shopping in Saudi Arabia
In Riyadh, Jeddah and the Eastern Province, there are many supermarkets which carry the full range (with the obvious exceptions) of goods available in western supermarkets. Shopping malls are full of familiar brand names (IKEA, Habitat, Next, BHS, Harvey Nichols, DKNY, Italian fashion houses). A wide range of drugs is available without prescription. Electrical goods are generally much the same price as in the UK; local electricity is 60 cycles (as opposed to 50 cycles in the UK). Gold and Oriental carpets are also good value.
Shopping is a popular pastime in Saudi Arabia. Some shopping malls actively discourage single men from entering at certain times or on specific days. Malls in the Western Province (Jeddah) do not permit single men to enter after 10pm. Some shops are designated family only, meaning that men cannot enter alone. Changing facilities are limited, with virtually no changing rooms for women permitted in the capital. However some fitting rooms are starting to be found in stores in Jeddah.
Many shops and restaurants are segregated into singles (male) and family sections. When queuing there are often two lines separated by a barrier to discourage mixing. Lone men should not be in the family section if they are not with their families at the time. The same rule applies at airports: men and women are processed separately through security.
Mixed public events require permission from the local government. Regulations exist governing what separate facilities/entrances have to be available for females. Restaurants have singles (male) and family sections. Even in family sections, abayas remain essential and while some women will use it to cover everything, for others it has become another opportunity to exhibit style and fashion.
Dress code in Saudi Arabia
Women should observe the strict Saudi dress code and wear conservative and loose-fitting clothes, including a full-length cloak (abaya) and a keep a scarf with them in case they are asked to cover their head by the Hai‟a, commonly known as Muttawa (Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice/Religious Police). Men should not wear shorts in public or go without a shirt. Visitors should always seek guidance concerning acceptable clothing.
Health and medical facilities in Saudi Arabia
There are no major risk or health problems for anyone who is fit on arrival, likes an open air life and takes the usual precautions necessary in any hot climate. Jizan in south-western Saudi Arabia is potentially malarial and visitors to that area should consider taking a malarial prophylactic. Except at the period of the Hajj when visitors need to show they have had a meningitis vaccination, vaccination certificates are not usually necessary for entry into Saudi Arabia; but, as in most countries, immunisation against TB, polio, hepatitis and tetanus is sensible.
Visitors to Saudi Arabia should generally obtain a meningitis vaccination prior to arrival. A medical report or physical examination is required to obtain work and residence permits. All travellers who are coming to live or work in the Kingdom must undergo a medical exam and present a medical report confirming that they are free from contagious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. A residence or work permit will not be granted to anyone testing positive for HIV/AIDS. For further information please enquire with the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in your home country.
Medical facilities in the main centres (Jeddah, Riyadh and Dhahran/Dammam/Al Khobar) are good, though not in all respects, and they are expensive. There are some British doctors working in private clinics or hospitals, several of which are well equipped. It is a legal requirement for expatriates to have medical insurance; this must be provided by your sponsor. Your type of insurance coverage will dictate which medical facilities you can use.
Check whether medication you are taking is allowed to be imported into Saudi Arabia. Coptegon tablets are specifically banned. The Saudi Embassy in the UK will be able to give a comprehensive list of banned medication.
Adoption in Saudi Arabia
Local law does not allow the adoption of children by foreigners.
Weather in Saudi Arabia
The weather in Saudi Arabia fluctuates from blistering heat in the summer, with high humidity in coastal areas, to cold winter nights inland. It rains a few times every year, and there is a risk of severe flooding when this occurs. British nationals are advised to keep a close eye on the weather forecast for the area they reside in, and take precautions when driving in the rain. In the summer it is wise to carry drinking water with you at all times, and ensure that you are covered to protect you from the sun.
Education in Saudi Arabia
In the three main centres of Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam there are privately run international schools. Some of these schools offer a curriculum that follows the UK national curriculum for children up to 18 years, but all usually have waiting lists. There are also American schools offering education up to 16 years. School fees in Saudi Arabia are high (The British International Schools in Riyadh and Jeddah currently charge between £7,000-12,000 per year). Entrance to schools is by examination and a deposit of the fees is usually required in advance.
Driving in Saudi Arabia
Males can drive a car in Saudi Arabia using a fully valid British license, for up to three months of the date that you entered Saudi Arabia. After the initial three months, you will need to obtain a Saudi driving license. Your sponsor will be able to assist you in obtaining this license. It is mandatory to carry your driving license and vehicle ownership papers at all times when driving. Heavy fines are imposed if you are caught without the correct paperwork. It is illegal for women to drive anywhere in Saudi Arabia and that continues to affect their ability to be as mobile as they wish.
Taking a car outside of Saudi Arabia
If you do not own your car outright (ie you obtain a local bank loan, or buy a car using hire-purchase), you will need to gain permission from the creditor in order to take the car out of the country. A form (Istamara) will need to be issued for each country you are travelling to, each time you wish to travel.
Motor insurance, including third party cover, is available in Saudi Arabia, but it is not compulsory and some Muslims have scruples about the principle of insurance. An expatriate should not assume that he is covered for third party claims even when he is driving his employer‟s vehicle on business; he should check that he is adequately covered. Driving in Saudi Arabia can be hazardous: wet weather, drifting sand, sand storms and camels crossing roads can all make driving dangerous at any time of year.
Replacing or renewing your UK licence within Saudi Arabia
You should bear in mind that once your UK photocard licence has expired you will not be able to renew this with the DVLA if you are residing abroad.
Similarly, if your licence is lost or stolen you will not be able to replace it through the DVLA if you reside in Saudi Arabia.
You can register your mobile telephone number in order to receive alerts if you receive a traffic fine whilst driving/parking illegally in Saudi Arabia. Register your details to ensure you receive text alerts.
If you do not pay a fine within the specified time period, the fine will double and continue to double periodically until it is paid. All fines are linked to your visa. You will not be able to leave the country if fines are outstanding, so it is better to check before travelling. It is pos possible to pay outstanding fines at the airport, but only during very limited daytime hours.
Please note that this information is provided as a guide only. Definitive information should be obtained from the Saudi Arabian authorities. For any of these processes, you may find it helpful to use a fixer or facilitator (a representative who carries out administrative dealings on behalf of a private customer or company) who speaks Arabic to take care of the paperwork for you.