What It’s Really Like To Be an Expat in Saudi Arabia

In 2010, Gaelene quit her job and left her home country, New Zealand, to be with her husband in Saudi Arabia. Now she writes about life in the kingdom on her blog, Kiwi Living in Saudi Arabia. She told us what it’s like to be an expat and what people planning to make the move should expect.

What surprised you when you moved to KSA?
Gaelene: I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories told by expats were totally untrue. They had said I'd never meet a Saudi, wrong. Saudis weren't nice people, wrong. The rules here are weird – this is not true. They have different ideas based on the Islamic religion. You have to admire that this is a country of faith. I do often wonder, what does the West have faith in these days? Money? How fickle!  

How have you adjusted to life in KSA?
G: I still have not fully adjusted. There are days when I think my behaviour - my partially undone abaya, the cap on my head, the fact that I am walking instead of being driven, must be perceived as very rude and I try to imagine what it would be like if a Saudi came to New Zealand and was welcomed on to a marae and then turned to the hosts and said “We won't be taking our shoes off at the door, or sitting on the mattresses next to the opposite gender because such things are not of our culture.” I would feel affronted.

So sometimes I have arguments with myself about why I should be wearing a shayla on my head instead of a cap. Why I should be wearing the black abaya instead of my lovely bright colored ones. I think life here is a constant adjustment for an expat, particularly women.

What is the most difficult thing about living in Saudi as an expat?
G: Although Glenn had been living here, he had been doing what most Western expat males do; working constantly. He would say the only difference for me would be wearing the abaya. I accepted that he was the expert. It didn't take long to figure out that his advice was based on a male perspective.

The most difficult thing as a female expat is having to rely on males. My independence feels stripped and in the process my intelligence feels insulted. I have met doctors who won't look me in the eye (I don't go back), men at service counters who will tell me they can't help with my issue when it is obvious they are quite disinterested, yet if I send along a Saudi male friend the issue gets sorted immediately. Having my bank account linked to my husband’s so he knows what I'm spending my money on is almost like an invasion of privacy.


“There are days when I think my behaviour - my partially undone abaya, the cap on my head, the fact that I am walking instead of being driven, must be perceived as very rude.”

What is your favourite thing about KSA and KSA life?
G: My favourite thing is the fact that there are rules, but you don't necessarily have to obey them. Things like driving up one way streets the wrong way and who cares, riding motorbikes up the footpath if the road is at a standstill, walking through an open gate because it's open and worrying about what people say only if they say something, or a man arguing his point to get the best seat in house for his wife. There is a rawness about this country that I love. It makes our highly regulated Western countries look very managed. I hope Saudi never gets that way.

And I love going into the desert. There is a stillness, an openness, a hugeness about the place. It took me a while to appreciate it coming from a home country with lots of green grass and forests. But there is something special about the desert and we go as often as we can.

What tips would you give to someone planning to move to KSA?
G: Come with an open attitude. 
Don't think you are going to change the world.
You have moved to a different country, expect it to be different.
Remember, this is an experience, so experience it!
Become involved in the expat community - there is a lot to do.
If at any time you begin to feel you can't cope with the differences, take a break out of the country. Make sure to factor those trips into your budget planning. It is better to return refreshed than to stay miserable.

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