Saudi Arabia is both mysterious and unique in many ways. A trip to the kingdom can be both challenging and adventurous at the same time. Getting used to a new culture, language, and country can also be the way to test ones patience. Saudi Arabia is no exception. Below is some useful information for anyone preparing to visit or move here either alone or with family.
Instead of the typical Monday-Friday workweek, with Saturday and Sunday off....if Saudi Arabia, the work week is from Saturday-Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday off. So, Wednesday is like Friday. Saturday is like Monday. It still confuses me!
Being an Islamic country, every place of business closes their store during this time. Prayer times occur 5 times each day.There are apps you can get to let you know when they are. Roughly, prayer times are around 4 am, sunrise, noon, around 6:30 and 7:30. It changes according to the time of year and the Islamic calendar. Prayer times last from 15-40 minutes, on average. On a loudspeaker, the call to prayer can be heard. It is like a beautiful song-like poem in Arabic. It signals Muslims to give them enough time to either go to the local mosque to pray or shut down their work area. Some stores turn off their lights to signal for everyone to leave and wait outside. Others, like IKEA and larger grocery stores, allow you to continue shopping. However, you can't pay for your items until prayer time is over. In local markets, the shop owners leave their items covered with a sheet and then they head to the mosque.
This is a holy holiday that is highly observed by Muslims. From sunrise to sunset, they are not permitted to eat or drink anything. As soon as the sun sets, they open their fast by eating. If you are not Muslim, you are not required or expected to "not fast." However, it is nice to respect the culture by not eating and drinking in public. On the other hand, those who are born in Saudi Arabia are born into the muslim religion and are required to observe and participate in fasting. The same is for the many foreigners who live in Saudi Arabia, whom are also Muslim. EVERY place that serves food starts opening before the fasting time (iftari). It is common to see long lines in the grocery stores and at local eating places. They are selling the food that everyone will begin eating. Some families cook a nice little feast and they gather and open their fast together. After this it is common to take a nap for a few hours and then have dinner. Staying up and going shopping is very common. It is normal for stores to still be open at 2 am!
Value of time:
Most people in Saudi Arabia think of time as an infinite resource. Appointments are made as a hope that it will happen. For example, I have seen many business meetings rescheduled for the following day because the person who called the meeting was tired or had forgotten about the meeting. So many times, I have also seen people show up for meetings to meet with a person who was not even in the office. Many times the phrase "insh-allah" is said. For example, when we bought a table we were told that it would be delivered in the evening, insh-allah. My translation: "if it works out, I will get you your table on the date and time that I said. If not, it was not meant to be." This phrase is meant to mean, though that if God wills it, it will happen accordingly. Again, this is something that you get used to here, but it can be frustrating too.
Women are not permitted to drive:
As a woman myself, this has been the most "interesting" idea to adapt to. I do respect the culture that I have chosen to live in. I do, also, miss my independence that I had in the US. Women are not permitted to drive. A husband, personal driver, taxi or relative is allowed to take women to and from work and elsewhere. So, like me, if you run out of sugar, you either walk to the store or wait for your husband to get home and take you.
Women must wear an Abaya, at all times in pulic:
An abaya is a black covering that looks like a robe and it is worn over your clothing. Amazingly, this was not hard for me to adjust to. Here in Jeddah, most women wear black abaya's (including myself). However, it is ok to wear them in other colors too. I have seen Navy, dark brown, dark purple and dark gray. They button from top to bottom, in the front and some of them zip up and down, for easy off and on access. It's best to just go to a shop and try them on until you find the size that is perfect for you. Many shops even customize abaya's to make them exactly how you want. They come in various materials like polyester, knit and lace overlays.
This is not a requirement. In the past 4 months, I have never encountered anyone telling me or asking me to "cover my head." I have heard of it happening, though. Many women do cover their heads here in Jeddah. It is common and I have gotten used to it. Some women also wear a head covering that also covers their face-leaving only their eyes exposed. This is common also. Not covering your head does draw attention, though. I just don't make eye contact with strangers in public. That way, I won't know if I am being stared at or not.
Many options are available from apartments, villa's, or compounds. My family lives in a 5 level apartment building and it is a nice and quiet place to live. The drawback of an apartment is that there are usually no parks or children's entertainment nearby. Our children cannot safely ride their bike outside. Also, apartments here are not like those in the US, where there is a shared pool and gym. But, most here have elavators! Villa's are also available. Here in Jeddah, most are large and more expensive. Villa's are the equivalent to a house, but most have a large wall around them for privacy. Many also have pools. A compound is the next choice. Compounds are like mini-neighborhoods, with a pool a little store, sidewalks, and trees. They are more expensive than an apartment and for a family, much smaller. That is why we chose the apartment life here.
Food from around the world is available here. Many chain eating places are here, like Applebee's, Subway and McDonald's. (I have also written an entire post about the choices here in Jeddah). The fast food joints are about the same price as in the US. However, the sit-down American restaurants are almost double of what you would pay in the US. The local food (chicken and rice) is typically less expensive.For me, I have not enjoyed the food as much here. My Texas food from back home is truly missed by me!
There are a variety of place to take children to entertain them. Each mall has huge arcade like children's play places (similar to Chuck-E-Cheese) but on a larger scale. Some schools offer extra-curricular activities, but some also charge for them. The beach is easily accessible, to stroll by, on Corniche street. Private beaches are available as well. These are the ones that you pay for to enter, and you don't have to wear or swim in an abaya. It is common to see locals having a picnic on the side of the road with their family or friends.
Many facebook groups exist for meeting new friends and acquaintances. A few are: Jeddah Mums, Jeddah Moms, Jeddah Blog, KSA Teachers, Expat Ladies Club, Expat Ladies Wing, Jeddah Foodies. It is a bit tricky getting to know people here, but not impossible. I have met some wonderful people via facebook and then in person. We scheduled children's playdates and got to know each other better that way.
Singles vs. Family:
All places that serve food or drink have "sections" to them. There will be a door to enter the "Singles" section. This is for men only-single or not. Women cannot go in a Singles section. Also, you will find a "Families" section. This is for single women, groups of women and families or both parents with or without their children. This was the hardest thing for me to understand while I was in the US.
When you are offered a job, it is common for your pay to be lower than what you expected. The culture here, "barters" (for lack of a better word.) It is expected that ask for higher than what you think you should make and then you both "meet in the middle." So if you were offered 10,000 SR/month, you could ask for 15,000 and then you both could end up agreeing on 12,000. In addition to your pay, some jobs give you a housing and transportation allowance. Others include those items within your pay or "base salary." Be sure you find out which one your pay includes. Many jobs pay for your airfare, others reimburse you after you arrive. I recommend the first option, for various legalistic reasons. Keep in mind that your pay, accomodations, etc. will vary GREATLY, depending on your job type and company. For example, working for a school versus working for an oil company. Larger companies give shipping allowances and moving expenses. Many schools and smaller ones do not. Expect to get paid in cash if you do not yet have your iquama. It can take months for your employer to get your iquama approved by the government.
Public schools instruct only in Arabic and offer English in later grades. Therefore, a plethora of International schools are available to expats. Many Saudi's send their children to these schools as well. All International schools in Jeddah are tuition and "for-profit." Yes, even the American International School and the British International School. Those are the most well known schools around. The exception are few, such as the Pakistan International School. (Their government assists them.) These schools usually offer American or British curriculum. This simply means that the textbooks are from either country. Expat teachers from around the globe work at these schools. However, just because the school has American and/or British curriculum does not mean that all the teachers are from those respective country. In fact, most are not. At smaller International schools, some teachers are native English speakers and some speak English as their second language. Schools range from 8,000 SR-40,000SR per semester. Most schools also have "hidden fees" which are in addition to the tuition (registration, uniform, books, miscellaneous, activities).
Also, be prepared-your child will have an entrance exam (for a fee) that he will take prior to being admitted to the school. Most schools are K-12. Some of the campuses have all the building close by and some are spread out across town. However, pre-schools and Kindergarten schools are also throughout the city. Some schools are split by gender, having a boys side and a girls side. If you have children, my advice is to visit every school that you can, prior to moving here (that is what I wish I would have been able to do). The school websites do not offer enough information. The facebook groups offer some, but not enough information to make the best decision you can, for your children.
I hope that my first-hand and recent experience here, helps you to understand the culture better. Feel free to ask me about anything Saudi culture related and I will give you my thoughts based on my American influenced perspective!