Global HR, HR Insights

What I Learned From My Life as an Expat HR Leader in Saudi Arabia

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I recently received a note from my good friend Sharlyn Lauby (aka, the HRBartender) in reference to a question that she received from one of her readers:

How did you prepare for your new human resources role in Saudi Arabia? The country has different cultures, business traditions, and labor laws.

What I realized is that the story behind me making the move from New York City to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia could possibly fill a book [to be announced at a later date].

My thoughts were about how you prepare for this type move, especially if it is an independent move sans large company with a mobility program and all their support.

So, as I thought through my approach to this question, I wanted to capture some of what I learned and what to look for, not only for moving to Saudi Arabia, but with any expat opportunity that might come along.

Expat blogs

While you can find tons of information on any country, the best way forward is through expat blogs. Regardless of the country, somebody took it upon themselves to write about it.

This information is much richer than encyclopedic type information about a country. Expat blogs tend to give you the inside scoop of what it feels like to live in someone else’s “house” and the surrounding environment

This information is invaluable because I could not have even imagined what it is like to not be able to have a beer, worship any religion, take in a movie, etc. All are banned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Geography

Take a look on a map to get the exact location of your destination. The reason being is that if it is centrally located, weekend trips can be really exciting.

From Saudi Arabia, in an hour and a half hours you can be in Dubai, Bahrain where the living is much more relaxed. Add a few more hours to that and you can be in Bangkok, Thailand or Vietnam.

This makes for long exotic weekend, and at a great price if you plan ahead.

Newspapers and media

English language newspapers are a must to read. They give you inside scoop on what is happening on a daily basis.

There is no evening/morning news on TV in many countries (like Saudi Arabia), so this is your only insight into what is going on in your city.

You can get a sense of culture, issues, and local focus from the government. If you move to a more relaxed cultural environment, the TimeOut.com website will become invaluable

Financial concerns

Here’s something I found out quickly: The Middle East is a cash society.

The retail sector does not really accept credit/debit cards outside of the major grocery chains and department stores.. When I tried to pay my cell phone and a recent car repair bill, I had to pay cash because, well, they only accepted cash.

What I learned is to always keep cash on hand because you can never assume that you can use your credit cards. Gasoline purchases are the same. In short, carrying cash is a critical imperative.

Governmental regulations

Everyone that is sponsored to come to Saudi Arabia must get a national ID card, called an iqama. That process is handled by your sponsor [employer] and it takes approximately 2-3 weeks. You cannot transact any business, even opening a bank account or buying a cell phone, unless you have the ID card.

You drivers license must be changed into a Saudi license. This process takes a few hours, and normally someone from your company will take you to get this processed.

Cell phone

Your cell phone number is used in all transactions. Even when making a doctor’s appointment you will be asked for cell number if you do not know your Insurance ID number.

All banking transactions will require a cell phone. There is an extra layer of security that sends an SMS to your phone at every login.

Without that cell phone, you can’t do online banking. For every official transaction, you will be asked for your mobile number. For that reason, you will need a smartphone

Compensation

Compensation is negotiated in monthly amounts instead of an annual salary.

There are no taxes on your earnings. Whatever your negotiated amount, that is what you get.

However, you need to be cognizant of IRS regulations during the first year of residency. In order to establish residency, you must meet the physical presence test in that you are physically present in a foreign country or countries for 330 full days during a period of 12 consecutive months.

Some of the standard features of expat packages are car allowance. Don’t get fooled by the amount which is offered. The bottom of the scale is around $700 U.S. monthly, in addition to your pay. In Saudi Arabia however, rental cars are exorbitantly expensive. That $700  is the normal charge for a bottom of the line KIA or Toyota for a monthly rental.

Housing

Housing is taken care of in two ways: either your company will provide it for you, or, you get an allowance [a percentage of your monthly salary] to find your own. But, never choose the allowance option if you do not know the city you are based in well enough to make a choice.

If the housing is company provided, you will be living in a secure compound that is fully furnished. All you need to do is bring your clothes and you are set. If you prefer to choose something yourself and live in a different location, stay for at least one year in company housing and have your contract adjusted upward at renewal time as you find your own place to live.

Vacations

Every expat has in their contact a stipulation for vacation travel, which means your annual trip back to your home country. The norm is one (1) round-trip economy class ticket for you and your family, provided they are living and registered with you in your host country. In your negotiations, bargain for two round trips, since some companies have upped the ante on this.

Vacations are normally 30 days unless you bargain for more. However, people tend to take the entire 30 days at one time.

You have to remember that a one (1) week trip back to the U.S. is really only five (5) days since you will have to travel for 10-12 hours each way. In Saudi Arabia, we are fortunate to have an additional two (2) weeks of religious holidays known as EID. There’s a week in July and about 10 days in October, which gives you an additional few weeks of vacation.

Here’s another vacation issue: accrual vs non-accrual. Make sure that you ask this question during your negotiation concerning vacation accruals. If you have not accrued the requested vacation days, you will not be paid for those days.

Because of all these vacation days, you want to review all these dates once you are situated and buy your airline tickets 6-8 months ahead. Since so many people leave Saudi Arabia on those religious holidays, I found that the tickets can triple in price and there are no more direct flights. That means long layovers, as much as 10 hours, can be expected.

However all the airports in this part of the world are luxurious, and Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi are airports that could rival any luxury mall.

Communications

Do not purchase an international plan from your phone vendor as it can be extremely expensive.

With Google Voice, as well as Skype, you can call home without the worry of additional cost. There is also WhatsApp which is widely used in this region to stay in touch with family members

Your new company

If you are recruited by a large international company, they most surely will have a department that will prepare you for this move.

Schooling

If you have kids, the vast majority of companies will pick up a substantial portion of their tuition up to a certain number of children.

Every company has different offerings on this benefit. Be sure and ask the amount that you will be given. Again, expat blogs will give you an idea of the schools and their capabilities.

General living conditions

Weekends will have to be totally redesigned, especially if you live in Saudi Arabia. The options are severely limited. If you family comes over, females will be subject to a new level of conformity in dress and interaction outside your living quarters.

You will find that at local Saudi malls, unless you are married, that you are not really welcome, especially on weekends. And by the way, men are not supposed to wear short pants since that is frowned upon and you will definitely be called out or denied entry.

This time I have been working in Saudi Arabia has been a truly rewarding experience for me and my family.

I would suggest that everyone give it a try, because this past year has been one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.

Ron Thomas is CEO of Great Place to Work-GCC countries, based in Dubai. He formerly was Chief HR Officer of the RGTS Group in Saudi Arabia. Ron is also a senior faculty member of the Human Capital Institute. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living. Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com or on Twitter.
  • Oh Really

    “females will be subject to a new level of conformity in dress and interaction outside your living quarters”
    This is a true understatement. Ladies, before deciding to move to, visit, or vacation in Saudi Arabia, understand this. You cannot drive, swim in the hotel pool, go to a public gym, casually enter any eating establishment unaccompanied, travel alone safely, observe or practice any other religion but Islam. You must wear black polyester head to foot in temperatures as high as 120 degrees at all times in public, eat in the “family section” of any restaurant, coffee shop, etc. where the food flung by children is rarely scrubbed off the walls.
    Many of the freedoms you know and take for granted will be gone. If you cannot adapt, you should not come here. If you are flexible and can think of this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you will do well.

    • Ingush Ingushetia

      Freedoms? I am sure you wouldn’t mind if I come to your country and carry an AK-74U or a PK in the street, the freedom which I enjoy in my country. I mean we all have to be the same, right? So, I will be disappointed if your country doesn’t allow freedom for gun carry.

      • Sarah

        I think the freedom to be recognized as a human being and the freedom to carry a weapon are two very different things. As a American female who lived in Riyadh I can not imagine how you justify even comparing the two.

        • Ingush Ingushetia

          You do not have the ability to think

      • Oh Really

        You make a statement like this and you don’t even know where I am from. As it happens, citizens are allowed to carry guns in my country. Only difference is that they are not so stupid as to try carrying an AK-47U in public.

        • Ingush Ingushetia

          You live in a country which doesn’t have the freedom to carry a full auto PK? What kind of free country is it if you cannot trust a citizen with PK? Are you sure you are really free?

  • Rags

    As a 20+ year expat growing up and now working in KSA I can attest to what the author discusses in this article. It can be an extremely rewarding experience.

    For female “trailing spouses” as they are often referred to in the broad expat community, and for children it is much bigger adjustment than for the working spouse. Work is work though in Saudi Arabia there are notable cultural variations to doing business that must be adopted in order for a KSA assignment to be as successful as possible professionally.

    Company housing is definitely the way to go as the social activities and personal support relationships generally revolve around the ladies and/or kids. Those relationships and activities tend to be housing/compound/camp or school based. For the ladies and kids to have a positive experience a very active social and activity focused daily calendar is a good idea. It does not take long for the kids and ladies to integrate in to the community if even a modicum of effort is made.

    The history and geography of this country is spectacular and should be explored. To just stay in your primary city or in your compound is to waste an amazing opportunity to see and experience many unique locations and activities.

    It does take a very special, strong, and unique lady to thrive while living here. Both of my grandmothers, my mom, and now my bride (of 20 years) all have enjoyed rich and rewarding lives living in and experiencing this country, culture and people.
    There are adjustments that must be made by all family members in order for an expat life in the Kingdom to be all that it can be. Most notably is the conservative boundaries relating to women. No driving, either shopping in groups or being accompanied by a male family member, wearing a modest cloak like cover over the body (an abaya) to name a few of the most notable.
    However, life within the compound communities is very casual. Most clothing is acceptable, any common swimwear can usually be worn by women at the community pools, workout clothes can be worn at the gym or aerobics classes, and as long as sensitivity to cultural differences is practiced life in Saudi Arabia can be a rewarding experience for everyone in the expat family.

  • Mary Ann Scott

    I have been living in KSA in Jeddah area for the past 6 months. I have not felt the restrictions that “Oh Really” mentions. Of course I wear an abaya if I am in Jeddah but I have a beautiful navy blue one and always have a scarf available if needed. I have been welcomed in the malls and find the sales persons who are usually male very helpful. Of course I cannot drive here but I am thankful that I do not because the rules of the road go out the window. I have a driver who gets me to and from where I am needed to go. I sit in the front seat with him and have not had any problems.
    I am fortunate that my compound has a fitness center that is not gender restricted as well as a pool. But I usually stay at the Hilton in Jeddah with its sister hotel Waldorf Astoria next door. There a women’s only spa with pool is available.
    I came to KSA to work and offer my expertise as an ob/gyne physician to the women here. I knew the restrictions before I got here but I also came with the right attitude that I would enjoy the experience, learn from this new and very different culture, and go with the flow. My motto has been “Life is too short” and enjoy each day and not fret over the small stuff. Inshallah attitude goes a long way in making sure that I live my motto. What an addition to my memory bank!

  • mike

    There is a strong anti-westerner attitude here so if you are not thick skinned you may want to reconsider. Whats App/Skype – no more. You need to set up your laptop or smartphone with a VPN program. STC and Mobily throttle down the bandwidth it makes VOIP unusable but its fine thru VPN. Oh and as far as traveling by car Saudi has one of the highest accident fatality rates in the world. Other than that its awesome.

  • A brat

    Lived in the Eastern Province since I was a child,married and returned and had my children in Saudi. There are a few rules of morality and decency in public that don’t bother me at all. I went to the malls and even my daughters went by themselves when older and no one ever bothered us.I never worried about being kidnapped murdered,mugged or raped as I do here in USA. We wore beautiful fashionable expensive abayas but did not cover head. Sometimes just wore knee length shirts with pants and long sleeves.The rules in the USA have become as restrictive for Christians as they are in Saudi only in reverse. Islam restricts mention of Jesus or Christianity and so do the US schools,military,govt. media,etc. We are used to being silenced and secretive. No big change.I do prefer the morality of Saudi publicly,not saying what goes on privately,but I am not responsible for their private affairs. Private company housing and community afford a great life with lots of benefits and entertainment and private schools for children with educational opportunities that only the rich can afford.
    I give my experience and life there an A+

  • Ockey

    You are experience is quite different from the millions of South Asian expats that work in Saudi Arabia, who are placed in very low skilled jobs with little pay, have their passports taken away as soon as they land in the country, work in horrid slave-like conditions and are not paid for months on end. Any public protest about pay, or anything for that matter, is violently quashed. I dare not mention the xenophobic and racist nature of most Saudis who refer to South Asians as “miskeen” or beggars and consider all foreigners as “stealing” from their country. They are openly favorable to people who are light skinned versus dark skinned even in their own communities. It is a male dominated society where women have to fit into predetermined roles set by men. The people who consider living in Saudi Arabia as a “rewarding experience” are the ones who live in walled off complexes, or compounds as they are known there, and have little to no interaction with the people outside of those walls. They have no idea about the human rights abuses that go on in all quarters of society. What the author doesn’t mention is that you can never own land there, never own an apartment or a house, never open a business without a majority ownership by a Saudi citizen, and can never gain citizenship, even if you are born there or live there for eternity. I know this because I grew up as an expat there. If you are fortunate enough to be offered a place in a compound with a great tax-free pay then consider that fact that you will be contributing to the discrimination and injustice in that society before taking the position.

  • Tracy

    If you are in Jeddah, Riyadh or Khobar your experience will be VERY different; these are larger cities with ex-pat populations. For two years I lived in a smaller more remote place and 12 year old boys had more freedom than I did! I was shouted at for not covering my face, I was not allowed in certain shops and was kicked out of malls because I was wearing shorts under my abayah and my abayah happened to flap open and show too much of my lower calf and ankle. It all depends where you are. Despite this, I LOVED working in Saudi, I didn’t like that my passport was taken away from me, but it was an adventure.