The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is a paradox. Gas costs less than water, and electricity is so cheap you can run the AC all day and night and hardly break thirty dollars a month. The cost of living in the desert kingdom definitely favors those looking to save as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, also referred to as “K.S.A.”, is one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world. It has been ruled by a lineage of kings since its inception in 1926 and is considered a “welfare state”. This means that the locals expect certain subsidies and monetary privileges by tribal rights. This translates into huge subsidies on items such as gas, bread, sugar, and other basic commodities.
Saudi Arabia is not a backpacker destination.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find any ancient relics or ruins–most of them have been destroyed. Even if there were any, it is one of the only countries in the world which forbids tourism. The easiest way to visit the kingdom is to have a Saudi friend write you a letter of invitation, which can then be presented to your local Saudi embassy so that they may process a visitor visa for you (keyword: visitor, not tourist lol).
It’s also useful to know that the kingdom is split into three main regions: Western, Central, and Eastern. The largest cities in these regions, respectively, are Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam. The cost of living in Saudi Arabia does not differ much between each of these cities. It will be far lower in the North and South of Saudi Arabia, but there’s almost nothing for a Westerner to do in these areas. Save for perhaps philosophize the passage of time.
For a Westerner looking for familiar creature comforts, I highly recommend choosing liberal cities. The most liberal are Jeddah and Dammam (Western and Eastern regions–coastal cities), as opposed to Riyadh, which is far more conservative.
Now onto the cost of living in Saudi Arabia, by categories:
There are no hostels.
That takes care of that (lol). 😀
Most visitors either stay with their Saudi friends, go to a hotel (Western prices), or come as working expats. If you do come as a working expat (such as an English teacher), there are two types of Saudi accommodation that you will find:
- Everything else ie. known as “local” accommodation (town houses, houses, etc)
The biggest difference between compounds and local accommodation is that compounds are generally geared towards expats. Some forbid entry to Saudis and provide a “Western” ambiance with pools, gyms, restaurants, and sometimes even a bar.
Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, but the government tends to turn a blind eye to what goes on in compounds.
Ninety nine percent of the kingdom lives in local accommodations, this includes many Western expats. It is both cheaper and closer to the city centers, making the cost of living in Saudi Arabia more affordable.
Here is a breakdown of the cost for local accommodation:
- Cheap studio or room — $200-300 / month (usually very old-looking, possibly no windows)
- Decent one bedroom apartment — $700 / month
- Luxury one bedroom apartment — $1000 / month + much more (Western ranges)
- Small 1 bedroom apartment in a Western compound — $1500-2000
- 3 bedroom House in a Western compound –$2,500 and much, much more
The upper ranges are usually ultra-modern, but expensive. The lower ranges are usually very old buildings, houses, or an outside-access apartment in someone’s house. Thankfully, the rents in Saudi Arabia are far cheaper than the cost of buying a home. A two or three bedroom modern apartment starts at around $130,000 and goes up from there. A three bedroom modern house averages $270,000, and this is the lower tier of the “average”. If you’re looking for a pool and that extra luxury touch, add another $50-100,000 to the price tag.
On average, home prices are vastly over-inflated. This prompted the government to pass an emergency law to reduce home prices effective end of 2014.
Food & Drink
You will not find any bars as alcohol is prohibited. But you can find plenty of juice bars! 😉 Think of it positively: this alone saves the expat worker in Saudi Arabia tons of money. The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is made all the cheaper by the immense subsidies on some foods:
- A pack of 4-6 Arabic pitas — 25 cents
- A full chicken — $4
- A tasty shawarma sandwich (small stall/restaurant) — $2
- Box of tomatoes (20 kgs) — $7
- Black market Jack Daniels — $300-400 (had to put that in there lol)
Vegetables are very cheap, half or less of Western prices, depending on the type. Fruits are about the same as Western prices, though usually a little less. You’ll notice many foreign drinks, such as Gatorade, being sold as two separate versions–imported and locally-made. The locally-made versions are real cheap and taste like cough syrup. Buy the foreign version.
Western imports cost a little more than the prices back home, but are readily available. A brand new import, like those Starbucks frappucino bottles, cost almost $7 a bottle when they were first imported. They cost less than $2 in the U.S. Today, the price in Saudi Arabia dropped to $3. Price disparities like these sometimes make no sense. Many things are mood-based.
Lastly, if you are a gym buff and enjoy taking health supplements and protein powders, I recommend you order them by mail. The local cost at the GNC store is about 300-400% higher. I order from bodybuilding.com. As long as it doesn’t look like you’re shipping over the entire factory, customs will let the supplements through.
Speaking of gyms, memberships cost about $1,000 per year (paid upfront). Kind of expensive.
Due to the limited import duties assessed on electronics, you’ll find some decently priced electronics. They may cost you about 5-10% higher than if you were to purchase them in the U.S. or Europe. Note that if you are going to be purchasing computers in the kingdom, many manufacturers (including Apple) will not sell you their extended warranty. You will have to purchase a local warranty through the store.
Pre-paid phone plans vary, as does internet. The following are approximates:
- 6 cents for a local & international SMS text message
- 14 cents per local voice minute
- 60 cents for international minutes to the UK
- 50 cents for international minutes to the US
- Best DSL internet — $50 / month (but you can get up to an additional 7 months free if you buy a year package–this means the real cost would be $31/mo).
- Unlimited Laptop Internet (mobile adapter) 4G — $25 / month
The phones themselves are similar in price to the U.S./Europe. You can actually go to phone bazaars (tons of tiny little shops) and buy a used smartphone for 20-30% off. This includes the latest model iPhones and Samsungs. Inversely, you can also sell your old phones there. Bring a local with you. White people suck at bargaining.
Last I recall, it cost me almost $70 to fill my car back home. I never spent more than $10 on gas in Saudi Arabia.
The cost of fuel:
- Grade 91 — 10 cents a liter (40 cents a gallon)
- Grade 95 — 17 cents a liter (65 cents a gallon)
Fuel savings are massive. You will spend very little money on transportation, and car prices (including rentals) are similar to those in the West.
Strangely enough, the price of gas has not affected the price of plane tickets at all. Even on domestic flights! 🙁
There are plenty of taxis that you can flag down. You can usually negotiate a price of $3-4 to go most places (within a reasonable distance). Warning: I don’t think the drivers ever passed a real driver’s test.
If you live in Jeddah or Dammam, you will find plenty of beaches where you can have a swim. Don’t expect a Thailand scenery (it is a desert after all), but do expect beautiful underwater coral reefs. Usually these beaches are considered “private” and require an entry fee of $20 or more. There are no public beaches, nor is going to the beach in your swim trunks/bikinis permitted. You can only swim in those areas designated as private beach areas.
Movie cinemas are prohibited, but all movies are readily available through the excellent local cable TV services:
- OSN Cable (premier channels) — $65 / month
- OSN Cable (platinum–ie I want it all!!) — $108 / month. Trust me, you probably will want it all.
There are also tons of restaurants, ice cream parlors, and coffee shops. All of your favorite franchises exist–Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Johnny Rocket, Cheesecake Factory. You name it, they have it. These all have Western prices.
Again, I will emphasize that the coastal cities of Jeddah and Dammam have far more to do, due to their proximity to the beaches. If quality of life is your aim, then those cities are best for you.
The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is equivalent in all major cities, but you will save more in Riyadh since, honestly, there isn’t much to do there but to save money.
In the coastal cities, you can go paragliding, scuba diving, desert trekking and more. These activities will set you back several hundred dollars each. In the central region of Riyadh, you can only go desert trekking. You can also camel race, though I’ve never tried it.
I would particularly recommend living in Jeddah since it is across the Red Sea from Egypt and its ancient marvels, as well as a stone’s throw from such historic cities as Mecca and Medina. On the Eastern coast, Dammam is but a short drive from Bahrain–you just have to cross over a large sea-bridge and you’re there. In Bahrain you will find alcohol, movie theaters, beaches, and people that aren’t veiled head to toe. Again, in Riyadh none of this is available, but you’ll be able to save money.
I’m not knocking Riyadh. I saved a lot by just living there.
The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is favorable to expats because you pay no local taxes. You may still be obliged to pay your own country’s taxes, if you make more than a certain amount.
Cheap fuel and food, proximity to many backpacking destinations, generous salaries for ESL teachers. These are all great benefits to an expat looking to come and teach or work here for a year or two. You will also get to experience an immersive kingdom which shuns tourism, yet generously shares its culture with expats.
Remember that as a working expat, especially as an ESL teacher, you may not have to pay for accommodations as they are usually included in your offer package.
The cost of living in Saudi Arabia can be summarized as follows:
- Living on the cheap — $500-700 a month.
- Living OK/good — $1000 / month
- Living like a baller — $2,000 +
There is a wide gap between these ranges because you could definitely be living OK at $1,700, but you wouldn’t quite be living like a baller.
Disclaimer: these thresholds are not set in stone. You can definitely get great deals if you know the right people.
It’s very hard to come up with a visitor’s budget for Saudi Arabia because the kingdom doesn’t lend itself to tourism. What I have instead shared is the average cost of living in Saudi Arabia within different standards of living.
The beauty of living in Saudi Arabia is the potential to save far more than working in Asia, Europe, or the US. Add to that good salaries, exposure to a vastly different culture, and the lack of income taxes, and you can understand why the cost of living in Saudi Arabia is cheap.
If you are looking to pay off loans or simply want to build a nice nest egg, I really recommend KSA as one of you work destinations. You’ll come five years ahead of the game, with a much more focused frame of mind.
A few resources you may be interested in:
- 5 Best Cities in Saudi Arabia for Expats
- Muslima – the #1 Middle Eastern dating site
- Living in Jeddah: An Expat Interview
- Agoda.com, for the lowest prices on hotels in KSA
Have you ever lived in Saudi Arabia? What price differences were the most noticeable for you?