Top 5 Best Cities in Saudi Arabia for Expats

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A silhouette of the kingdom tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The sky is at twilight dusk and a few buildings are silhouetted in the background.

There are many reasons why an expat would want to move to Saudi Arabia, the most notable being the ability to earn a very high, untaxed income. There are very few countries in the world that pay the awesome salaries that can be found in the desert kingdom. One of the reasons why they pay so much is that it is indeed a highly conservative country, far more than most people can handle. Hence, they need to pay more to attract talent. But after a long stint there, I want to share a list of best cities in Saudi Arabia which can help expats cope with the ultra-conservative laws, and hopefully enjoy their stay.

The top 5 Best Cities in Saudi Arabia for Expats

are not necessarily a walk in the park. Some of them are downright tough to live in–but when compared to other cities in Saudi Arabia, they are far more pleasant. I don’t mean to make the kingdom sound so harsh, it really is all about what you make of it.

If you can integrate well into a totally foreign culture which shuns Western idealism (alcohol, sex before marriage, etc), then you will come to appreciate the raw appeal of its old world ways. It’s not to say you can’t find alcohol or sex there, it’s just that it’s forbidden and enforced.

Many bemoan the kingdom’s human rights record,

But you have to remember that almost every country in the world went through this growing pain. It is not as bad as the media portrays it to be and I have lived there, as a Westerner, for three years straight and had no problems with the rules. That’s right. I never left the kingdom, not even for one day–for three years straight.

During my time there I did a lot of exploring and traveled to all the best cities in Saudi Arabia for expats.

Here are the top 5 cities in Saudi Arabia which I recommend, and I’ll also explain why some may be in the top, but far from an easy life:

1. Jeddah

Jeddah is hands down one of the best cities in Saudi Arabia for expats to live in. First of all, it is full of foreigners. You’ll find them scattered about in all the restaurants and coffee shops. It is also across the sea from Egypt and the entire African peninsula, so it is a great spot from which one can travel. Jeddah is also a coastal city, and although going to public beaches in swimwear is forbidden, you can drive to one of the many private beaches and enjoy a “normal” day out at the beach. Some great activities there are scuba diving in the Red Sea or deep sea fishing.

A landscape of Jeddah, one of the best cities in Saudi Arabia for expats. The air is slightly hazy and the buildings uniform and white. Trees line the edges. The city looks modern, but rather plain.
You will notice a haze in the air in nearly all Saudi Arabian cities. Jeddah is both humid and hot, but offers plenty of entertainment and private beaches.

On a last note, the Saudi religious police seem to turn a blind eye to the many activities in Jeddah. You’ll find plenty of house parties and open-minded folk. Many Saudis consider Jeddah Saudis far too liberal.

2. Dammam

Another popular coastal city, albeit smaller than Jeddah, is Dammam. It does not look anywhere near as busy, and real estate is definitely cheaper. At about one million residents, I found it a little too small for my likes. There are many outer suburbs which add to the population, but the city looks rather decentralized.

The big advantage is the fact the American compound ARAMCO is located in Dammam. ARAMCO is a full blown compound-town full of expats you can meet and hang out with. The compound itself is full of Western amenities.

The Al Khobar-Dammam waterfront in Saudi Arabia. The signature haze is heavy in the air. The waterfront consists of rocks with a safety rail running the edge of the road.
Dammam (Al Khobar) is more quiet than Jeddah, but it too has private beaches and an electric nightlife across the 25km bridge in the kingdom of Bahrain.






Another reason why Damamm is one of the best cities in Saudi Arabia for expats is the bridge which links it Bahrain. Every weekend, hordes of young Saudis drive down the twenty five kilometer bridge to to the tiny kingdom of Bahrain to party. Bahrain is the polar opposite of Saudi Arabia and is loaded with clubs, bars, and movie theaters. It is a definite welcome relief to the rigid rules across the bridge. Since getting Saudi visitor visas for friends is a little hard, you can get them to stop over in Bahrain and spend quality time together–which is a big plus.

3. Riyadh

As opposed to Jeddah and Dammam, Riyadh has no beach, nor is it anywhere near one. It is smack dab in the middle of the desert and can get very cold at night during the winter months. Riyadh also often gets hit by major sandstorms, which really plays a number on the sinuses and allergies.

A panoramic picture of Riyadh's skyline; one of the best cities in Saudi Arabia, and by far the largest. The sky is hazy, the building look yellow and rather bland, and the ultra-modern kingdom tower rises up from the city center.
Riyadh has all luxuries of major global cities, but it does lack in the entertainment area.

You’ll find there is a little animosity between Riyadh Saudis and all other Saudis, since the former consider Riyadh the “conservative” seat of power. The religious police is a lot more prevalent in Riyadh and law is strictly enforced.

Why do I then place Riyadh as one of the best cities in Saudi Arabia for expats?

Because it is a huge metropolis with all the conveniences that major, modern cities possess. Although it’s traffic is hectic and disorganized, you can find almost everything you want along its sprawling streets and massive shopping malls.



You will also be able to meet plenty of expats through dinner functions at your embassy. Since Riyadh is the capital city, flights to and from the kingdom are also generally cheaper. With that said, it still is a very conservative city, but relatively speaking less so than many cities in the kingdom.

4. Medina

Living in one of the two holy cities of Islam is an experience to behold. For those who love Arabian lore and culture, there is hardly any better place to explore religion than Medina. It is only a few hours away from the coastal city of Jeddah, and offers a decent amount of teaching jobs.

The streets of Medina, Saudi Arabia look modern in the downtown area. Tall buiildings line the street; women are dressed in veils and men in pilgrim clothes.
Medina is one the two holy cities of Islam and on the more conservative side. For those who love sufism and Islamic studies, this is the place to be.

Medina is a religious place and is meant for those looking to immerse themselves in Saudi Arabian or Muslim culture. For those looking for fun, Medina is most definitely not the place for you. The city itself is beautiful, with large domed minarets and a rich heritage. You will also find many coffee shops (including Starbucks), as well as plenty of venues to eat. It definitely caters to a more relaxed, pseudo-intellectual crowd. I also found Medina’s people to be very kind and welcoming to foreigners.

5. Mecca

Mecca is the largest of the Two Holy Cities of Islam and the place were over one billion Muslims pray towards every day. It is a mix of new and old. The expansive city looks archaic and dusty, yet the Abraj Al-Bait rises up from the center of the city in a show of modern defiance.

It holds several world records, which include the biggest hotel in the world, the tallest clock tower in the world, and the world’s biggest clock face. It is absolutely massive; you need only look at photos to understand. Although Mecca is quite conservative, its people are very kind.

A picture of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, with the Hejaz mountains in the background. The Abraj Al Bait building towers over the city and the Masjid Al Haram, home to the Islamic religion. The skies look clear and city sprawls around the valley.
The seat of Islam, Mecca is receives millions of pilgrims every year and certainly has the facilities to accommodate them: Abraj Al Bait is the massive hotel you see towering over the city.

There is one caveat which may knock this city from the 5 best cities in Saudi Arabia for some: non-Muslims are strictly forbidden from entering Mecca’s city limits. I have included it as an expat city, keeping in mind that many Muslim expats do move there to immerse themselves in religion, all the while working.

If I were given the choice to work anywhere in the world right now, I would choose Saudi Arabia without a second thought.

I understand employee turnover can be huge,

but this is only because some expats move in not understanding the vast cultural gap. No matter how well-traveled you are, not much can prepare you for Saudi Arabia’s culture shock. A move to Saudi Arabia is something to be studied for a long time, but it holds much promise.

You will find wells of opportunity, both for making money and for making lifelong friends. Although these top 5 best cities in Saudi Arabia are ranked, the people cannot be ranked. You will find Saudis to be quite generous and warmhearted. They will want to engage in conversation about your homeland. And remember there are bad apples everywhere, so this isn’t to say Saudi Arabia doesn’t have its fair share of unpleasant folk.

But you will quickly come to find out how misguided the mass media can be, how biased opinions abroad have become, and how welcoming the kingdom can be.

And if I can give you one important piece of advice,

Just make sure you choose the right city before moving to Saudi Arabia. It’ll make all the difference.

 

A few resources you may be interested in:

Have you considered moving to Saudi Arabia? What would you consider the best city in Saudi Arabia for expats?

 
Images used under Creative Commons license: Nadya Peek, Al Jazeera English, Mohd Azli Abdul Malek

 

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48 comments on “Top 5 Best Cities in Saudi Arabia for Expats

  1. Hi I loved your honest description of Saudi Arabia ..I am an orthodontist female, traveling to Ha’il for a job .Could you pls tell me a bit about the city and will I find other expats there …How is the city to live in and do they have good Indian/American schools there ?

  2. Hi Rashad, this is a brilliant article and a cool website. I never backpacked Saudi Arabia as others always told me it was a hard visa to get. Did you find any visa issues? The nearest I got before was on a bridge linking it to Bahrain. Keep up the good work – these photos are class. Safe travels. Jonny

  3. I wanna know how its to work in Makkah and Madina.
    I heard the shaiks people’s in holy citys are so bad and always angry on their Asian works.

    Is this is right.??????

    1. My qualifications is Polytechnic diploma holder in computer science engineering.

      Can I get any good job in jeddah …Riyadh ..or in both holy citys.
      Plz reply ur suggestions

    2. Sohail, those are strict cities. They’re not angry towards Asians, since Makkah has plenty of Asians, the entire Hejazi region has an Asian influence, but they are DEFINITELY stricter in the Holy Cities.

    3. who ever told you that the shaiks are bad is not telling the truth. the shaiks are one of the most generous and nicest people in Saudi arabia

  4. I’m a young boy of 24yrs old. I’m a Nigerian but am looking forward to start a new life in kSA. But i dont know were best to live now. I’m a computer engineer and am just a diploma holder. All i need is to get a good job and a good accomodation.

  5. Hello Rashad,
    I am kind of interest in looking for a job in the Kingdom, but I don’t know where to start. I would like to have any decent job that can pay me well. I hold MBA in organizational Leadership and very soon planning to do MPA in public management. I work with a nonprofit organization. Could you please advice me where I can start applying for a job? What could suitable positions? I had teaching experience for elementary school kids but not certified..plus I am not fun of teaching.
    Please advise me of any good jobs that can fit in my career. How about banking, charity organizations, etc.
    thanks

    1. Gorod, banking is big in the kingdom and there are many jobs available in the sector. I would recommend applying through recruiters or “kafeels” such as Mawarid. Sometimes its worth entering as a teacher, and then seeking other opportunities once you’re there. Don’t look at the first job, look for the job that will get you the next right job.

  6. I am an American citizen I have been offered a teaching job in Baish (Jizan) with an Electrical College (SEPS) I am married and I have two small kids. I want to know what life is like there now, including activities for kids, compounds for expats, basically just how life in general is there.

    1. Hi Craig, unfortunately I’m not too familiar with Baish, but all places in Saudi Arabia are pretty much on par with one another, unless you’re obviously deep in the Qassim region. Meeting other families will be very easy, as Saudis are very hospitable and kind, and you’ll be expected to socialize. If you were a single man, things may be hard, but as a married man with kids–Saudi Arabia is ideal. It offers plenty of extra-curricular activities for families and there are many excursions to be had in the many neighboring countries. I always advise people to at least try it out for a year–the connections you make are invaluable and life-changing.

  7. Hi there! Loved this article! So nice to see a positive spin on life in the Kingdom. I lived there in Jeddah many years ago with my mother who was a teacher and had the most positive experience also. I would love to see a blog post on the 5 (maybe 10) best jobs/career fields to have for best possibility of long-term stay in the Kingdom. If you could toss in pay range for each field that would be lovely also! Thanks! And again, loved the article!

  8. HI ,

    i actually got an offer to work in Riyadh along with my family . The monthly salary offered on $ 6500 .

    My wife is a little skeptical about wearing the Abaya/Niqab ? is it compulsory or there are any options to it ?
    what the options for women to spend their time in Riyadh , can they pursue any hobby ? what are the options ?

    Do people have access to full internet or its limited / banned ?

    The offer seems lucrative but do not want to do it against my wife’s will as well ? as she will have to spend atleast 9-10 hours without me at home .

    whats your take on this ?

    1. That’s a very good salary. I always say look long-term; this is just the beginning. You’ll end up making much more as you get headhunted by different companies after one year. Wearing the Abaya is is compulsory, no choice there, but the Niqab is not. As far as hobbies: hanging out with new friends there, shopping, taking up classes or courses, watching every single episode of everything single TV show. No, really, there isn’t too much to do in Riyadh, but you’ll get into a groove and you’ll find things to do. Internet is very fast and you can get a VPN like ExpressVPN that will bypass all censorship.

      Your wife will need to accept that it will be a much quieter way of life. You can tell her it’s for only one year, after which you can decide whether you’d like to stay longer. I can’t tell you if she’ll like it or not. Some people I thought would hate it ended up loving it, and vice versa.

  9. This is one of best and honest blog about KSA. I am Sugeon/doctor by profession from Mumbai ,India .I am planning to move eastern province of KSA for short term job.Is there any racial/ religious discimination at work place and in the socitey? My worry is I am non muslim.

    1. Thanks! The East coast is much more secular and open-minded. There is definitely a bit of resentment towards Indians in Riyadh, but that’s more targeted in Riyadh and towards the service sector, not the professional sector. As far as religion, the East coast is open-minded, but you should just avoid all topics that have anything to do with religion, the kingdom, or the ruling dynasty. Just don’t bring them up, and avoid answering questions about religion when asked. The problems arise when people start talking about religion, even if it is amicable. You just never know people’s true motives–best to keep a lid on the topic.

        1. Hi Vicky, my uncle owns a chain of hospitals there called the GNP Hospitals. Salaries of expat doctors from western countries are way higher than Indian/Asian counterparts. Depending on the expertise, I’d venture to say 10-25% higher than your home country, tax-free; include free health insurance and accommodation/travel allowances.

  10. Hi,
    I’m a university graduate (Canadian, native English speaker) looking towards Saudi for a teaching position. I was super hesitant about it, although I was raised Muslim and have been to Saudi with my family, but reading these posts are really easing my worries! I’m looking towards Jeddah for the more “relaxed” atmosphere and was wondering what the housing situation is like over there? I’m looking towards getting a job through my school, and most employers provide accommodation, but some don’t and I was wondering if expats tend to live in the same communities and is the location of apartments/housing within the city limits? I’m doing research on my own but would love some tips or advice on that. I’d be moving by myself so I don’t have to worry about spouses or kids or anything like that. Thanks!

    1. Sara, no worries at all. What’s the worst that can happen? Go back home? That isn’t so bad 🙂 You’ll definitely get culture shock your first week or so, even if you’ve visited before, but you’ll quickly settle in and find that it’s just a different pace of life. Compound living is boring–I would get an apartment in town and live amongst the locals. You’ll find it is far more convenient and cheaper.

      1. Awesome, thanks, I’ll definitely be taking this into consideration! One other thing though, from my own research, a lot of people seem to say things get boring pretty quickly in Saudi because of the lack of things to do/restrictions (shopping seems to be a common pastime lol). Would you say this is true? I’m more of an introvert so I wouldn’t need to constantly be doing something/hanging out with many people anyway and am pretty good at entertaining myself, but was just wondering how Jeddah compares in this sense (I read that Riyadh is more restrictive, but still very vibrant as well). Thanks again!

        1. Sara, whereas its true Saudi Arabian life isn’t the most exciting, if you’re an introvert you’ll be just fine. If you enjoy reading books, taking online classes, photography, etc, you’ll have no problems at all. Saudi’s cable TV network is extensive–and you can also travel out anytime to visit neighboring countries. I went straight from Florida to Riyadh, and never left Saudi for three continuous years, and I was perfectly fine. Don’t worry. The only thing you’ll have to acclimate to is the first month of culture shock/adjustment. You may want to leave your first week there. Just hang in tight, I promise it gets much, much better. You eventually adjust and start enjoying it–you’ll find your groove.

    2. hi sara I’m moving myself to an area near thawal which is close to Jeddah I’m about 40 male and a doctor moving for a job there in a place called kaust. there are teaching jobs there if you are interested. I am looking to make friends there, are you interested in chatting ?

  11. Salaam Rashad
    Being a 30 yr old South African lady,where would you suggest I apply for a job in Saudi Arabia. I’m a qualified Accountant but will be looking into teaching(I’m busy with my first year tertiary)Any suggestions?

    1. Hi, you will need to contact recruiters in Saudi Arabia, or if you wish to teach you can go to Dave’s ESL Cafe on the internet and apply for teaching jobs there. You will need a TEFL or CELTA certificate–and being a lady helps as they are looking for teachers in female-only classrooms. You can also apply directly with Wall Street English in Saudi Arabia, who are always looking for new teachers. Hope this helps!

    1. Al Khobar and Dhahran are next to one another, so I would bundle them together and say they are good if you want to head on over to Bahrain and party for a weekend. You can simply drive over the bridge. Jeddah is a little more relaxed in atmosphere, and has more going on, but you don’t have the opportunity to drive over a bridge and watch cinemas or drink alcohol (if that matters to you). I found Khobar to be too “empty” and calm for me, although its road infrastructure is WAY better than Jeddah’s.

  12. Hello, I actually had a job offer in Saudi Arabia, I work in Paris right now and after the ISIS attacks I don’t think it’s very safe. The salary is not very good and the job is very tiring, 9 hours a day and the salary is 200$ dollars monthly. The job is being a university teacher and it is not very easy, I know a lot of Arabic, and I was just wondering, if it’s worth it to get a job in Jeddah? The salary is much better and the place is way safer, I think. I visited Riyadh,Mecca,Medina + a village in Saudi Arabia and they were all very nice.Thank you for reading

    1. Jacob, I’m assuming you mean $2000 a month? I don’t know of any teaching positions that pay $200 a month, even Starbucks workers make five times that over there! Jeddah is definitely the best place to work if you value more freedom and a more open-minded crowd.

  13. Hello Rashad,
    I have been reading your blogs religiously the past couple a weeks. I tip my hat at you for having the most useful information I could find on expat experiences in Saudi Arabia. I have a question for you, how do you think I would cope in a city like Sakaka. It’s in the northern state of Al Jawf. I lived in San Diego and went to SDSU where I met tons of Saudis. Long story short I have signed on to teach English at a private international school for children and I was curious as to what information you could provide me about this region. I understand it will be a significantly different experience than Riyahd or Jeddah but I am ok with that. I’m going out there to soul search and get closer to God but obviously the pay is also a nice incentive.

  14. Thank you for this quite informative and honest article. I am a British Muslim living in London and am fascinated by the Arab world. I am interested in working in Saudi Arabia and just wanted to find a website offering unbiased information about the kingdom. Thank you for your opinions.

    1. Thanks for your commemnt, Jaseem! Saud Arabia is a unique experience and definitely worth a try. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Go back home? But chances are, you’ll find tons of great opportunities that really push you ahead.

  15. Hi Rashad, love reading all the info you have available to newbees like us!! My husband & I are teaching English in Spain at the moment, we both are Celta qualified, don’t have a degree, have almost 2years experience teaching all ages & levels. We would like to go to Dubai or KSA, to teach English for a year or two, as the pay in Spain is not god at all. Could you tell us if we would have any difficulty finding employment, & if there is anywhere in particular that you would recommend that would be more liberal?? We are Irish, & age 51 & 52. I would really appreciate any advice.
    Kind regards,
    Yvonne.

    1. Hey Yvonne, glad you find it useful! Let me know if there’s something else you’d like me to cover.

      The issue you may run into, Yvonne, is that the entire GCC area is very picky about degrees. The only way you could really land a teaching assignment without a degree is to be on location, or know someone (or both!). If you have tons of teaching experience, it could also turn the tides in your favor, but it sounds like you only have a couple of years under your belt. I would recommend other countries to gain a bit more experience–perhaps places like S. Korea or China. Again, if you’re on location in Dubai, things are a lot easier. They’d much rather just hire someone right then and there. But since you’re far away, and there are tons of people with Masters applying over the internet, you can imagine how much harder it is.

  16. I’m moving to Sauid to teach English and Jeddah was always my first choice but not for the “relaxed” atmosphere but the proximity to Mecca. I could have taken a job in Mecca but i was told housing is difficult so the closest was Jeddah. It’s perfect location for regular visits to Mecca and Medinah and i can’t wait to explore those 3 cities and more if time allows. Thank you Rashad for your Saudi posts, i love them
    Jameela Deen recently posted…I’m an Expat Too – From the UK and the Philippines to PeruMy Profile

    1. Jameela, I’d love to see photos of your visits there. One of my biggest regrets there is not taking enough photos of Mecca and Medinah, although I’d use a discrete smartphone if I were you 🙂 Glad you enjoy the posts! Thanks for reading them.

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