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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Living in Jeddah: Interview With An Expat
- Living in Dammam: Pros & Cons
- Living in Riyadh For Foreigners: Pros & Cons
- Book the cheapest luxury rooms worldwide with Agoda!
Have you considered moving to Saudi Arabia? What would you consider the best city in Saudi Arabia for expats?