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Finding the right place to live in Saudi Arabia depends on many factors. There are practical considerations such as accommodation prices, cost of living and availability of amenities. Then there are emotional criteria, such as the desirability of a place – whether what you desire is happiness, safety, friendly locals or an active social life. A major factor in your decision is whether to live in an expat compound or not. These compounds are self-contained and are most suitable to families and single women; living outside their walls is generally better for single men.
There are more than 9 million expats living in Saudi Arabia out of a total population of 30 million. As the overwhelming majority of expats move to Saudi Arabia to work, they are naturally to be found living in those areas where work is most in demand. All kinds of expats can be found in Jeddah, Riyadh, the Dammam conurbation and other areas. However, non-Muslims are banned from entering the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, so there are only Muslim expats in these cities.
Starting from the Red Sea coast, there is Jeddah, the country’s second largest city and biggest port. The atmosphere here is about as relaxed as it gets in this country. Jeddah originated as a port serving the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are expected to make once in a lifetime. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people from North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere pass through this city. Over the years, some of them have stayed, adding to the cosmopolitan nature of the city.
Jeddah also has some fine beaches and is a relatively tolerant city; for example women are permitted to practice law. Art and other forms of culture are more active here than elsewhere in the Kingdom, and the city is well known for its offbeat public artworks which serve to lighten the mood. Scuba diving, water-skiing and sailing in the beautiful Rede Sea are popular pastimes.
Inland from Jeddah, to the east. is Mecca, the country’s third largest city and the religious heart of the Islamic world. Only Muslims may visit or live in Mecca, and the city is also limited in the entertainment that is available. Nevertheless it is still cosmopolitan in its way, as it is home to Muslims from all over the world. It is an exciting to be in from this perspective. There are much more lively discussions in the cafés and marketplaces in Mecca than in other Saudi cities, and indeed most other Muslim cities.
However, you should bear in mind that property in parts of Mecca is prohibitively expensive, especially near the Forbidden Mosque. Note furthermore that even Muslim expats may not permanently own property in Mecca. To the north is the second holy city of Islam, Medina, which is quieter than Mecca but similar in other respects.
Riyadh (meaning ‘gardens’) is the capital and largest city in Saudi Arabia; it is mostly modern and looks as if it has sprung out of the desert. Expats make up nearly 40% of the city’s 5 million population. Most jobs here are commercial, financial, diplomatic and administrative. The cost of living in Riyadh is somewhat higher than in Jeddah. Though it is built by a large oasis, Riyadh is not the most practical place for a large city. It has average summer temperatures of around 43°C, sandstorms are a frequent problem and pollution levels are often high.
As the capital city and homeland of the Saud family, the atmosphere in Riyadh is highly austere and the authorities do not welcome alternative views or modes of behaviour. The Mutaween (religious police) are only too keen to punish those deviating from the often arbitrary rules of the land. There are no cinemas and little else in the way of entertainment. Most expat compounds are in the northern and eastern suburbs and in the Diplomatic quarter in the west.
Eastern Province is where most of the country’s oil is, and the overwhelming majority of expats in this area work for petrochemical companies. The most important city is the regional capital Dammam, which forms a continuous urban area with its southern neighbours Khobar and Dhahran. Khobar is next to the bridge to Bahrain, the ‘bolthole’ as many expats regard it, and is more liberal than most other Saudi cities. The climate is very hot, often exceeding 50°C in summer, and also humid. Also in Eastern Province are smaller oil-based cities inland, such as Hofuf and Harad, both of which have small expat communities.
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