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Settlement, Residence and Citizenship for Expats in Saudi Arabia

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: October 2015


Although there are around 7.5 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, nearly all of them are staying in the country temporarily. It is very difficult to settle more permanently in Saudi Arabia due to the highly restrictive residence and citizenship laws.

During your time in Saudi Arabia, your relationship with your sponsor is very important. Before you arrive, they will be responsible for ensuring that all the necessary paperwork is completed properly to enable you to enter the country. While you are in the country, your sponsor vouches for your conduct. If this is not deemed suitable or if things otherwise go awry, you may find yourself rapidly falling out of favour with the authorities, and possibly being deported.

After you arrive in Saudi Arabia, the details from your visa will be transferred to a residence permit, which is usually known as an iqama. This may involve negotiating further bureaucracy, possibly including another medical examination. While you keep this document, your sponsor will often retain your passport (even though technically this is illegal) to keep tabs on you and prevent you from leaving the country. Hence your iqama is your main form of ID; you should carry it with you whenever you are in public.

If you want to leave Saudi Arabia on holiday, you need to apply for and exit/entry visa, well in advance of your planned departure date. You may need to ask your sponsor to apply on your behalf. If so, they will then return your passport to you with the exit/entryvisa, though you will need to surrender your iqama to them. Note further that women will need the head of the household’s permission to leave the country.When you finally leave the Kingdom, you will need to apply for an exit visa and surrender your iqama.

The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is generally quite low. All local produce and, naturally, petrol are very cheap. However, imported goods are considerably more expensive, and, being mostly desert, the country has to import a lot of them.


The vast majority of expats in Saudi Arabia are transitory, just guest workers. They arrive, they work for a number of years, and they leave. The citizenship laws make it difficult for them to do anything else. If you have plans to settle permanently in Saudi Arabia, you are probably out of luck.


It is very difficult for any expat to become a Saudi citizen, but this especially true for non-Muslims. A point system is in operation for Saudi residents who apply to become citizens. The maximum number of points is 33, and normally applicants will need 23 points to be successful. Points are awarded as follows:

As the last sentence suggests, rank misogyny permeates the Saudi legal system, in which in places men are legally considered to be worth more than women. It is reasonably straightforward for the expat wife and children of a Saudi man to obtain citizenship. They need 17 points; the marriage must be Saudi-approved and have been for at least 5 years. By contrast, a foreign husband and children of a Saudi woman can only become citizens if they have 23 or more points.

The principle of jus soli has no relevance in Saudi law. Being born in the country in no way entitles you to citizenship; you still need 23 points. This means for example that if your family is from abroad and you do not have a degree, you can never become a Saudi citizen. And this is the case for Muslims – for non-Muslims it is even harder. Even then, if your marriage ends, you can be stripped of you Saudi citizenship.

The only other way a non-Muslim could become a Saudi citizen is being granted nationality by the king for performing an exceptional service to the country. And it is a very wealthy country.

Nevertheless, acquiring citizenship is technically possible and around 5,000 people become naturalised Saudi citizens a year. You will need to have been permanently resident in Saudi Arabia for 10 years. Having good behaviour, being fluent in Arabic, and working in a profession that is in demand will all help your cause.

You need to consider the decision to take up Saudi citizenship carefully, as dual citizenship is not recognised in Saudi Arabia. To become a Saudi citizen, you must renounce your old citizenship.




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