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Before you are permitted to work in Saudi Arabia, you will need to obtain an employment visa. This employment visa will be converted into a residence permit (usually referred to as an iqama) once you have arrived in the country.
All employment visas are associated with a particular profession – though this is not done very diligently. For example, you may be described as some kind of labourer even if you are actually a doctor. If this happens, you will have fewer rights while in Saudi Arabia. For example, your family will not be able to visit you and you may not be allowed to drive a car (in some ways, this is a blessing in disguise as it spares you the kamikaze nature of Saudi drivers). It is therefore very important to check the job title listed on your visa; once you have arrived in the Kingdom it will be very difficult to change the listed job title.
If there is a group of people wanting to work for the same company in Saudi Arabia, they will be processed using a group visa. Women on a spouse visa will also need an individual work permit if they want to work in the country. Unless you are already resident in Saudi Arabia, it is not possible to look for work on spec. You will need to have successfully obtained a job before the application to enter the country can begin.
Working conditions for Western expats, especially those in middle and upper management, are very favourable; positions are typically well paid and tax-free. Some employment packages come with substantial benefits, such as free or low-cost accommodation, healthcare and education, one free flight home a year and, at the end of the contract, a golden handshake (also known as an ‘indemnity’). Furthermore, the cost of living is low and there is no VAT or equivalent tax.
There is also little to spend money on, since alcohol and some forms of entertainment are illegal unless you make frequent trips to one of the more liberal Gulf states such as Bahrain or the UAE. Most expats are contractors, with fixed terms of employment of two or three years.
Working hours are normally 8 hours a day, though this shortens to 6 hours during Ramadan. Some companies apply these shortened hours to Muslims only. Standard office hours are approximately from 8:00 to noon, then 4:00 to 7:00 or 8:00. The days of the weekend have recently switched from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday.
Westerners do not normally encounter any major problems while working in Saudi Arabia. However, it is important to learn something of your employee rights in the Kingdom, as these may not always be respected. As your employer is normally also your sponsor, they have considerable power over you. They may keep your passport and deny you visits abroad. In any case, you will not be allowed to stay in the country if you lose your job. Expats are routinely expected to leave the country once their contract ends.
There is another, uglier side to expat life in Saudi Arabia. The vast majority of expats come from poorer countries, particularly those of the Subcontinent and South-East Asia. These people are treated very differently from Westerners. Many fall victim to unscrupulous employment agencies, who charge sky-high fees (on average £1,500-£2,000) to get a Saudi employment visa. The expats’ actual wages turn out to be much lower than was promised, with irregular or even non-existent payments. Some actually leave Saudi Arabia out of pocket.
Furthermore, many poor expats are forced to live in slum-like conditions and work excessively long hours in workplaces with poorly implemented health and safety provisions. Discrimination, exploitation and abuse are commonly suffered, especially by women. If you are from a poorer country, you should think very carefully about working in Saudi Arabia.
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If you are considering moving to Saudi Arabia or are soon to depart, you can find helpful information and advice in the Expat Briefing dedicated Saudi Arabia section including; details of immigration and visas, Saudi Arabian forums, Saudi Arabian event listings and service providers in Saudi Arabia.
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Working in Saudi Arabia can be rewarding as well as stressful, if you don't plan ahead and fulfill any legal requirements. Find out about visas and passports, owning and operating a company in Saudi Arabia, and general Saudi Arabian culture of the labour market.
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