Jeddah, Saudi Arabia Report of what it's like to live there - 05/11/13

Personal Experiences from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 05/11/13


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. We have also lived in Jordan, Syria, Portugal, and Cape Verde.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

West Coast, USA. The trip takes about 25 hours, depending on connections. We connect in Chicago, Denver, Portland, or Salt Lake City.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Nine months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most expats (and even some Saudis) live on compounds. Westerners who live in apartment buildings save money but often feel very isolated. I suppose this could depend on your personality and social circles. All USG employees live on secure compounds. Commute time to the consulate is 20 to 45 minutes. However, a new consulate is under construction, so this will change within a year or two or three.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Aside from pork, you can generally find whatever you need or want. Most good grocery stores have a large import section that has the foods that you are likely to be accustomed to. Things that tend to be expensive or of poor quality on the market include: chocolate chips, canned goods, and corn chips. Fruits and vegetables are pretty inexpensive and generally of good quality. Although you cannot get pork, you can get substitutes like turkey bacon and turkey ham. USG employees have access to the commissary, where they can generally get whatever they lack.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Children's summer clothes, shoes, books, swimming suits.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Tons of U.S. chains, all at about U.S. cost range. Shawarma shops are plentiful, and the food is cheap. Hummus is disappointingly hard to find and is generally not good.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

There are ants in pretty much every home. Mosquitoes, too, but compounds try to keep them down by spraying DDT regularly. Lice infestations erupt in the schools occasionally. I learned the hard way that my girls must have their hair up every day they go to school.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO. Non-USG expats use Aramex.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Widely available. For expats, costs range between USD5 and 7 per hour for part-time cleaning and childcare. I think it best to pay on the high side --- my capitalist way of redistributing wealth to those who really need it and earn it well.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The compounds almost always have a gym available. Some are good, but some are not so good. The consulate also has facilities. A lot of people feel bored in Jeddah; some of them see the gym and fitness classes as a good escape. Swimming pools are everywhere.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

We generally use cash at stores and restaurants. Although most big stores accept credit cards, it is safest to avoid using them. Petty crime is very low, so I don't worry about carrying cash.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Yes. Just ask around. They are all underground services.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Yes, but I have no idea of the cost because we are not TV fans. I think there are some free channels on the compounds.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Most expats seem to get by without Arabic. But if you are exploring the wilderness or the poorer parts of town, you will definitely need Arabic.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Because the climate is so hot and humid, a lot of time is spent indoors. Anyone in a wheelchair should be fine in shopping malls and hospitals. You would just need to be dropped off at the door. Generally, wherever there are stairs there are also wheelchair ramps or elevators.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

USG employees do not take these; we use our motorpool instead. Compounds often have buses, cars, and drivers available to take you wherever you need or want to go. These are very safe and are reasonably priced (and sometimes free).

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

SUVs are preferable. They command the road, and gas usage is not an issue because it is super cheap. In terms of service, the best brands to go for are Toyota (ForeRunners are very popular) and GMC. Toyota dominates the market.

We bought our vehicle here, but it was a headache. Shipping is a headache too, however—it often takes 5 months or more to clear customs. If you buy used, endeavor to purchase from an expat because locals trash their cars and sometimes make adjustments so that the reported kilometers appear to be less than they really are. Vehicles don’t depreciate in cost much, so you generally don’t lose much on resale.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. It runs about $60/month for us. It's fast and reliable enough for our needs--telecommuting, VOIP calling, social media, etc.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cellphone shops are often the scene of hilarious conversations between attendants and their bewildered expat customers. If you bring your smartphone from the U.S., get it unlocked before you come.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Vets are available; not sure about quality.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Not much if you are a male with no Arabic. Pretty much nil if you are a female, although some find low-paying jobs in the healthcare field. Occasionally you can get jobs that involve tutoring or entertaining really rich children. Sometimes you can get jobs at local schools.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Women, even foreigners, wear abayas outside and in public areas. However, there are exceptions. At the consulate and at international schools and on compounds, Western women don't wear an abaya. At all-female events (such as their children's birthday parties or wedding parties), women will remove their abayas and head coverings. The nice thing about wearing an abaya most of the time is that as long as you are wearing nice shoes and have a nice handbag (the accessories that show), you can be as comfortable as you like underneath --- pyjamas are okay! Outside of Jeddah, expat women (unless they are on business) should cover at least their hair with a headscarf. You rarely see any Saudi women when traveling outside Jeddah, and when you do, every inch of skin is covered. Even with my hair covered, I felt like I stood out and was stared at constantly. However, many expat women refuse to veil even when they are outside the city. In a country that is home to many who are ultra-orthodox, this seems like an unnecessary risk to me. I think it best to maintain as low a profile as possible. Business attire for expat men is similar to what you would find in the States or in Europe. However, Saudi men wear primarily white thobes (long white gowns) and head coverings at business functions. Expat men need not wear a thobe except, maybe, at very formal events such as wedding parties.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Terrorism: predictably terrifying but also very rare. Westerners are targets, so Western compounds, hangouts, and workplaces are also targets. But traffic accidents are a much more likely way to die.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

I don't trust any Saudi doctors. Cheating is too endemic in their culture, and they do it even if they attended Western medical schools. Plan on medevac for any significant medical concern, and avoid being in one of those nightmare stories . . . or avoid not living to tell your own nightmare story.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Occasional sandstorms can aggravate respiratory problems. Otherwise, skies are clear.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Wonderful in the winter. Amazingly hot and humid in the summer. Not much rain. Ever.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

My kids attend the American International School of Jeddah. The elementary grades appear to be the best. Middle school has been dysfunctional this year, but the school just got new management, so everything could change within a year's time. The British School (Continental) gets high marks from all of the parents. Its facilities are very good and are rumored to be even better in the new school they are building. Their rules for kids' school lunches seem a bit impossible to me (no peanut butter, no crackers---even Goldfish, no sugar of any kind). All schools require uniforms, which is new for us, but I love it! No fussing over clothes, and no class distinctions based on appearance.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Because there are a lot of family intermarriages among Saudis, there are also a lot of children with special needs. So special programs and schools can be found for special-needs kids, but their quality and quantity can make life hard for an expat. If your child's special needs are mild enough to integrate into a regular classroom, you might be able to find a spot in one of the better international schools. But places for these children are limited and often require extra parental involvement.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

The international schools all offer preschools, and you can find independent preschools as well. Rather than daycare, most expats simply hire a nanny.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Tons. My son participates in weekly free soccer activities, but there are also paid soccer teams available. You can also find baseball, horseback riding, squash, tennis, swimming, tumbling, dance, etc. Most classes are available on the compound or in schools (which are often attached to the compounds). The heat makes some outdoor sports uncomfortable to play and to watch, but if you're devoted, no biggie, right?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Big. There are a lot of expats working for banks and infrastructure companies.

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2. Morale among expats:

Generally content, but they occasionally flip out. Your morale will depend on your temperament. The people who seem to complain most are those who don't know much about the Arab world or those who don't care to know. If you're just coming to Jeddah to punch your time card, don't expect to get much more than your salary out of it.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

This is a huge part of life, both among Saudis and among expats. If you are male and working on the local economy, you might never meet (or see) the female members of your Saudi coworkers' families, even at company parties. In diplomatic circles, women are much more of a presence.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It is not great for singles because of social restrictions on mixing of the sexes. But you can find your niche among single expats. And if you are into Saudi men, you will have no shortage of good-looking suitors. (But be sure you know what you're getting into before you start a relationship . . . and then rethink it extremely thoroughly . . . and then, just to be safe, give yourself some distance).

Great for couples—you can earn enough to travel frequently, and there are some unique and awesome places to see in the region.

I think it’s pretty good for families, but I might be in the minority with that opinion. Many people complain about the country. For us, the compound is what makes this place awesome—my kids are safe to roam free and have scores of friends their age (from all over the world). The compound has playgrounds, pools, a recreation center, a grocery store, tennis courts, and plenty of free activities as well as paid classes for kids. I have lots of friends from all over the world—although, ironically, I don’t personally know any Saudis. That’s partly because compounds are a big social bubble that I haven’t tried to escape and partly because Saudi society is very difficult to break into.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Homosexuality is against the law here, but of course that doesn't stop homosexuals from being homosexual. It's just called by different names so that people can justify it to themselves. However, if you're a gay/lesbian expat and can't avoid coming to Saudi, then to avoid running into serious trouble, plan on abstinence during your stay. (This is just my take, however, and I have no real experience with what it's like to be gay/lesbian here.)

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Yes. Asians and Africans run into racism a lot. Christians are discouraged from wearing crosses or anything that advertises their religious differences. Women aren't generally seen as equal with men, and in my observation the more religious a man is, the less likely he is to shake a woman's hand or even look at her when he speaks to her.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Mada'in Saleh, meeting awesome people from all over the world, spending time at the beach.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

If you speak Arabic, it is fun to go out into the smaller towns. USG employees need permission from the government for most trips outside Jeddah, and they are often accompanied by police (who are a bit of a bother, because they have to trade off with another set of police in every town). But you can camp in the desert, hike, visit ruins and old palaces, see the Hijaz railroad, visit Taif, go to the beach, snorkel, scuba dive, go for boat rides, ATVs, horseback riding, camel rides, paintball, etc. For some destinations (such as Mada'in Saleh), government permission is required for all visitors.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Airline tickets, dates, carpets, sheep skins, perfume, knock-off sunglasses, kitsch.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

A rare view of what it's like to live in Saudi Arabia and also to see places that few non-Muslims ever see. Easy access to Makkah if you're Muslim. Dates (the edible kind, not the social kind). Saving money. Resort-like living quarters on compounds.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, if you don't spend it all on air travel.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. It is much better than I expected. I love our compound!

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Warm blankets, winter clothes, compact car, alcohol, and pornography. Alcohol is against the law here. I don't drink, so to me it's no big deal, but if you do drink, rest assured that you will not go thirsty in the expat community.

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3. But don't forget your:

Swimming gear, SUV, holiday decor (very difficult and sometimes impossible to find here, and despite reports to the contrary, you can get your stuff through customs as long as you label it innocuously. So, a Christmas tree becomes a "fake tree", etc.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Don't expect the locals to perceive things the way you do. The Arab world didn't undergo an Enlightenment period in which society started favoring reason rather than religious clerics as the ultimate authority. So concepts like egalitarianism and openmindedness and tolerance don't hold nearly as much sway in this society as they do in the West. Also, Saudis grow up in a religious (and even gender) monoculture, which creates a lot of differences between their perceptions and ours. If you can appreciate those differences rather than disdain them, you will be in good shape.

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