Jeddah, Saudi Arabia Report of what it's like to live there - 12/07/13

Personal Experiences from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 12/07/13


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

I've also lived in Amman, Jordan (2 years) and Damascus, Syria (1 year).

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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?

It's approximately 24 hours, including connections, from Jeddah to my home base in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Flights generally stop in Europe (Frankfurt, Paris, London, sometimes Amsterdam), then again at a U.S. gateway (usually New York or Chicago for me), then direct from there to Portland, Oregon.

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3. How long have you lived here?

I've been in Jeddah for a little over 14 months.

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

Diplomat with the 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?

A lot, if not most, Westerns live on Western compounds. I'm only familiar with a few such compounds, but the ones I know are equipped with decent security, grocery stores, and all types of sports and fitness facilities (i.e. tennis and squash courts, gyms, bowling alleys, etc.) and restaurants. Some expats only very rarely need to leave their compounds (which in my opinion is a bit of a shame, but to each their own I suppose).

I live in the newer, northern portion of Jeddah and commute between 20-40 minutes to work in the southern, older part of the city. My sense is that most Western expats live in the same general area as I do, though I suspect that many do not work as far from home as I do. Traffic is unpredictable but almost always less than good. Saudis and third-country nationals almost universally drive abhorrently, which only worsens the traffic woes caused by really, really poorly planned roads and intersections.

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

My sense is that you'll pay here about what you'd pay in a big U.S. city like Washington D.C. Produce can be a little cheaper here in the right seasons.

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

Everything you can find in the U.S. is easily accessible here. Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Appleby's, Burger King, KFC, and seemingly all the other chains. I'm not big on eating out, but my friends indicate there is no shortage of excellent upscale local restaurants with food ranging from Saudi to Western to choose from.

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

Insects aren't really an issue here, at least in my admittedly sheltered experience. Mosquitoes are annoying during the winter but not a huge problem with a little bug repellent and keeping doors and windows closed. Ants can sometimes be an issue in my house.

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Daily Life:

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

I use the U.S. Consulate's APO and pouch system.

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

I just use the facilities on the compound. There are a few fitness centers in northern Jeddah that Saudis use. I don't know any Westerners that use them.

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

It's not a problem at all around Jeddah, as long as you're okay with the fees. Outside Jeddah, forget about it.

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

It's easy to spend years in Jeddah without any Arabic. Outside of Jeddah it really does open up a lot of doors to be able to speak Arabic with reasonable proficiency. It's not necessary but sure does simplify things.

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

Yes. Avoid Saudi Arabia if you or someone accompanying you have physical disabilities. Saudi Arabia today is akin to the U.S. in the 1940s or 1950s (if that) in terms of accommodating those with physical disabilities.

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

We, as U.S. diplomats, aren't allowed to use taxis, but I think they're reasonably safe. For males. I wouldn't recommend a female use one without a male. It's not fair but it's just the way it is here.

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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?

Some people say get a 4x4 for offroading, but I've been able to go everywhere I want to go, and I think I explore more than most, with a 2 wheel drive Suburban. Toyotas and American makes like GMC, Ford, and Chevy are most popular. I see a lot of Nissans and Hondas too. There's no comparison though to Toyota -- it is far and away the most popular make in the Kingdom. Saudi won't let you ship in something older than 5 years. Also, bear in mind you'll be marginally safer in a bigger car than a smaller one when it comes to the inevitable traffic accident.

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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?

They have 4G internet from a variety of providers. We pay about US$275 for six months of "unlimited" Internet. However, if you go beyond the limit of your "unlimited" monthly allotment, your internet becomes mind-numbingly slow for the rest of the month in punishment for your transgression. No one at Zain has yet been able to explain why it's called "unlimited" even though it is limited.

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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?

You can bring anything that's unlocked and just buy a sim card here. Expect to pay US$50-$100/month for calls and data. The three main companies are STC, Mobily, and Zain. I use Zain and I think I pay more than I should. Friends who use STC get the same service as me and pay less. But there's a Zain store walking distance from my house, and since online bill pay is unreliable, it's worth it to me to be able to just walk to the store to pay my bills and other weird, unexplainable charges that come my way.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

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

Saudi men typically wear white thobes (essentially dresses for men), and women wear black abayas (essentially tents with a hole in the top for the head). Men from other countries wear jeans and t-shirts, sometimes even shorts. Work dress for Saudis is really clean thobes, Westerners tend to wear typically business clothing.

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Health & Safety:

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

Obviously Saudi Arabia is known for austere, conservative Islamism. There is some truth to this Western stereotype and caution is necessary: be aware of your surroundings and avoid places where Westerners congregate. Try not to stand out too much. The truth is though, you are much, much more likely to be injured or killed in a traffic accident on the horrible Saudi highways and roads than you are to fall victim to a terrorist attack, which are exceedingly rare nowadays (but still possible).

Other than that, I also avoid parts of Jeddah where poor foreigners are clustered, as these are places where more traditional crime is more likely to occur. That said, a nice thing about the Kingdom -- and the Arab world in general -- is the very low levels of petty crime.

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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?

There were a few scattered reports of dengue fever in Jeddah. Nothing huge. I won't use the medical care here for anything apart from teeth cleaning, a regular office visit for a checkup, or an eye checkup. If I or a family member needed to be cut open at all, for anything, I'd send them to Europe or the U.S. I'm not exaggerating that a lot of Saudi doctors paid others to do their homework for them during med school, and a few even outright bought their degrees.

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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?

It's not great. Particularly in the summertime the skies are hazy with dust. Jeddah has a big water desalination plant that dumps brown smoke into the air all day every day. Dust storms are not common, but they happen. I imagine living here would have added challenges for those with respiratory issues.

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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?

Skies are almost always clear, meaning cloudless. Rain may fall a time or two per year between October and February, but typically very little. Humidity rises and falls during the summer months -- it's stifling when the air is heavy with water vapor but not bad at all when the humidity is relatively low. Temperatures hardly vary at all in the summer, with highs between 100-105F and lows in the 80s.

Winter is also almost always cloudless with a few rare rain episodes. Highs only rarely drop below 80F and most often in the mid-80s. Lows hardly ever get below 70F.

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Schools & Children:

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

The best schools for Westerners, hands down, are the British school (Continental or Conti) and the American school. The British school is co-located on a large and very nice Western housing compound, so families living on that compound can walk their kids to school in minutes flat. The same is true of the American school, colocated on another Western housing compound. Our kids attend the American school and we live on the same compound as the school; we simply open the front door and send them to school in the morning. It's pretty nice.

In terms of school quality, my sense is that the British school is a little better at this point in time. The American school suffered last year through an ugly period of poor leadership and open verbal warfare between different factions of school officials and parents. A new school board and new school leadership has really righted the ship this year, and things are on the right track, but it will take a little more time to completely heal over the issues of last year. Also, the American school is currently looking to build a new school at a different site in the next 5-10 years.

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2. 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?

Our housing compound has a preschool/daycare. We don't use it but I haven't heard complaints about it.

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

Kids can join baseball and football (soccer) leagues through the international schools. We've found the leagues to be unnecessarily expensive so we haven't participated. Also hauling kids through traffic to practices and games seems unpleasant.

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Expat Life:

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

There aren't a great many Americans in Jeddah, but the overall Western expat community is fair. Morale varies among those I know. Some are counting the days until they can leave this backward country, others are delighted by the place. I suppose it's what you choose to focus on. Focus on the bad drivers and the despicable way women are treated and you'll probably be unhappy. Focus on the fascinating culture and the fact that you're in the midst of an experience so few Westerns can ever have, and you'll have a pretty decent time.

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

A lot of people don't do much outside of eat out and go to the beach. That stuff is fun, but it gets old. I try to take a trip outside Jeddah one weekend every month or two. There's so much to see and experience.

I also am grateful for iTunes so as to watch movies. No theaters in Saudi Arabia. That said, if you're willing to get out and make friends, you will find that every once in a while you can find a group of (usually young) Saudis putting on a play or screening a movie.

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

Jeddah is good for families and couples. Single males probably do okay. I really couldn't in good conscience recommend it for single females though. Saudi society simply does not view women the same way the West does, and Saudi customs really do stifle single females. Unable to drive, they are dependent on the almost nonexistent public transportation (taxis, which, at least for U.S. diplomats, are off-limits). Even going out in public without a male could subject females to harassment from religious police or even "secular" authorities, since it's considered illegal for ladies to be in public without a male "guardian." These "laws" aren't always enforced in Jeddah, but it's extremely annoying for single females that the possibility even exists that they could be confronted for simply going out alone.

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

Obviously not the best. I have heard that there underground gay scenes in large Saudi cities but I can't confirm.

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

The truth is that Saudis are, broadly speaking, racist against non-Saudis. The way that Saudis treat their domestic workers, drivers, etc. is, frankly, appalling. They seem to observe a racial hierarchy, with Saudis at the top, followed by other wealthy Gulf Arabs and white Westerners, then other Arabs, then South and Southeast Asians, which typically work in the Kingdom in jobs Saudis deem beneath them. I don't have a sense for how Saudis view East Asians or Latin Americans.

Obviously, Saudis don't do so well at tolerating religious differences, and I don't think I need to elaborate further on gender prejudices.

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

Exploring green southern Saudi mountain valleys filled with striking Yemeni architecture, being invited to meals by hospitable desert bedouin and eating chicken and rice with only the stars for light, diving WWI shipwrecks off the coast, evening strolls along Jeddah's seafront "Corniche" with a cool seabreeze blowing by.

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

Scuba diving in the Red Sea is a must. There's no reason to live in Jeddah and not certify. Hiring a boat and spending a day on the sea is a great way to spend a weekend, and the sea is warm enough year-round to dive without wetsuits. Mada'in Saleh is spectacular and nobody goes (no tourism in Saudi). Dhee Ein, just down the mountain from al-Baha, is also amazing. And there are seemingly innumerable nameless ruins along the mountain and desert highways that are awesome to explore.

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

I have yet to tire of the weather in Jeddah. It's hot in the summer, but not as oppressive as one might think (highs rarely get above 105F) but very pleasant for about 5 months during the winter, with temperatures topping out in the mid-80s and lows rarely going below 70F.

I've also been surprised at how much there is to do outside of Jeddah, if you are a little adventurous, speak decent Arabic, and are male. I acknowledge that a lot of what I have to say simply won't be applicable for single females, for whom living in Saudi Arabia would be quite stifling. Within 8-10 hours of Jeddah one can find ancient Nabatean cities (Mada'in Saleh, a sister city to Petra), rock cities built on marble escarpments (Dhee Ein), cool mountain towns (al-Baha and Abha), and amazing vistas from winding mountain highways looking off toward the coastal plains. Desert camping away from city lights is also very worthwhile.

Also the scuba diving in the Red Sea is world class.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes. Gas is super cheap, and when traveling it's easy in the larger towns to find cheap and clean hotels if you know some Arabic. There's just not much to spend money on in Jeddah outside of eating out, going to the beach, and scuba diving.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I wish I had known how much latitude I would have to get out of Jeddah and see the country. I thought I'd be stuck in town for security reasons and that Saudis would scowl at me all the time. The truth is, Saudis -- at least in and around Jeddah -- are pretty great.

Again, I caveat this by pointing out that getting out and about requires being a guy and being able to speak decent Arabic.

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

Absolutely. I wouldn't stay here long term -- my positive attitude has its limits (about two years, I'd say) -- but I've been pleasantly surprised at how decent life in Jeddah is.

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

Road rage and long sleeved shirts (you will not survive in Jeddah if you are prone to road rage -- your blood pressure will build day by day until your veins explode on your way to work and you die).

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4. But don't forget your:

Scuba gear and positive attitude.

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