Jeddah, Saudi Arabia Report of what it's like to live there - 03/21/19

Personal Experiences from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 03/21/19


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

Fifth overseas experience, I've been in other cities in the Middle East and South Asia.

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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?

United States. This is theoretically easy because there are direct Saudia flights to New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. However, if you have to deal with Fly America you will probably have to fly to a completely separate continent to switch planes on your way home.

Due to the hajj/umrah traffic, Jeddah has a lot of international connections, particularly if you want to go to another Muslim-majority country. Regular direct flights to the UK, France, and Germany as well.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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

Diplomatic Mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

U.S. Government housing is townhomes/villas in gated communities. Security at the gated communities (barbed wire, jersey barriers, crew-fed weapon) will surprise people new to the region. Inside the communities there are a mix of expats, including diplomats and non-diplomats, Americans, and other nationalities. We have two kids and got a four bedroom villa. The commute is not horrible; maybe 30 minutes each way, depending on traffic. Drivers can be erratic and traffic can stop, but I have definitely seen worse. Compounds tend to have a lot of pools, tennis courts, etc and activities for the kids.

The Consulate will, someday, move to a new facility where there will be housing on compound. These will be new, furnished apartments. Right now there are no amenities installed at the currently-vacant apartments, and though there has been a lot of talk about things to add nothing has been started yet, so it's a wild card. The housing was designed when this was still an unaccompanied post, so while they have made some adjustments the Consulate will almost certainly need to retain some housing in the city, especially for larger families.

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

About the same. Unless you like to drink alcohol and eat pork (in which case this is NOT the post for you), there's a lot available, right down to kale and soy milk. You will pay U.S. prices or above though. There are two major supermarket chains in town, Danube and Hyperpanda, and a Carrefour is open though it's a bit of a hike from where the Consulate people are.

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

A ton of stuff is available that you would be shocked by. Cheesecake Factory, PF Changs, Raising Cane's, Applebees, IHOP. If you eat at a Western chain, it will cost a lot more (especially Five Guys and IHOP), and sometimes it is the land of not quite right, but a ton of comfort food from home is available.

Locally, there's not much 'Saudi' cuisine. The most Jeddawi thing you can do is eat at al Baik, a fast food chicken place. Otherwise a lot of the 'local' food is really Syrian or Lebanese, so lots of hummus, mixed grill, shwarma, shish tauk, etc.

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

Ants are a big problem, I have backhauled ant traps on more than one occasion. There are occasional gekko sightings but again, I've seen worse and they help to keep the insect population down.

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Daily Life:

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

APO is generally reliable, except at the holidays when they are just overwhelmed.

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

About $10 per hour, give or take. A lot of expats have nannies and/or housekeepers. There are no yards to speak of, so no gardeners. I have not seen a Saudi in one of these jobs, it is all Filipinas/Sri Lankans/etc. The government is constantly hiking their residence permit fees, though, so I'd expect salaries to eventually go up as people leave the country.

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

I believe both compounds have gyms; there is also a gym on the Consulate and I suspect (though do not know) one coming in the new place as well. There is a chain of gyms in town called Fitness Time, but I'm not sure about cost and, just as importantly, how women might be treated.

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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?

Widely accepted and safe to use. I have not used an ATM personally but I do see them around. Best to change money at the Consulate though, the cashier will give you the official rate.

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

This is a monarchy and a theocracy. All religions other than Islam are illegal.

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

If you want to work on your Tagalog or Urdu, this is the place for you. You could easily go an entire tour without talking to any Saudis, as they are not for the most part working in service professions and there's not exactly a club scene in Jeddah. Because of the multinational nature of the city, there is a fair amount of English understood. Being able to read Arabic numbers and get by with some basic phrases is a nice to have but not critical.

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

I am not sure, to be honest. It's not a city where people walk a lot, so everything is built on the idea that people are driving or have drivers. However, I have not seen a lot of wheelchair ramps or other ADA-accessible setups, so my guess is it would be hard.

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

No trams, buses or trains. Sometimes the compounds run shuttles around town but we are not supposed to take them. There is Uber and a local variant called Careem, check in with RSO when you get here about which, if any, is safe to use. There are also a lot of marked cabs. Traffic is erratic but it's not a thing where you are dodging scooters and cows etc., on the road; you just have some people who drive erratically and at high speeds, especially at night.

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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?

I have not heard of any burglary/carjacking. Toyota, GM, Ford, Kia, BMW, VW all have dealerships in town so I suspect getting parts is not difficult. Most people have SUVs, if you think you are going to go camping in the desert a lot I'd get 4WD.

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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?

It is available, cost is about USD 100 per month, some of the compounds have it installed already.

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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?

If you are here with a diplomatic mission, the biometric requirements can make it difficult to get a SIM card. Check with your work sponsor.

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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?

It is a pain to bring a pet to Saudi Arabia, but it is doable, even if you have a dog. You need to block out your last week before PCS for running around to the Saudi Embassy, vet, and State to get the paperwork squared away though. I have heard vets are available but I can't comment on quality; I have not heard any significant complaints, though.

If you want a cat, there will always be strays where there are Americans around. I cannot figure out why.

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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?

I have not heard of any spouses employed outside the Consulate or the school. Everyone else is either in an EFM position or has a remote work arrangement with a firm back home. The school is always looking for good English-speaking help, but there are administrative issues there that I would be wary of.

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

Formal dress for receptions and there are occasional (like 1-2 times a year) balls. Office is mainly suit.

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Health & Safety:

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

The city is deceptive. There is a lot of nice stuff and features that look like home, and there is no question this post is safer in 2019 than it was in 2009 or 1999. However, there is literally a war going on next door in Yemen that spills over in the form of missile and drone attacks inside Saudi Arabia, though thankfully none directly in Jeddah yet. There was a major attack against the consulate in 2004 or so, and a suicide bomber at the gate in 2016. So it's a place that could change in a negative way in a hurry.

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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?

Air quality is not great, and you will get dust storms. There are a ton of doctors in town, a lot of whom were western-trained. The medical care generally is average, and certainly if you have anything life-threatening you want to get to London as quickly as possible.

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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?

Dust storms and pollution; again, I've seen worse, but I've seen better too. Humidity is a killer in Jeddah, and you have to have a dehumidifier to keep mold away.

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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?

Hot and humid most of the year, except in the summer when it is EXTREMELY HOT and EXTREMELY HUMID. Good news is that you can spend New Year's on the beach

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Schools & Children:

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

There are two main schools used by people in the community - American International School of Jeddah (AISJ) and British International School of Jeddah (BISJ). There are also French and Italian schools. AISJ has had a rough year. The administration of the school botched a move from the old campus to a new campus, resulting in kids missing about a month of their school year. The school move situation highlighted some long-standing problems the AISJ board and administration seemed to have with communication, and I heard that several parents felt that they were more focused on the move and their image than the actual education of the children. There are no board elections, so change seems hard. We had been generally happy with the school our first two years here, but the last year has really changed our opinion.

The teachers have by and large been good, a mix of Americans, Aussies, New Zealanders, Lebanese, and a bunch of other nationalities. Just like any school, some are better than others, but I would not point to the teachers and school principals as being significantly better or worse than American teachers/principals as a class of individuals. There is a pretty robust learning support program (see below), and the new facility, once complete, is a significant upgrade over the old campus. Much like the housing, AISJ is a wild card. I expect significant defections from the teachers and students based on how this year has gone. My understanding is that the superintendant will not return, but it may take them a couple of years to recover from how they handled AY2018-2019.

BISJ tends to attract high performers and there is a sense in the parent community that they have a more rigorous curriculum. Their administrative staff also has some communication problems, particularly when it comes to new parents/students seeking admission. If you go the BISJ route there are entrance exams and you cannot expect automatic admission. However, I feel like BISJ parents I talk to are generally happier than AISJ parents.

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

If you have a kid who needs learning support, AISJ has an extensive program (from what I understand, much better than Riyadh's or BISJ's). They work with IEPs and have speech therapy, I think OT is more limited. I know of at least two U.S. children diagnosed with autism who attend AISJ.

Regarding physical disabilities I can't say, and I don't know if I've ever seen a kid in a wheelchair at AISJ. I would reach out ahead of time to them if you have physical disabilities to discuss. The nursing staff seems generally squared away.

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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?

There are some pre-schools; one of the compound runs its own, and there are other pre-schools in town. We are at a compound pre-school 4 hours a day, 5 days a week and have been pretty happy with it, as it seems to have more structure than just a four-hour play time. Most people who need before/after school care hire nannies.

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

Depends on the compound; my sense is there is more going on for kids at one compound (Sierra) than the other (Basateen), but I could be mistaken. Because the consulate is physically so far away from the housing clusters there's not a lot of kids activities there (there was one movie night when I first got here, and nobody showed up), though the CLO tries to arrange some weekend trips. This may change when we move.

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Expat Life:

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

Jeddah has a significant expat community ranging from the mission to a variety of businessmen, engineers, consultants, etc. Morale varies; the hikes in residency fees have led more than one family decide they are not wanted and to decamp for home. This is probably the most gossipy expat community I have seen, and I think it's fed by a sense of isolation on the compounds.

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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?

The Red Sea is a stone's throw away, so if you are a diver or want to get a boat, this is the best thing to do. The CLO seems to be organizing a variety of activities and outings. Obviously a Hash is a lost cause in a dry country, but there's a bowling league at Raytheon. Generally I think its a lot of small groups of friends vice clubs and groups.

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

I'm not sure its a good place for anyone, honestly. My kids seem to like it, but the fact that my son panics a bit if my wife forgets her abaya or wants to drive is not a good sign to me. Obviously, Saudi Arabia is harder on women than men. It's generally a family-oriented culture, which is good (lots of play spaces, for example), but there's also an unspoken assumption that a man would never take care of his family in the absence of a woman; so the play spaces are all in the 'family' sections and not the 'men' sections of restaurants and public spaces. It makes it hard to give my wife a break.

I cannot fathom what a single person would do here if they were looking to date, but it seems like you would all be fishing in the same small pond. It might be a good place if you are getting over a bad break up and have sworn off the dating scene for a while.

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

See above re: theocracy. I know that LGBT officers have served here, but I cannot comment authoritatively on their experiences.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

It is not as easy as you would think to encounter an actual Saudi in Saudi Arabia. However, once you get to know them they can be quite warm and hospitable. Jeddah generally is more relaxed and open-minded than the rest of the country, and there is a large section of Saudis who went to college or spent their formative years in the West (indeed, the returnees are how we wound up with Krispy Kreme and Tim Hortons). You will get so much more out of the tour and understand so much more about the country if you find a way to make Saudi friends, but it just not easy to do.

Jeddah is a port city and has had 1,000 years of hajj pilgrims coming in, some of whom stayed, so there's a multiethnic feel to the city. However, there is also some underlying prejudice by the Saudis against some of these nationalities, particularly the ones who occupy service professions.

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

Again, absolute monarchy and theocracy. Jeddah's more liberal than the rest of the country, but it's not like there are churches or synagogues. See above: re prejudices. Gender equality is a changing situation here. In the last year the Saudi government allowed women to get driver's licenses, and this has frankly gone more smoothly than I would have expected. There are strict guardianship rules for Saudi women, but these mainly do not apply to Westerners. In theory, it is Consulate policy that women do not have to wear an abaya or cover their hair. In reality, most women at least have an abaya, particularly if they do not look stereotypically Western.

I think women live a tough life in Saudi Arabia, and a lot of Saudi men still are learning how to deal with women, especially women who are not direct relatives. There is still a large faction of this society where men believe it is their role to tell women how to dress and behave, and no matter the de jure changes, the de facto situation is going to take time to resolve. The guardianship issue is a real mechanism of control in conservative families, and men need to be cautious in engaging with women in public who are not related to them.

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

The Red Sea is what makes Jeddah livable, and in my mind what separates it from Riyadh. There are a string of private beach resorts north of the city where the rules are much, much looser than the rest of the country - women in bikinis, smoking in public, etc. No drinking, but otherwise you would forget you are in Saudi Arabia. We have been to Taif, which is worth at least a day trip to see the wild baboons in the mountains and to get a look at another part of the country; it is also a welcome relieve from heat/humidity in the summer.

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

Probably, but I've been in the region a while so nothing really stands out.

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

It's better than Riyadh. If you have to go to Saudi, Jeddah is the place to be.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

I did not know the country well when I arrived, and figured that due to its proximity to Mecca that Jeddah would be the most conservative place in Saudi Arabia. It is the most liberal, but for the same reason - Jeddawi have been exposed to 1,000 years of pilgrims from around the world who practice Islam in different ways, which combined with its status as a port city gives the culture a very different feel from Riyadh.

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

It is a fascinating place to be right now as there is a lot of change, both positive and negative. So I'm glad I came, but I will be glad to leave.

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

Winter coats and alcohol.

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4. But don't forget your:

Swim and diving gear.

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

The bin Ladins by Steve Coll. The bin Ladin family is an institution here, and seeing the family dynamic beyond their most infamous son is a good way to learn about the area as a whole.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

The Royal Court moves from Riyadh to Jeddah for about four to five months a year, typically from before Ramadan to after hajj. During this time it can be nearly impossible to get hotel rooms.

Getting visas for family to visit can be a real pain.

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