Jeddah, Saudi Arabia Report of what it's like to live there - 10/08/19

Personal Experiences from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 10/08/19


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

Jeddah was my third expat experience. My previous two cities were Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Cairo, Egypt.

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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?

Our home city is Washington, DC. Due to Fly America rules, we had to fly through Europe, usually on Lufthansa/United via Frankfurt. The trip would take roughly a day. Traveling to Saudi is about the same as traveling anywhere, though it's made more difficult because of the visa requirements. Also, there are rules about who can fly into Jeddah during the hajj season - basically, unless you can prove that you live in Jeddah, you are not allowed to fly there during hajj without a hajj visa. And yeah, they definitely stop people at Frankfurt trying to board the plane.

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3. How long have you lived here?

We lived in Jeddah for two and a half 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?

The vast majority of expats live on compounds, though of course non-compound apartments and single-family homes exist. If you're a Westerner, or otherwise non-Muslim, you will definitely want to stick to a compound, most of which are set up similarly to small vacation resorts, complete with pools, restaurants, shops, children's activities, playgrounds, tennis courts, bowling alleys, shuttles to popular shopping destinations, etc. Some compounds have more amenities than others. All usually offer apartments or houses, and serve a very international community. They are also very safe; we let our elementary-school son run/bike around the compound freely. Everyone knows everyone, so there's elements of living in a fishbowl, but it's a pretty big and varied fishbowl.

However, that was before the new American consulate location opened. My understanding is that all new incoming US diplomats are going to be required to live in the new compound space, where the only options are apartments with very small windows. There is no store, no children's activities, no restaurant, no bowling, only one pool that isn't safe for small children, no playground or sports areas, and no regular shopping vans unless the CLO arranges it.

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

Everything is available in Jeddah, including a wide variety of both local and international items. There were very, very few things I could not find in the local grocery stores - and I'm a huge baker and cook. If I can't find it, you probably didn't want to use it anyway. The prices were comparable to the US - slightly higher because of being imported, but nothing unreasonable. Except for the avocados, those were $10/each.

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

Aluminum foil and plastic wrap; those are always terrible outside of the US! Sunscreen and bug spray are very expensive, when you can find them.

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

Most restaurants will do take-away without much trouble. Food delivery is limited, because Jeddah doesn't use normal street addresses; most places that deliver will ask for you to send them a pin for your location, and then use a combination of the pindrop and the Force to find you. Sometimes your pizza arrives mostly warm.

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

Ants are everywhere and do not respond to typical ant traps.

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Daily Life:

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

We used the DPO. Local post is mostly dependent on independent couriers.

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

Household help is plentiful; expect to pay roughly US$8-10/hour for nannies, housekeepers, and the like.

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

There are a number of gyms in the community, including Gold's Gym and Curves for Women. I don't know the prices.

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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?

Yes, we used our credit card extensively and never had a problem. There are ATMS but I never used one.

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

Saudi Arabia does not allow any religious services for anything other than Islam.

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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?

I speak about five words of Arabic; I did fine. Jeddah is a hugely cosmopolitan city with lots of expats from all over the world; also, many Saudis receive higher education in the US, Canada, or the UK, so their English is excellent. There are plenty of tutors on the economy and in the compounds if you want to learn Arabic.

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

Yes, because ramps aren't everywhere and it could be difficult to get around.

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

We were not allowed to use local transportation.

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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?

Most people drive SUVs. Gas is super cheap.

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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?

We had high-speed internet and never had a problem. Sometimes it went out but was back in about 20 minutes. It was installed within a week of arrival. Highly recommend getting a good VPN before arriving; Saudi has some of the toughest rules on internet use and it will be impossible to even visit VPN sites once you arrive.

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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?

We used a local provider.

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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?

We brought our cat. Be aware that it is incredibly difficult to get an animal into Saudi; in addition to the USDA certification, you also need State Department accreditation and a stamp from the Saudi embassy in DC. I did this in four days only because I burst into tears at the State Department accreditation offices. I don't recommend doing it in less than a week.

There are plenty of vets in Jeddah as long as you want basic stuff. I had no trouble getting regular vaccinations. There was no quarantine for our cat. Be aware that there are a lot of feral cats around the city; some are straight up feral, most are friendly neighborhood cats. Our cat actually made a couple of friends and fre-nemies while we were there. People also do not like dogs, which are considered working animals and not pets. (The zoo in Taif has dogs in a cage as part of their exhibits.)

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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 didn't work, so I don't know. Most spouses didn't work, or tried alternative work arrangements.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are a couple of women's groups who volunteer.

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

Formal-ish. Outside of the American/British schools and the consulate, women were always required to wear an abaya, so you could wear whatever you wanted under that. Most local men wore thobes as a general rule, as suits got too hot.

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Health & Safety:

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

Personally, we felt that the security we received was more than necessary.

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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?

The medical care is pretty good, if you can find a provider.

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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?

The air wasn't the best quality, but I've yet to be at a post where someone hasn't complained about the air quality, so whatever. None of us have asthma; we were fine.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Restaurants aren't very good about avoiding allergens, even when warned. I know of one case where a patron purchased cupcakes, having told the cupcake bakery not to include any nut products. Turns out they got peanut-butter frosting on one of the cupcakes, and a child had a severe allergic reaction. I have no idea if any action was taken toward the bakery, not that it would have gone anywhere.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Considering the cultural practice that gives women unequal rights (women can't do anything without their male guardians' permission, including accessing medical assistance, opening a bank account, getting a job, or traveling), yes, there are mental health issues.

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

In the summertime, Jeddah is both extremely hot, and in a fun twist, extremely humid. Most people leave for the summer months. There was a joke that people would pick up their kids from school and head straight to the airport. This joke was not far from wrong. Winter is fantastic, beautiful and balmy and not hot in the slightest. Sometimes you even want a pair of jeans. Not because you can't show your ankles without getting arrested, but because it's actually a little on the cool side.

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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 many international schools. Most expats send their kids to the American International School (AISJ), the British School (CONTI or BISJ), or Jeddah Prep, which uses the UK system. We sent our oldest to AISJ. The first two years (1st and 2nd grade) were fantastic, and we were extremely pleased with the education our son received as well as the teaching staff. We had a less than stellar experience with the third year, mostly because the school tried to move campuses and there were serious issues with the organization of the move (which should no longer be an issue).

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

Our son was in learning support all three years. We had a wonderful experience with learning support the first two years. We found the LS staff to be kind and thoughtful, and very, very thorough. They were also very attentive to our son and his needs, and strove to do the best they could for not only him, but every other student.

The third year, as said above, was terrible in our opinion. This was partially due to the move and a massive influx of LS students that year and the LS team was stretched thinner than they should have been, which meant services were at times patchy, and communication became much more infrequent, if it existed at all. We also felt like our son's LS assistance wasn't meeting his needs, or helping him keep up with his peers. Despite numerous attempts to discuss this with staff, we felt shut down and disregarded, so we gave up bothering after a while.

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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?

Preschools are available, and many of them are in English. The expense varies. We used a compound preschool which was very good and very inexpensive, and only available to those living on the compound.

US diplomats are allowed to use the day-care facilities at AISJ. Their facilities are very good, very well-staffed, and the kids are very happy. It tends to be more expensive, and the hours aren't as flexible since their primary function is to serve the teachers at the school and not the public.

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

There are lots of activities for kids, including sports classes in English. Parkour, soccer, gymnastics, taekwondo, etc, are all available, though they tend to be somewhat expensive. Every mall has a playspace/arcade, and some malls also have carnival rides, trampoline parks, bowling alleys, softplays, ice skating rinks, etc.

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Expat Life:

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

The expat community is fairly large, especially once you look beyond the diplomats. Lots of expats are there with banks, construction companies, and international businesses. The morale is mostly good; many expats live in Jeddah for years and years before moving away, but there's also a bit of stress because (a) Jeddah and (b) no one knows if they're going to be have to leave immediately or not.

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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?

There is a British International Women's Group that is very active. The British Counsel runs a lot of activities that are open to the public or for those in the know.

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

It's a great post for little kids; our boys were incredibly happy there because they had so much freedom to run around on the compound and there were so many things to do. It was a lot harder for their mom (see above, mental health). If you're a family who likes to go out and DO things... prepare to spend a lot of money doing them, or be bored. If you're a family who likes to spend a lot of time together at home - this is the place for you.

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


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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?

I met maybe three Saudis the entire time we were there. They don't tend to mix with expats.

That said: it's a pretty international community, and my boys (who are both POC), were very happy and felt very comfortable. They both still miss Jeddah and want to go back.

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

Yes, I feel there are definitely issues with gender equality.

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

My favorite memory of Jeddah is actually flying into the country; not because we were flying in, but because there were always people on the flight who were going on umrah or hajj. You always knew who they were because they'd go change into their towels or white abayas either shortly before or during the flight. They were also so happy and excited to be there, and their excitement was catching. One flight, the guys were so thrilled that they were going up and down the aisles, happily singing songs and getting everyone to sing with them. And another, I was surrounded by a huge British family, maybe a dozen people of all ages, who went on umrah every year. Mixed in the group were a couple singletons who were on their first umrah. And the family spent most of the flight giving the newbies all their hints and tricks and advice, and it was just a joy to listen in. You couldn't help but feel their enthusiasm and love.

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

I thought it was great fun when Saudi finally let me as a woman drive, and watch all the guys stare in shock.

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

No. It is not a shopping post.

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

You get to spend a lot of time assessing your priorities. You know, what you intend to do first when you leave.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

How much the transportation thing was going to bug me. How much the abaya thing was NOT going to bug me.

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

Yes. And yeah, I know, it sounds like I wasn't happy. I wasn't, but my boys loved it. It was wonderful for them. And I'm glad I went and had the experience of living there. That said, I wouldn't agree to spend the third year.I would much rather have left after two and being only mildly irritated instead of full-out exasperated. Plus we could have avoided that disastrous third year at the school.

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

Cold weather clothes. Expectation that women are treated equally.

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4. But don't forget your:

Sense of humor. Patience. Stress relief.

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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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