Jeddah, Saudi Arabia Report of what it's like to live there - 11/12/20

Personal Experiences from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 11/12/20


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

This was my second overseas experience. Previously we lived in England.

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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?

USA is home. The journey typically two flights for 17-18 total flying hours, usually with a 2-4 hour layover in Frankfurt.

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3. How long have you lived here?

We lived in Jeddah for 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?

Most expats live on compounds. Specific compounds catered to a western lifestyle and allowed for dress and leisure activities on the compound in a way typically expressed by westerners (bikini at the pool, tennis skirts on the court, short sleeves and shorts permissible, etc.). Typically English is the common language on these compounds and they are often located by the international schools. Compounds typically offer townhouse-style houses with 3-4 bedrooms and 2-4 bathrooms, with small single family homes and apartments on some compounds. There is typically an en-suite bedroom suitable for a live-in nanny/housekeeper in most homes. Apartments are typically spacious by western standards. Most homes have tile or marble floors, so rugs are advised. Commutes to international schools are typically short from the western compounds, (5-8 min drive or 5-15 min walk). Houses typically have room A/C units rather than centralized A/C. All western compounds seem to have a swimming pool, playgrounds, and community/leisure center. Many also offer training and sports instruction (tennis, racketball, etc.). Sierra Village has a preschool. Al Basateen Village has a kids indoor playroom. Most western compounds also have a small grocery store onsite, as well as hair & spa services.

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

The cost of groceries for us was very comparable to major cities in the U.S., but you need to be aware to by the middle-eastern produced Ritz crackers instead of the imported ones. Items noticeably more expensive were some frozen vegetables and breakfast cereals. Some things were more expensive and some things cheaper, but in the end our family grocery bill was similar to back home. Household supplies were also reasonably priced. Several regional diaper brands that were higher quality and cheaper than Pampers/Huggies.

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

Favorite breakfast cereals. kids preferred snacks like goldfish and fruit gummies. US-specific sauces and spices like seasoned salt and BBQ sauce.

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

A variety of North American and UK chain restaurants and fast food places. Prices are 1.5-3 times what you would pay in the chain's home country. Most restaurants have a play area for kids, which is nice.

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

Ants and cockroaches can be a problem, but are easily solved. Non-toxic solutions (like baking soda mixed with sugar and water or dish-soap water spray) are effective at treating minor insect problems before they become infestations.

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Daily Life:

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

We sent one time-sensitive item via DHL quite easily. We did not engage with the local post as we understood it was slow and not as reliable. We did ship things through my husband's employer from time to time, and received packages from abroad that way.

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

The typical rate was 30 SAR per hour on western compounds, but I understand that with the introduction of VAT that individuals are now requesting 35-40 SAR for hourly work. Discounted rates can be negotiated for full-time and/or live-in support. Other reports from people have indicated that nannies were only available if you could find one to transfer sponsors, but we found that we could purchase hourly time from someone else's household help. As such we utilized one individual during the day, and another when we needed evening or weekend support. It did take some coordination to find someone we were happy with, but neighbors were very helpful during this search and there are some online forums to consult, as well.

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

Most western compounds have sports and workout facilities included in the price, though instructor-led courses or sessions had an extra fee paid to the instructor. Booking of sport facilities is sometimes necessary.

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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?

Credit cards are widely accepted, except at some small local vendors. ATMs are available on compounds and are safe to use there.

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

As others have posted, the official religion of Saudi Arabia is Islam and public practice of other religions is prohibited. While formal churches are not available, there are meaningful ways to connect in English with others expats of similar beliefs.

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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?

Little to none. I know about ten words in Arabic and could accomplish just about everything I wanted. Some activities like buying a used car or shopping in old town markets or remote villages require some Arabic.

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

This may have somewhat to do with the employer and the amenities and support they are willing to provide that person, such as a driver or personal assistant. It is easy to find ramps and elevators for everyday shopping. Visiting other older sites could be tricky. Also, I get the impression that those with disabilities face some social challenges, though at work and on the western compounds there likely would be meaningful support. Most housing is not likely to be wheelchair friendly

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

There were security issues for use of taxis and ride share services while we were there; I believe this still is not advised. We did met someone who narrowly escaped a potential abduction with his family, so the threat was credible. Drivers' services are expensive. Best to buy or bring your own vehicle. Women can now drive, so that makes getting around a bit easier. While there is some public transportation, it is not advised for westerners to use it. Many western compounds organize mini-bus trips to local shopping and leisure activities.

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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?

The petrol/gasoline is different grade than used in western countries, so we received advice to buy locally. If you do bring a vehicle, expect to sell it in Saudi before you depart as the local fluids may compromise the vehicles ability to pass inspection in some places. Car jacking didn't seem to be an issue, but drivers can be aggressive there. Don't bring a car you care deeply about, and don't be surprised if you get some dents and dings. We made it through without anything but a few minor scratches due to good defensive driving. Having an AWD/4WD vehicle with high clearance is necessary if you want to go dessert camping, but we found it quite easy to do local and regional tourist trips without it. There are high road fatalities in Saudi; not many serious crashes but the ones there are can be really bad. So I recommend car seats for small children that can be used in extended rear facing position, at least until age 2.5 but research recommends until age 4.

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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?

You will be restricted to the internet providers available at your housing compound. If you do not like the vendor supplied at the compound, a 4G router was very affordable for us and allowed us to do normal movie streaming and home office activities.

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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?

Wifi calling via home carrier is useful (be sure to activate wifi calling before you leave your home country). Mobile phones require being finger printed to get a local number. Many utilized WhatsApp and other wifi calling options.

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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?

Yes, there are suitable veterinarian services available for pets, though we did not have any pets.

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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?

Expat spouses/partners were generally not allowed to work locally. Some exceptions are made for jobs at international schools. There are some volunteering opportunities, depending on your field of expertise. There are many spouses/partners that telecommute to jobs outside Saudi.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Opportunities to volunteer at women’s clubs and kids schools/activities if female. More opportunities to those who speak Arabic.

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

Women in public are required to dress covered to wrist and ankle. An abaya (long cloak) is recommended, particularly when in older, more traditional parts of town. Some places relaxed use of the abaya has become acceptable, but you should err in the direction of being more conservative unless observing it is appropriate to do otherwise. Women tend to dress more conservatively in the workplace, as well, particularly when there is mixed gender in offices. A head scarf/covering is recommended for more traditional parts of town and required in/at holy places. Suits are recommended for ministry and other important meetings. Most men do not wear shorts in public, though this is becoming more relaxed with younger generations. Certainly long jeans or trousers should be worn in older parts of town and in/at holy places.

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Health & Safety:

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

There is some underlying hostility from fringe groups toward westerners, particularly Americans and the French at the moment. This does not need to directly impact everyday life, but is something to be aware of and receive an updated briefing on when arriving.

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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?

Dust storms happen sometimes. Typically 2-3 times per year in Jeddah. Use of a dustmask or face covering and eye protection is recommended if you have to be outside during a sandstorm. There are a couple good local hospitals and medical evacuation was typically not necessary for anything urgent. Some specific health scans or treatments may require travel for treatment. Many cancer treatments may require care outside of Saudi.

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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?

Reasonable air quality for urban living, except during dust storms.

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

I have some food allergies and so carried medicine and an epipen with me, though never had to use them in Jeddah. Most allergy situations shouldn't pose any more problem in Jeddah than elsewhere. No problem with my pollen allergies while there.

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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)?

The sun is very hot and intense, and individuals may get symptoms similar to seasonal affective disorder if they don't make a point to get out and be social during the hot times. There are lots of indoor activities, and shaded pools are refreshing during these times of year.

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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?

Hot and extremely hot. Peak of winter is extremely pleasant, then it starts getting hot again.

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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 reputable British schools and an American school utilized by most westerners. A small French school that some friends spoke well of, and a small German school (though not recommended by the German-speaking families we knew there). There is also an English/Arabic bilingual school (The Nun Academy) that utilizes a cutting-edge Swedish educational model with Cambridge curriculum. The British International School of Jeddah (BISJ) is considered the top ranked international school in the area, and presents a more well-rounded curriculum and holistic approach (GCSE and IB for secondary). Jeddah Prep represents a traditional British curriculum. The American International School of Jeddah had a mediocre reputation for Elementary and questionable reputation for Secondary when we were there, but they since moved into a state of the art building and have a new and engaging director that supposedly has transformed the school.

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

The American School likely has the most experience with special needs considerations, but we also saw some strong individualized supports and accommodations offered at BISJ.

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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?

Partial-day preschools are available generally from Age 3-5, with only limited spots for age 2 only at BISJ. There were no full-day preschool options. Nursery/daycare for infants/toddlers of school employees is available, but it is not open for paid childcare. Sierra Village compound has a small English-speaking daycare. Suitable western daycare is virtually non-existent for kids under age 3. Those needing childcare for small children should plan ahead to identify nanny support.

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

Compounds and schools provide a variety of sports and activities for kids and students. My children enjoyed soccer, ballet and tennis at the compound, and also swimming, soccer, and ballet at school. Gymnastics and competitive sports are also common at international schools. There is a baseball league available at one of the compounds. For leisure activities, there are several indoor activity centers with mazes and trampolines, an ice skating rink, and some indoor playgrounds. Snorkel and sailing lessons are possible through Silver Sands, one of the western-access beaches. The British Embassy hosts an English-speaking infant/toddler/preschooler playgroup weekly.

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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 is a sizable expat community, though constricting in size in recent years due to Saudization where more jobs are being prioritized to Saudi citizens. There is strong morale amongst western expats that want it, and existing expats are very welcoming to newcomers.

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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?

Lots of BBQ and dinners amongst friends at the Western compounds. Western Embassies also often host a variety of events, many open to the public, including a few formal events.

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

This was a reasonably good place for us with small children. I think it is easier for families with Elementary age children. Those with older children sometimes found the situation limiting, others found it exciting.

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

It is easy to make friends with other expats (western, Arab, Asian, or African). Less easy to make friends with Saudis for a variety of reasons.

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

The Saudis view LGBT activity as illegal. The LGBT individuals we knew came for a particular temporary job and seemed to find meaning and things to appreciate about their time in Saudi.

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

Gender equality is a very apparent disparity here, though this seemed worse in Riyadh than Jeddah. Westerners who came to terms with this seemed to find their time in Jeddah more pleasant. There is open discrimination against those who are black or asian. White males are conversely held up and esteemed. Everyone wants to be friends with little blonde-headed, light-eyed kids, and old ladies will try to rub the heads of these kids, for example, when shopping.

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

We loved our day trips to the Western beach clubs north of town and road trips to the mountains south of Jeddah. Lots of strong friendships from families across the globe on our compound, and fun social gatherings there. We really loved the educational approach of BISJ. The flower festival in Yanbu was also worth the visit. The Club-Med sized pool at our compound was also a highlight of many days and we got world-class tennis lessons from a former Olympic athlete/coach at very reasonable prices. Nanny/housekeeping costs were less than half what we would pay in any major US city. Our family felt safe an happy on the Western compounds and we really enjoyed getting to explore Old Jeddah and get to know the history and culture of Jeddah/Saudi.

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

Old Jeddah's architecture tour; Shipwreck beach south of Jeddah; Driving in the dessert and seeing herds of camels and sheep; Wild Baboons and hidden restored ancient towns in the Baha mountains south of Jeddah; Snorkeling and beach days at the Red Sea.

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

There are now many western style indoor shopping centers in Jeddah. Old Jeddah offers a variety of interesting items unique to this region. We found rugs were particularly affordable. Several unique fabric patterns and fashion styles. Yemeni-made jewelry is quite interesting.

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

Good international schools, relative ease in commerce, fun adventures in and around Jeddah, particularly for those who like the outdoors, strong international expat community, ease of compound life.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Jeddah has a lot of rich experiences to offer. Don't underestimate it.

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

Yes, we certainly made the right decision to go there, and definitely would look to go back if a suitable job presented.

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

Winter coat and ski gear (unless you plan to fly up to Europe for ski trips).

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4. But don't forget your:

Snorkel and diving gear, swimsuits, and camping 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?

TV Show: Anthony Bourdain did a segment on food in Jeddah.
Movie: Wadjda
Movie: Barakah meets Barakah (available on Netflix)
Movie: Queen of the Dessert (Nicole Kidman)
Movie: The Kingdom (Tom Hanks), though not fully accurate and a little cheesy
Movie: Lawrence of Arabia
TV Series: The Last Post (British BBC, based in Aden, Yemen, but has some cultural context for the region that is beneficial to understand).
Book: The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa'ud (banned within the country, so pick up a copy before you arrive)
Book: Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia
Book: A Year Under Sharia Law: Memoir of an American Couple Living and Working in Saudi Arabia (haven't read this yet, but have heard good things about it).

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