Jeddah, Saudi Arabia Report of what it's like to live there - 10/30/22
Personal Experiences from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Other than study abroad in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, yes.
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?
Dallas, Texas. Can do one stop on Lufthansa in Frankfurt or Turkish (now) in Istanbul. It can be difficult to get a visa other than for residence, but that is getting easier. There are few cheap flights, however, even for relatively short distances.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Teaching at an international school.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The school I worked at owned villas (apartment buildings) directly across the street, so no commute. For professional employees, these were quite nice, a mix of studios, one-bedrooms, and larger apartments for families, with washers and dryers. Apartments were quite large, but didn't include certain amenities I'm used to like a microwave, dishwasher, or television.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Pretty much anything that wasn't illegal (pork, alcohol) was easily available, although if you were looking for a specific brand, you sometimes had to look around multiple stores, and they might run out of stock and not re-stock for months or ever. Prices for local processed goods were much cheaper than home; imported goods were typically more expensive but not unreasonable considering the distance. Veggie selection could be hit and miss; "local" (often imported from Egypt) vegetables tended to be affordable, but weren't exactly pretty. Imported veggies were available but could be very expensive ($20 for baby spinach, for instance).
Household supplies were readily available and local products tended to be much cheaper, though somewhat lower quality. You couldn't always find American brands but usually an equivalent quality European brand would be available.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing that wasn't perishable or illegal.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Pretty much any chain restaurant in the US is available. Prices were typically more expensive than home but less than double. You could get delivered on HungerStation or other apps. Lots of great local options, including shawarma, more full-service regional food (from pretty much every country in the area), and many "adventurous" options for those with the stomach and the curiosity. Sometimes the particular chains available was odd, for instance Hardee's was quite popular but there were no Wendy's, Taco Bell, or Jack in the Box.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Think a couple of roaches but nothing worse than home.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I shipped things to my work. Amazon/Souq usually found it, but I didn't risk anything else. I once went to pick up a package from the post office and they could not find it, although it had been 2+ weeks since they had received it (I had mistakenly expected home delivery). I would not use the local postal service.
The US Consulate would mail mail-in ballots in the diplomatic pouch. Anything else you could arrange through DHL or have a friend who was going home take for you.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Maids, nannies, and drivers are widely available and affordable, but I never attempted to hire one.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Several US-style and quality gyms. Arena Fitness probably the largest. Prices are much more expensive than the US (no Planet Fitness or the equivalent offering a low monthly rate). There are some great expat personal trainers in Jeddah, although rates are at least as expensive, if not more expensive, than in the US.
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 mostly accepted, except by smaller vendors and restaurants. ATMs are very common and safe, although some did not have an English option.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
No public non-Islamic services are held. There may be private groups and/or groups organized by diplomatic missions for other religions, but anything other than at a consulate would be highly illegal and I am not religious enough to risk that. There may be English-language Islamic services, but I wasn't aware of any.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It would be helpful to at least know numbers and directions to give to drivers, and some pleasantries go a long way. I speak very little Arabic, and apart from occasional mixups on deliveries, didn't really seem to notice any issues. Most customer service personnel speak at least some English (most are not local and also don't speak Arabic very well), although complex conversations may be too difficult. Local classes and tutors are definitely available but I didn't really look into it.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would depend on where one lived and worked, but in general, yes. Very little, if any, thought is put into accessibility in any buildings or streets. You might be able to arrange accessible housing and an accessible workspace, but don't expect to shop very much.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The Haramain high-speed train is very safe and reliable. There were SAPTCO buses providing some degree of public transportation, both intra-city and inter-city, but all of the info on them was in Arabic and I believe any bus passing through Medina or Mecca is off-limits to non-Muslims. There was no other local public transport that I knew of.
Taxis are plentiful and affordable (negotiate price before entry, and knowing Arabic numbers helps), but typically are smaller sedans which can be harder for larger people or parties, older cars of dubious repair, and often had drivers who, to be blunt, smelt bad. They were okay in a pinch, like when your data wasn't connecting to Uber or there were no cars available, but Uber is much better. Much nicer cars, and far cheaper than in the US.
Always be careful in public spaces, including transportation, that you are not speaking about any sensitive issues. Many drivers understand more English than they let on, and given that there are relatively few foreigners in the city, I had multiple drivers who remembered me from past rides.
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 never had a car and didn't feel like one was necessary. Uber was less than 30 SAR/$10 USD round trip to stores and malls, and we had a shuttle twice a week for groceries. Rentals were very cheap if you needed one for an occasional day/weekend trip. The terrain is flat, but streets aren't always in great repair, and the dust can be rough on them, so if one wants to buy a car, I would recommend buying local rather than wearing down a car from home. I believe pickup trucks are illegal for civilians, but SUVs are allowed if I'm not mistaken, and I would recommend high clearance when possible.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. It was installed when I got there as the buildings were owned and operated by my employer. Speeds were acceptable, and one could use a VPN easily to avoid the government filter.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I kept my phone from home, but swapped for a local SIM. I used Mobily and never had any issues; STC is also very reliable. Choose the one that's closest to your home, because you may need to go to the shop to change plan details or to pay for minutes/GB.
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?
Not sure. It was quite rare to see pets outside expat compounds.
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?
At my school, either both spouses were employed by the school and had arrived as a package deal, or else didn't work. I believe it would be quite difficult for accompanying spouses to find a job on the local labor market, but they may have some success if qualified to teach applying to schools. Salary scales for American teachers were competitive with the US: I got about what I had received, after tax, at my previous job, but had no housing payment, although the somewhat increased cost of living and (especially) the cost of traveling more than I had at home ate up a lot of the savings. Saudi-citizen teachers made about a third as much as Americans did; third country nationals made somewhat in-between, with Egyptians, Syrians, and Sudanese closer to the Saudi end of the scale and Lebanese, Jordanians, and South Africans closer to the US end of the scale.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
While I'm sure there are a lot of opportunities, it wasn't something I explored.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
At my school, non-Saudi teachers wore business casual: polo or button-down shirt (polos were relatively rare), slacks, and dress shoes. I believe female teachers wore professional clothing, with long skirts/dresses below the calf (I don't believe they were allowed to wear pants to work, but could be mistaken), and an abaya when outside.
The only thing I could think of where nicer attire would be required was the Marine Corps Ball; I believe a dark suit was appropriate, but didn't attend. A suit would probably be appropriate if invited to any events by locals, although that was, in my experience, very rare.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
None; I've never felt safer anywhere I lived.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Heat-related illnesses could be an issue, especially at peak summer. Available medical care was usually decent, with foreign-trained doctors who spoke English, although access was much different. To renew my ADHD medicine, I went to the psychiatry department of one of the larger hospitals (Erfan and Bagedo), took a number and waited for my turn. The doctors often attempted to encourage me not to take a stimulant, but when I insisted always wrote me a prescription. Concerta was usually but not always available, and sometimes I had to go to multiple hospital pharmacies to find it (Soliman Fakeeh and the International Medical Centre were often better stocked than Erfan, but all three were decent).
I think one likely *could* receive treatment for any medical condition in Jeddah, but if one has evacuation insurance heading to London or the US might be a better option to guarantee great care with limited communication barriers.
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?
There was visible dust in the air perhaps once a month, which could be quite high, and this likely caused relatively high allergy symptoms, but I never noticed a major impact on health. The air quality was better after rains, which happened quite frequently the year I lived there but which in general aren't that common.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I would be very wary about eating anything not pre-packaged or prepared in one's own home if one has food allergies. Allergens were almost never listed and very little concern seemed to be placed into making sure food didn't cross-contaminate. A colleague had a wheat allergy and struggled to find equivalent products to what is available at home (there was one brand of gluten-free pasta, and that was about it).
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
The school I taught at was particularly stressful, and occasionally cultural differences would be very frustrating, but nothing that particularly applied to Jeddah specifically.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It varied seasonably. Late May to mid-September are uncomfortably hot and humid (above 40C/104F most days). Late September to around early November it gets less humid, although it is still relatively warm. November to March are very nice--highs usually around 75F/25C, sometimes a breeze in the evening making you want jeans or a sweater. April to early May the temperature starts getting warmer, although still not very humid yet.
Rain is infrequent but when it happens shuts the city down as there's little drainage. It rained 10+ times the year I was there, but that was highly unusual.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are a few true international schools. The British International School of Jeddah (BISJ, sometimes called "Conti") was excellent. It had exceptional facilities, especially for sport, the teachers I met were all highly qualified, and the (few) students I met from there were well-adjusted and intelligent. I heard fewer good things about the American school, especially from the staff, but it seemed at least adequate. Jeddah Prep and Grammar also had a good reputation.
I would not recommend any other school, regardless of what curriculum they offer/claim to offer, or whether they have "International" in their name. In my opinion, they are overwhelmingly local, gender-segregated, and have a heavy emphasis on rote memorization and virtually no discipline processes in the case of disruptive students. If coming to teach in one of these schools, be wary about sending your own children to them.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
The international schools I listed above all tend to have some services for special educational needs children, although children with profound disabilities may struggle to find school places and the quality of teaching may not be as high as a competently-managed IEP/504 in the United States.
The local "international" schools will have virtually no support.
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?
Yes, they're available, but relatively expensive and have limited hours, from what I've heard. I had no personal experience. Most schools do not provide before- or after-school care, although some may have clubs or sports offered.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, there are a lot of football programs, and many children practice other sports as well. I would look to book through the international schools where possible.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community was very large. You had a large diplomatic community, very large number of expat teachers, as well as professionals in almost any other line of work. Morale tended to be highly individual; those with functional workplaces and a solid friend/support network tended to love it, and many stayed for years, whereas those with less functional workplaces and/or less well-developed social networks tended to dislike their lives more.
Morale at the school I worked at was quite low. Morale at the BISJ was quite high. YMMV.
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 opportunities. I frequently socialized both with the other western hires as well as local hire teachers at my school, including game nights, birthday parties, going out to eat. I made friends with mutual friends of colleagues as well for parties and events.
I joined the rugby club, and met a lot of great people and had a good time. There are other sporting clubs available as well. I met a ton of people diving at La Plage (almost every Friday), and definitely recommend getting SCUBA licensed as there are few cheaper and easier places to do it while working in a large city.
The HummingTree community had a lot of great events, and there were always other events going on Meetup or InterNations.
The weekly dinners at the Italian consulate and the bi-weekly happy hours at the American consulate were great places to meet people, let your hair down, and have a drink or two in a completely legal atmosphere.
Aside from the male teachers and relatively few locals on the rugby club, I believe I met one Saudi socially. I was never quite sure how she was able to participate in many social events, as many consulates and western-style venues have a strict no-Saudis policy to avoid any potential issues with the government.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
For singles, it's not terrible. There are some mixed events where one can meet single expats (although I'd say the ratio of western expats was definitely male-skewed). Tinder wasn't terrible; local women often didn't put real pictures up and rarely ever wanted to meet, but there were lots of expats on there, especially Filipinas, who were well-educated and friendly. Dating could occasionally be hard as some women have curfews and/or strict no-visitor policies, and those working for local companies had to make sure not to violate any company policies and/or local sensibilities.
For couples and families, I think it was great. There was lots to do, from dining out to shopping to events (the regime's panem et circenses, ranging from bringing in Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo for soccer, to concerts by Mariah Carey and Enrique Iglesias). It's a very safe place to live, and the international schools offer a good education. It could be somewhat of a challenge to raise your children with western cultural values when they don't see that around in public, however.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
I found it relatively easy to make friends with the Saudi men who taught in my school, although the friendships were rather superficial (complaining about work, talking about weekend plans, talking about/watching soccer). Don't speak about money around them, as you almost certainly make more than them.
I found anti-Queer prejudice is rampant. Casual anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment are also rampant (we were required to pretend like Israel does not exist and that the entire area is Palestine, even in history/social studies classes), and if one were Jewish, I wouldn't tell people that. No one is likely to dig in and try to find your secret religion, but it could be uncomfortable both socially and potentially legally.
Atheism is illegal and highly-stigmatized. If you're an atheist, just tell people you're a Christian if they ask (locals do ask, even though they know the answer) and say you're not particularly observant.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No. I'm bi, and told no one. I met one person who was openly gay (to me at least), and said they were trying to get out. Gay sex is highly, highly illegal, although due to the strict gender segregation, two men or two women walking down the street holding hands actually wouldn't raise any eyebrows at all as long as there was no other PDA, and having same-gender friends over to socialize wouldn't cause any issues, but if one does try anything beyond that, be very discreet, and make sure all doors, blinds and windows are very, very closed and locked.
Homophobia from non-western people--even those you think of as otherwise very progressive and modern--is very common and socially acceptable.
Definitely would not recommend using any dating apps, as there's a high likelihood of security agents using them to entrap gay people.
You can probably be open with other, progressive western employees if you work for a western employer, but to be honest, unless you're comfortable with celibacy and the idea that even flirting could get you in very serious legal trouble, I'd highly recommend not coming here.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a high degree of colorism/racism here. Most jobs are assigned based on racial/national hierarchies, where westerners (especially Euro-descended ones) are in most professional positions, Filipinos in most technical positions, and South and Southeast Asians in most menial positions. Saudis tend to be in "executive" positions (although many do little work), or to be inserted into the hierarchy depending on Saudization quotas, but almost never in positions of actual responsibility or positions where they'd have to do any physical/menial work. Persons of South Asian and African ancestry may face considerable prejudice.
Gender equality is improving but still terrible. The hard "men" and "family" (all-female or mixed-gender groups) division in most public spaces was visibly starting to decline when I was there, women were increasingly being integrated into the workforce (including customer service roles where they interacted with men), and women could drive, but the guardianship system was still in place while I was there. Women were typically paid less for the same positions.
See above for anti-Semitism, anti-atheism, and other prejudice.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Jeddah is very well located and it's easy, although not very cheap, to travel around. The highlight was definitely going to al-Ula for the Yanni concert during the Winter at Tantora festival in 2019. We saw a lot of very pretty countryside, especially driving through the sleet, and after having to detour as the main road was flooded out around 30km from the venue. Once we made it, the concert itself and dinner were fantastic, and our AirBnB host managed to talk us in to the Mada'in Salah (Hegra) ruins despite us having missed our tour the previous day due to the road conditions. It was incredible to be there with almost no one else on-site but definitely worth a visit even with more tourists there.
The private beaches at Obhur have great reefs right offshore, and there are boat trips to even better snorkel/dive spots frequently. Yanbu is also supposed to have great diving.
There are other cool local spots, like Ta'if, and Riyadh/Dariyah are nice for a weekend.
Istanbul is a great place for weekend trips, as is Amman (and/or Petra). Spent my winter break in Egypt and that was lovely.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Definitely recommend a guided tour of the Old Town, and to try random food places. The local fool-wa-tameez place and the Bukhari chicken stand in my neighborhood both became regular stops for delicious and super affordable food (you could easily feed a family on fool-wa-tameez for less than $5).
Al-Ula is worth at least a weekend of your time before you leave, although I don't know how "hidden" it is anymore.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really. You can buy almost anything you can get at home in Jeddah, including designer fashion (usually marked up). The souqs and markets had some lovely fabrics and dresses for women (both abayas as well as the garment under), but nothing particularly unique. Jeddah has great public art, but I saw little art to purchase, and almost nothing unique.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The biggest advantage is being right next to the Red Sea. There are few large cities with this easy access to calm waters with beautiful reefs. You also meet people from all over the world and can experience Arab culture in a place that's not as much of a culture shock as other posts might be. At times one can scarcely tell, except for the thobes and abayas, that one isn't in the States. It's also in a great geographic location for exploring the Middle East, North and East Africa, or Europe.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How dysfunctional the school I was heading to was. There was no principal, only a business manager whose main priority, understandably, was keeping the parents happy. I expected Arab children to be well-behaved and their parents to be, if anything, overly strict, but the opposite was true. Saudi parents, at least the upper-middle and upper classes, are some of the most indulgent parents in the world, and any teacher coming to teach in an "international" school (one that's run by Saudis or other Arabs and whose student body is mostly Arab) should be prepared to use very authoritative/authoritarian classroom management with little outside support, and to use only rote learning with little critical thought encouraged.
Other than that, though, I wish I'd known how relatively expensive traveling and buying frozen/processed food or eating out would be, as I didn't net anywhere near as much savings as I'd expected due to this.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I wouldn't come back to teach at the school I was at or any similar "international" school if you paid me six figures. But I would have absolutely been willing to stay or come back to teach at the British school, a similar international school, or a well-functioning foreign/western-run non-school employer.
However, I don't think I'd be willing to move here, unless I had no choice, given the regime's murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It occurred while I was there and it was legitimately scary, as the "unwritten rules" that Americans were largely above the law, as long as you didn't complain too loudly and didn't do anything illegal at home, no longer seemed as secure. That uncertainty, coupled with the feelings of contributing to an immoral system, would make me highly unlikely to move back (although that high horse could very well get lowered depending on my financial need).
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectations of punctuality (stuff moves on a different timeframe over there).
4. But don't forget your:
Sunglasses, snorkel, and wetsuit.
Winter clothing (it's rarely cold enough to need more than a sweater in Jeddah, but if you travel, it will feel even colder due to the warm climate you're coming from).
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Kingdom by Robert Lacey is a great discussion of the origins of the country, although now a little dated (banned in the country, but they won't check your luggage, or if they do, they won't speak English). I haven't read the more modern update Inside the Kingdom.
When in the Arab World by Rana Nejem had a lot of great advice.
On Saudi Arabia by Karen House is a great resource for understanding the history and culture.
Cradle of Islam by Mai Yamani has a lot of great info on the history and culture of Jeddah and the Hijaz, and how it is different from and interacts with mainstream Saudi culture (the culture imposed by the Najdis when the Saud family took over the Hijaz).
The Bro Code of Saudi Arabia was entertaining, although I didn't interact enough with adult Saudis to know how accurate the observations were in general.