Once a small oasis known for its palm trees and dates, Riyadh has since morphed into a modern metropolis with skyscrapers that emerge from the desert like giant sandcastles. Now, expats moving to Riyadh mainly relocate there to advance their careers and earn lucrative salaries in Saudi Arabia's commercial hub.
Living in Riyadh as an expat
Foreigners make up almost half of the city’s population, which can be a reassuring factor for those who are wary of its strict Islamic laws. But expats are bound to experience some culture shock in Riyadh.
The city is one of Saudi Arabia’s most conservative, and the daily rhythm of life is punctuated by the call to prayer five times a day. New arrivals often struggle to adjust to a restrictive social environment where alcohol is banned.
Most Western expats live in residential compounds in the northern and eastern suburbs of Riyadh. In some of them, life is more liberal than the general situation might suggest. Men and women socialise more freely in these self-contained developments, which have all the modern amenities expats might need, including shops, gyms, tennis courts and schools.
Cost of living in Riyadh
The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is generally on par with other destinations in the Middle East. Riyadh is the most expensive city in the Kingdom as indicated by its Mercer's 2023 Cost of Living Survey ranking which placed it at 85th out of 227 cities evaluated. The cost of living in Riyadh is much lower than Jeddah and Abu Dhabi, but more expensive than Doha.
Fortunately, many expats move to the Kingdom on lucrative relocation packages with allowances for housing, transport, medical insurance and their children's education. Expats who have these costs covered by their employers usually find living expenses in Saudi Arabia to be reasonable and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.
Families and children in Riyadh
With local public schools being an unappealing prospect due to language and culture gaps, most expats opt to send their children to one of Riyadh's international schools.
There are numerous public and private healthcare facilities in Riyadh. Although most expats, who are required to have private health insurance anyway, generally favour private hospitals, Saudi Arabia's public healthcare facilities are also considered excellent.
Safety in Riyadh
With its strict Sharia laws, there isn’t much crime in Riyadh. Despite some concerns over the threat of terrorism, security around Western compounds is tight and if expats follow their respective governments’ travel advisories, they should be safe.
The biggest risk for expats is driving in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has a poor road safety record, and erratic driving and high speeds are the norm. There is currently little in the way of public transport, which is largely limited to a bus service rarely used by expats. An integrated bus and metro system is scheduled to start operating in the coming year, but as it stands, most expats use taxis and their own vehicles.
Climate in Riyadh
The climate is a challenging factor; summer temperatures can skyrocket to more than 122°F (50°C) and the dry winds that blow through the city are often accompanied by a haze of sand. Winters in Riyadh are mild, with average temperatures around 64°F (18°C). The city experiences occasional dust storms and sandstorms.
Despite its glitzy malls and futuristic architecture, Riyadh is very much a traditional Arab city. If the ancient mosques dotting its tree-lined highways aren’t enough of a reminder, the strict adherence to Islamic law will be. Moving to Riyadh can be a challenging experience for some, but one that can be not only financially rewarding, but also culturally enriching for expats who approach it with an open mind.