The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia dominates the Arabian Peninsular in most ways. It’s land area dwarfs the other nations; it takes up the entire block of land from the borders with Iraq and Jordan in the north to it’s southern borders with Oman and Yemen over 1500 kms away. The Red Sea coast stretches for all of that distance, the Arabian Gulf coast for over 500kms from the north until it reaches the Qatar Peninsular. The total land area is over 2 million sq kms although more than one third of this area is taken up by the worlds largest sand desert, the Rub Al Khali or Empty Quarter. Other than the Empty Quarter and the Nafud, the large sand desert in the north most of the rest of the country is made up of scrub desert plains. The exception is in the west where the Hejaz mountain range parallels the west coast for a substantial part of its length.
Distances are large; Jeddah, the major west coast city is over 1000 kms away from Riyadh and this in turn is over 400 kms away from the major cities of the east coast.
The total population of Saudi Arabia is uncertain. Official estimates put the figure at 35 million of whom 24 million are Saudis and the rest expatriates of many varied nationalities but mainly from India, Pakistan, The Philippines and Egypt and there are large communities of these nationalities in each large city. The Saudis themselves are a desert peoples with long established trading and pilgrimage routes in the west and to a more limited extent in the east. The peoples of the central areas tend to have been less exposed to foreign peoples due to their isolation. In west and east the influx of peoples from other nations over many years has led to greater diversity of peoples within the population than is the case in the interior.
The population spread is based on three main urban areas, large regional towns (mostly area military/administrative centres and oasis towns) and smaller centres of population.
In population terms and geographically, due to the distances between them, there are three main distinct areas of population in Saudi Arabia. Jeddah on the west coast is the major port and commercial centre with a population of around 4.19 million; Riyadh in the central desert is the capital and seat of government and has a population of 4.2 million people; the cities of the east coast, Al khobar, Dammam and Dhahran are collectively known by the term Eastern Province and have a population of approx 1 million.
There are then the large regional towns with populations of 250,000 – 450,000 such as Buraidah, Hail and Tabuk in the north, Al Baha, Taif and Abha to the south and Qatif and Hofuf in the east. Other than this are the specially constructed petrochemical and industrial cities of Jubail in the east and Yanbu in the west, one at each end of the trans – Arabian oil pipeline. Each has a population of between 150 – 200,000 people.
Riyadh is the capital city. 50 years ago it was a mud walled town two or three days camel ride from the coast. Today it is a sprawling modern city with a skyline to rival many in the world. It is the centre of government, the ministries and since 1980 the embassies (which were moved from Jeddah). One third of the population are non Saudis.
Riyadh has all manner of modern facilities and all of the marks of a major city with goods from around the world in ultra modern shopping centres, international hotels, six lane carriageways, flyovers and underpasses and as with many modern cities it was build with the car in mind. It is not ordinarily a place where one walks and such is the pressure of traffic driving is approached with caution. In addition to the modern there are traditional souks selling most kinds of items and sections of the city of particular historical interest. More than any large city in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is the place where there is a sense of modern and traditional existing side by side.
The currency in Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Riyal (SR). There are SR 4.63 = £1.00 and SR 3.75 = $US 1.00. There are no controls on exchange of money in or out of Saudi Arabia. Time Zone Saudi Arabia is three hours ahead of GMT. Climate General the climate in Saudi Arabia is hot in the summer months of April to October (to 45 degrees) and mild in the winter (20 degrees). As the country is so large the climate does however vary across the regions. The west and east coast are subject to high humidity levels whilst Riyadh in the central desert, whilst experiencing similar temperatures has a less sapping dry heat. Conversely, in the winter months whilst Riyadh can experience daytime temperatures of 10 degrees and night time temperatures of below freezing, Jeddah may not fall below 20 degrees.
The western mountains, rising up to 3000 metres have a climate unlike the rest of the Kingdom. Summer is much more temperate in the mountains (and hence the popularity as summer resorts) and winter can sustain cold and foggy weather. Riyadh has rainfall in January to April, Jeddah in November and December.
Of all the gulf nations Saudi Arabia epitomises the meeting point of traditional Arabic/Islamic culture and the influence of life in a modern trading nation. Saudi Arabia is the least familiar of social environments for the expatriate to enter.
In Saudi Arabia alone of the states of the Arabian Peninsular women cannot drive. There is segregation of the sexes and restaurants have family sections where women, alone or not, must sit. There are separate sections for women on public transport (not the airlines). Dress codes apply and need to be adhered to. One of the fundamental ideas is to keep women and men separate except for family members. Unmarried men and women cannot cohabit under any circumstances.
This said, the above rules are more stringent for Muslim women who are required to wear a cloak and headdress at all times outside the home and cannot travel alone. For expatriates there is some flexibility; taxis can be used although women must sit in the back, and the dress code can mean wearing the cloak loosely with modest clothing. At the minimum the dress code is skirts below the knees, sleeves below the elbow and modest necklines. There is no problem for women wandering around the souks and shopping areas and being out with other women is preferable to travelling or walking alone. For men it is not acceptable to go bare-chested or in shorts.
These rules do not apply away from public places and amongst single sex groups.
The application of these rules also varies dependent on the social climate at any given time in Saudi Arabia and on which part of the country you are in. In Riyadh it is advisable to wear the cloak in the street and in Qassim region (north of Riyadh) and the rural areas a cloak, head dress and in very few cases a veil will be worn. In the coastal areas of Jeddah and the Eastern Province where expatriates and foreign influences have been around much longer dress codes and other regulations tend to be more flexible, the cloak is worn as an accessory and in some cases not at all.
Women are generally not barred from most of the activities undertaken by men, these are merely conducted separately. There have been real attempts by the Saudi Authorities to encourage women to engage in activities such as art, language and fitness with classes and centres in major towns. There are also expatriate clubs and societies as will as fitness and leisure centres for women in large hotels. Large multinational corporations arrange their own activities.
There are in reality few organised social activities, unlike other gulf states, there are no cinemas, theatres, live singing or entertaining. Entertainment is mainly home based or eating out in restaurants or hotels which offer a large range of cuisines from around the world. Large international hotels often offer some relaxation of regulations encountered almost everywhere else.
Exceptions to the above lack of entertainments are sports, mainly desert driving (wadi bashing) or water sports. Some of the best scuba diving can be found on the Red Sea coast and Jeddah has diving clubs. There is also a major water sports centre offering diving, windsurfing and waterskiing to the north of Jeddah. Children are well catered for with amusement parks in most cities and general play areas commonplace. The various nationalities of expatriates will have their own activities and clubs and the embassies or consulates sometimes have gatherings and functions.
Accommodation in the Kingdom is either provided by an employer or an allowance is given to allow accommodation to be chosen. The accommodation will be on site (owned by your employer and adjacent to your place of work), rented within the community or in a western style living complex (compound).
These compounds really only exist in Saudi Arabia, other gulf states tend not to require them. The compounds are enclosed purpose built western style living areas specifically for expatriates and they vary in size from compounds of a dozen homes up to the largest containing over 500 homes.
The larger complexes contain recreational and sports facilities, swimming pools (over 30 in the largest compound) , supermarkets and other shops, restaurants, health and social clubs and pre school nursery. The smallest may have a pool and children’s play area. There are a number of large compounds in Jeddah and Riyadh offering a lifestyle familiar to the expatriate.
Alcohol, pork products, religious items (except Islamic, no other religion is tolerated in any way), drugs, pornography (as interpreted) and firearms are all banned and officials are efficient and strict in enforcing regulations. Ignoring these will cause major difficulties for the individual concerned. Video tapes will often be confiscated for viewing and returned at a later date. Women entering Saudi, especially through Riyadh should arrive wearing modest clothing and carry a headscarf and be prepared for a wait in immigration. This is not sinister, just boring.
For couples with children, educational facilities in the Kingdom are varied. Expatriates cannot use the Saudi state schools and therefore all education is fee paying. Many but not all employers meet the cost of schooling or provide an allowance to offset the costs.
Schooling is available in each of the large cities certainly English and American schooling from pre school to age 16 and there are suggestions that a school in Riyadh will soon offer education to university entrance level. In Riyadh there are also French, Dutch, German, Japanese, Indian, Pakistani and Scandinavian schools as well as Manarat private schools in the main cities for non Arabic speaking children of Muslim parents from ages 4 to 17. Jeddah echoes this diversity. International schools are available in all main regional centres to ages 14 or 16 although choice is strictly limited.
English is widely spoken in the professional and business community. The telephone systems are first class, the postal services less so and slow. There are three English language newspapers and an English language TV channel but no dedicated national English language Radio station. Bottled water is recommended. Electricity runs on 110 or 220 volts. As with the rest of the gulf Saudi Arabia has little serious crime, petty opportunistic theft being perhaps, the exception
This information is selective. It provides background and useful details on aspects of the United Arab Emirates. It should not be considered the definitive source and further sources should be referred to for other specific information.
The Saudi Arabian economy is based on oil in a large way. The Kingdom produces between 8 – 10 million barrels of oil a day and oil revenue finances all sector of the economy. The economic base has been diversified to a degree into heavy industry, petrochemicals and agriculture however a large proportion of all activities are by-products of the oil industry or suppliers to it or very heavily subsidised. The reliance on oil does mean that Saudi Arabia, more than most other nations is subject to the direct economic influence and budgetary effect of rises and falls in the price of oil.
Oil has been the source of the remarkable achievements in growth and development of Saudi Arabia. In the last 40 years a modern infrastructure has been created for 17 million people. The country is unrecognisable from even 30 years ago. Major roadways link the main cities, electricity reaches almost all; major diseases once endemic have almost disappeared; good quality healthcare is free to all and both boys and girls at school and men and women in the universities are educated free of charge.
Due to its larger population Saudi Arabia is not as rich per head of population as Kuwait or the UAE. There is extreme wealth and little true poverty and for most Saudis the modernisation of their country has led to the consumer age. Products from around the world are available to them and most families have cars, TVs, fridges, washing machines and other similar items.