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What is it like to live in Saudi Arabia: no public parties, language, and grand architecture


What is it like to live in Saudi Arabia: no public parties, language, and grand architecture

Lyndsay Cavanagh, @wanderlynds

I am 34 years old. I am originally from Southern California but grew up in Texas. I worked as an analyst in the oil and gas industry for eight and a half years, before moving to Saudi Arabia for my husband's job. Now I raise my son full time.

My husband moved first, in October of 2019. My son and I did not join him until December 2019. We have not lived in the country very long, but already managed a number of special experiences. My husband's job gives him the opportunity to take assignments abroad. It has been our passion to see the world and to live in as many countries as possible. We lived in Canada for two years, before moving back to Houston, where we lived another two years before my husband was offered the role in KSA. We knew we could not pass up an opportunity to live somewhere as unique as The Middle East.

About first impression

A very kind, young woman in the bathroom of the Dammam Airport was greeting my first impression of Saudi Arabia. She asked me a few questions and genuinely wished me a happy life in Saudi Arabia. It was such a warm welcome that has resonated with me ever since.

About difficulties

The hardest part about moving to Saudi Arabia was all of the medical exams and paperwork we needed in order to gain visas. Once we arrived to KSA, the hardest part about moving was the time difference, especially with an infant. It took us about a week to adjust. After that, we needed to figure out how my husband could get a driver's license and for us to get a family vehicle. We spent a lot of that first month depending on rides from my husband's coworkers.

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About differences

Much of the Saudi architecture is so grand. Even small coffee shops, but a multitude of other buildings too. I am constantly in awe of some of the business towers and homes we see. Of course, there is lots of sand, but I also appreciate how much of the Eastern Province is untouched. I love that we are living on the coast and get to see the water every day if we choose to.

About similarities

The biggest similarity I notice is an emphasis on family. So many family-friendly places and activities, an abundance of public jungle gyms throughout the cities, and just an overall sense of community. Wherever we are with our son, we see and feel the love the Saudi people have for children and family in general.

About people

Again, a huge appreciation for family. The KSA nightlife is something I wish we could take part in more often. I love how everything is open really late, though my son goes to bed so early that we don't often get to experience it.

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What I like there

I like that we are fully submerging ourselves into a unique and rich culture. Houston, Texas is a very culturally diverse city, but getting to live in the Middle East is more exposure to the culture than we've ever had before. It brings me joy to have so many new experiences and learning opportunities.

Interesting story

I mentioned how much the Saudi people love children. It seems everywhere we go, especially at restaurants, people want to gift our son something. People working at the restaurant, but also other patrons. They will come over to say “hi”, talk baby talk with my son, and often give him candy or a small toy. One time, picking up pizza, the cashier was so smitten with our son, he asked if he could hold him.

Next thing we know, he is being passed along the entire restaurant, even back in the kitchen. We recognize too that many people working in Saudi are doing so away from their families, in the Philippines, etc. Often they too want to engage with our son, because they miss their children back home.

Sandra Medina, entrepreneur and student, @sandumedina


I am from Columbia, I am a chemical and environmental engineer. I had the opportunity of a scholarship in Saudi Arabia for my Ph.D. program. Right now a PhD student in environmental engineer science at KAUST.

I arrived here in 2015. I am living five and a half-year, which is located on the Red Sea coast. We are one hour far from Jeddah, which is the second-largest city. My university is mixed. It is the first mixed university in Saudi for males and females. We with my husband live in a compound.

About first impression

I was afraid at first. People know so many stories about women and how they are treated there. The first was rejection. Then I started looking for university. I contacted students and email them. I asked their opinion. They said that everything is great. When I arrived, the transition was very smooth. The university arranged everything from visa to taxi so there were not any difficulties with that. There are many students from all over the world. So I was very excited. Of course, I was far from my family and missed Colombia.

About difficulties

The language is very different. At university, we do not need Arabic, but when you are outside, we need to somehow speak Arabic. In the cities, people speak English. However, if you want to travel around the country the language is needed. After arriving, I immediately started to learn Arabic.


About differences

In 2015, everything was different. Now Saudi Arabia is a more open culture. I can drive; I was the first expat to have a driving license. Also before women have to cover themselves wearing an abaya. Now I cannot wear the abaya, just wear clothes with long sleeves. Tourism here is just starting to develop. There are many places for tourists’ attractions. Some processes are slower, you should wait a lot, and the government is slower because of the language. Another difference is of course alcohol. Here we do not drink. Actually, in Arabic parties, you do not need alcohol to have fun. One thing that I miss is the public festivals where people are singing and eating outside, being loud. I like crowded places where you can dance. Dancing here is forbidden here.

About similarities

I did not have the difficulties with the culture. People are so friendly in many aspects. The family and the role of the family is similar to South American culture. We are a big family lovers. In that sense, I found many aspects that are similar there. People there have many friends and I really clicked with that. Another thing is that of course family gatherings are split in Saudi Arabia. They split even the weddings. If someone wants to gather, people do it at home. They invite the aunts, grandmothers, cousins, of course, all-female. Once I was at such a party. We had a lot of activities, dancing, and singing. It was so much fun. It was like in Colombia. The culture of the parties are familiar. The parties are important.

About people

People are close and more private. Women wear abaya. But sometimes I think it is comfortable, because under them you can wear pajamas. That is funny – you just put abaya and go. However at home women really dress up. They make the home comfortable. Because there are not many public places. That is why I think they have closer relationships.


What I like there

I am an entrepreneur. We produce cleaning products for clothes. So I met many women living in all this area. The government encourages people with different programs and funding to promote the growth of the economy. The aim is to be independent from the oil. I want to stay here more, because there are so many opportunities and financial support that is not in Colombia. I like stability in the economy. I have the opportunity to research without thinking about expenses to laboratories. That is the motivation.

Interesting story

Here I live near the Red Sea. So I like that all the sea activities. It is my first time living next to the sea. And because there is no much tourism, the corals are better. I traveled to the Empty Quarter in the desert area. We were camping there. Imagine not having the cities 800 km. of course, we had a guide, and we lived with Bedouins and having food with. We were camping at night and I saw the clearest sky where you can see the Milky Way. It was amazing. That experience is recommended for everyone who came there.

Olena Jakes, Khobar, photographer, @ojakesphotography

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I am currently residing in Khobar, which is located in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. I live with my husband and my two young daughters. I was born in Ukraine and spent part of my childhood there. In my youth, I moved to London and lived there until I relocated to Saudi Arabia. Five years ago, I completed an advanced diploma in photography and spent weeks and months learning about f-stops, apertures, shutter speeds, and composition. I studied a lot the work of portrait photographers and then tried to use what I saw in their work to reach another level within my own photography. I tried to find an edge that was not always pretty or predictable and challenge myself in producing something unique. I generally consider myself a portraiture photographer and I love capturing people’s emotions.

I have lived in Saudi for almost five years now and I really like the quality of life here. My husband found a good job as an educator in the Kingdom and my daughters and I joined him a few months after he moved to the Kingdom. We all wanted to be together.

About first impression

We relocated to Saudi during the summer and nothing prepared me for the heat intensity in here. When I exited the international terminal in Dammam, the heat and the humidity hit me like a brick. During the summer months, the temperature can sometimes exceed 50 degrees Celsius and this is so much more noticeable if you arrive from Europe, especially from London with cool summers. I must admit though that I was acclimatized after a few weeks and the heat did not bother me as much. Saudi have some of the best shopping malls in the Middle East.

About difficulties

One of the difficulties was that I had to wear an Abaya at all times when outside and I could not drive on my own. I am not very fond of taxis in Saudi. Official documents can also take rather long to be processed and if you do not speak Arabic, sometimes the lack of language can be a communication obstacle.

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About differences

One cannot help but notice the vastness of the desert. When driving out of towns one is surrounded by magnificent sand dunes, the occasional camel, and the sporadic vegetation, especially, during the winter and spring months. There are occasional sand storms in March and April and rare torrential rains during the autumn months. Saudis are private people and drive their families in their USVs. Public transportation is almost nonexistent in Saudi cities, unlike European cities. However, the motorways are rarely congested when traveling from one city to another. Furthermore, most of the water is desalinated and it certainly tastes different from the water I was used to in Europe.

About similarities

Saudis are friendly and respectful, especially, towards women and can be very helpful. Saudis are also very religious people and pray five times a day. Non-Muslims ought to be very familiar with a prayer time in order to manage their shopping - not an easy task for me at all. All commercial activities come to a halt during the prayer times. The rate of crime is also extremely low contrary to the international perception.

About people

Saudis can be very hospitable and welcoming. They enjoy a slow pace of life and appear to love shopping and eating out, have park picnics during the winter and like desert trips. They drive USVs especially people with families. They appear to enjoy driving but they do not seem to like following traffic rules, the youth in particular. Witnessing horrific accidents, it is not uncommon on Saudi roads. Despite all that, during my time here, Saudi has changed so much and I really like the positive changes.

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What I like there

I love the red sand dunes, the Arabic food - Margoog a lamb vegetable stew, and Mandi - a lamb tandoori type barbecue with rice, which are now my favorite dishes. I also like Iftar meals during Ramadan and enjoy the winter months because the weather is mild and pleasant.

Interesting story

We were once driving to a shopping mall prior to the lift of a female driving ban and I noticed a young boy of perhaps 11 or 12 years old driving his mother and sisters. I was shocked.

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