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The Pros & Cons of Working in Saudi Arabia

At the end of April 2009, we visited 3 locations in Saudi Arabia as part of a construction trade mission to see first hand the employment opportunities and the type of lifestyle and social conditions that UK construction expats can expect. We wanted to understand the quality of opportunity Saudi offers British construction professionals.

In this article we cover:

  1. A précis of why Saudi is worth considering 
  2. The geographical areas of Saudi & their character (& benefits)
  3. The social challenges for Westerners
  4. The social & financial perks for Westerners

Why Saudi Arabia is worth considering

As advised in our previous article on Saudi, Saudi has been identified by many as poised for massive expenditure on building and infrastructure projects.  In addition, the likes of SAGIA (Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority) are intending to bring Saudi into the World Bank list of the 10 most competitive world economies by 2010. Many see this as an indicator that Saudi is becoming integrated into the world market, rather than remaining a sleeping giant.

In the current difficult world economic climate, the most important difference between Saudi’s oil & construction fuelled expansion and that of other countries or regions, especially Dubai, is that Saudi is building and developing for its own expanding population, not within a speculative bubble based on onward sale. The scale of the growth in this indigenous Saudi population is remarkable. The total population reached 27 million during 2008 which equates to a growth rate of 3.5%. Nearly 60% of the Saudi population is aged 20 and under. Only 27 – 30% are foreign nationals. There are around 100,000 westerners living in Saudi Arabia currently.

This population growth generates a massive structural need for homes, universities, schools and infrastructure. Although the Saudi government, like most other countries and major developers around the world, have slowed the rate of construction while the prices of materials, plant & labour prices drop, this appears now to be approaching a balance. This is likely to lead to construction work continuing apace as soon as Ramadan & Eid 2009 are over.

Saudi Engineering Consultant and Building & Civil Engineering Jobs

Much Saudi construction work is still at the planning stage, which means that many opportunities for UK expertise in areas such as master planning, feasibility, design and engineering are currently available, and will remain so for years to come.

There is however, also a mouth watering volume of work already underway, awarded to a select group of contractors who have the required trade licences and the connections to bid and be awarded government funded projects.  Clearly Maxim Recruitment now has good connections with most of these companies and is actively recruiting for them.

It is worth being aware though, that Saudi always has been and at the current time remains a highly price sensitive market. Tenders are always keenly scrutinised in terms of price, and margins are often not what contractors would ideally like or may have previously achieved in other countries in better global economic times. Adding client value and getting financial recognition for this in Saudi remains a challenge.  At times, an even greater challenge than structuring a business proposition can be to deliver the cheapest price.

The Geography of Saudi Construction

For the purposes of understanding the construction market, and where the different types of opportunity lie across the country, Saudi should be split into 3 main sections:

The Eastern Province covers Dammam a major seaport and industrial centre, Al Khobar, a residential and commercial centre and Dhahran the focus of operation of the Province’s oil fields. This region has a focus on oil extraction, refining and all the major industrial processes and production capacity that links to it. It is a key factor of this location that it is possible to work here and commute from Bahrain across a linking bridge in around one hour.  Many expats do this, particularly UK expats with families who aren’t willing to work within Saudi cultural rules on female dress and social conduct.  More on this later.

The Central Province includes Riyadh, the capital and centre of government, and the cities of Buraidah and Hail. This a major centre of population and of expected population growth.  This area is the financial capital of the country and most companies have either a head office or regional office here.

In the Western Province Jeddah is to be found with its seaport and its historic role (progressively being replaced by Riyadh) as commercial capital of the Kingdom and Mecca and Medina, the largest cities of Islam.  Jeddah is regarded by many as less strict than other locations, although this is a matter of opinion.  One key advantage for UK expats of being in the Jeddah or Red Sea coast region, is that beachside resort compounds can be accessed for a fee, in which men and women can sunbathe as they would in most other places in the world.

There are of course the economic cities to bear in mind for the future that are now under construction that were profiled in the previous article.

The Social Challenges of Saudi for Westerners

How to go about working and living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a something to be considered carefully so that your needs are matched to the rules of social conduct.  The consultants at Maxim Recruitment would strongly recommend that you buy a good guidebook and do internet research to fully acquaint yourself with how the country works.  There follows our take on some of the key factors:

The working environment

The number of expats working at the separate companies will vary. It is likely that you will be working amongst a number of different nationalities including Saudis, Indians, Pakistanis & Philipinos.  All UK expats will need the skills to be able to report to, and manage a range of different nationalities

Single/Married Status?

In Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive and must be conservatively dressed in an Abaya to leave the compound.  There are very few jobs for females in Saudi Arabia. There are almost no female secretaries in offices and the few opportunities for UK expats lie in sectors such as teaching and nursing. Within restaurants there are “family areas” which are separated from the area used by men so that the woman is not seen by other restaurant customers.
As women cannot drive within Saudi there are often shopping trips on coaches arranged by those living on the compound or families employ drivers or use taxis to get around. Such cultural practices are inconvenient to newcomers to Saudi, and will inevitably affect all members of a family until such practices can be accommodated into daily life.

Take a construction job in Saudi with your family or on single status?

Education is to play a critical part in the national development of Saudi Arabia. Government understands the importance of improving education and oil is providing the means to do so. Government funded (state) schools are, as in the rest of the Middle East, designed for the indigenous population. Many UK expats may not be keen on Koranic study taking up a major part of the school day. In Jeddah there is a British International school, an American International school amongst others where the standard of teaching is equivalent to that offered in the UK. The schools offer safety, cleanliness, a wide range of sporting activities. It should be noted that although a handful of school follow a British curriculum others claim to and do not offer the level of education that you would expect in the UK.


UK expats usually live on “compounds” which are often as well serviced as luxury holiday resorts with swimming pools, sports facilities including golf courses and bowling alleys. They are often villas with gardens and most likely you would have a like-minded westerner living next door. Usually these compounds will be specifically designed for western expats so you would be able to mix with men and women alike within them. You would not however, be able to mix outside the compound with the locals of Saudi Arabia unless appropriately dressed, nor would men and women be able to mix freely outside of the compound. Compound living is expensive and not all are of the quality described because of scarcity. The cost of accommodation is usually covered by the employer but this does depend on the employer and this is something that should be established either by yourself or the recruitment consultant at the beginning of the process. These compounds are protected by a highly visible army guard ,which serves more as a reminder of the past troubles Saudi experienced, than of any current threat or danger.

Entertainment/Things to Do

There are no cinemas or theatres. There are no bars and alcohol is forbidden.

The British Embassy frequently holds receptions for visiting delegations and Trade Missions where alcohol is sometimes served – UK expats are well advised to be accomplished networkers!  There are also a variety of British business groups, trade associations & social clubs to get involved in.

If you are in need of a drink or a busy pub or club, what many people do is to take a short flight to Bahrain, Dubai or elsewhere in the region for a fun weekend & get back in time for the start of the week. Despite Saudi being a “dry” country, there are significant numbers of people who act otherwise; it seems who you know is a key factor here, and your attitude to the risk of being caught.


Security is visibly high at public buildings and international hotels but actual threat is generally regarded as being very low thanks to the help from the UK & USA security services in supporting the Saudi Army & National Guard to neutralise the terrorist threats of the past. There have been no incidents reported in the recent past at all – in practice you are much more likely to be killed or injured on Saudi roads than by any other cause.

Social and Financial Perks for Westerners

Most reputable companies offer good tax free salary and accommodation/allowance packages plus other perks always provided on top as proscribed by Saudi Labour Law. Despite generally having to work long hours you can expect good overall pay. As there is a lack of social distraction you will be able to make good savings with limited spending opportunities.

If you have hobbies that fit into the Saudi way of life and environment, such as diving, cars, bowling, desert driving etc, then you will enjoy your time in Saudi very much.


Saudi Arabia is a massive country with great wealth & employment opportunities in the construction sector for quantity surveyors & project managers.  However it is essential that everyone going to work in Saudi understands that the active respect of its unique customs, traditions and religious beliefs is not an option, but will be an essential part of your daily life.

Our advice to job seekers considering working there, is to work out a plan of how long you are going to be there, on what basis you go there (single/married/family status), and then stick to the plan.

Sensible people make all the money they expect to in Saudi, while those who do not do their research and know what they are doing, rarely last their probation period.

To discuss construction jobs in Saudi Arabia further, please forward your CV to Maxim Recruitment via the website.

Steve Thomas
Construction Recruitment Director, UK & Canada
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/maximrecruitment



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