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Saudi Arabia as an expat

“We were building a new life in Namibia when a phone call changed everything. A former colleague asked my partner John if he would like to work as a consultant on a project. In Saudi Arabia. Full-time, duration unknown. After much deliberation, curiosity won out – and that was good.“ Annika Brohm, Journalist

Al-Ula
Al-Ula

I still remember the torn feeling I had for the next few days. It had always been my dream to live in southern Africa as a freelance journalist, and now it was finally coming true. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, had never appealed to me. I had a picture in my mind of a brutal, misogynistic regime where strict rules governed everyday life.

After much deliberation, curiosity won out: I wanted to experience one of the most closed countries in the world opening up. After all, I had read about it in several newspaper articles. Shortly afterward, in March 2022, we landed in Saudi Arabia. Our stay began in Tabuk, a conservative city of 600,000 in the barren northwest of the country. That was followed by two months in the much more liberal coastal city of Jeddah. It was one of the most challenging and exciting chapters of my life. But more of that later.

Al Balad in Jeddah

Much opening of a closed country

Saudi Arabia is in a state of flux. Driven by his “Vision 2030“, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is modernizing the Kingdom at a rapid pace. A lot has changed in recent years, especially for women. Since 2018, they have been allowed to drive. They are no longer legally required to wear a black, full-length abaya. And they are allowed to work and study without the consent of their male guardian. That may sound like a given. Yet, the reforms were like a drumbeat in the fiercely conservative Kingdom.

Economic interests fuel the shifts. Saudi Arabia wants to become independent of oil and strengthen its private sector. “Our goal is to attract and retain the finest Saudi and foreign minds, and provide them with all they need,” says Vision 2030. Many have already answered this call. From Tabuk to the Red Sea, expats in the north of Saudi Arabia are working on the megacity NEOM. Covering an area larger than Hesse, it is to include the 170-kilometer-long linear city “The Line”, an industrial hub with a port as well as holiday resorts by the sea and in the mountains. Until then, there is still a long way to go. Driving through the desert region, you won’t see much more of NEOM than a few signs and construction sites. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has already reached its tourism target. By 2023, 100 million domestic and international guests have traveled through the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has only been issuing tourist visas since 2019. Getting one takes just a few clicks online. Since the launch, some attractions have become hotspots, such as Al Balad – the charming old town of Jeddah – or the Nabataean site of Al-Ula with its ancient ruins and brand-new luxury hotels. Other destinations are still hidden gems, such as the palm valley Wadi Al Disah in the northwest or the coastal town of Umluj, which locals call the ‘Maldives of Saudi Arabia’ for its picture-postcard beaches. In many places, the infrastructure and comforts of more established destinations are still lacking. In return, there is plenty of time and space to explore at your own pace.

Red Sea, Jeddah

Back again in April 2024

As I write these lines, I am back in Tabuk. Two years after my first visit, I have returned. I want to find out if and how the city has changed. It is Easter Monday, but there is no sign of it in the strictly Muslim Kingdom. Instead, for the past three weeks, daily life has been dominated by Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Cafes and restaurants do not open until sunset. It is then that the streets of Tabuk come alive: Families and friends gather in the park to break their fast – iftar – and spread out blankets for a picnic. Restaurants serve Arabic coffee with dates. Men sell specialties such as samosas by the roadside. Long lines form outside their stalls every evening. As we join the queue, we are greeted warmly with “Ramadan Kareem” wishes. It may seem like a small gesture, but in Saudi Arabia, it means a great deal to me.

Although the country is opening up to the outside world, the lives of most expats still take place in protected bubbles. That’s the impression I get when I talk to people from South Africa, Germany and the UK who, like us, live in Tabuk. The majority are based in gated communities with swimming pools and gyms. For many, Saudi Arabia is just a place to work. Leisure and entertainment are found elsewhere. We frequently speak to “Neomians” – expats involved in building the future city – who travel to the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba or Dubai for weekends. Away from the strict alcohol ban that applies nationwide in Saudi Arabia.

John and I take a different route

We rent Airbnb in lively neighborhoods. My favorite place to write is in cafes. The internet connection is good, the coffee and treats like saffron or date cake are even better. At weekends, we take road trips around the vast country. However, although we leave our flat as often as possible, we rarely get as close to the country and its people as we had hoped. We are not alone in our experience. For an article, I spoke to a young German diplomat interning in a consulate. She is fluent in Arabic and has spent many years in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, even she struggled to connect with locals outside of work: “It’s the most closed country I’ve ever been to,” she says.

Al Balad in Jeddah
Iftar in a Hotel in Jeddah

What ultimately helps us make new friends is, as so often, shared hobbies. In May 2022, John and I take a scuba diving course in the Red Sea off Jeddah. We spend a week with locals exploring the underwater landscape, which is said to be one of the most diverse and vibrant in the world: corals of all shapes and colors stretch out in front of us. Rays, turtles and clownfish hover around us. On the last day of the course, we celebrate with a cake. One of our guides hands us our certificates. Only much later do we realize what surname he has signed with: Al-Saud, the name of the ruling family and its 15,000-odd members.

Land of start-ups and visions

I have thought at length about whether I can recommend visiting Saudi Arabia. One thing is certain: anyone taking this leap must be prepared to encounter a foreign, strongly religious culture. There are substantial regional contrasts. In cosmopolitan cities such as Riyadh or Jeddah, everyday life will differ significantly from that in smaller towns or remote regions such as Tabuk. This is all the more true as the country and society are still in flux: What was true yesterday may be outdated tomorrow.

Saudi Arabia is like a complex mosaic being reassembled piece by piece. It is barren, austere and closed. At least at first sight. At second glance, however, it also reveals a culture and a history so ancient that it defies comprehension. People who are proud of their country and how it is changing. Vibrant cities full of glitz, glamour and luxury. Untamed nature, from the lush green wadis of the desert to the colorful coral reefs of the Red Sea. A land of start-ups, visions, superlatives and aspiring women.

Saudi Arabia was my first step into the Arab world. If I could return in time, I would start my journey in Jordan or the United Arab Emirates. On subsequent visits, I found myself warming to both countries much faster. For one thing, Saudi Arabia certainly is not: Middle East for beginners. But I have never regretted my decision to see the Kingdom in transition with my own eyes.

Jeddah Corniche

Annika Brohm …

… had quit her job in Frankfurt in 2021 to live as a freelance writer in Namibia. Then her boyfriend received a surprising job offer from Saudi Arabia. Since then, she has been travelling between southern Africa and the Middle East, always on the lookout for new stories.

 

 

Destination Info

Saudi Arabia is considered the cradle of Islam and is home to two of its holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Everyday life in the kingdom is still strongly characterised by religion. However, social and economic life in Saudi Arabia has changed rapidly in recent years: With his “Vision 2030”, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to make the country attractive to tourists and investors from all over the world.

Location and population: Saudi Arabia is by far the largest country on the Arabian Peninsula. Around 36 million people live in the kingdom – on an area almost six times the size of Germany. The country is heavily reliant on foreign labour: Expats and migrants make up almost 40 per cent of the total population.

Currency: 1 Saudi Riyal = 0.25 Euro

Getting there: Lufthansa and Saudia Airlines fly direct from Frankfurt to Riyadh, Saudi direct also from Munich. Direct flights are also available from Frankfurt to Jeddah.

Bleisure Tips

Saudi Arabia has many faces: the country’s huge area alone means that there are great regional differences. The capital Riyadh combines luxury with a rich history, art and culture – and is a paradise for gourmets. If you want to experience the glamorous side of the metropolis, you can do as Barack Obama and Donald Trump did and check into the Ritz Carlton. Authentic Saudi cuisine such as kabsa, the kingdom’s unofficial national dish, is served at the Suhail restaurant, for example.

The harbour city of Jeddah is affectionately known by locals as the “Bride of the Red Sea”. Muslims from all over the world have always started their pilgrimage to the holy sites in Medina and Mecca here. Jeddah is comparatively liberal, diverse and relaxed. Nowhere else can you experience this as impressively as when diving with local guides in the Red Sea – for example at the “La Plage” resort with a private beach section.

Tabuk in the north-west of the country is much more remote and conservative. Nevertheless, the city is gaining in importance: NEOM, the city of the future, is being built in the region and numerous expats from all over the world are involved in its construction. Outdoor enthusiasts in particular will feel at home around Tabuk: The rocky landscape north of the city is reminiscent of the desert valley of Wadi Rum in Jordan – except that you won’t meet a soul here when hiking or wild camping.

 

Fotos: © Annika Brohm

 

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