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 move to the Saudi capital mainly 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, with Muslim prayers that occur five times a day dictating the daily rhythm of life. New arrivals often struggle to adjust to a restrictive social environment where alcohol is banned. The climate is another factor to contend with; summer temperatures can skyrocket over 122°F (50°C) and the dry winds that blow through the city are often accompanied by a haze of sand.

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.

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.

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 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 coming years, but as it stands, most expats use taxis and their own vehicles.

Riyadh, city of contrasts

Despite its glitzy malls and futuristic architecture, Riyadh is very much an Arabic city. If the ancient mosques dotting its tree-lined highways aren’t enough of a reminder, the strict adherence to Islamic law will be. Living in 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.