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Moving to Riyadh

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 moving to Riyadh mainly relocate there 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, and the daily rhythm of life is punctuated by the call to prayer five times a day. New arrivals often struggle to adjust to a restrictive social environment where alcohol is banned.

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.

Cost of living in Riyadh

The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is generally on par with other destinations in the Middle East, although Riyadh is the most expensive city in the Kingdom. The cost of living in Riyadh is much lower than Abu Dhabi, but more expensive than Doha.

Fortunately, many expats move to the Kingdom on lucrative relocation packages with allowances for housing, transport, medical insurance and their children's education. Expats who have these costs covered by their employers usually find living expenses in Saudi Arabia to be reasonable and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.

Families and children in Riyadh

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.

There are numerous public and private healthcare facilities in Riyadh. Although most expats, who are required to have private health insurance anyway, generally favour private hospitals, Saudi Arabia's public healthcare facilities are also considered excellent.

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 currently 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 the coming year, but as it stands, most expats use taxis and their own vehicles.

Climate in Riyadh

The climate is a challenging factor; summer temperatures can skyrocket to more than 122°F (50°C) and the dry winds that blow through the city are often accompanied by a haze of sand. Winters in Riyadh are mild, with average temperatures around 64°F (18°C). The city experiences occasional dust storms and sandstorms.

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

Pros and Cons of Moving to Riyadh

A great urban mass rising from the sands of the Najd plateau, Riyadh is a thriving economic hub and home to the Saudi royals. Perhaps lacking the glamour of the neighbouring emirates, the city is extremely conservative and runs according to Sharia law. But once over the culture shock, expats begin to see the city as an adventure, and start to enjoy a land so often isolated and hidden from the rest of the world. Adapting may take time, but it can be richly rewarding.

Working in Riyadh

+ PRO: It pays well

The biggest allure of moving to Riyadh is usually the handsome salaries on offer. The prospect of no income tax is also a massive drawcard. Opportunities for expats can be found in the banking, construction, engineering, medicine and IT sectors, while employment contracts often include car payments, medical cover and education allowances.

- CON: Business is slow during Ramadan

Don't expect to get much done during Ramadan, as most businesses shut down over this period – or at least try to reschedule important meetings for after Eid al-Fitr. Western expats are advised to treat it like the Christmas holidays, but lasting for an entire month.

- CON: Ethnic hierarchies

Expats from different regions seem to receive varying degrees of treatment and pay. Specific countries and ethnicities are often assigned particular roles, with Western expats tending to occupy more managerial positions while nationals from, say, India and the Philippines are hired on the production side of things.

Accommodation in Riyadh

+ PRO: Home comforts

Almost all expats live in compounds consisting of villas and apartments found in the northern and eastern suburbs of Riyadh. It's unusual for Western expats to live outside these compounds. While life in the streets of Riyadh may feel extremely alien to Western expats, the compounds present a more relaxed, familiar way of life. The presence of gyms, shops, restaurants and schools means expats hardly have to leave these compounds.

- CON: Threat of boredom

Having said that, things can get quite stale after a few months in these gated communities. If expats don't push themselves to venture into the rest of Riyadh, they’ll end up running into the same people and may become frustrated, bored and quite disenchanted.

Cost of living in Riyadh

+ PRO: Groceries are well priced

Regular goods such as groceries and electronics are reasonably priced, with most income swallowed up by accommodation costs. The most expensive products will be imports. Also, eating out can be a costly affair, so expats may want to seek out the many indoor and outdoor markets. Petrol is dirt cheap, even if expats are more inclined to hire a driver.

- CON: Expensive digital services

Internet, mobile communication and TV services are all far more expensive than in Western countries, with some estimates putting costs at three times the regular rates.

- CON: High accommodation prices

Rent in expat compounds can also be expensive. Along with a deposit, landlords expect tenants to pay several months to a year of rent in advance. Additionally, tenants must pay for utilities such as water, electricity and gas, with an expected rise during summer when air-cons are required. That said, employers usually include housing allowances in contracts, and some rental costs include certain utilities.

Lifestyle in Riyadh

+ PRO: New shopping experiences

Many of the leisure activities common to Western tastes aren’t present, but Riyadh certainly has a huge array of shops to counter this, with thriving indoor and outdoor souks and sprawling malls.

- CON: Treatment of women

Saudi Arabia is known for its treatment of women who, up until 2018, were not even allowed to drive. They still require permission from their fathers or husbands to marry or enrol at university. Expat wives may not be allowed to work if on their husband’s work visa, and this can be a big change for those used to a more independent lifestyle. Expat women aren't required to wear an abaya (a flowing black robe), but wearing one can be a good way to blend in, and this in itself takes some adjustment.

- CON: Difficult to adapt to Sharia customs

Saudi Arabia operates under Sharia law, existing as a strict Islamic state. Expats should be mindful to respect this, with at least a basic understanding of some cultural expectations and taboos. Expats who follow other faiths may find it quite restricting – though they are free to practise whatever religion they choose in private, it's best to do so out of the public eye so as not to risk being accused of proselytising, which is illegal. Meanwhile, Islam is everywhere, with meetings, events and day-to-day errands scheduled around prayers which happen five times a day.

- CON: Westerners can become bored

Riyadh is a fiercely conservative city, with many Westerners struggling to adapt to its cultural norms and expectations. There is no real nightlife to speak of and alcohol is banned, although many compounds have bars. Some even have their own breweries.

- CON: Bureaucracy

It’s best to be safe when dealing with officials in Riyadh, so expats should be absolutely sure they have up-to-date identification, travel documents and passports. Saudi Arabia is a stickler for red tape, and expats will probably endure their fair share of forms and bureaucratic slogs.

Safety in Riyadh

+ PRO: Very safe

Owing to strict laws and extremely harsh punishments, expats can feel pretty safe in Riyadh. There are usually strong security measures around compounds, with high walls and guards.

- CON: Intolerance

Homosexuality in Saudi Arabia is punishable by death, and this means gay expats in Riyadh should be extremely cautious. Ironically, because of the implementation of gender segregation, many may find it easier to be in gay relationships because same-sex gatherings at parties, restaurants or hotels aren’t viewed with suspicion.

Kids and family in Riyadh

+ PRO: Lots of international schools

Thanks to its historically large expat population and it being the centre of commerce and diplomacy, Riyadh is home to numerous international schools. Parents should know that competition for places is high, though, as are the school fees.

+ PRO: Compound life easy for kids

Taking care of children in compounds often turns out to be a breeze, as there is usually affordable domestic help and lots of entertainment amenities to keep them busy. Even outside the compounds, the sprawling desert offers thrilling adventures such as quad bike rides or four-wheel-drive 'dune bashing', while exciting destinations such as Dubai, Qatar and Egypt are a quick flight away.

Working in Riyadh

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is transforming into one of the world’s most competitive economies and has long attracted workers from other countries. Skilled expats are usually managed in a fair but controlled way, and are generally paid well and rewarded for their efforts.

Salaries in Saudi Arabia are typically similar to or greater than those paid in Western countries, and no personal income tax usually means greater net income. Provisions for medical insurance, car payments, education, paid annual leave and air tickets back home are frequently included in contract packages.

Job market in Riyadh

Expats working in Riyadh find themselves in the Saudi capital, a hub of commerce and industry. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest crude oil exporter, so the oil and gas industry remains the largest sector in the country's economy. Riyadh is also home to many government offices and embassies, making the public and diplomatic sectors one of the city's biggest employers.

As the city’s infrastructure expands, so do opportunities in banking, construction, engineering, IT, agriculture and medicine. Teaching English in Saudi Arabia is well worth considering – it's taught as a second language in Saudi public schools, but there are few native speakers in the city. Private English lessons are popular with local families.

Finding a job in Riyadh

Most of the companies that recruit expats aren’t based in Riyadh and operate outside the Kingdom. Very few expats arrive in Riyadh looking for a job, and those who do usually have local contacts.

There are online job portals that may be worth a glance for those in search of work, but these only rarely generate actual leads. Recruitment agencies are often the best source of job opportunities.

Many agencies specialise in particular fields such as healthcare, teaching, accounting, construction, executives and operations as well as administration. Employers normally pay agency and consultancy fees.

Work culture in Riyadh

Expats working in Riyadh will most likely need to educate themselves about local workplace etiquette. It’s one of Saudi Arabia's most conservative cities, so it's important to respect local customs in everyday life and in the business world.

Men and women should wear modest clothing, with their shoulders, stomach, calves and thighs well covered. Expats should also avoid discussing politics and religion with colleagues as these are sensitive subjects.

The working week in Riyadh is Sunday to Thursday, and employees are expected to work between 40 and 48 hours a week, depending on their employer.

Accommodation in Riyadh

Expats looking for accommodation in Riyadh will typically choose between numerous Western-style compounds or, less commonly, local housing in the form of a villa or apartment.

However, availability can be limited despite the variety. It’s therefore often best to have the help of a sponsoring employer during the house-hunting process.

Areas and suburbs in Riyadh

Riyadh is laid out in an easily navigable grid and is divided into 15 districts. The central district of the city is known as Al-Dirah, which includes various areas like Al-Malaz, Al-Aziziyah and Al-Shemaysi. To the east are Al-Rabwa, Al-Izdihar and Al-Nakheel, which are known for their modern architecture, luxurious lifestyle, and upscale shopping malls. In the west are Al-Murabba, Al-Batha and Al-Olaya, which are more traditional and cultural areas. Expats can find a range of residential compounds throughout Riyadh.

One such compound is Al-Hamra Oasis Village, located in the heart of the city. This compound is an ideal option for expat families as it offers a range of facilities like swimming pools, playgrounds and parks. In the west of Riyadh is Arizona Golf Resort, which offers an elegant lifestyle to its residents with a golf course, spa and fitness centre. It is a perfect choice for expats who prefer a high-end lifestyle with easy access to shopping malls and restaurants. Kingdom City is a newly developed and affluent residential area located on the outskirts of Riyadh.

Another popular choice for expats in Riyadh is Al-Olaya and Sulaymaniyah. These areas are known for their commercial and business centres, making them an ideal choice for young professionals. They offer easy access to shopping malls, restaurants and other recreational activities. Al-Muhammadiyah and Al-Nakheel are other well-known neighbourhoods in Riyadh, offering a mix of modern and traditional lifestyle. These areas have numerous housing options suitable for families and young professionals.

See the page on Areas and Suburbs in Riyadh for more detail on the best neighbourhoods in the city.

Types of accommodation in Riyadh

There isn't a great deal of choice when it comes to options for accommodation in Riyadh. Most expats opt to live in compounds where they are largely sheltered from the culture shock of day-to-day life in Saudi Arabia. Apart from availability, individual needs and personal preferences dictate which compounds expats are interested in.

These self-contained complexes vary in size from small apartment clusters to sprawling collections of villas. They're usually gated, walled and guarded and often include amenities such as gyms, clinics, restaurants, shops and schools.

The restrictive rules of normal Saudi life can feel far away within these secluded neighbourhoods. The Mutaween (religious police) seldom enter, and new arrivals have more opportunities to foster relationships with fellow expats who can help ease the transition. Women can also socialise freely inside compounds and there are no restrictions on what to wear.

Finding accommodation in Riyadh

For many expats working in Riyadh, employers will supply accommodation in a compound or at least be in a position to assist in the process of finding a home. It’s important that expats discuss getting a housing allowance during contract negotiations. This could be a specific sum of money, a percentage of their salary or, as with some larger companies, even the provision of a property. For those going it alone without the help of an employer, colleagues, friends and fellow expats can be invaluable sources of information and recommendations.

Renting accommodation in Riyadh 

Demand for compound housing is high among Riyadh's expat population, and rental prices are expensive. 

Rent is usually expected to be paid six months to a year in advance. A deposit of 10 percent of the annual rent is also standard. Service charges and maintenance are typically included, but tenants are responsible for paying utilities such as electricity, gas and water.


Riyadh relies heavily on water from desalination plants in the nearby coastal cities of Jubail, Yanbu and Shuaiba, and has implemented strict water conservation measures to minimise wastage. The tap water in Riyadh is generally safe to drink, but many expats purchase bottled water or use water filtration systems to ensure safe drinking water.

Riyadh has a highly developed power generation and transmission infrastructure. As a result, the city has a more reliable electricity supply than other regions. Electricity bills in Saudi Arabia can be high, so expats should be mindful of their usage and turn off appliances when not in use.

Natural gas is commonly used in Riyadh for cooking and heating. Many residential buildings have gas connections, but this is not necessarily the case in some apartments, and expats may need to purchase gas cylinders for their apartments.

The Riyadh Municipality oversees waste management in Riyadh. Expats should familiarise themselves with the waste disposal system and follow the guidelines for separating the waste into recyclable and non-recyclable items.

The Saudi government's online portal Hesabi ('my account' in Arabic) streamlines setting up and paying for utilities. Expats can view and pay their water and electricity bills and see information about local gas providers, waste management, recycling and environmental initiatives.

See the page on Accommodation in Saudi Arabia for more detail on leases, the rental process and utilities.

Domestic help in Riyadh

Expats living in Riyadh can hire domestic help, such as housekeepers, drivers and cooks. The cost of hiring domestic help is relatively low compared to Western countries, and it is common for expat families to have live-in domestic helpers. That said, there are regulations in place to ensure that domestic workers are treated fairly and have their basic rights protected.

For more details, read about Domestic Help in Saudi Arabia

Areas and suburbs in Riyadh

Most Western expats who relocate to Riyadh have their accommodation needs taken care of by their employer. As such, they will usually be housed in a Western compound in the northern or eastern suburbs of Riyadh, close to their place of work.

The decision of which neighbourhood in Riyadh to choose is therefore out of most expats' hands. Compound living tends to be a self-contained affair, as many expats rarely venture beyond their compound. Many compounds come equipped with a range of facilities such as gyms, grocery stores, laundry facilities, cafés and shops.

Here is a brief overview of the most popular areas and suburbs in Riyadh that host a large expat population.

Popular expat compounds in Riyadh

bird's eye view of central Riyadh in the morning

Al-Hamra Oasis Village

A premier compound fully furnished to satisfy all tastes and budgets, Al-Hamra caters to individuals and families with everything from one-bedroom apartments to five-bedroom villas with private pools. Residents can pay extra for internet, housekeeping and limousine services.

Arizona Golf Resort

Known for reflecting the highest level of residential standards in Saudi Arabia, this high-walled compound caters to senior expat executives and their families. On-site amenities include a supermarket, hairdresser, library, preschool, bowling alley, games room and gym.

Kingdom City

A Western-style compound with a focus on lifestyle, Kingdom City combines quality housing with the beauty of Saudi architecture. The compound is equipped with a bowling alley, shopping centre, healthcare clinic and swimming pools.

Expat areas in Riyadh

bird's eye view of residential Riyadh at dusk

Al-Olaya and As Sulaymaniyah

These areas are part of Riyadh’s business district to the north of the city. For those with offices in the city centre, the manageable commute is the major advantage of living in Al-Olaya and As Sulaymaniyah, although the housing in these areas tends to be smaller and the surroundings less spacious. This type of accommodation is most suitable for young professionals who want to live close to the office and are less interested in being close to large recreational spaces. Living here also offers residents access to several shopping malls which offer an escape from compound living.


This is a prestigious and highly sought after neighbourhood in Riyadh. Properties within Al-Muhammadiyah's Western compounds are usually spacious and luxurious, and compounds here have great facilities which give residents little reason to leave. That said, the surrounding area is also home to a few exceptional top-end restaurants which are a great option for residents looking for a treat.


With lots of luxury complexes, Al-Nakheel is another popular expat neighbourhood in Riyadh, particularly among families. This is due to the presence of a fair few international schools. Most complexes in Al-Nakheel have many housing options suitable for families, with larger properties with gardens. Some compounds here even have preschools on site.

Healthcare in Riyadh

Healthcare in Riyadh is given priority, and there are numerous public and private facilities available. The capital's hospitals provide complete medical care, and expats usually only travel abroad for highly specialised treatment.

For the most part, doctors in Riyadh speak English. Many medical professionals are expats themselves or were trained in Europe and the US.

Private hospitals and clinics tend to have the best standards and are favoured by expats. But these facilities come with a hefty price tag, and expats will need private health insurance, which is anyway compulsory for all foreigners in Saudi Arabia.

In most cases, health insurance is part of an expat contract and is paid for by the employer. Some employers may not offer health insurance, but might have an agreement with a particular hospital. Either way, expats should address this when arranging their employment package.

Read more about Healthcare and Health Insurance for Expats in Saudi Arabia.

Hospitals in Riyadh

King Fahad Medical City
Address: Prince Abdulaziz Ibn Jalwi St, As Sulimaniyah, Riyadh 11564

King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre
Address: Makkah Al Mukarramah Branch Rd, Al Mathar Ash Shamali, Riyadh 11564

Family Care Hospital

Address: Ar Rayah, Al Nadwa, Riyadh 14813

Education and Schools in Riyadh

As Saudi Arabia's formal centre of commerce and diplomacy, Riyadh has historically had a large expat community. As such, the city has a good selection of international schools to serve the needs of its foreign population. 

While foreigners have access to Saudi government schools, the language and cultural barriers leave few expat families willing to brave the switch. This increases demand at international schools, resulting in limited places and often hefty fees. It's therefore important that expats apply to several schools as early as possible.

International schools in Riyadh

The requirements for securing a place at an international school in Riyadh vary from one institution to the next. Some schools may need written references from a child's previous schools, while others require students to sit an entrance examination. While most international schools in Riyadh are not selective, others, such as the British and American schools, give preference to students according to their nationality. Although it is not necessary for children to attend a school sponsored by their country of origin, the logistical transition between systems tends to be easiest in this sort of situation.

A non-refundable application fee is standard procedure. Some schools also require parents to pay an extra seat deposit. In addition, parents often have to sort out uniforms, textbooks and extracurricular activities. While international schools can be pricey, expat parents will be delighted to know that the facilities and teaching standards at these schools are often top-tier. Nevertheless, it is advisable for expats to negotiate a schooling allowance into their expat relocation packages wherever possible.
The school year in Saudi Arabia runs from September to June, and is normally divided into two or three semesters, depending on the school. The school week is Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday being the weekend. School days are shortened during the holy month of Ramadan.

Read more:

See our reviews of the best International Schools in Riyadh

Homeschooling in Riyadh

Homeschooling is not generally recognised in Saudi Arabia, and expats living in Riyadh may struggle to find resources. It's not illegal though, so many expats do take this option, even just temporarily until they manage to secure a place for their child at an international school or during a short-term assignment before going back home.

Special-needs education in Riyadh

With expats being largely reliant on international schools, there isn't one standard policy across schools, with the result being that some schools are better equipped than others to provide support for students with special educational needs. Networking with fellow expat families and researching schools in depth can help determine which school is most suitable.

Although most expats choose to go the international school route, Saudi Arabia's Department of Education aims to provide inclusive education as far as possible. This means developing programmes and availing support services to ensure children with special needs are included in the mainstream classroom. 

Tutors in Riyadh

Local families frequently employ tutors to help children become proficient in English as a second language. Non-English-speaking expat families in Saudi Arabia can benefit from doing the same, while those looking to learn or improve their Arabic should opt for a local Arabic tutor. Major upcoming exams and trouble subjects are also areas tutors can service well. 

International Schools in Riyadh

International schools in Riyadh are diverse and offer a range of curricula to cater to the needs of expat children. Some of the most popular international schools in Riyadh teach the International Baccalaureate (IB), the British system (including the Cambridge IGCSE and A-Levels) or the American system, leading to an American High School Diploma.

Parents can expect strong and varied extracurricular programmes at international schools in Riyadh, as well as a focus on the holistic development of students. Parents can expect that their children will receive an education that not only focuses on academic excellence but also prepares them for their future roles as responsible citizens of the world.

It is important to note that tuition and admission policies can vary significantly among international schools in Riyadh. Some schools may have long waiting lists or may require students to take entrance exams. It is recommended that parents research and contact schools directly to understand their specific policies and requirements.

Here is a list of some of the best international schools Riyadh has to offer:

International schools in Riyadh


American International School – Riyadh

The American International School – Riyadh (AIS-R) offers an enriched American curriculum that integrates global perspectives and caters to students from Pre-K to Grade 12. AIS-R is also authorised to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

With over 50 nationalities represented, the school fosters a diverse, inclusive community that inspires students to think critically and communicate effectively. AIS-R graduates are accepted to top colleges and universities worldwide. Interested families are encouraged to check the school's admissions page for further details on the application process and criteria.

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American and International Baccalaureate
Ages: 3 to 18 

Dome International Schools

Dome International Schools, established in 2016, offers a wide range of standardised and recognised programmes and services for the Riyadh community. With a diverse community of students from more than 36 nationalities worldwide, Dome is the largest British Council and College Board Testing Centre partner in Riyadh, and an exclusive IELTS preparation and examination centre.

As the largest international school in Riyadh, Dome provides comprehensive curricula for both American and Cambridge education systems, with the language of teaching being English. Incorporating diversity is crucial for Dome's ethos, and its objective is to improve the quality of education by using advanced technologies.

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American and British (Cambridge IGCSE and A-Levels)
Ages: 5 to 18

Downe House Riyadh

Downe House, with over 100 years of experience, offers a tailored education combining the best of British education with respect for Saudi Arabia's culture and language. The all-female faculty provides a safe and caring environment for pupils aged 3 to 18.

Boys and girls are welcome in Pre-Prep and Lower Prep, while Upper Prep and beyond are reserved for girls. Downe House nurtures children through the core values it calls the "Downe House DNA". The school encourages the development of these skills in every aspect of a student's academic and personal life.

Gender: Co-educational in Pre- and Lower Prep, girls-only from Upper Prep
Curriculum: British (English National Curriculum, Cambridge IGCSE and A-Levels)
Ages: 3 to 18

MLS International School

Makers Learning School International (MLS) is an international school in Riyadh that offers early childhood and elementary programmes developed using well-researched American curricula that have proven to be successful. The school focuses on literacy growth, project-based learning, and provides students with resources and support in the areas of social and emotional development.

MLS embraces its Arab identity by offering a comprehensive Arabic language and culture programme and prepares its students for success in a global context by providing them with a nurturing and creative learning environment.

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: American
Ages: 18 months to 14 years

Reigate Grammar School Riyadh

Formerly known as the Multinational School, Reigate Grammar School (RGS) Riyadh is a British international school that teaches students from Kindergarten to Year 13. Although RGS Riyadh is relatively new to the city, having opened in September 2020, it is partnered with the renowned Reigate Grammar School in the UK.

Gender: Co-educational
Curriculum: British (National Curriculum for England, Cambridge IGCSE and A-Levels)
Ages: 3 to 18

Lifestyle in Riyadh

The lifestyle in Riyadh doesn't incorporate as many of the leisure-based activities most Western expats are used to. The Saudi capital is primarily a business destination, and its social scene is dampened by the country's strict adherence to Islamic social codes.

To mitigate this, Saudi Arabia seems to have turned to shopping, and Riyadh woos its residents with monstrous malls and sprawling souks.

Shopping in Riyadh

Buying the latest fashions from high-end international boutiques and sifting through the city's indoor and outdoor markets (souks) for local items such as Persian rugs, leather goods, handbags and local jewellery is a staple pastime for expat residents in Riyadh who have little scope to indulge in other ways. Souq al-Zal is the oldest and largest of these and overflows with brassware, carpets, clothing, jewellery, sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh.

Expats will find almost anything their heart desires at one of the local malls, with the most popular being Al Nakheel, Riyadh Gallery and Kingdom Centre Tower.

Eating out in Riyadh

There’s no shortage of restaurants in Riyadh, and food prices are generally reasonable. The city hosts a large selection of Middle Eastern fare and a growing international cuisine scene. But one side effect of being an Islamic country is that Saudi Arabia has different dining establishments for different demographics. ‘Singles only’ venues are exclusively for men, while ‘family sections’ are for married couples and groups of women.

Family sections are partitioned to protect women, and in traditional restaurants each table is completely closed off from the others, allowing women to remove their headscarves. Some have table buzzers, so diners can contact their server.

Restaurants in Riyadh also don’t serve pork or alcohol – ‘cocktails’ are in fact juice mixes and ‘Saudi Champagne’ is like sangria with carbonated water or lemonade but without wine.

Wherever they eat, expats should use their discretion, follow the cues of other diners and go with what seems appropriate for the establishment.

Tahlia Street is known for its fine dining and affordable eateries alike, with even American chain restaurants appearing on either side of the avenue. For expats who want a five-star experience, many of Riyadh’s hotels have excellent options and some have done away with gender-segregated sections.

Sports and outdoor activities in Riyadh

Sports enthusiasts can catch an Al-Nassr FC football game and marvel at world-class Cristiano Ronaldo's skills at the King Fahd International Stadium or one of the local sports bars.

Petrol heads will also have the opportunity to travel a little further out of Riyadh's centre to enjoy the Diriyah Formula E World Championship, where the world's best electric car racers congregate to outrace one another. 

Those looking for a breath of fresh air may enjoy a stroll through King Abdullah Park or Prince Faisal Bin Bandar Park. Temperatures in Riyadh limit the time that one can spend exercising outdoors. That said, many compounds come equipped with gyms and swimming pools, which are great for fitness enthusiasts.

Weekend breaks in Riyadh

For Western expats, Saudi Arabia can often feel restrictive. This is especially true in Riyadh, the country's capital and one of its more conservative cities. Many expats find themselves wishing for an outlet, especially on weekends. Luckily, taking a weekend break from Riyadh's working world is certainly possible.

Weekend breaks in Riyadh

Desert drives and hiking

Activities in and around Riyadh may be limited, but there's no shortage of activities in the surrounding desert, where soft red sand becomes rougher terrain that transforms into magnificent escarpments.

There are no designated camping areas, but most areas that aren't fenced off are opportunities for exploration. That said, going into the desert alone can be dangerous, and expats should go with formal groups or experienced people who know the terrain.

It's also possible to drive through the desert using four-wheel-drive vehicles. Several organisations plan day trips and weekend campouts. Some even offer GPS and sand driving courses.

Desert safety tips

  • Heat stroke is a risk. Expats should bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat with good coverage or a scarf, and bring snacks to replace lost minerals and maintain their energy levels.

  • A GPS is highly recommended and can be bought in the city with all the necessary maps preloaded – everything looks similar out in the desert.

  • While the desert is hot during the day, temperatures drop at night and expats should be prepared. Luckily, there are plenty of camping stores in Riyadh selling the necessary supplies.

Diving in the Red Sea

Expats often have no idea that Saudi Arabia is perfect for snorkelling, fishing and diving. Jeddah is an hour-and-a-half flight from Riyadh and is a popular weekend getaway that offers amazing sea life without the big crowds. Expats could also visit the Farasan Islands off the coast of Jizan.

Visit Dubai, Bahrain or Qatar

Expats who want a more drastic change of scenery could also consider a weekend break outside of Saudi Arabia.

It's a two-hour flight to Dubai, which provides a stark contrast to austere Riyadh. Alternatively, Bahrain is a little more than a four-hour drive away, and it takes seven hours to drive to Qatar (but flying is an option too). It's advisable to leave early in the day so that there's enough daylight to watch out for camel crossings.

Although all of these destinations are Islamic states, they're more liberal than Saudi Arabia and often have more varied entertainment options.

Depending on their nationality, expats can usually obtain a visa at the border. However, they should check each country's regulations before travelling.

See and Do in Riyadh

Once a little more than a desert outpost, Riyadh is now one of the Middle East's fastest-growing cities, and there are plenty of activities in the Saudi capital to entertain eager expats. Westerners will need to adjust their social expectations, though, as local Sharia law forbids alcohol, nightclubs and bars.

But even with these restrictions, expats can find plenty to see and do in Riyadh. Here are a few of the most popular attractions and activities to enjoy in Riyadh.

Attractions in Riyadh

National Museum of Saudi Arabia

Forming part of the King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre, the National Museum is a local landmark that gives insight into the history of Saudi Arabia. Its eight exhibition halls contain captivating displays of Saudi culture in its past and present forms.

Masmak Fort

A grand structure, this fort made of clay and mud-brick was originally built in 1865. It was the site of the famous Battle of Riyadh in 1902, which ultimately was one of the most important battles leading up to the unification of Saudi Arabia decades later in 1932.

Wadi Hanifa

The Wadi Hanifa is a 75-mile (120km) valley that cuts through the city. Various public spaces have been developed along the valley. These make for ideal weekend barbecue and picnic locations. For the athletically inclined, there are also runs, cycling routes and hiking trails.

Salam Park

A burst of green against the desert backdrop, Salam Park features lush lawns, date trees and an artificial lake. Expats can go boating, have a leisurely lunch, or simply lie back in the shade while the kids entertain themselves on the playground. Several restaurants provide snacks, but packing a picnic basket and relaxing at the lakeside is highly recommended.

What's On in Riyadh

While Riyadh is a fascinating place to live, expats might be dismayed by what seems to be a lack of annual events. Nevertheless, those who aren't afraid to immerse themselves in the local culture are sure to find some festivals and celebrations in Riyadh.

Annual events in Riyadh

Al Janadriyah Festival (March/April)

The vibrant Al Janadriyah Festival is held every year, showcasing the best of Saudi culture, customs and traditions. Visitors can take part in numerous activities and view displays of regional architecture, craft, cuisine, markets and folklore. It's a unique opportunity for expats to go back in time to the beginnings of Arab culture.

Riyadh Spring Festival (April)

Though spring in Riyadh is likely to be much hotter than most expats are used to in springtime, it's well worth braving the heat to visit the annual Spring Festival. More than a million flowers are planted each year in specially designed formations that create a large image, and the final result is nothing less than spectacular.

Outlet Festival Riyadh (October)

Held every year in October, this festival is a shopaholic's dream, with bargains and discounts galore to be found across more than 1,500 international brands. Goods such as garments, accessories, electronics, traditional jewellery and shisha are all available at the appointed spots throughout the city.

Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha Festivals

The two annual Eid feasts are the biggest Islamic festivals and are celebrated with great ceremonies in Riyadh. Eid al-Fitr comes right after the holy month of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha takes place after the Hajj pilgrimage. There are massive celebrations all over the city at malls, embassies and in the streets. Residents get into the spirit by decorating their homes and preparing sumptuous meals for family and friends. Many shopkeepers also show their generosity by providing free Eid gifts with each purchase, like chocolates and toys for children.

Getting Around in Riyadh

Expats may feel somewhat restricted when it comes to getting around in Riyadh. Cars are cheap, so most new arrivals opt to get a personal vehicle with a driver. While some expats do drive themselves, it can be a frustrating exercise.

Public transport in Riyadh is limited. The bus network is not user-friendly, especially for those who do not understand Arabic. A metro system has been under construction for a number of years and is set to be complete by the end of 2023. Until the completion of the project, though, taxis provide a useful alternative for getting around in Riyadh.

Driving in Riyadh

Expats in Riyadh often find they can afford cars they wouldn't have been able to back home, thanks to low import duties and cheap petrol. Roads in the city are well maintained, but local drivers are notorious for being aggressive and reckless, so many new arrivals hire a personal driver.

Speeding, cutting across lanes to turn, not indicating and ignoring right-of-way rules aren't uncommon, so driving defensively is advised. Expats can drive with a foreign or international driving licence for up to three months, after which they're required to apply for a Saudi licence.

Saudi Arabia has licence exchange agreements with Gulf countries, Canada, USA, the EU and Australia, this allows expats from any of these countries to simply exchange their foreign driving licence for a Saudi licence without taking a practical driving test. New arrivals who are not from any of these countries and regions will need to take and pass a driving test to secure their driving licence. 

Traffic cameras are increasingly being used to deter drivers from running red lights and speeding, and fines can be steep. Expats should check the government website frequently to see if they have any as it is not permitted to leave the country with unpaid fines.

There have been some positive changes in regard to the rights of women drivers in Saudi Arabia. Although women were previously not permitted to have driving licences in the Kingdom, the government has implemented legislation to change this and, since mid-2018, women are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Public transport in Riyadh


Historically, the bus network in Riyadh has been very limited. However, as part of the government's vision for 2030, it has been investing heavily in expanding public-transport systems in Riyadh. This means that more extensive bus routes are on the way.

While buses do exist in Riyadh, they are rarely used by expats. It's quite difficult for new arrivals to get to grips with the bus system in Riyadh, as there are no posted stops and routes are usually written in Arabic. Some expat compounds provide buses for short journeys to and from nearby shopping centres.

Taxis in Riyadh

Taxis are abundant in Riyadh and are an excellent option for expats who don't want to buy a car. They are reasonably priced, and drivers will usually use the meter if the passenger doesn’t negotiate a fixed price.

A taxi driver's English proficiency can vary from fairly decent to non-existent, so it's best to have the destination written down in Arabic before starting a journey.

Ride-hailing services such as Uber and local equivalent, Careem, are operational in Riyadh and can be a useful tool in bridging language barriers.