I have worked for several companies around the world and as a consultant have had the opportunity to visit and study many more, within this article I will relate to you what I know about how are Expats treated in Saudi Arabia. Firstly my own experiences as a westerner working in Saudi Arabia and then the treatment of expats from other less affluent countries.
Saudi General Behavior
I would describe many Saudi men as acting very much like petulant teenagers, when things are going their way they are happy and friendly, but as soon as something happens that they don’t like they either sulk or start to shout. The shouting seems however to be the most preferred route. They will however choose carefully who they shout at like most bullies, they would never shout at someone that may for instance be higher up the social ladder than they are, but they would not hesitate to scream at an Indian clerk in a store.
I have seen Saudi men shouting at and even hitting their own wives (daughters?) in public but have never seen them do that to anyone outside their own family circle. I have also several times witnessed Saudi women arguing in stores as vehemently as the men do, but generally the men have either walked away or dragged the women away with them.
The Saudis believe themselves to be the most important people and as such will do their best to never queue for anything, if you go to an airport in Saudi Arabia and wait patiently the clerk at the front of the queue will spend half of his time dealing with Saudis who insist on going straight to the front delaying everyone even further.
How Do Saudis Treat Western Expats?
Saudi is a very hierarchical society, if you are perceived as being the top of the pile you will be treated accordingly, if however you are seen as being lower in social level then you may be treated with contempt if not out rightly abused.
Most westerners are hired for more senior roles so most western expats in Saudi Arabia are treated fairly respectfully by Saudis, although you still get a few that will look down their noses at you as a “non-Muslim” (even if you are a Muslim.) At first when I was working in Saudi I thought that my requests for action, signatures, in fact everything were being ignored; maybe because I was not a Saudi. Then I realized that in fact the whole system was just slow and Saudis so un-trusting of each other that no one was able to either make a decision or even empowered to make one that nothing was being done. They don’t single you out to do nothing for, they just don’t do anything!
The general laziness of Saudis can be very frustrating to a westerner and is often taken personally especially when things that we think of as being important to ourselves are not acted on promptly.
During most of my working time I was treated respectfully, as I already mentioned getting anything done was always a problem but I quickly got used to that and never took it personally. There were a few incidents however that I was not happy with at all, one was with regards to getting the dependent visa for my wife, the paperwork was rejected several times for minor reasons until the company representative said I would have to offer a bribe of over $1000, I don’t know if the problem was with my companies representative or with the embassy actually wanting a bribe – but some see westerners as being stupid and rich and try to rip us off, no changes were made to the paperwork and it was accepted after I paid!
I also had problems dealing with Saudis in the UK when applying for firstly my Saudi Business Visa when I was told by a clerk “we don’t want you sh1t in our country”, and when I applied for Saudi work visa my degree certificate was returned covered in coffee stains and having been screwed up despite having been sent in a plastic envelope and a heavy card sleeve to protect it.
I also found my employment terminated from one company prior to the end of my contract due to to the company having to get rid of foreign workers to comply with Saudi employment requirements as well as a general downturn in the worlds economy; the company treated me very badly, my termination letter was not handed to me by my boss or by the HR manager, but from a general worker in the HR department and no one was initially available to talk with me. They only offered me a fraction of my benefits and notice telling me that I either accept or they will not allow me to transfer my sponsorship or give me a reference; if I took legal action they would pay me nothing including my housing and other benefits until it was completed (more than a year) and I would not be allowed to leave the country or take another position! I took legal advice and the lawyer gave all of my paperwork to the company as they were on retainer to the company and did not tell me when I asked for advice! I was blackmailed and threatened, things that I never expected would ever happen to me anywhere in the world!
How do Saudis Treat Expats from Poorer Countries?
If you are not from the west and your work position is further down the “pecking order” you may just find yourself being verbally and even in some cases physically abused by Saudi “superiors” and sponsors. I have seen both maids and drivers from various “poorer” countries being shouted at and even beaten publicly by their sponsors for minor problems. Also workers on construction sites and in factories being shouted at and being called names for perceived incompetence in their work. This type of behavior seems to be contagious as I have also seen Pakistanis, Indians and even a couple of westerners in better positions taking the same approach with subordinates in the work place, something that I am sure they would not have done back home.
My wife worked at a couple of different hospitals and at one point one of them took on several “illegal” nurses to work, nurses that were either runaways from other employment or were married and on dependent visas. At the end of the first month the hospital asked them all for their Iqamas (residency and work visas) knowing that some did not have them and that those that did were not sponsored by the hospital. They then spent the following month telling the workers that they were trying to find a way to legally pay them for their work. To cut a long story short these women all worked three months and were never paid, and could not complain as they were working illegally. This hospital and other companies that I have heard about since still do this knowing full well that they can persuade desperate people to work and then refuse to pay them!
There are many people that are suffering from delayed payments and other problems such as Iqamas that are not renewed that can do nothing against their employers. Most do not realize that they can go to either their home Embassy for help or even through the Saudi Labor courts which can be fair although they are very slow.
There are also many runaway domestics in Saudi, some seeking higher wages but many escaping from abusive sponsors; I have spoken to many maids who have been sexually abused and raped by sponsors repeatedly for months by sponsors, they have had to escape despite the employment being the only way they can provide for their families back home.
Saudi Good Behavior
Despite the bad side of Saudi behavior they can also be very friendly and hospitable, I have been invited to family parties and even weddings by Saudis that I barely knew. They can be very welcoming in their own way.
I have also seen Saudis taking trays of food out to beggars on the streets to feed them and during religious festivals many are very generous to the many beggars and poorer members of society.
If you are from the west then you will be treated generally with respect, however if you are from a poor country beware as you may be treated very badly. I hope this post has helped to explain how expats are treated in Saudi Arabia, if you have any questions or want to leave a comment please feel free.