10 Things you Need to Know About Living in Jeddah Saudia Arabia

By: Lyn Birrell

In 2012 my husband’s was approached by an KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) company to come for a job interview. He was flown by the company to Jeddah KSA where he stayed in a hotel overnight, then went for the interview the next day. Firstly as is the custom in Saudi Arabia, he was greeted and taken to some lounge chairs where he was served lots of different types of dates and had to drink copious amounts of Arabic coffee. Saudi's like to get to know you first. It is only after this that he could begin the interview which went well. My husband came back home to Australia. Then the waiting game began. (Saudi’s do not make decisions in a hurry!) After much time – 3 months he found out that he had secured the job. So thus began the journey of becoming and expat, getting his residency visas and the Igama. (A residency ID card of Saudi Arabia) It took from July until November to get his Igama.

Once he arrived in Jeddah he then had the task of finding a compound for us to live in. I had stipulated that “I need to have greenery around me and I don’t want to stare at a giant wall with razor wire on it.”  I was beginning to get cold feet because I would be leaving my Daughter and granddaughter behind. My daughter said to me, “The way you are Mum, you will end up in the dessert buried up to your neck in sand.”  Meanwhile, my husband spent a lot of time after work, looking at compounds and finally found one that had a villa, with greenery around it, and no wall with razor wire.

He sent photos of the villa and surroundings to me to have a look. (big mistake – HUGE!!!!!) I loved the gardens and pools, but was horrified when I saw the villa inside. It had filthy rotting carpet on the floors, it looked dark and dingy, and paint was coming off the smoke stained walls. The kitchen had an old stove and fridge. The bench tops melamine was peeling off. The net curtains in the lounge were disintegrating.  The bedroom wardrobes looked discussing with handles broken and hanging off and encrusted dirt on the doors. The tiles on the bathroom walls and floor were cracked, mouldy, chipped and dirty. The toilet bowl was yucky brown stained and the seat cover was supposed to be white was discoloured yellowy brown and cracked. I was mortified! NO WAY!!! I thought. I immediately rang my husband and said “I am NOT coming!”

Poor husband was feeling rather anxious by this stage. He assured me that the villa was going to be completely renovated before we moved in. He said I could pick the colours of the paint, curtains etc… I wasn’t convinced that it was going to happen, but as I chose the paint for the walls and asked for various things to be done it did happened. He sent me photos of the renovations as they happened.  The whole villa had been painted, new kitchen installed with new stove and fridge. Carpets removed new tiles on all the floors. New toilet installed. All the wardrobes were painted with new handles. I was amazed, it was a dramatic change! I thought “YES” I could live there.  So I then started reading everything I could about Saudi Arabia and its culture.

Nearly one year on I love living in Jeddah Saudi Arabia. I have had some incredible, amazing experiences. The key to living as an expat in Jeddah is to accept and embrace the culture. It is all to do with having a positive mental attitude. 

These are the top 10 things you need to know about living in Jeddah.

1.       10 words you need to know:      
Waahid (one)
Ithnaan (two)
Thalaatha (three)
Yameen (right)
Yasaar (left)
Aalatoola (along straight)
Halass (finish, end, no more, that’s it, stop)
Shukran (thankyou)
Kam Thaman Alqalam (how much)
Laa  (no)

2.       Yes does not always mean YES – When shopping if you ask a Saudi man if this item whatever it is can do a certain thing. They will usually say yes. It is their custom not to say no it is impolite. So even if they don’t know the answer they will often say yes, they will not say they don’t know. The same goes with directions. If you ask where is a particular shop they will point in any given direction and tell you it is down that way. You will soon find out that it isn’t.

3.       Taxi’s – Most of the taxi drivers are Pakistani, Indian, Yemen and Egyptian, and tend to have little or no English. So before you get in make sure they understand where you want to go. Agree to a fare also before you get in. (get advice from local western expats on prices) they do have car meters but don’t use them.  Many of the drivers go by landmarks, such as Malls, not street names. So I usually print out a map with directions. This is not foolproof as many roads and street names have been changed. It is not uncommon to find that there is another street not on the map. You also cannot go by street numbers as most houses and shops do not have them. Nearly everybody has a PO Box. If you ask someone their street address they will not be able to tell you. You will get a series of direction for e.g.: Go along Hira until you get to the Hilton, then turn right, then turn left at the third street, I am the fourth house on the right, the one with the fabric hanging on the door. Very challenging at times as these directions can often be wrong too. Now days I know my way around. I usually say “I tell you where to go” if it is complicated and they don’t speak English. I pick a landmark near to where I want to go, then I use my limited Arabic word to navigate yameen, yasaar, alatoola. It seems to work for me.

4.       Shopping Queues – Saudi’s do not know about politeness of other western cultures when queuing in lines. You may start to get in a queue to be served waiting patiently, when you will notice that they push in to get served. They are not being rude, they have not been taught about waiting their turn.  Many times in the beginning I would be in the middle of being served when someone would ask the shop assistant a question of where something was or want to pay for their goods. At first I use to think “HOW RUDE” but then I learned more about the culture. If it happens to me now I speak up. Recently I was at an ATM waiting to get some money out. A Saudi man was in front of me getting his money, when another Saudi man stepped in front of me. I said to him “Excuse me, I was here first, get to the back of the line and wait your turn”, as I pointed to the back of the line. The Saudi man at the ATM said “He is with me.” I said “No he isn’t so he can wait his turn.” The other man said “I no understand”. I said “yes you do, very rude, bad manners." He stayed there. When the other man had finished, the second man bowed smiled and said “your turn madam”. I said “Shukran, coist kateer shukran” with a big smile. (thank you, very good, thankyou) They both smiled and left. I always make a point of thanking people who show consideration. They appreciate it.

5.       Women of Jeddah –  I have met some lovely Saudi women in the time I have been here. Many of them appear to be aloof or shy, but they are not. Once you talk to them, they are very friendly and like sponges wanting to know all about you. They have many challenges in life that they face. Such as: They are not allowed to drive, so have to rely on drivers chosen by their husbands or guardians to take them everywhere. They are not allowed to catch taxis. They are not allowed to socialize with other men apart from family members. So women do not generally talk to men, only at shops to ask a question about merchandise. A lot do not even say thank you or please in case it is seen as flirting. They can only work in certain sectors, hospitals, schools, beauty, and some sales positions, although this is starting to change, which is great to see. They are very talented, educated and smart. A few of them have their own businesses.

6.       Shopping – When I first came here, I couldn’t get over all the bling in the shops. Beautiful party and ball dresses with lots of colourful jewellery, sequins, embellishments and embroidery on them. I remember thinking when an earth would they wear them. Given that they wear black abayas and head coverings. Little did I know. It was only when I spoke to a young Saudi girl asking her what does she do with her time seeing that she doesn’t work, that I found out. This is what she said to me. “I sleep, I eat, I watch tv, I go shopping and I go to Parties.”

If you are a sewer there are so many souqs and shops to go to selling beautiful fabric and embellishments at very reasonable prices.

7.       Inshallah – This is Muslim saying which means “god willing”. Many Muslim’s say it in conversation frequently. Sometimes it is misused such a when you ask a Saudi to do something. They will say “yes inshallah.” Which is fine. We noticed very quickly that if one inshallah was said it will probably happen. If two inshallah’s are said it’ not looking good. If three inshallah’s are said it is NOT going to happen. You can also tell by the way it is said, if they mean it or not.

8.       Rubbish – When I first came here I was shocked to see all the rubbish in the streets around our compound. It is not their custom to throw rubbish in the bins. Many simply drop the rubbish on the street or throw it out on the street. I have seen a big SUV stop in a car park with all the occupants opening up their doors and emptying the car of all its rubbish. Saudi’s in the past were used to having people come around in trucks at night to clean up the rubbish on the streets. This no longer happens, so they are in the throes of being re-educated.

9.       Cats – They are everywhere. It’s not uncommon to pass by a skip bin and see seven cats and tiny kittens, dirty, maimed, scrawny, and some very scary looking ones. They are wild and don’t have homes. Sometimes they come into the compound looking for food. We adopted one persistent black and white cat “Tails” (he has an extra-long tail) who must have belonged to someone at some stage, because he had been neutered. He defends his territory very strongly if another cat comes anywhere near our villa.

10.   Prayer Times – Muslims pray 5 times a daily. It takes a bit of getting used to, but after a while you don’t notice prayer times. I also found it important to plan when, and where I was going around prayer times. If I am going food shopping, as long as I am in the store before prayer it doesn’t matter. As soon as it is prayer time the staff leave the shop then close the doors and lock you inside, where you can continue to shop until the prayer is over. Once they open the doors and the staff has come back inside, you can then go through the checkout. 

About the author

Expat Blog ListingLyn Birrell is an Australian expat living in Saudi Arabia. Blog description: Expats living in Jeddah. Things to do, places to go, culture, shopping, restaurants. What it is like living as an Expat in a compound in Jeddah.Things you need to know that will help when arriving.
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Contest Comments » There are 43 comments

Kerry Williams wrote 10 years ago:

This blog always brings a smile to my face its great to read so many interesting and different chapters on life in Saudi , a great blog

Heather Duncan wrote 10 years ago:

As a British expat in neighbouring Oman it was interesting to read about the country just next door from another females point of view. Great points and I'm glad you are enjoying it :)

Julie Choudhury wrote 10 years ago:

It is really a pleasure to read a post like this, every country has its negative and positive sides and their own values. We can learn from these and thereby appreciate both their and our own culture.

Kathy Hill wrote 10 years ago:

congratulations Lyn on such a wonderful informative, and colourful blog about a life style I have known little about in the past. Keep it up.

Renae Shepherd wrote 10 years ago:

This information should be made into a welcome to Saudi brochure for any new ex pats delivered to compounds.

Julie wrote 10 years ago:

I love the way you string the culture into your stories. Its very interesting to learn about how different people live.

Russell Birrell wrote 10 years ago:

This is a great introduction to 'life in jeddah' through the eyes of an expat wife and provides insight and great advice for newcomers to slide into a unique and potentially 'once in a liftime' opportunity to enjoy a fascinating, and at times, challenging culture with very friendly people.

Bot Sabijon wrote 10 years ago:

Great blog! Very informative. I felt like I'm in the journey to every adventures and posts, as well.

Debbie wrote 10 years ago:

Informative with a quirky twist love it always makes me smile

Michelle Cousins wrote 10 years ago:

Such a delightful read. I had no idea of the customs and etiquette in this land. I couldn't imagine being locked in a shop.

Helen Bradley wrote 10 years ago:

I really enjoyed reading Lyn's Blog on life as an Expat living in Jeddah. The blog was well written, very description of life, .the people, and their Customs. Any newcomer would be delighted in getting so much information to prepare them for their new life in Saudi Arabia .

Amaya wrote 10 years ago:

This is a great resume of all what you need to know before living in Jeddah, totally agree with you!! Thanks a lot to take your time to share with all your experience. You have helped to me a lot!! All the best, Amaya.

Bander Radein wrote 10 years ago:

You know something...I could have used this list when I first returned here eventhough I am Saudi :)

Nada Assaf wrote 10 years ago:

Very intersting blog . Its helped expatreats like us have an idea of this country . Well done, keep up

Timothy S wrote 10 years ago:

What a read! Some great tips for upcoming expats in KSA.

Fallon Clarke wrote 10 years ago:

I really enjoyed reading this great, informative blog, from a female expat's point of view. Keep the posts coming Lyn! Always a pleasure to read about your latest adventures in such an exciting place!

Sabaa wrote 10 years ago:

Good luck Lyn! Your blog is a great addition to the Jeddah blogosphere and I do check in from time to time. Hope we get to meet in person some day :)

Uzma Sabahat wrote 10 years ago:

living in jeddah is superb blog, I love the way lyn writes for the blog, its not only informative its the reason I started enjoying jeddah, as Lyn has introduced amazing places to visit with all the details. For me this blog is THE BEST :)

Michelle Hydamacka wrote 10 years ago:

Thank you very much. Interesting article. So many things I didn't know about their culture.

Mehnazmasroor wrote 10 years ago:

Really it was very intersting to know that I have the similar type of experience .Excellent article lyn .

Isabella wrote 10 years ago:

Lyn's blog is funny, interesting, and above all, really helpful to someone who lives here; she's done all the hard work for us! Keep it going Lyn, thanks!

CMT wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks for the informative read on Jeddah. I've been in the Middle East seven years now, but I'm convinced it's impossible to say I've truly experienced life in the Middle East since things tend to be a lot more western here in Qatar than in KSA. While shops close for Friday noon prayer here, other times it is pretty much business as usual, the only difference being the call to prayer echoing in the background. Going to check your blog now!

Chelsea Rose wrote 10 years ago:

Sounds like an interesting place. Might need a private driver to go anywhere as i dislike haggling for a taxi fare.

Mabelle wrote 10 years ago:

Wow! This is a very informative blog and I agree about the things you've said. It's a well written article... after all Saudi is not that bad. :)

Monie wrote 10 years ago:

As a fellow expat living in jeddah it was so funny to read of Lyn's Adventures, she's a lot braver than I was when exploring. A fun and informative blog, a good source of information for anyone planning on moving to jeddah.

Ali wrote 10 years ago:

This past year has truely been an insight into a vastly different culture to the one we were born to here in Australia. Well done Lyn for your positive attitude to embracing and experiencing such a different way of life, more over sharing it with us so we to may feel not so distant from you in the middle of the planet ! and just perhaps it will help us all to exercise a little more tolerance to what might seem 'rudeness' to us here in western culture - maybe even encourage us to express ourselves a little more rather than 'stew and judge'.

Ahmed Shahin Ali wrote 10 years ago:

Lyn Birrell u are a great writer this is a very interesting Vision of the ksa culture and by the way the taxi part was absolutely funny

Mohamed wrote 10 years ago:

wonderful words, very beautiful explanation about life in Jeddah. I would like to point out that " Kam Thaman Alqalam " means : how much is the pen you can say " kam hatha or kam hathi? " which means how much is that or how much is this. the words " accept and embrace the culture" are golden words for any one travel and mix with other cultures. Thank you Lyn

Elaine Argaet wrote 10 years ago:

It's interesting to learn about other peoples' lives. It expands your mind and gives more understanding.

Christine Plowman wrote 10 years ago:

Lyn you are an inspiration, how quickly you have accepted your new environment and living as an expat.

Marius Meijer wrote 10 years ago:

Lyn describes the life in Jeddah so colourfully and tastefully, I wish I am there. But then, I am and need her perspective to see the beauty in it. Great writing, Lyn

Mariana Meijer wrote 10 years ago:

I have read every entry ever written on this blog and really enjoy the vivid, colourful tongue in cheek way that Lyn paints the everyday events of expat living here.

Carol Henderson wrote 10 years ago:

Lyn, a very good informative blog which, I'm sure will be a great help. Personally, I would have added the following as essential to the words to know. When greeting a Saudi or any Muslim. Aslamalaykum (peace be on you)and the response Walaykum salam (and also with you). Also the response to Shukran is Afwan (you're welcome). Apologies for the spelling! I'm not sure if this is appropriate but perhaps a comment on Culture Shock which sometimes happens to females after being here for about 3 months, particularly single females. Homesickness combined with the lack of independence can lead to depression. It doesn't seem to affect the married women so much. Always willing to help you with this. xx

Venti wrote 10 years ago:

What I like is that you will try to integrate the culture of this country.

Sabahat Zaidi wrote 10 years ago:

This blog is one of the most interesting blog, as it covers a vast variety of colors of the life :) I love to read every post .I hope this blog will become the top blog in the history of jeddah.

Marieta Cruickshanks wrote 10 years ago:

Witty, funny, informative .... Pleasure to tea at all times! Good luck and thanx!

David Strickland wrote 10 years ago:

In my relatively short time on the different Expat Blogs I've come to appreciate and really enjoy Lynn's take on so many things in the Kingdom. She was the first blogger I reached out to when considering my own journey to Jeddah and her honest and heart-felt response hit home with me. During my time in the military I've traveled quite a bit in the middle east but have never visited KSA. The Kingdom, while similar to Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq, is totally different atmosphere. I will keep this blog in mind and also continue to reach out to Lynn for more of her insight.

Rana wrote 10 years ago:

A very useful read for the expats living in Jeddah. Thank you Lyn

Kate Atkins wrote 10 years ago:

Wow what an interesting read. U totally sound like me esp with the way u said u where not going to go there with the house in the state it was in! I read this from beginning to end, and even read it aloud to our kids. They were transfixed (which is hard when u have 7 of them!) The kept asking how to pronounce certain words. SO well done was very informative and kept my kids happy and intrigued. BTW I printed out the words with the translations so the kids could continue to learn and all I can hear now is their funny pronunciations of these words. Thanku for making my children happy and for a very interesting and knowledgeable blog

Anne-Maree Bone wrote 10 years ago:

I am Lyn's sister-in'law and am enjoying keeping up with Russ and Lyn on all their adventures.

Claudia wrote 10 years ago:

It is great to have the chance to get a taste of life in Saudi from your point of view! Thank for sharing your experiences! It has a enormous value for the expats community.

Claudia wrote 10 years ago:

It is great to have the chance to get a taste of life in Saudi from your point of view! Thank for sharing your experiences! It has a enormous value for the expats community.

Sam wrote 10 years ago:

Great blog. It is tough finding useful information regarding tourism in the Kingdom. It is great to find a blog that sums up the important and useful information that is relevant to expats!

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