Look at a Filipino expat's life in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, through Joseph’s eyes

Joseph left the Philippines to expand his professional horizons in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Receiving a sizable income is only one of his good experiences there: among the others are feeling the warmth of the locals and learning about another culture. Read on for eye-opening tips from Joseph on living and working in Saudi Arabia.

Joseph de Guzman

October 27 2006

-Where were you born?
Quezon City, Philippines

-In which country and city are you living now?
Khobar, Saudi Arabia

-Are you living alone or with your family?
Alone, but I board with a family

-How long have you been living in Saudi Arabia?
Three years (almost)

-What is your age?

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Saudi Arabia?
My stay here is strictly professional in nature. I felt that my career back in the Philippines had reached a plateau; I was on the lookout for new experiences, preferably with a considerable upgrade in my compensation. I sent out my CV to work in various foreign locations, but my current company was the first opportunity that had any certainty to it.

I had serious misgivings about moving to the Middle East, or anywhere outside the Philippines, for that matter. I had uncles and cousins who had worked long-term in the Middle East, but that settled only the part about security and safety. But eventually the prospect of staking out a new career in a brand-new place, without most of the baggage that characterized my professional life up to that point, was just too strong to resist.

After my current boss handed out my job offer, I said yes and within two months of visa and medical formalities, I flew over here.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
I’m with Administration in my current company and nobody with any business or friends in Saudi Arabia should even consider coming here. This isn’t a place to which people can aspire to go and try their luck. There are very stringent regulations, but once all the necessary justifications are completed only bureaucratic action slows down processing.

Moon Over KhobarOne current trend with South Asian-based expats is for them to send for their relatives or friends on visit visas which last anywhere from three to six months, and then arrange for employment. It helps that nepotism is tolerated or even encouraged. This is the part where visa processing gets tough, since regulations vary from time to time.

For Western-based expats, the going is a lot easier.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
This wasn’t an issue as medical insurance is one of the pre-conditions employers have to fulfill before sourcing for expatriate workers.

-How do you make your living in Saudi Arabia? Do you have any type of income generated?
As I mentioned, I work in Administration, specifically in Human Resources, for my current company. This is my main source of income. I was hired from Manila through an employment agency.

As moonlighting is frowned upon here because of visa regulations, informal income is limited to a few part-time jobs, sales of some consumer products, buy-and-sell operations, or even the occasional piano lesson. For me, I give some writing classes to students during my days off.

There are, of course, illegal operations like lotteries and selling alcohol, but these are things I wouldn’t go into, though I’ve heard of stories where people make out very well.

-Do you speak Arabic and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I don’t speak Arabic, and there is hardly any incentive for us to learn it. I personally believe it’s a form of discrimination and snobbery practiced by the locals. I have no particular difficulties with accepting Islam but of course I wouldn’t be in line to convert.

Saudis, by and large, are a largely misunderstood people, as are most Arabs. It’s so convenient for Westerners and outsiders to pigeon-hole Arabs in a box, and in this box they are mostly associated with negative thoughts and concepts.

I find Saudis to be a warm, fun-loving people, capable of great compassion. They are in touch with their lives, something some others with a wrong sense of priorities largely miss (and I mean Western Europeans and Americans in particular). However, some prevalent attitudes regarding child-rearing, work ethics, and women are unenlightened. But this is largely because of lack of information. I believe there is room for mainstream Islam and more “globalized” values, as opposed to having foreign ideas as mainly “Western” and therefore anathema. It’s a tough line to tread, and I have the utmost empathy for the younger Saudis who are trying to push for change within their own spheres of interaction. Time will tell whether they will succeed.

It is important for expats to at least respect local customs. It doesn’t harm you at all, and gives one a lesson in sensitivity and courtesy. That being said, I wouldn’t want to be a single woman living here. Hats off to them, particularly my fellow Filipinos.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Missing family goes without saying. Home, yes, but only because of the memories I shared with those I love.

I miss watching movies in a real cinema! The only recourse is to cross the Causeway into Bahrain. While I’m not really a clubber, I miss sitting down in a bar and just listening to a band playing tunes. This too, is available in Bahrain. I miss calling in sick because it’s hard to travel through a tropical storm. There is rain but nowhere near the levels to which I’m accustomed.

I also miss unlimited opportunities to go to prayer or hear Mass. They are a premium over here, but at least one can go (on Thursdays or Fridays).

Comparing the way I have fun here and back home, I’ve come to a realization that my leisure time is much more “value-added” and healthier, if I may say so, over here than back in the Philippines. Mostly I teach, because it keeps my mind absorbed. Long walks along the beachfront are also very good, and I tried starting a gym habit (though it’s not working).

It’s a bit more difficult and costly though, to say, organize a pick-up game of hoops, have a swim at a pool or beach, or do some more casual hanging out, especially since single men and women are not supposed to. It can be managed, and so far, I’m making out pretty okay.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
I plan to be back in the Philippines when I reach the five-year mark, at least to take a rest. That is, unless, better opportunities call and I must go. I prefer Western Europe, particularly the UK and the Low Countries for work. I’d like to go around the Mediterranean, but that is assuming I could afford it. (Technically I could, but I’d rather work on securing my retirement fund first). However, I’d really rather settle in Southeast Asia, notably Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. The Philippines, of course, but that is assuming that the opportunities are there.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Westerners are best advised to live in compounds or high-end apartments for their safety, if this is the final intent of this question. Most Westerners are provided their own housing anyway by their employers. I’m not aware of any regulations for foreigners to own land, and regardless, buying your own property here is ill-advised unless you plan to go native, or plan to stay in business long-term.

A fair-sized two-bedroom apartment (with living room either open or enclosed to make another bedroom) of appreciable standard is about $1,200 per month. I share a flat with a family so I can shave off a little from my expenses, and to have some semblance of community. Sharing is common among Filipinos even if they’re not related, but with the South Asians they have their own particular social conventions so they normally board together with their own families or village mates if their wives and/or children are with them.

-What is the cost of living in Saudi Arabia?
The great thing here is that utilities are really cheap. Gasoline is also cheap ($0.16 per liter or $0.61 per gallon). Food prices have gone up a little, but largely they are stable. There are a number of stores that cater specifically to Western tastes, and there is an Oriental store in downtown Khobar. The consensus here is if one is not very particular the savings potential is high. Telecommunications used to be more expensive, but with the entry of a new player it is also cheaper now. Generally one has to spend more on communications, but with the availability of the Internet at the office this is less of a problem.

Clothes and leisure activities are generally more expensive, but overall the cost of living here is about 15% less than any comparable city in Western Europe. It is of course cheaper to live in Manila, still, but some conveniences here like shorter lines and less traffic can be borne.

-What do you think about the Saudis?
Saudis are a study in contrasts, but my opinion about them is still largely neutral. One of my Filipino friends mentions that the longer he has been here, the longer he has come to disdain Saudi people. Maybe it’s just him and the experiences he has had. Or maybe I’m just a little more optimistic.

On the whole, whatever deficiencies Saudis have are not specific or endemic to them. There are bigoted people everywhere. There are people who mistreat their wives or sexually abuse their children elsewhere. There are people who are lazy, dishonest, back-stabbing S.O.B.’s in every part of the world. The only pervasive forces in this society are the certainty of oil profits and the influence of Islam, which do not necessarily mix very well, especially with an absolutist government. To say that current society is in flux is an understatement.

Otherwise, the main thing to be wary about is the religious police and their cohorts, including some stool pigeons among one’s own countrymen. If you live your life cleanly, are not given to public displays of your own flesh, or don’t demand a “freedom-or-nothing” lifestyle, you’ll do just fine.

And oh, mind the drivers! Drivers here, particularly the Arabs, are somewhat crazy. The Indians and the Pakistanis are not excused, either.

As to racism and discrimination, I’ve learned to live with it, as there is an established pecking order to get “respect”: Westerners (a bit higher than local, but no differences at the highest levels), Saudis, non-Saudi Arabs (Lebanese and Syrians at the top of the food chain, Sudanese/Yemenis/Egyptians at the bottom), Filipinos/Indians/Pakistanis (depending on your own position in the company, and/or the power structure in the organization), and finally Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans. There are smatterings of Thais, Indonesians, and other South Asians, but they don’t form very strong minorities so they are of little account. Chinese are a unique factor – the very rich are treated with respect while those who work for their wages are treated no different from other East Asian/South Asian expats. Japanese, Koreans and well-off Southeast Asians such as Singaporeans and Malaysians are treated as Westerners.

In any case, xenophobia here is no different than a small town in Middle America, though at least with other Christians it would be easier (I expect).

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Saudi Arabia?
Unless one was a Muslim, there is no value-added to making a permanent life in this country. This is strictly a place where one will earn money and then leave. Alternatively, those who make top dollar (mostly Westerners) and live their lives insulated from the rest of Dammam/Khobar society also do fine, but they all look to the day when they could retire elsewhere. If they come to love this part of the world, most of them are in Dubai or Bahrain.

Some Filipinos have managed to make their lives with their families here, as a preferred alternative to absentee parenting, but hardly anyone considers this place HOME. Filipinos have been noted to be peerless when it comes to assimilation, but for some reason, we don’t want to be assimilated here. Maybe this would be possible if the Establishment here is making it easy, but it isn’t.

Still, as with any form of living outside the Philippines, it gives one a fresh perspective on the country’s pressing problems, and strengthens one’s own identity and nationality. The community here is very active, much more than it would be back home.

I consider myself privileged for the position I hold in my company and the opportunities I received (which, I believe, because I earned them), but so many others have to deal with a host of difficulties the least of which is not being adequately compensated. It’s a testament to the NECESSITY of leaving the Philippines that so many Filipinos strive to come here.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Saudi Arabia?
Always carry your work or travel documents with you. Be on the right side of the law. Drive defensively. Don’t go “exploring” for “cultural learning” without someone you trust and one who is actually knowledgeable. The rest of living here is simply like any other big city – lock your doors at night, don’t aggravate the neighbors, dispose of garbage properly.

The changes in Saudi Arabia have resulted in a lot of petty crimes, so be careful about your vehicles or when walking around.

One major thing outsiders would have to cope with is the effect of prayer time on all activities – for one thing all commerce ends (shops perforce must close), and another, it’s also time to be quiet and let the Muslims pray. The whole month of Ramadan is also an experience to live through, though mostly it’s playing it by ear, just keeping in mind to be sensitive to what the locals are doing.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Saudi Arabia?
One particular site I’ve locked into is Saudi Jeans. There is nothing very usable unless you know how to read Arabic, so the usual references have to be used. There are of course, company-sponsored websites, and I just stumbled into Aramco ExPats, and it’s Western-oriented, which is good if you are one. Our organization maintains S.P.A.-T.D.G., but the website is still raw and needs a lot of improvement.

The sites I maintain are Willing Exile and SPA Creative Writing.

living and working in KSA

pittong's picture

Whew! you give a very detailed description of living and working in
Saudi Arabia. It's worth knowing what are the DO's and DONT's in KSA if your planning to go there as an expat. Your account of your personal experiences and observations, gives me an insight of what kind of life there is in Saudi.

God bless.

Please Advice.


Wow what a good insight,how does such an offer sound:

4000 SR,accommodation and transport, tickets back home after 2 years, medical insurance,for a company in Jeddah. I am a bachelor in his mid twenties.I am currently leaving in Africa- kenya,are there many Africans.


marlinmoodley's picture

What are the living expenses like accomodation, transport - like purchasing a second vehicle.
I have been offered a position in Saudi and would like as much info as possible before relocating to Saudi.