Life as a lawyer in Saudi Arabia can be a little daunting, writes Hyder Gulam, but it's a valuable experience if you know what to expect
Following a stint working as a lawyer in Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my experiences with other lawyers thinking about heading over from Australia. Working in the Kingdom presents a very different way of life to what we have here and it pays to know what to expect.
Before you arrive
So, you interviewed for the job; now what? Getting a work visa can be the show stopper. It is best that you speak to and understand what is involved with the office manager/administrator of the prospective employer. Getting an "igama" (the Saudi work visa) is a big thing, and will allow you to do many things, such as get visas for holidays to other countries, rent an apartment or purchase a car in your name.
However, there can be minimum wait of up to eight weeks, and I know of some of my fellow lawyers who waited up to 16 months.
Most likely you will have to bear you own costs re trying to obtain a visa, flights, excess luggage and then be reimbursed by the firm when you arrive. This means that there is an outlay you will need to consider not only for this, but also to set yourself up when you arrive, such as hiring a car until you can buy a suitable vehicle, housing and so on (which are discussed below).
All in all, you will need to bear in mind that you may be in the negative until you get reimbursed, and start getting paid.
Now if you don't have an igama, then you will need to put the car in someone's name - perhaps your employer can help here. If you do so, suggest that you get full comprehensive insurance, and once you have your igama, you will need to transfer the car back into your name.
However, before you can get your car, you will need a hire car. You will need your passport, a copy of your license, a deposit, the amount up front for the duration of the hire and a letter from your firm on letterhead stating that you are employed, with your annual salary noted. I suggest that you get this document in Arabic as well.
One of the lawyers I worked with once described to me that driving in the Kingdom was akin to the theory of Thomas Hobbes: what life would be like without government or rules, a condition which Hobbes called the state of nature, where each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This is not far from the truth with regards to driving here, especially navigating the roundabouts. Generally, I saw two accidents every day on the way to work.
Given seat belts are not mandatory, and that cars sometimes have more occupants than seat belts, and that children will be standing in the front seat - well, you get the picture.
On the freeways, I normally drove the middle lane, as the right most lanes will have the trucks, and there will be the F1 wannabes in the left lanes. You need to watch out most when there is an exit coming up, or a merging lane, as cars will pull right in front of you. I use my indicators, and wave when folks give way, but these actions are not required.
On normal streets, I suggest driving in the middle or left lanes, as cars will pull out of intersections (almost expecting you to give them way) and people will pull out of parking bays. The trick is to be calm, have your radar turned on at all times, expect the unexpected and maintain your situational awareness.
I suggest that you watch out for any beat-up American sedan, as well as the little Asian sedans, such as Toyota Corollas and Hyundai Accents. These vehicles are generally driven by folks who worried me the most.
Two unrelated last points here: I made a conscious decision to live close to the law office. One of the main reasons was to minimise time of the road. The other point concerns directions, road signs and maps. My best suggestion is to drive around on Friday morning, when there is little traffic on the road, to get a feel of city driving and the roads. I understand that you can purchase a GPS of Riyadh, but I cannot comment as to its effectiveness.
Housing in compounds is ridiculously expensive - for example, one compound charged SAR80,000 for six months, not including utilities and other miscellaneous expenses. I suggest negotiating with your employer regarding suitable accommodation before you arrive.
The other issue with compounds is the waiting list. For example, the waiting list for one compound was three years. Compounds offer security, a semblance of western lifestyle, with resort style living. It allows females to walk around without abayas (the black cloak which covers the whole body).
Your other option is looking for a place outside the compounds, perhaps the Diplomatic Quarter. You then need to consider furnished or unfurnished. If you have a family, the salient issues are how your children get to school, and if your wife works - how she gets to work..
Of course you can get a driver, which is around SAR1500 per month, but you will need to house this individual, as well as other costs. Incidentally, a maid costs about SAR1200 per month, not including other expenses, such as accommodation.
Generally rent is payable six months in advance as well.
Obviously the best place to buy furniture in Riyadh is IKEA. There is a store in Riyadh, which is open till midnight. In terms of electronics or white goods, have a look at stores like Carrefour or Extra (in the Granada Shopping Centre). I suggest that you get a decent map as soon as you can, and plan your routes in advance.
Food and general expenses
Within the limitations of living in the Kingdom, most foods are available here and at very competitive prices. Some things are cheaper here, like food, but other things are more expensive, like electronics. For example, the new Mac iBook is about $200 cheaper in Australia.
Food at the fast food chains generally charge the same price as you would pay back home, taking into account the conversion rate. But I would recommend the local cuisine, which is very cheap and also very tasty. Meanwhile, you won't need to worry about the price of petrol, which is extremely cheap at just eight cents per gallon.
Weekends, health and fitness
The weekends in Saudi are Thursday and Friday, so Australians travelling over need to adjust to a different working week, especially if you are used to calling your family back home on Sunday when they are having a family roast.
Riyadh is a big city, with about five million inhabitants. There is no public transport that I know of, and everyone basically drives (except for women). Thus, the air is quite polluted. You will find that you have more nasal discharge than usual, and sputum for the first few weeks, and that you will need more than normal water intake (a good two or three times more). Drinking the tap water is not recommended, so you will need access to a good source of purified water.
You will need to find a good outlet for maintaining your fitness given there are no good public walking/running tracks, and the weather can be brutal, so a gym is ideal.
Finally, I recommend that you moisturise often and all over your body. The weather leaves the skin extremely dry.
Praying is routine
Just about everything shuts or stops for prayers. Full stop. If you are not used to the Azan (the call to prayer), it may wake you from your slumber at around 5am.
Learning the language
Learn as much Arabic as you can before you arrive, as you will not have time to learn while you are settling in. There are a couple of places, such as the Arabic Cultural Centre (www.sa-acc.com), as well as folks who advertise private tuition.
In the shopping centres, the shops are open from around 11am till midnight, but close for prayers (around 20 minutes): at Zuhr (12-ish), Asr (3-ish), Magreb (6-ish), and Isha (8-ish). On Friday, the shops are open from 4pm, except the supermarkets which seem to either be 24 hours, or open around 8am.
On the streets, the shops are open from around 8am, but close at noon, opening again at 4pm till generally 11pm.
However, this is just the rule, and there are many, many exceptions.
Clothes are quite cheap, and you can get a tailored suit for around SAR400. Other western items, such as sporting goods and t-shirts are also quite cheap.
Life for expat women
I suggest that if you are coming with your wife and family, it is best that you and your wife speak to a fellow expat before you arrive. Life can be challenging here for women if you are not used to it - full stop. If your family is not prepared, or cannot adjust to life here, I posit that your time in Saudi Arabia will be quite short.
The routine as a lawyer
The hours of work are officially 9.30am to 6pm, with a half day every second weekend. However, these hours are flexible, as long as you achieve your budget. Some of my fellow lawyers started at around 11am, but worked back to close to midnight (they were single, or had family in the US).
Some of your fellow workers do not work the Thursday, understandably as this is time better spent with their family, and make up for it by starting early throughout the week. It is best that you negotiate this upfront.
Is Saudi for you?
Coming to Saudi is a challenge, but once you are here it is well worth it. You will need to have loads of "sabr" (patience), and do not expect anything to be done today, or this week for that matter. Things take time, and it best you realise early that you "ain't in Kansas anymore"!
Finally, make sure you have an exit strategy. Come with set goals in mind, and don't be disappointed if things change.
As they say in Arabic, "masalaam" - or "goodbye with peace".
Hyder Gulam is an associate with Logie-Smith Lanyon Lawyers, based in Melbourne