“I sacrificed my morals for a 6-figure, tax-free salary in Saudi Arabia”

Can you tell me a bit about you and your life?

I'm a 32-year-old British woman, in a long-term and long(ish)-distance relationship. I've lived in the Middle East on and off since 2010, with my longest stint being from 2019 until now. I live quite a solitary, stable life with my two cats, which I like because I'm an introvert and my job requires a lot of talking to people. I see my friends and my boyfriend a couple of times a month. My main hobbies are video games and board games. I am focused on saving, investing, and travelling.

Can you tell me a bit about your work background and history?

I studied languages at university and wasn't sure what I wanted to do after I graduated. I worked a few odd jobs in Cairo, Egypt and then joined a social media marketing agency where I found my passion for writing and editing, and so I went on to work at various news agencies. The pay was very low (i.e. $100-250/month) but the experience was beneficial.

I briefly worked in London earning £24,000; the company was nice but I hated the work and not being able to save any money. In 2019, I landed a marketing job in Doha, Qatar earning $72,000/year tax free, and the benefits included (not very good) health insurance, annual flights back to home country, and an end-of-service payment. Unfortunately it was a toxic environment due to Qatari work culture, nepotism, back-stabbing management, and terrible HR policies. However, I learned a lot and the experience really bolstered my CV and portfolio.

In October 2022, I was recruited for my current job in Riyadh and I joined the company in March 2023.

What do you do and earn now?

I'm an Assistant Manager in the Corporate Communications division for a hospitality developer in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I earn $105,000/year tax free, which includes base salary, housing, transport, and a phone allowance. Benefits include VVIP health insurance, annual flights back to home country, wellness allowance, relocation allowance (e.g. visa and logistics fees for moving to Saudi Arabia and final exit), annual bonus, and an end-of-service payment.

I've been working here for 8 months and I'm so happy I made the move. The company has a great ethos that I really believe in and my colleagues and management are supportive and (almost) everyone works hard. I feel appreciated and people acknowledge that you are the subject matter expert and are keen to collaborate.

What’s been the financial impact of the move?

Before I moved to the Gulf, I didn't have any hope of adding to my savings or paying off my student loans due to high rent and taxes. After one year in London, I had accrued the same amount of interest on my student loans as I had paid off!

Now, in Riyadh, where the cost of living is generally quite low (especially compared to London, Doha, and Dubai), my rent is only 20% of my salary and I pay half my salary into savings/retirement/investments. I've been able to take incredible holidays and visit friends across the world without dipping into my savings.

Morally, how do you feel about the move?

I was unsure about moving to Riyadh due to KSA's human rights record. I had already been questioned about how I could justify working in Qatar (when I revealed my salary, that usually stopped further questions!); for example, my step-mother asked me about Qatar supporting terrorists. My boyfriend says that he doesn't agree with the government but he'll still take their money - we have to look out for ourselves and we can't always do what's deemed morally right. Since the pandemic, the cost of living crisis, Brexit, and the worsening job market, I've received a lot less pushback from people about working in the Gulf.

It's not like I didn't try to find work in a "better" country. I sent out 400+ job applications around the world before my contract in Qatar ended. The fact is that I didn't have a lot of options due to Brexit and other issues with relocation, which I elaborate on below.

When I read about the cost of living crisis and my friends in the UK and other countries tell me how little they earn and how much rent is, I'm grateful that I live in the Gulf and that I can save so much and still have a comfortable life. The company I work for is doing amazing work for the environment, the local community, and the economy, and I'm very proud to be a representative for them. I also believe in what KSA is working towards for Vision 2030 - the recent reforms have been very well received by Saudis and it's incredible to be living through this transformation.

What are your future plans?

In the short term, I'm trying to get my boyfriend a job at my company so he can relocate and we can live together.

In the long term, I hope to keep paying into my retirement fund, pay off my student loans, and save enough so my boyfriend and I can semi-retire early. We both want to leave the Gulf. As grateful as we are to have well-paying jobs, we want to buy/build a house somewhere that's green and regularly gets snow in the winter.

Can you talk more about your experience and observations on KSA work culture and society?

While the Gulf definitely has a class structure based on race and gender, I should clarify that I am speaking from the privileged position of being a white expat.

  1. Since the reforms in 2018, women in KSA no longer have to wear headscarves and abayas, and the "religious police" have been disbanded. Men and women are expected to cover from neck to elbow to knee.
  2. Not all Gulf countries are the same. In Qatar and the UAE, the nationals only make up 10-15% of the population; whereas in KSA, they account for 60%. While both countries have quotas for hiring nationals, the proportions greatly influence the work culture. Generalisations ahead! In Qatar, nationals often demand prestigious job titles and there's a lot of politics and entitlement involved in who can work where and approve certain work etc. In Saudi, nationals work across all spectrums of society, from taxi drivers to CEOs. I was so scared about walking into another toxic work environment so it was a refreshing change to see nationals enthusiastically taking part in society and working hard. Saudis have high hopes for the future of the country and they're eager to be involved.

Is there anything else you’d like to add for someone thinking of working in the Middle East?

  1. The tax-free salary and socialised/fully insured health care mean you can save but many expats leave the Gulf having barely saved anything! With people sporting designer everything, enjoying luxury experiences, partying, and women tending to be very made-up, it's easy to feel like you need to keep up with the Joneses. I wouldn't say people are materialistic though; I've never felt judged for wearing high-street clothes.
  2. It gets really, really, really hot in summer. And humid, depending on where you are.
  3. You don't need to speak Arabic in Qatar and the UAE, but it's nice to know a few words to be polite. In KSA, I've needed to speak Arabic quite a bit more, but many people I know get by with just English.
  4. The Gulf/Hong Kong/Singapore are very open to people locating, but once you're there, you may have difficulty relocating outside the region(s) because employers don't understand relocation/why you're not already in the country.
  5. Your employer is your sponsor and is responsible for your work visa/residency/exit and entry permits. As an expat, you have to go through HR/Govt Relations for almost everything to do with personal administration.
  6. Processes are slooow in the Gulf because there's a lot of bureaucracy/administration. Don't be surprised if it takes up to 6 months from interview to actually signing your contract!