This Is Home: Reasons residents have fallen in love with the Kingdom
This Is Home: Reasons residents have fallen in love with the Kingdom
Five individuals share the beautiful reasons why they chose to put down roots in Saudi
Building a new nest in an unfamiliar country is a bitter-sweet feeling.
The novelty of the culture, the air of uncertainty, and the fear of not fitting in are entangled with the excitement of making new friends, scaling to new heights of personal and professional growth, and making new memories. But for those who love embracing different cultures, there’s a real buzz in discovering new experiences and uncharted territories.
While exploring alternative western lifestyles will always be alluring, there’s a gradual inclination for expats to settle down in the Middle East.
Whether it’s the enticing job opportunities or the appeal of geographical treasures, there’s one thing in common among the Kingdom’s expats — those who leave their homes to come to Saudi now call it their home.
Cécilia Pitré: Hope that turned into home
An expat for over two decades who has lived in countries like the UK, Thailand, and Oman, Cécilia Pitré is used to adapting to new environments and lifestyles. Originally from Brittany, a land of rugged coastlines, she has a natural love of adventures. Despite being miles away from her family in France, she was excited to uncover Saudi’s gems and contribute to its evolving vision when the opportunity came her way.
"I could feel the changes and vision; I wanted to support it all and actually be part of it," she says enthusiastically. "The transition was smooth as I was already in the region.”
The communication, PR, and marketing director at Nofa Riyadh has spent three years shuffling between Olaya and the calming outskirts of Riyadh. But what may now seem like a smooth transition was a beacon of hope she caught on to while she had Covid.
“I mainly socialise with Saudis and have a deep love and interest in their culture. Saudi hospitality is legendary,” Cécilia, who moved to Riyadh from Oman after the lockdown, says. “Of course, I have a few foreign friends too. I mingle with everyone.”
I mainly socialise with Saudis and have a deep love and interest in their culture.
Saudi hospitality is legendary.
She’s also fond of art clubs, creative talks, and workshops, and loves to travel around the Kingdom. When she’s not working, she’s probably busy plucking dates in Buraydah or posing for quirky pictures with camels in Qassim’s agricultural centre.
“I mostly do off-the-map trips, and a lot of them are in the Qassim area,” the talented adventure lover says. Suggesting shorter drives, she also notes that “good fun” is in the Eastern Province.
“I love National Day and Founding Day, which are both full of colour, and everybody is so close to their roots, exhibiting even more cultural habits and making us feel like we are a part of things,” she says.
Cécilia also explains how the Kingdom is in one of the safest places she has lived in, saying: “Saudi is really amazing to live in as a single European woman. I feel good, happy and respected, way more than if I was in my own country. We love Saudi.”
Ifeyani Ifesie: Transcending continents and cultures
Moving to the Kingdom with his family of five, Ifeyani Ifesie took the opportunity to start a new life chapter in Al Khobar six years ago. Their globetrotting experiences certainly made relocating to a new country a piece of cake.
“The transition was relatively easy as my family, made up of British, Polish, and American nationalities, had lived in multiple countries prior to arriving in Saudi,” Ifeyani says. “The language was the most significant challenge for me, but there’s always someone close by who is willing to help. I enjoy the safety that living in Saudi provides. It is the securest place I have ever lived in and is great for raising kids.”
Hailing from Manchester, a city steeped in its sporting glory and bursting with character, Ifeyani now enjoys Saudi’s scenic roads. He’s explored it all – from misty Abha to the breathtaking rose fields of Taif.
“I’ve completed two road trips and driven all around Saudi,” Ifeyani says. “My favourite destination was Abha; I enjoyed the drive through the mountains and the wild baboons along the way. The drive from Abha to Jazan was also quite exciting with lots of twists and turns in the mountain roads and lots of ancient forts spread along the route.”
The language was the most significant challenge for me, but there’s always someone
close by who is willing to help. I enjoy the safety that living in Saudi provides.
It is the securest place I have ever lived in and is great for raising kids.
He has had a successful experience professionally too, navigating as a manager in an energy services company. However, one thing that has raised his eyebrows is the locals' love of sweets. “I was pleasantly surprised by the culture of offering sweets, but my waistline would beg to differ. Most people in my workplace have sweets laid out in their offices and always offer them to visitors,” says the fitness enthusiast, who enjoys a winter morning run or bike ride along the coast.
On days he feels like indulging his taste buds, he will either be at Operation Falafel, the Sunroom, or Pattis. Plus, Ifeyani enjoys the corniche, with its numerous activities, in winter. Having made a good social circle with expats and locals alike, he feels that meeting new people in Saudi is easy if one is open to it. And besides the land’s beauty and culture, he adores the word “mashallah.”
“There is something very heartwarming about the sound when Arabic speakers use it,” he explains.
His one piece of advice about moving to Saudi is: “Forget every thirdhand information you might have obtained and come with an open mind. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
Rob Ashman: Powering through Saudi’s evolving economy
Rob’s stay in Saudi may not yet be a significant one, but he is all praises for the country and its ways.
“When I first moved to here, the prospect of starting from scratch in an unfamiliar environment was, admittedly, quite daunting. From securing a visa to opening a bank account, navigating my way around the city, setting up a new phone, and finding a suitable place to live, the tasks seemed endless,” the British national says.
However, Rob was pleasantly surprised to discover that lots of assistance was readily available, whether it was an expat who had previously faced the same challenges or a kind-hearted local.
“People consistently went out of their way to guide and support me. This overwhelming sense of community made the transition far smoother than I had anticipated,” the project management consultant says.
Rob’s move from picturesque Hertfordshire to the rapidly developing Saudi capital was professionally driven. He recalls it was at a time he was craving change. “An acquaintance from the UK was contemplating a move to Tabuk, specifically to contribute to the futuristic The Line. This ignited my curiosity,” he says. “Shortly after, an enticing advert showcasing the avant garde city of NEOM caught my eye. My intrigue in Saudi and its Vision 2030 grew exponentially. Recognising the country's transformative trajectory, I took the leap!”
The inherent adventurous spirit and the deep-rooted hospitality of the Saudi culture
make forging bonds a delightful experience. The portrayal of Saudi as an insular nation,
wary of global interactions, couldn't be further from reality.
Although Rob’s move to Riyadh was a solo endeavour, he says: “The inherent adventurous spirit and the deep-rooted hospitality of the Saudi culture make forging bonds a delightful experience. The portrayal of Saudi as an insular nation, wary of global interactions, couldn't be further from reality.”
It’s not just the Saudi way of life that has him head over heels in love with the place; he has also scoured the culinary scene and found his picks. “The culinary landscape in Riyadh is vast and ever-evolving, with over 50 restaurants opening a month. Among the myriad options, my favourites include Aseeb, Brekkie, Brew Crew, Pizza Bar IOI, Meat Moot, and Iris,” he says.
Beyond the commercial food sector, Rob has had a great experience with hospitality too. “The number of times I've received dinner invitations from taxi drivers, extending the warmth of their homes and families, has been astonishingly touching,” he expresses.
If there’s one place he would recommend and revisit, it would be the magnificent AlUla: “The rich history of the Nabataean civilisation and the monumental transformation of this UNESCO site into a world-class tourist haven is awe-inspiring. AlUla is a must-visit destination that serves as a testament to Saudi's burgeoning prominence in global tourism.”
Fascinated by its safety, Rob believes Saudi is a hub for global explorers. “This environment encourages local and international exploration. Saudi offers a blend of ancient traditions and modern landscapes, appealing to travellers worldwide,” he says. “Don't let hesitation hold you back. Dive in,” he adds, urging everyone looking to relocate to the country.
Cassandra Heilbronn: Setting the bar high for the west
Achieving CEO status at the age of 36 was a life-changing milestone Cassandra could only dream of back in Australia. Today, the family office head lives a life without complaints in Riyadh.
After being headhunted for a role at the Royal Commission for AlUla in 2019, she worked there for just over two years before moving to her current job.
“Life as a businesswoman is infinitely easier in Saudi than it is in the western world,” she says. “The hurdles one can face in the western corporate world in terms of career progression, having a seat at the table, and gender pay inequality are not an issue I have experienced in Saudi; it is quite the opposite.”
Some cultural distinctions that took time to get used to are the late-night socialising and laid-back work life.
“One notable difference is the later start time to the day. In Australia, I would be in the office by 7am, whereas in Saudi this tends to be later. Another big change was dinner time. My first invitation was for a 10pm arrival, which would be past bedtime in Australia,” Cassandra says.
"Life as a businesswoman is infinitely easier in Saudi than it is in the western world," she says.
"The hurdles one can face in the western corporate world in terms of career progression,
having a seat at the table, and gender pay inequality are not an issue I have experienced in Saudi;
it is quite the opposite."
Although it was hard for the CEO to move to a new country all by herself, she lauds the Saudi people for their respectful and helping nature, and recalls the time she needed help at a grocery store. She wasn’t aware fruits and vegetables had to be weighed and priced in the same section (in Australia this is done at the till). A Saudi family helped her and then invited her for dinner.
“I soon realised that Saudis love to host and open their homes to guests; dinner invitations in this situation are a regular occurrence,” she says. Like most expats, she shares a common love for the mesmerising desert landscape of AlUla. But her favourite place in Saudi is Al Wedj.
“It is a beautiful town. The residents are very hospitable and it has direct access to the Red Sea. I felt like I was back in Queensland with the clear waters,” she says.
Cassandra feels people should at least visit Riyadh, Jeddah, AlUla, Al Wedj, Abha, and Taif, which all have their unique charm. Whether it’s hiking, historical sites, great restaurants, events, or sports, Saudi has something for everyone, and afterwards there are various ways to unwind. Call it the right aligning of stars or the charm of Saudi that swayed Cassandra, either way, she’s found her home for many more years to come.
Nyree Cox: Embracing culture and smashing stereotypes
Nyree and her husband, Stuart, moved to Riyadh from Brisbane in 2015 without a plan, and little did they know it was where they would make a home, raise their kids, and have a life of contentment. When they first stepped into the changing deserts of the metropolis, Stuart was a Riyadh Metro project employee and she was a freelance photographer.
“Everything was so different from life back in Australia! Visually and culturally, there were definite contrasts. It was exciting and scary all at the same time,” she says. “Every time we left the compound it was like a giant adventure,” she explains. “As a photographer, the colour palette is sublime and the light here is incredible. My eyes were so wide open... I wanted to take photos of absolutely everything and still do.”
Nyree is passionate about smashing stereotypes about Saudi and Arab women in general. She says: “They are intelligent, articulate, ambitious, creative, intriguing, and so much more than what they wear or what the media incorrectly reports about them.”
She explains that she has experienced freedom as a photographer and has never been treated unfairly. The childhood that her daughters were blessed to have has greatly influenced Nyree’s view about women's safety in Saudi. The girls grew up in Riyadh and attended the American International School.
“It was an idyllic childhood. With the high rate of the expat movement, it has taught my daughters to be inclusive, kind, and resilient. Riyadh is a safe city to raise your kids; they roamed freely within the compound walls and there was very good security on the school campus. They also enjoyed excursions to several overseas locations – such wonderful opportunities and adventures!”
The visual arts scene here is fantastic and is expanding before my eyes.
There’s so much talent, some great galleries, and the government is really supporting the arts,
which excites me a lot,” she says. “I am unaware of any other government worldwide
investing so much into this sector. As a creative, there are opportunities here for me.
The country has been changing rapidly, and Nyree has been a witness to this change, from seeing segregated seating in restaurants and malls to the recent 2030 reforms.
“It is wonderful to hear music in these venues and enjoy non-segregated seating,” she says.
Naturally, as a professional creative, Nyree has an affinity towards the country’s growing art culture.
“The visual arts scene here is fantastic and is expanding before my eyes. There’s so much talent, some great galleries, and the government is really supporting the arts, which excites me a lot,” she says. “I am unaware of any other government worldwide investing so much into this sector. As a creative, there are opportunities here for me.”
Beyond the much-spoken Saudi hospitality, food, and culture, she finds “the practice of pausing five times a day inspiring.” Enjoying the call to prayer, she tries to just sit quietly when she hears it, she adds. Nyree has also fasted during Ramadan six times and thinks iftar is a beautiful experience that brings people together.
Be it the small pleasures of eating dahl on a banana leaf in the chaotic and crowded streets of Batha or indulging in a great brunch at Sociale or Tokyo, she’s smitten by the country and all that it offers.
Among the countless places she’s visited in Saudi for work and leisure, she’s looking forward to revisiting Umluj and its azure waters.
“The coral architecture of Yanbu is very unique. I love the use of breeze blocks in Saudi coastal towns. I have visited many beaches in my life and the Red Sea is arguably the most exquisite water I have swum in,” she says.
Nyree’s experience in Saudi has been blissful and her endless anecdotes are proof of it. From rejoicing in the comfort of being chauffeured around to having the desert, clear skies, and red dunes at her doorstep, she says moving to Saudi is the best decision she’s ever made.
Joshua Van Alstine: Fully immersed for life
Shuffling between his mother’s native Türkiye and the US, where his father was deployed in the air force, Joshua Van Alstine was as far from Saudi as one could imagine. And little did he know that his YouTube video challenging westerners to seek a better understanding of Islam would make him extremely popular in the Kingdom and eventually draw the attention of the country's leaders.
When he was 22, Joshua ventured into Saudi alone, and he is now a sensation in the Arab world. He is recognised for his Saudi accent while speaking proficient Arabic and dressing in traditional Arabian attire. Joshua’s alter ago, Abu Muteb, is a popular web personality who combines humour and commentary.
“I have embraced everything,” the co-founder of the Saudi Arabian Botanical Society says. “The language, the dress, the sense of humour, you name it! It's something I pride myself very deeply on, and I’m so proud that I have mastered it with such grace and support from my big Saudi family.“
After moving to the country in 2012, Joshua lived with a really giving, unassuming, traditional Saudi family for the first six years.
“I never interacted with western expats, it was not a conscious decision, it was just back then the societies were very separated. And very rarely would you see western expats walking around Riyadh as they do now; our paths never crossed,” he explains.
“I have embraced everything,” the co-founder of the Saudi Arabian Botanical Society says.
“The language, the dress, the sense of humour, you name it! It's something I pride myself
very deeply on, and I’m so proud that I have mastered it with such grace and support
from my big Saudi family.“
Diriyah is his home now, and Joshua plans to stay here all his life. He says Saudi offers something for everyone, from contemplative scenery like AlUla's sunsets to adrenaline-inducing equine sports. The country hosts many cultural heritage and modern entertainment events throughout the year, and Diriyah is a must-visit for its Najdi culture and ancient palaces. It's a cultural gem in the Kingdom.
“I love how predictable life is here. I love that I don’t have to worry about many of the things I used to have to worry about in the US,” Joshua says. “There is a peace of mind in Saudi I have never experienced anywhere else. It’s a place of so many different conflicting ideas. It is humble yet lavish, it is desolate yet so active and bubbly, it is so ancient yet 30-somethings and younger make up most of the population. It is very private yet very public at the same time.”
Joshua’s unique experiences have made him a part of Saudi for years to come, but he urges everyone to take on the opportunity to experience the world-famous sense of humour of the natives, who adore having fun.
“Saudi Arabia is not just the country you come to as a corporate colonist! You will not meet people who love to laugh and smile as much as Saudis,” he says.