Living in Saudi Arabia – A Guide for PhD Students
Written by Ben Taylor
The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a fascinating place to live and study for adventurous PhD students hoping to benefit from the country’s generous scholarship programmes. Home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a stretch of stunning Red Sea coastline, Saudi Arabia is full of surprises.
This page will give you an overview of everything you need to know about student life in Saudi Arabia, from accommodation and living costs to transport and culture.
Saudi Arabia is relatively undiscovered as a tourist destination, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see and experience, from the bustling metropolises of Riyadh and Jeddah to the rolling dunes of the Empty Quarter.
Culture and tourism
Riyadh is a sprawling major city with a vibrant local art scene. The skyline is dominated by the distinctive silhouette of the Kingdom Centre, its spires connected by a skybridge that affords unparalleled views over the city and surrounding desert.
Jeddah lies on the Red Sea coastline and has the atmosphere of a dynamic port city. Along with traditional, UNESCO-listed architecture, Jeddah is often considered the commercial hub of Saudi Arabia.
Sport and leisure
Saudi Arabia is a world-renowned scuba-diving destination, with the crystal-clear waters of the Red Sea home to a rich variety of marine life. The deserts that cover much of Saudi Arabia are a popular day trip from the major cities and can be explored via several means: camel, jeep or quad bike.
Food and drink
Saudi cuisine is diverse and often very affordable (unless you splurge on one of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Riyadh or Jeddah). From traditional Arabic dishes featuring camel and lamb to breakfast treats involving rahash (a kind of nutty fudge), there are lots of opportunities for the adventurous food lover.
As you probably already know, alcohol is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia. Instead, cafes serve coffee and a selection of non-alcoholic drinks.
Saudi Arabia is governed by strict Islamic laws and regulations – in order to enjoy your time in the country, it’s important to follow these rules closely.
- In public places, men and women must be separate unless they’re family members
- Women must adhere to traditional dress etiquette, covering up at all times when in public
However, when on-campus at universities like KAUST, it’s a different story – women are free to dress and behave as they like, and the atmosphere is akin to universities elsewhere in the world. Other Saudi universities often have female-only campuses.
Student accommodation in Saudi Arabia varies greatly according to the university you’re studying at. Some universities, like KAUST, include housing in their scholarship offer to PhD students. Types of accommodation include apartments, townhouses and villas. Residential units are usually separated by gender, with dedicated family housing for those who are living with their spouse and / or children.
Saudi Arabia is a very affordable place to live, with the average person spending around 2,632 SAR (USD $700) per month according to crowdsourced data from Numbeo. The average rent for a one-bedroom, city-centre apartment in Saudi Arabia is around 1,448 SAR (USD $386).
Prices in Saudi Arabia
This table should give you a rough idea of the everyday costs you’ll encounter as a PhD student in Saudi Arabia.
Student Cost of Living in Saudi Arabia - 2022
||20 SAR (USD $5.33)
||60 SAR (USD $16)
|Monthly Travel Pass
||150 SAR (USD $40)
||366.98 SAR (USD $92.93)
|Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.
Unfortunately, students aren’t allowed to take part in any paid employment during their time in Saudi Arabia.
You may be able to take part in an unpaid internship related to your research if approved by your university, however.
The currency is Saudi Arabia is the Saudi riyal (SAR). 1 SAR is around the same as USD $0.27. Cash is widely used – cards and cheques less so.
In order to open a bank account in Saudi Arabia, you’ll usually need to bring:
- Your passport
- Proof of address (i.e. a tenancy agreement)
- Proof of enrolment at your university
- Your residence permit
- Your student visa
Research students in Saudi Arabia have several ways of getting around this huge desert kingdom.
There’s a well-developed train network in Saudi Arabia linking some of the major cities: Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and Medina, among others. It’s a fast, comfortable and cheap way to travel between destinations.
If you’re in a hurry, it’s worth considering a domestic flight, which are reasonably priced and the quickest way of travelling long distances in Saudi Arabia. There are international airports across the country, with Jeddah and Riyadh particularly well-served.
Jeddah has a public bus system but in general you’ll find that the car reigns supreme in Saudi Arabian cities. Unless you’re a very confident driver (with an international driving license) the best way of getting from A to B is usually with a licensed taxi.