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The world is moving to Saudi Arabia

The kingdom could supplant the UAE as the GCC destination of choice for both tourists and migrants

Tourists in front of the Jabal Al-Mawaqi rock art in Saudi Arabia Eric Lafforgue/Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect
Tourists in front of the Jabal Al-Mawaqi rock art in Saudi Arabia

Over the past couple of months I have heard Russian spoken in LuLu, and Spanish shouted in Carrefour. This would not seem out of place to anyone who lives in Dubai.

But I am not in Dubai. I am over the border in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. 

The kingdom has become one of the hottest places to be over the past two years, with a slew of giga-projects and a long term vision driving the need for top talent. 

Add to this the recently-enacted regional HQ law, which requires foreign companies to set up a regional base in the country, and it is plain to see why the kingdom is attracting so much talent from overseas. According to Global Media Insight, one new immigrant arrives in Saudi Arabia every 18 minutes.

The country’s allure to expats is not new – it is home to 13.4 million foreigners, according to the 2022 edition of the Saudi Census.

However, for over two decades the in-demand destination has very much been its neighbour: the UAE. Dubai, in particular, is known the world over for its hotels, malls and job opportunities. 

This dynamic is now changing, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s extensive development plan.

The kingdom’s 2030 goals include both diversifying and growing the economy and lifting it into one of the world’s top 15 countries by GDP. A number of the projects that the country is undertaking are on a scale that is unsurpassed globally. 

Take, for example, the building of a tourism sector on the country’s Red Sea coastline, or the development of the historic region of AlUla.

And then there is Neom, the world’s first “cognitive city” and one of the largest construction projects on the planet.

Each one of these initiatives warrants international headlines. And Saudi Arabia is undertaking dozens of these projects, side by side.

The other factor that is luring foreign execs is liveability. Once known for, among other things, women not being able to drive, shop closures for prayer and a lack of entertainment, Saudi Arabia was often seen as a hardship posting. 

Since 2016 that has changed and Saudi society has transformed. The country is full of new tourism sites, entertainment venues and events. The government is pushing for more domestic tourism to encourage people to spend at home, and is attracting footballers and other athletes from around the world following massive investment in various sports

There is still work to do. It often seems that Riyadh is bursting at the seams with heavy traffic a daily occurrence. Many of its residents are hoping that, when opened, Riyadh Metro will ease the congestion. 

And let’s not forget accommodation and schools. More choice is needed for both if the country is going to keep attracting top talent as well as prices at affordable levels (my own compound has raised costs by 10 percent this year).

What I am increasingly seeing is long term Gulf-based expatriates considering a move; every week friends and colleagues are reaching out to ask me what Saudi Arabia is like and how liveable the country is. 

If the kingdom sticks to its current course, it may indeed become the first destination in the minds of both foreign tourists and executives who are looking for their next adventure.

Alex Malouf is a marketing communications executive based in the Middle East

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