Working in Saudi Arabia or the UAE allows you to spend money now while also saving money for later. There are several reasons for this:
Saudi Arabia and the UAE charge you no income tax.
If you are an American citizen, your government allows you to claim the first US$107,600 (tax year 2020) of your income as tax-free. To qualify for this exemption, you may reside in the United States for a maximum of 30 days per consecutive 12-month period. See IRS Publication 54 for more information.
If you are Canadian, you can claim all of your income as tax-free. To qualify for this, generally, you must sell your car, rent your home, and cancel your provincial health insurance. See Canada Revenue Agency for more information.
If you are a UK citizen, you are exempt from UK tax if you work abroad for at least one full tax year, spend no more than 182 days in the UK in any tax year, and spend no more than 91 days in the UK on average over a four-year period. See GOV.UK for more information.
Saudi Arabia: Expatriates live in rent-free and utility-free housing compounds, which are fully furnished gated communities. They usually include inexpensive fitness facilities and free sports facilities, such as swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts, and squash courts. If your compound does not have these free amenities, you can access them easily at a nearby compound.
UAE: At our client hospital, staff are given a subsidy which covers the cost of rental units at one of the apartment towers or compounds used by the hospital.
The hospitals cover all routine medical procedures, prescription drugs, and emergency dental procedures.
Annual Trip Home
Saudi Arabia: If you work a one-year contract, the hospital pays for your flight to Saudi Arabia and for your flight back home at the end of your contract. If you renew your contract for a second year, the hospital will provide you with another return ticket. Should you choose not to return home and instead use the value of the ticket to fly somewhere else, you may do so. But the value of the flight must be equivalent to or less than the cost of the return flight which the hospital would have booked. You may also exchange the return ticket for cash, but one of our recruits cautioned that you are unlikely to receive the full value of the flight.
UAE: Our client provides a travel allowance which can be used to purchase a ticket home ... or elsewhere, if you don't want to go home.
Reasonable Telephone Plans
Saudi Arabia: The price of groceries is generally lower than in North America, especially if you buy chicken, vegetables, or other food that is sourced locally. For example, you can buy six eggs for US$0.87, 450g of chicken for US$4.27, a loaf of bread for US$0.53, and one kg of apples for US$1.05. If you feel like treating yourself to a Starbucks cappuccino, the price will be similar to what you would find in the US (about $4).
As Fay, a Canadian registered nurse, tells us, “People are here for different reasons, but the bottom line, I think for everybody, is the money. The pay is good, and your expenses are minimal.”
UAE: The price of groceries in Abu Dhabi is generally similar or lower, with 10 eggs costing US$2.31.
How to Spend It
Maybe buy a car...?
You may choose to buy a car, so you can drive into the desert whenever you wish. Gas is cheap – as of 2019, it costs US$0.58 per liter.
You can find used cars at reasonable prices at one of Saudi Arabia’s many used car dealers. For example, in 2018 via KSA Motory’s online listings, we found, all used, a Honda Civic 2008 for US $3731.77, a Toyota Corolla 2009 for $3998.32, and a BMW 3 Series Coupe 2004 for $5331.10. Expatriates at the end of their contracts are often looking to sell their cars to incoming expatriates, so you may have luck finding your vehicle that way. A bonus of buying a car in Saudi Arabia is that the vehicle is safe from salt and snow damage.
However, the majority of expatriates prefer taking Uber over driving. Uber is relatively inexpensive and saves you from having to navigate the famously crazy driving in the Kingdom.
Gas is also cheap in the UAE, and as of summer 2019, it costs US$0.65 per liter.
And like in Saudi Arabia, you will find abundant used car options in the UAE, or take an Uber to get where you want to go.
Travel: Deluxe or Budget?
If you choose the deluxe path, we know people who have stayed at Kenya’s luxurious Treetops Lodge in Aberdare National Park, where a young Queen Elizabeth stayed with Prince Philip during their honeymoon.
Or, since Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are hubs for travel, you will have dozens of options for cheap flights to exotic places.
Perhaps you’ll travel Riyadh to Dubai, with a round trip airfare of a little over US$200? Check out flights online, e.g., right now roundtrip to Cairo for $330, Athens for $650, or Nairobi for $575.
Perhaps you'll take a drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai (about two hours in good traffic), or fly from Abu Dhabi to Cairo for $400, Athens for $700, or Nairobi for $600... ?
Or, for those working in Saudi, to save money, people regularly get a group together, rent a car and drive to Bahrain. The drive from Riyadh to Bahrain takes about six hours. A car rental company called Sixt rents Toyota Corollas for US $40 per day, and, if you need a larger vehicle, Nissan X-Trails for $75 per day. Or, if you and your friends really want to make an impression, maybe you’ll rent a Mercedes for $145 per day.
You can also book a return flight from Riyadh to Dammam for around US$83 and then drive across the causeway to Bahrain – it only takes 1.5 hours.
Dance and Music Festivals
If dancing is your passion, you will probably jump at the chance to attend a Latin dance festival in Dubai or Lebanon. Alex, one of our Saudi recruits, attended such a festival for around US$500, which included the festival pass and hotel stay for two days. The flight was extra, but airlines frequently offer discounted flights specifically for the festivals. In addition, each festival has representatives who organize discounted group registrations in major cities.
Now, for the shopping…
Everyone buys gold. People who don’t normally wear jewellery come home dripping with gold simply because it is sold everywhere, and it is just spectacular. The gold in the local markets (“souqs”) is usually 21 to 24 karats, therefore it is a rich yellow colour. Vendors sell their gold by weight, and you should be prepared to negotiate prices. It is a good idea to look up the rates for which gold is selling and to buy it on the weekends, when the international gold exchange markets are closed.
Carpets, another common indulgence, are also available in the souqs. You can browse hundreds of lavish, hand-spun carpets that are dyed with natural colours, such as the rich red of pomegranate skins. They usually start around US$160 (again, prepare to negotiate prices). Iranian and Kashmiri carpets are reputed to be the highest quality, but you will also find gorgeous carpets made in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
And, while your wallet is out, why not indulge in some designer clothes? High-end clothing is sold everywhere. People are surprised when I tell them that many Saudi shop windows look like they belong in Paris, Fifth Avenue, or Bloor Street. You can easily spend all of your money on designer clothes and designer shoes.
But keep in mind this caution from one of our recruits, Suzanne, who wrote, “Most come over and spend LOTS of money on travel, purses, clothes, and family back home, then realize they didn’t save anything for him or herself. Sad stories I hear.”
Helen believes that shopping is the major pastime in the UAE, with malls being an excellent way to avoid summer heat and humidity. Check out our video of Helen on the hunt for bargains.
You can pay off a $40,000 student debt in one year even without working overtime or denying yourself restaurant fine dining meals or fancy outings. But if you are reckless with your money, an American clinical psychologist, practising in Dubai, told us that many of her clients are seeking counselling for their anxiety around having saved little to no money even after working in Dubai for several years.
We suggest creating a budget before you leave. Perhaps plan to save your salary and use your overtime pay, if you have it, to splurge. Opt for inexpensive yet still unforgettable trips; rather than jetting to Singapore and staying in the Four Seasons Hotel at over US $400 per night, why not hike, or bike, the historic Camino de Santiago in Spain, where you sleep for free in former monasteries?
Ashley, an American registered nurse who works in Emergency Medicine at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, tells us, “I came here for the experience, the travel and to pay off my student loan debt. In eight months, I can say I have done all of the above.”
In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, you will have the finances to save, spend, or do both – the choice will be entirely yours.
Copyright (C) 2021 Helen Ziegler and Associates. All rights reserved.