I have worked in Saudi Arabia on two separate occasions, for one month each. As such, I have garnered a large number of impressions, some of which may prove to be wrong, given time. So, as long as we are all aware that these are my personal opinions, fine.
Travelling to Saudi Arabia includes all the standard problems you get with flying anywhere, plus a few extra special ones. Firstly there is making sure you have the right visa, money, tickets etc, then trying to make sure you pack the right sort of clothes ('Hmm, in a desert, but I am not allowed to wear shorts in public') and finally remembering not to pack CDs as Saudi customs like to keep them. So, you eventually arrive at the airport, in plenty of time, like a good boy, and end up swanning round the Duty Free for a couple of hours. Now normally, you would wander through Duty Free, admire the cameras, nose through some books and then buy the biggest bottle of whisky available (well, that's what I do) but unfortunately, on this trip, that is not an option. It is strictly illegal to make, sell or consume alcohol in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This, of course, means that all spirits are on sale when I am in the airport. Honestly, you would think it was a conspiracy.
Eventually, you get on the plane and begin your flight. Now, if you are travelling Saudia (the national carrier) you can expect a clean, reasonably comfortable flight with only a few minor hiccups. There is the prayer said before the plane takes off (which leaves me brimming with confidence) and the general lax attitude to rules, shown by your average Saudi. They tend to sit where they want, not where their seat number says, and they have a happy disregard for no smoking signs. However, at least one of your flights will be overnight, allowing you to sleep through most of the problems.
Arriving at Jeddah airport you will be greeted by the standard wall of heat, but are quickly whisked into the terminal building. There it has taken me an hour and a half to clear passport control (all flights would appear to have been arranged to depart and arrive at the same time, just to help things run more smoothly). Once through passport control, there is 'Customs', who empty your bag on to the table, give you a small sticker and then leave you to repack. Then you are out, to hunt for your drive for the two and a half hour journey into the mountains where I was working. All in all, reasonably painless, if you are happy to wait. Going back involves most of the same hassles with the added fun of being dropped off at the airport at nine thirty at night, in plenty of time for a flight leaving at two in the morning.
Working in Saudi Arabia is much like working anywhere else, if you are a Western male. There are a few differences however. First, the Muslim weekend is Thursday and Friday. Thus you work Saturday until Wednesday, which can take a little time to get used to. Further, possibly as a way of avoiding the heat, working hours are 7 a.m. until 2.30 p.m. Apparently the Saudi's then go to bed for a few hours and get up in the cool of the evening. Thus, I would normally get up at six in the morning for a quick breakfast before work. I would then return to the compound for lunch, just before three o'clock in the afternoon. One of the perks of the job is the ability to live on a company compound. This means you are closeted away from the day to day reality of Saudi Arabia, with a large wall to hide behind. It also leads to some interesting attitudes to the locals as, to all intents and purposes, you do not have to live amongst them.
These less-than-understanding attitudes can also make it into the workplace, especially as the ex-pats tend to cluster in their own offices, where they can insult their Saudi fellow workers or the Asian menial workers in safety. It has to be said that they are not all wrong, as some of the examples they have quoted me show, but I still find their attitude a little worrying at times. I have little evidence, but I believe that being a menial worker in the Kingdom is not such a bed of roses. The stories would appear to indicate that they are treated very shabbily indeed, especially if female, especially if they are housemaids etc.
Not unsurprisingly The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is hot and deserty. It is also empty, especially to the eyes of someone from Europe. The country has an area ten times that of the UK and yet only a population one tenth that of Britain. They do seem to be working hard to increase that ratio, however, mostly by road accidents.
I am told roughly as many people are killed on Saudi Arabia's roads in a month as are killed in the UK in a year. I personally have witnessed the scrums that happen at almost every set of traffic lights, with cars going in all directions. I have also seen cars going round blind corners three abreast in one lane and a minibus pass a police checkpoint with 30km/hr speed limit at 130km/hr! In an attempt to combat this the authorities have now taken to leaving wrecked cars at major junctions, to hopefully scare the locals into driving better.
Beyond their general disregard for traffic laws, the most obvious difference to me was that Saudi is a Muslim country. Now, while I knew this ahead of my visit, it did not really sink in how much of a difference this could make to daily life. For instance, the weekend is Thursday and Friday. Also, everybody leaves work at twelve midday to go to prayers. Prayers become more obvious if you are shopping in the evening. All the shops will close down for half an hour and you are forced to wander the streets. There are supposed to be religious police who make sure everyone does go to prayer, but I have not seen as many as I was led to believe I might.
Along with trying to avoid prayer times, you must also think of what you are wearing if you go shopping. For men it is not to dificult, just don't wear shorts, but women have to wear the habilla, a long black cloak type of thing. In fact, that is the easiest way to spot non-Saudi women, as the Saudi's will be covered head to toe in black cloth. Sometimes this can even extend to wearing gloves and having gauze across the eyes. In contrast the non-Saudi's will wear the habilla, but often not cover their head.
A further side to the strong Islamic culture is censorship. The authorities are very worried about pornography, as well as other religions, entering the country. Thus, you can expect to be thoroughly searched at customs, and have all your video tapes and CDs confiscated. In theory you will get them back if they are inoffensive, but very often you do not.
This strict security does not seem to apply to what you take out, however, as the recent hijacking showed. Possibly this is the strangest point about the country. For a police state, provided you wear long sleeves and are not drunk, the authorities will ignore you entirely, to avoid having to move about in the sun, one feels.
All in all, it is most certainly a different way of life from the Western one I am used to but, if you are Western, male and are confident in your driving, you can live a reasonably sensible life.