Saudi Arabia’s drive to get expats to ditch Dubai is off to a rocky start

And while football star Cristiano Ronaldo has been allowed to live with his girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez after he joined a Saudi soccer team last year, few others are awarded the same privilege.

Foreigners also complain about the length of time it takes to secure a work visa, even while tourism passes are easier to obtain.

“There are infrastructure challenges and that’s where the teething issues are going to be, making sure there’s enough housing available, water, whether the road system can take it and so on,” said Mr Metin Mitchell, who heads an executive recruitment firm that has been working in Saudi Arabia since 1995.

Glitzy and futuristic real-estate projects in and around Riyadh like the Mukaab – billed as “the world’s first immersive, experiential destination” that will house commercial, residential, retail and cultural spaces – have been announced this year but the much-awaited masterplan for Riyadh’s expansion has been delayed multiple times.  

A metro system, which was set to be completed by 2019, has yet to open. Signs of trouble are also evident in the recent firing of the head of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City (RCRC), the entity responsible for implementing the masterplan, suggesting frustration by the crown prince over a lack of progress.

The RCRC didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, though the Minister of Economy and Planning Faisal Alibrahim told Bloomberg TV: “Riyadh is ready today and it will be ready tomorrow when more people come in.”

On the ground, a looming housing deficit in Riyadh has significantly pushed up rental costs. Annual payments for a two-bedroom apartment in one of Riyadh’s better neighbourhoods has gone up by almost 12 per cent over the past year to about SAR 181,000 ($64,220), according to Mr Faisal Durrani, partner and head of Middle East research at Knight Frank, a global real-estate brokerage and consultancy firm. 

He explained that’s due to a number of factors: more foreign professionals moving to Riyadh, limited availability in the housing compounds favoured by Westerners due to relaxed dress rules, gyms and swimming pools, and a growing trend among young Saudis to move for job opportunities.

It’s also become harder for candidates for jobs in Saudi Arabia to demand extravagant salaries in return for moving, reducing the incentive to go.

A slowing global economy and massive lay-offs at some international companies are giving both Saudi and multinational employers more leverage, according to Mr Chris Rea, associate director at recruitment firm Michael Page’s Saudi practice.

“It’s no longer a case of ‘I want a 50 per cent increase to move’ – anyone who says that is pretty much a ‘no’ at the moment,” said Mr Rea, adding that employees moving to Riyadh from Dubai could still get pay raises of 20 per cent – 25 per cent.

A senior producer with the Saudi-owned media company MBC Group, which plans to relocate most of its staff from Dubai to its new headquarters in Riyadh by 2024, said he and others are getting salary increases of at least 35 per cent to 40 per cent and guarantees they’ll keep their jobs for five years – yet still many are dreading the move.

“In Dubai you are an expatriate like the majority of people, but in Riyadh you have to deal with a local mindset,” the producer said, declining to be named in order to speak freely about his concerns. 

Most expatriates will not be ready for the kind of lifestyle Riyadh entails, said a European woman who recruits for the kingdom’s expanding hospitality market. She moved to the Saudi capital from Dubai a year ago and cites being unable to practice Christianity freely and a blanket ban on alcohol as factors. 

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