Saturday, December 27, 2008

Health Care

My earlier post on medical insurance in Saudi Arabia evoked quite some interest among readers that I thought of writing another post on a related topic (please click here to read the earlier post).

The worst thing which could happen to an expatriate working in Saudi Arabia is to be out of work due to health reasons. Fortunately, the kingdom has invested heavily in health care. You would find some of the most modern medical equipment in the hospitals across Saudi Arabia.

Most doctors and nurses are expatriates. In fact, it is extremely rare to find a Saudi female nurse as the profession is not held in high esteem in Saudi society. While you do find some really good doctors in some hospitals, I have also come across some doctors who appear more to learn from the patients than making their diagnoses! It is impossible to generalize, but I would suggest you must choose your doctor by going by word of mouth rather than the name of the hospital. By the way, all hospitals are extremely clean and health care for all Saudi citizens is free of cost.

The cost of medicines is atrociously high and the joke doing the rounds is that if the treatment doesn't kill you, the price of medicines would! Thankfully, the Saudi Government has now made it mandatory on all employers to have a compulsory medical insurance for their employees. Most medicines are available only upon a doctor's prescription, other than common pain killers which are available even in supermarkets. All medicines must contain a pamphlet giving all the required information such as ingredients, dosage, indications, contra-indications and symptoms. Medicines are never sold in loose, which explains why the price is quite high.

Diabetes and kidney stones top the list of ailements affecting most expatriates. Respiratory problems like asthma, sinusitis , upper respiratory tract infections and skin problems are also very common. This is more due to the high levels of pollutions in major cities and industrial hubs. Every seasonal change is accompanied by severe sand storms when fine sand and dust simply engulf the atmosphere. Temperatures soar well above 50 degrees Centigrade during summer with humidity levels reaching almost 99%. Heat strokes are quite common due to extreme dehydration. In winter, several parts of the kingdom reach almost 0 degrees Centigrade and viral fever is quite common in this season.

Doctors can usually be reached by appointments, but usually they do not refuse patients who go directly without an appointment, though they may have to wait for some time. Alternative medication like homoeopathy, ayurveda and unani are not legally permitted and so are their medicines.

Dental treatment is prohibitively expensive and most insurance companies do not cover certain treatments such as bridges, crowns, etc., as they are considered as cosmetic. It is quite difficult to get immediate appointments from dentists and there is always a long queue of people waiting in all dental clinics. Top class equipments are available, but things could get complicated if the patient has a history of diabetes / blood pressure. Again, I would advise expatriates to postpone visits to the dentist and get themselves treated back home if practically possible.

It is not common for expatriates to use the ambulance services as in other countries. Ambulance services are usually handled by security services and primarily cater to emergencies like road accidents. It is more common for expatriates to make their own arrangements to go to the hospital. One of the first things an expatriate needs to do upon arriving in the kingdom is to note down the number of the nearby hospitals, emergency services and taxi companies. Believe me, you never know when they would come in handy.

Finally, as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. So, here's wishing all of you a healthy stay in the kingdom!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Telecommunication in Saudi Arabia

When I came to Saudi Arabia 11 years back, I never expected that telecommunication facilities in this oil-rich kingdom to be so bad. The only phone company those days was the state-owned PTT. International calls per minute were charged at an atrocious SR13/minute. Owning a phone was a status symbol. The few mobile phones which were available, were owned by Saudis who used to flaunt them. People used to queue around public booths waiting for their turn. With international calling rates at ridiculously high levels, keeping in touch back home even once a week was a luxury for expatriates. Thankfully, all that has changed :)

PTT has now been privatized and has become Saudi Telecom Company. In fact, there are now 3 companies in the kingdom - STC, Mobily and the recently launched Zain. All of them offer both prepaid as well as post-paid services, but most expatriates usually prefer the prepaid service. By virtue of being the oldest telecom company, STC has more towers in the kingdom and hence the coverage is better, particularly for mobile services. Mobily is fast picking up and there is quite a competition between them to attract / retain subscribers. Zain is still not popular and is yet to establish itself as a preferred choice for expatriates.

The days of long queues in the telephone booths are definitely over. Almost everyone has a mobile phone in his hand which is a real liberating force. You are now no longer tied down to a particular place or time. Most expatriates prefer the prepaid mobile SIM cards from STC ("SAWA cards") or from Mobily. Post-paid cards are not so popular among expatriates due to the paperwork and hassles involved.

International calling rates are still quite high, in relative terms. Calls between 12am to 6 am carry a 40% discount in STC, which results in a huge rush of outgoing calls between 5.30 to 6 am. Howver, most expatriates with an eye on the budget follow a simple way out. They just send a missed call to their homes or sms their families back home, asking them to call back. This works out to be much cheaper!

Internet connectivity is still not very advanced. You must keep in mind that internet was available in Saudi Arabia only in the year 2000, much after countries like Bangladesh had got the same. For several years later, only dial up connection was available. Recently, DSL services have been given a big boost, though downloading still takes quite a while. Areas which do not have a fiber-optic connection still have to rely on dial up connection, which is really quite a pain. Internet censorship is strictly in place and you might find several sites banned. This, however, should not be a concern for the normal user.

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services are still not legal in Saudi Arabia. We do have quite a few prepaid cards available and are sold clandestinely. Once in a while, shops selling these cards are raided by the police and there is a temporary shortage of these highly popular internet cards. The reason? They are so cheap compared to the services offered by STC and the voice quality is also good. I would personally rate a card called KSAFone which has a good bandwidth, easy to download dialpad, clear voice connectivity without echo and quite cheap. The only downside with these cards is that one needs a pc at home. If you have a DSL connection, the voice clarity is more and with less breaks. Services such as Skype are also available, but are more popular among western expatriates.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is that one has to choose a service or a company which would help the expatriate save money - afterall, all of us have come here to make money, isn't it?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dependent kids above 18

Expatriates working in Saudi Arabia have unique problems not found elsewhere. One such issue pertains to those whose kids are above 18 years, but are still dependent on their parents working in the kingdom. Expatriates usually send their grown up children back home for higher studies. It is quite a pain to be away from them, and more painful if one has to undergo the process of visit visa for one's own kids, just because they are over 18 years.

Saudi law states that any male above the age of 18 years cannot be included in the expatriate's iqama (resident visa) as a dependent. Most expatriates enjoying family status, but having their kids back home studying in school / college face a dilemma. What if their kids need to visit them? Is taking a visit visa the only option?

Unique problems have unique solutions, and here it is. Let's say that the kid was earlier part of your iqama, but has now gone back to your home country for pursuing his education. Now you want your child back in the kingdom for a visit, but do not want to undergo the hassle of a visit visa. Afterall, he was once part of your iqama, right? For such cases, a provision has been made by the Saudi Government to bring them on separate iqamas. Here is the procedure for the same.

First, get a letter of introduction from the school or college where your child is studying. The letter has to mention clearly the course / class which the kid is studying and the date of admission. It has to be signed by the Head of the Institution with the seal of the school / college.

Now, this letter has to be translated in Arabic. Attach the original letter, the translation and your original iqama along with SR1500/- and submit the above to the passport office in your area, through your company's Government Relations Officer. Of this SR1500, SR500 is for the iqama booklet and SR1000 is for renewal for 2 years. I would strongly advise you to get the iqama renewed for 2 years to avoid unnecessary paperwork at the end of each year.

Since your kid's details are already there in the computer in Passport office, there is no need to provide any other document. Soon, you would receive a separate iqama for your child, using which he or she can visit you as often as required. The procedure for renewal of your child's iqama is the same as what applies to you. This would save the trouble of applying for a visit visa each time he arrives in the kingdom.

I would like to add here that this is applicable only for the male children above 18 years. Female dependent children above 18 years can continue to stay under their father's sponsorship till they are married.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Labor Offices in Saudi Arabia

Expatriates working in Saudi Arabia have overwhelmingly responded to my earlier post on Expatriate Grievance Cell (click here to read the same). In fact, many did not even know about the existence of such a grievance cell in the kingdom. I have been getting frequent requests for more information on this subject that I decided to write a separate post on the same.

The Saudi Arabian government has set up labor offices all over the kingdom to help resolve disputes between expatriates and their employers. There are totally 37 offices spread all over Saudi Arabia.

Usually, the labor offices try to settle the disputes amicably between the expatriates and the employers. In case the disputes cannot be settled, the aggrieved expatriates then raise their cases to the next higher level. In fact, the Saudi government's Ministry of Labor has set up two Commissions for the same. They are the Preliminary Commission and the High Commission for settlement of labor disputes.

The above two commissions act as private labor courts and follow the Saudi labor law. Note that all transactions are carried out only in Arabic and I would strongly urge all expatriates to take the help of their respective embassies, who usually have dedicated Arabic-speaking lawyers to help their respective nationals.

Coming the labor offices in the kingdom, there is an exclusive Workers' Care Department in the Ministry of Labor in Riyadh. The phone number is 01-210 4588.
I am also giving below the phone numbers of the various labor offices all over the kingdom for the benefit of expatriates working in Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh Region 01-4039857
Kharj Province 01-4548231
Dawadmi Province 01-6420920
Majmaa' Province 06-4321724
Wadi Addawasir Province 01-7840264
Zulfi Province 06-4220235
Shaqra Province 01-6221342
Makka Region 02-5420745
Jeddah Province 02-6311687
Taif Province 02-7461616
Qunfudah Province 07-7320761
Madinah Region 04-8654416
Yanbu Province 04-3222688
Al-Ula' Province 04-8840830
Qassim Region (Buraidah) 06-3250387
Onaizah Province 06-3640285
Al-Rass Province 04-3333502
Hail Province 06-5321139
Eastern Region (Dammam) 03-8261419
Ahsa' Province 03-5822801
Hafr albatin Province 03-7220220
Khobar Province 03-8641541
Abqaiq Province 03-5661324
Jubail Province 03-3620150
Khafji Province 03-7660380
Ras Tannurah Province 03-6670424
Aseer Region (Abha) 07-2242128
Bisha Province 07-6226718
Baha Region 07-7253240
Najran Region 07-5224995
Jazan Region 07-3213671
Jauf Region 04-6241766
Qurayyat Province 04-6421108
Tabuk Province 04-4221181
Alwajh Province 04-4421970
Northern Frontiers Region (Arar) 04-6627128
Turaif Province 04-6521029

The above list covers all the labor offices in the whole of Saudi Arabia. I really wish and pray that none of my fellow expatriates would ever require to use the above phone numbers.
Hope you found this post useful.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Checklist for travellers to Saudi Arabia

People travelling to Saudi Arabia need to take certain precautions to avoid last minute surprises.

You may be a first-time visitor to the kingdom or an expatriate who is returning after a vacation. In either case, the most important document is the Saudi visa stamped in your passport. Note that the dates mentioned in the visa refer to Hijri calendar and not the Gregorian calendar. You may use the tool provided in this page for converting from one to the other or can click on this link.

Note that once a visa is issued, it is mandatory for you to reach the kingdom within the specified date, otherwise the visa would lapse. This is applicable for both first timers as well as those who are on an exit/reentry visa. For those expatriates who were unable to return to the kingdom before the date mentioned, please click on this link to find the procedure for returning. Remember that when you reach the airport, even before you check in, the validity of the visa will first be verified by the airline staff. Since this would normally be in a separate queue, make sure to be in the airport quite early.

I would advise first-timers not to stuff items in your baggage unnecessarily. Almost everything is available in the kingdom, which is available elsewhere in the world. Bring in only those items which you consider absolutely necessary. Note that electric supply in Saudi Arabia is in two voltages, 220 volts and 110 volts , 60 Hertz frequency. Flat to round pin adaptors and vice versa are freely available in the market, so don't bother to bring those either.

If you are going to bring your personal medication, make sure that you have your doctor's prescription with you for the same, or it would simply be thrown out by the Customs upon landing. Alcohol and drugs are strictly banned items and users and peddlers face capital punishment. Some travellers from South Asia, bring poppy seeds ('khas khas'). Although this is quite commonly used in food items in that region, please note that it is banned in the kingdom. Although a well-known fact, I would like to emphasize upon non-Muslims not to bring in any religious material like books, idols, pictures, crucifixes, etc.

Do not at any cost offer to take the luggage of your unknown fellow passengers while checking in. These are difficult days, and who knows what the other guy has stuffed his baggage with!

I would advise you to bring plenty of passport size photographs (about 20 would be adequate, to begin with). You would have to fill in plenty of forms, particularly in the first few months after arrival and these photographs would come in handy. Atleast you needn't have to immediately run to the studio to have yourself photographed.

Do bring some cash in US dollars to see you through the first month, until you get your first salary. Money can be easily converted in Saudi riyals in any of the exchange centers in the kingdom. You may like to bring in your personal toiletry like soap, shampoo, etc., to see you through until you get your first salary. Food is relatively cheap , but you cannot say the same about accommodation. Temperatures reach extreme during summer and winter, so do come prepared with your personal clothing.

Working in Saudi Arabia is both a challenge as well as interesting, if you are well-prepared mentally. Hope the above tips were useful.