Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sending money from Saudi Arabia

Working in Saudi Arabia is a challenge, as all expatriates would agree. Being away from your home country is itself a big emotional pain =(( But, as mentioned in this blog earlier, all that would be worth it when you get your pay check every month :) It would be no exaggeration to say that the happiest day for an expatriate working in Saudi Arabia is the day he sends money home :D
Sending money home is quite easy. There are several banks and exchange centers to choose from. But since money doesn't grow on the palm trees of Saudi Arabia, you have to choose carefully where from you send your hard-earned wage :-B
Most expatriates working in Saudi Arabia prefer to use tele-transfer, which is known by various names depending on your bank. The commission charged by banks is slightly more (usually in the range of SR 25 for each transaction). A few others also prefer to purchase a Demand Draft, to be sent home via normal post. Of course, the bank charges in this case are far lesser. In any case, the bottom line is that you must have a bank account first to send your back home. But it is not necessary that you must send your money from the same bank where your account is :-?
There is almost no restriction on the amount of money you send home. However, when it crosses SR10000, you will usually be asked to produce your salary certificate to the bank. This is usually a one-time verification process, i.e., you need not produce this every time you send money home. Also, if it is the first time you are sending money home from a particular bank or exchange center, you will be asked to submit a photocopy of your passport, with the official seal of your sponsor. This is a precaution to prevent money laundering.

A useful tip for you. Remember that the exchange rate varies every day and also between one exchange center / bank to the other within the same city :-O It may only be a marginal difference, but when the amount you send is more, the difference cannot be ignored. In fact, it is usual for expatriates working in Saudi Arabia to find out from 2 or 3 banks or exchange centers the current exchange rate before choosing from the most attractive one ;)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Conversion of dates

Most of the expatriates working in Saudi Arabia get stuck with the problem of conversion from Islamic to Gregorian dates and vice versa. It is no exaggeration if I say that the wallet of an expatriate contains more paper than cash ;)
Typically, the wallet of an expatriate working in Saudi Arabia contains his original residence permit (Iqama), company ID card, and if he has a car, the original driving license, car ownership card, car registration card (known locally as Istemara), insurance card for his car, medical insurance card (one each for himself and his family members) and probably lots of other stuff like pocket calendar, ATM card, credit card..... :-O
The problem is not so much in carrying these documents, but in knowing which one expires when. All dealings with the Government are done only as per Islamic calendar, which usually has 11 days less than the Gregorian calendar. There are innumerable cases where people have lost flights, denied entry after vacation due to visa expiry, and a host of other problems all because they did not check the equivalent Gregorian dates :-S
Probably the most alarming would be to drive your vehicle after expiry of your license or your car insurance, or even worse, without a valid iqama. The expatriates working in Saudi Arabia must also be fully aware about the validity of their iqama and their exit / reentry visas. Please always renew your documents on time L-)
Please also note that when it is stamped as "One year" in your passport as the time for re-entry, it always means "One Islamic year" and not one Gregorian year. To be on the safer side, always deduct some 15 days from a Gregorian calendar to know approximately when your visa expires.
I have given in the link here a tool for converting from Islamic to Gregorian date and vice versa. I am sure this would help you overcome the problem of conversion of dates ;;)
Hope you liked this post. Your appreciation is my motivation to write, so please do let me know what you feel about this blog and the topics you want me to cover :)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Schools in Saudi Arabia

One of the problems faced by expatriates working in Saudi Arabia is that of schooling for their children. Government-run schools in the kingdom are exclusively meant for Saudi and Arab children. The only option left for expatriates is to try in the so-called "International" schools.

Westerners usually prefer to educate their children in schools which follow either British or American system of education. School fees are quite expensive in such schools and I would advise you to include educational expenses for your children as part of your employment contract, or else it would put a big hole in your pocket.
Almost all of these "International" schools are co-educational, and are concentrated in bigger cities like Jeddah, Riyadh, Jubail, Al-Khobar, etc.
Non-westerners usually have their own national schools, each following the syllabus in their respective countries. The Ministry of Education monitors the running of these schools by having an observer for each of the community schools.
Primary education is not much of a problem here, but expatriates working in Saudi Arabia must take into account the risks of secondary education in the kingdom. Typically, as the child moves into higher classes, he or she moves away from the "real" world back home, in the sense that the competitive spirit required for higher education is almost absent. This could be quite a problem when the child returns home and faces competitive examinations.
There is also the problem of high turnover of qualified and experienced teachers from schools in Saudi Arabia. Almost all the female teachers in the kingdom are dependent on their husbands, i.e., they are not sponsored by their schools but are dependent exaptriate wives and so when the husband leaves the country, so does the teacher. This could be quite a pain, particularly for higher classes. You should not expect a high standard in the schools here as in your home country.
Getting admission into any of the private schools is quite easy. The usual custom in International schools in the kingdom when you join your child mid-way through the academic session, is to charge you from the beginning of the academic year, so please be prepared for this too.
Qualified and experienced teachers are quite scarce, and you must be prepared to shell out money for private tuitions, in case your children are in higher classes. Westerners usually charge on hourly basis while non-western teachers generally charge a monthly flat fee for private tuitions. In almost all cases, it is a one-to-one arrangement between the parent and the teacher. It would be worthwhile to bring the required books and CDs from your home country, as they may not always be available here all the time.
There is always a demand for qualified and experienced female teachers, but I would advise potential teachers to be choosy about the schools where they teach. The best way would be to enquire with fellow expatriates about the reputation of the school where they propose to join. Remember that cultural differences among different nationalities could sometimes be quite stressful for the teacher.
Finally, you as an expatriate working in Saudi Arabia must make a judicious decision considering all these factors.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Banks in Saudi Arabia

I had mentioned clearly in an earlier post on the fundamental reason why an expatriate is here in the first place. I would now like to elaborate on the Banking System in Saudi Arabia. Opening a bank account is not an easy process #-o It requires the approval of your sponsor and an introduction letter from him. You will also have to submit copies of your residence permit (Iqama) and your passport which should have been attested by your sponsor #:-S Bigger companies usually transfer their salaries directly to the account, while smaller contracting companies make a cheque payment. Of course, there are also those rogue sponsors who don't pay their employees for months together X( but I will cover that in another post.

Banks in the kingdom do not pay any interest for the amount you keep in the account. Of course, they charge you a hefy interest if you take a loan from them. It's just that they don't call it as 'interest' but prefer to call it as 'Service Charge' :)) This is all the more reason why you must keep a bare minimum amount as balance in your account. Typically, it should be equal to a one-way air fare back home for you and your family. Keep the rest of the money with you as cash, or better still, send it immediately back home.

If you have an account in a bank, you will normally be issued a debit card. Make sure that you NEVER EVER use the debit card issued by your bank in the ATM Teller Machine of another bank :-O There are simply innumerable instances of expatriates being caught in unimaginable circumstances. If your ATM machine 'swallows' your card, or worse still debits from your account but does not issue any cash, at least the process of retrieving your card and money from your bank becomes a shade simpler if you had used your own bank's ATM. The settlement period is usually not less than 15 days #-o

Before leaving on vacation, never ever use your ATM to withdraw cash. It would be safer to go to your bank, use a withdrawal slip and take your money. If your card gets stuck or your money is debited without issuing cash, you don't even have time to go and lodge a complaint with your bank, so be safe.

There are many remittance centers in Saudi Arabia. All of them charge a small premium as service charge, irrespective of the amount you send. There is no upper limit on the amount you can send, but for bigger amounts banks normally ask for a salary certificate from your sponsor. Before sending money home, enquire about the exchange rate in a couple of remittance centers. You would end up with a hole in your pocket if you go to a bank / remittance center which offers you a rock bottom rate.
To be on the safer side, try not to send too much money in one transaction. There are cases where it has taken more than a week for the money to reach home, even though you had sent it by "Express" service (:

Most big shopping outlets in the kingdom accept debit cards issued by local banks. If the transaction amount is big, please ensure that you have a copy of the transaction slip. Instances of your account being debited twice are not uncommon :-SS I may sound rather pessimistic, but I have to also be realistic! As long as things are going on smooth, there's no problem. The moment you have a problem, with some good luck it would get settled in a few week's time ~X(

The whole problem is that there is no ombudsman for the banks here and hence no accountability by the staff either. First of all you wouldn't know whom to complain to and you cannot fight for your rights. You don't have them anyway. In the unfortunate event of your money being debited twice, it becomes YOUR responsibility to prove that there has been only one transaction. It's no joke, it happened to me :(( Luckily my bank credited the amount, but the ordeal I underwent before this was terrible.

I would also advise you not to take any credit card from any of the banks in the kingdom. It would be better to take an international credit card in your home country. You never know the fine print and courtesy is the last thing to expect from the staff, particularly from bigger banks.

Finally, ensure that dealings with your bank are a bare minimum. Typically, I would use them only as a transit point for my money before being sent home :D Afterall, the best day of the month is Pay Day!