Well, what a new year indeed! 2017 has seen news of various changes that will occur in Saudi Arabia for 2018. And now that 2018 is here, everything just got so real! There are various good and not-so-good developments as far as we expats are concerned, and while we are just temporary dwellers in the Kingdom, we also can’t help but feel the drastic changes were something we wished for but we also dread. Some of us wanted Saudi Arabia to usher in modernity and modernization and be like other countries. Well now that they have introduced some things that they probably saw from other countries, we cringe at the impact (hello VAT). But there are also some things worth waiting for like the cinemas and women driving. Small steps but big impact, right? Here are the top 5 changes in Saudi Arabia we should have prepared (or should be preparing) for this year.
1. Introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT)
Remember when we get asked “what do you like about working in Saudi Arabia?” Our first and foremost answer is “NO TAXES!” (Okay, I think the first reason is that “we can’t earn the money we earn here in our home country.“) Now that the Kingdom has introduced VAT in almost every thing starting January 1, do we still have an answer to the question? Yes, we still have reasons but we can cross out ‘no taxes’ in our list. As expats, we already know of value added tax, a certain amount imposed on all good and services, because we have it in our own home countries. But we’ve been in Saudi Arabia for years that we’re not used to it anymore. Now, almost every thing will have a 5% VAT. The steak you ate at SR 110 last week might now be SR 116 this week. The groceries that you bought for SR 200 in total might now be SR 210 or more. We’re still grateful that our salaries are not taxed yet. Please don’t get a hint. Thank you. Also, VAT in the Philippines is 12%, more than double the 5% VAT here. Again, KSA, please don’t get a hint. Haha!
We wish they also came out with more coins that will let us pay the 0.something of VAT. For example, what if the product is priced at 5.15? Stores will tend to round it off to SR 6 which will be unfair to us consumers. How are they going to give a change of 0.85?
For more information on Saudi VAT, you can visit https://www.vat.gov.sa/en. Interestingly, the website is easily available in English. Most Saudi ministry websites are primarily in Arabic and sometimes, it’s hard to find the English version of it.
2. Increase in Gas Prices
Remember the second answer to the question “what do you like about working in Saudi Arabia?” We say, “A liter of gas is cheaper than a bottle of mineral water here!” Not anymore, folks! If you’re one of the surprised car owner or drivers who went to a gas station on the morning of the first day of the new year to have your tank refilled, you probably got surprised that your usual payment for a full tank only got you half of it, well, obviously you’re out of the loop. Octane 91 fuel which costs 75 halalas per liter is now SR1.37 per liter while Octane 95 that cost 90 halalas per liter is now SR2.04 per liter. We just have to think that compared to our home countries, gas is still cheaper around here. Saudi Arabia is still the fifth country with the cheapest gas prices measured against average national income in the world. Also, the price of diesel for transport remains unchanged at SR 0.47 and kerosene is still at SR 0.64. Do the majority of people still use these? Great.
2.5 And of Dependent Fees
Once upon a time, Saudi Arabia encourages foreign workers to bring their families to Saudi Arabia to ease homesickness and inspire them to stay. That’s what some of the older OFWs tell us. My father was even late in the game in bringing me just last 2008. Some expats have their whole clans here already! Anyway, last year, the Kingdom introduced “dependent fees”. The sponsors (either father or mother) will have to pay for the fee for each dependent under his/her iqama. In 2017, it was SR 100 per dependent per month. It will gradually increase in the following years until 2020. After that, who knows? This year of 2018, it will already be SR 200 per dependent. Dependent fees are usually paid before or during the sponsor’s iqama renewal and at the request of an exit/re-entry visa. Now some private companies have shouldered the dependent fees of their employees last year. As far as we know, if your job is at a government sector, then you are exempted from paying dependent fees. This measure drove many expats to either exit and go back to their home countries or send their families back home already. Since the dependent fee came into existence last July 2017, over 60,000 expats are reported to have left Saudi Arabia.
3. Freedom to Drive for Women
Finally, women will be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. It has been a request and a plea for the longest time and finally last September, the permission was given. There have been women who defied the odds years ago but they were either arrested or jailed or both. Their persistence though bore its fruits. However, there are still some preparations to be made and rules to be observed before this becomes a reality in June 2018. Is the society ready for it? There will be some resistance but we think that this one step will lead to greater strides and longer journeys. Now personally, Reina and I were talking about this: are we going to enroll in driving school and apply for driving licenses? For now, we’re pretty much enjoy being passengers. Haha! The ease and convenience of having my husband drive for us or jumping from one Careem to the next if he’s not available are making us resist the urge to join the first batch of women drivers, haha. As if. We’re actually afraid to drive! We think we’ll be too timid on the streets.
3.5 And to Enter Sports Stadiums
Saudi Arabia will allow women into sports stadiums for the first time this year. Three previously male-only venues will be opened up to families in Jeddah, Dammam and Riyadh. We’re guessing this is the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, and last year, there were already events held in the stadium that welcomed families and ladies.
4. Opening of Public Cinemas
I’m not really into watching movies but I’m probably the lone ranger who is not into it. And so the news of cinemas opening in the Kingdom have created such a buzz for locals and expats alike. Movie houses, finally! I have no idea why there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia but I recently learned that there were cinemas before but a public cinema ban was introduced in the 1980s. So technically, this a re-opening, 35 years in the making! The Ministry of Culture and Information for Saudi Arabia said that they will begin licensing cinemas immediately and that the first movie theaters will open in March 2018. Based on what we heard, the first cinema here in Riyadh will be at Riyadh Park, a mall in exit 2 set to open soon. Saudi Arabia will see more than 2,000 screens up and running by 2030. Now this got us asking what the cinemas will be like: will it be divided into Singles and Families? Maybe Males and Female? Or maybe it will be Families only? Who goes to the orchestra or balcony? What movies will be shown? Will faces and bodies of women be blurred? All these questions are very important. Haha! The idea also spawned several meme of #saudimovietitles. These made us laugh a lot: I Know What You Ate Last Ramadan, 300 Riyals Baby, Beauty and the Beard, How To Train Your Camel, and The Saud of Music. Hahaha! Can you think of others? Another upside of this development is that local movie directors and producers will be given a chance to make their own movies and be seen by their countrymen. Emmy nominations yalla!
5. Issuance of Tourist Visas
Saudi tourist visas! Another mind-blown moment! Some of you might have welcomed the idea. It’s a chance for us to show our family and friends what Saudi Arabia is like and what it can offer in terms of tourist places. Which got us into thinking that there are a lot of you who might have laughed at the idea. What can be seen in Saudi Arabia that will merit people outside the Kingdom to fork over money and put Saudi Arabia in their bucket list? We saw a lot of comments like “it’s so boring!” to “wth are we going to do there?!” Okay now, calm down people. As residents of Saudi Arabia, we feel like defending the Kingdom (don’t be too judgmental, people!) and we will once we come up with our article on the Top 5 Reasons Why You Should Get That Tourist Visa To Saudi Arabia! We’re working on that pronto! On the first phase of the plan, visas will only be available to groups of visitors through authorized tour operators. That means, itineraries are set. To where they will take you, we have our ideas. For example, Farasan Islands, Abha, Jizan, Al Ahsa, Madain Saleh, and of course, Riyadh. (Did you know that I have a dream to become a tourist guide in Riyadh even for just a day? I feel like I can do a good job at it, hahaha!) Also, in a few years time, the ambitious Red Sea Project will become a reality. Imagine a resort built across a lagoon of 50 untouched islands! That’s like seeing Saudi Arabia for the first time, all over again!
These are the changes that we’ll be seeing and feeling (especially by our wallets) this 2018. Are you ready? Will we ever be ready? When these news were being slowly rolled out last year, we kept silent in our social media and website because we feel like it’s not our country to comment to. Also, even if we want to say something immediately, we chose to open our minds before we open our mouths. Now that these changes are upon us, we felt the need to write about it because we, as expats in Saudi Arabia, are affected by these changes. We do understand that these changes, especially the VAT, are part of the economic re-structuring of Saudi Arabia in keeping with their Vision 2030. We also wished for Saudi Arabia to open up to the world because we see Saudi Arabia’s natural charms, its rich history and culture, its people’s warmth and hospitality… these are things that the world should see about Saudi Arabia. And if these changes are parts of their ways so that they can be a better open country, then go for it. We wish Saudi Arabia success! And that’s exactly our POV: we want to still be a part of Saudi Arabia’s progress. Don’t regard expats as nuisances to the reforms that are sweeping the nation. See us as your partners for development and improvement, the same way that you’ve seen the importance of the generations of expats who helped build your roads, buildings, bridges and cared for your sick and elderly. We can work hand-in-hand, side-by-side.
Whether we’re ready or not, change has certainly come to Saudi Arabia. And as with any forms of change, it forces you out of your comfort zone, it entails resistance and even denial. These changes in particular cannot escape either one of us. It is only up to us if we will choose to ride the waves of change or be drowned by it. If you think about the greater picture, there really isn’t a perfect country that will give us everything that we want and need anyway so the question you should ask yourself as an expat is that, “Compared to my home country or any other country I can work in, is Saudi Arabia still giving me the best opportunity to earn, save and progress my career?” There’s no sugarcoating it, let’s just keep it real at that. On the other hand, for someone who has been in Saudi Arabia for most of their lives and considers this as home, one can also ask, “Now that Saudi Arabia is changing, is it really the time to leave?” There is the opportunity to finally have access to some sense of normalcy felt by the rest of the world like cinemas, driving and more events and activities and it’s going to be at the comfort of where you’ve always been so used to living in. Why rock the boat when moving out and settling in a new place in just as costly and expensive?
Eventually Riyadhizens, the choice is yours.