2 August 2017

Sonyboy Fugaban - Expat in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Sonyboy Fugaban - Expat in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

We’ve had the chance to talk to Sonyboy Fugaban, 34, a Filipino expat who has moved to Saudi Arabia alone. Mr. Fugaban who has been living there for five years, now works as an executive secretary. 

Read more about his experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: The Philippines.


Q: What made you move out of the Philippines?

A: It was originally my wife who wanted to work abroad. But after much thought about it, I decided to pursue it instead of her. Mothers are still the best carers of children I believe. And, of course, the idea of a greener pasture was tempting.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I’m currently based in Riyadh City, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). My boss is based in the Head Office, which is located in the capital city.


Q: How long have you been living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)?

A: I’m on my fifth year in KSA as we speak. A month from now to be exact.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: No. I don’t have the privilege of bringing my family because of my position.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Yes, every day. Deciding to work overseas wasn’t hard. Coping with homesickness is.  The kind of life expats have here is not something that’s, for lack of a better word to describe it, really interesting. Nonetheless, I find ways to keep myself busy and productive by checking different forms of tourist attractions in the city and writing about it; learning new skills especially those that are essential to my job; and the usual stuff like listening to my favourite radio show, watching movies or TV series, or badminton, among others.  That’s how I cope with homesickness.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: They're much like us, Filipinos, by nature―hospitable and sensitive.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)? How did you manage to find a social circle there?  

A: Yes. My line of work allows me to be in touch with different nationalities, in the office. Meeting people outside the office come in handy most of the time. It’s one of the good things about working in a multicultural working environment. It allows me to learn about cultures and traditions, which puts me away from committing social blunders.

Yes, I do socialize with other expats—Saudis, the British, Kiwis, Nigerians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Indians, Nepalese, Egyptians, Italians, and Americans—primarily in the office. I would do the same outside given the chance.

Common interests particularly travelling, music, and badminton that made me not only find but establish a social circle here. We live in a world that is divided by nationalism, language, gender, political belief, and religion. It's the general common interests as mentioned earlier that bring people together effortlessly.


Q: How does the cost of living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) compare to your home?

A: The first time I was asked this, I answered: “In general, I find the cost of living here and back home to be the same. I don’t think I have a problem with that because I live by my means.”

After careful (re)consideration, I can now say that the cost of living here is a lot cheaper compared to my home country. That explains why the majority of expats here gain weight—fast. Foods especially dairy products and fruits are way more inexpensive.

Gold items are also cheaper compared to other countries’. Since they're a very good form of investment, I hope I get to buy more in the next few years.


  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: It ranges from SAR 10 – 20.

Starbucks, Dr. café and Java Time’s tall café mocha is 15.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: SAR 5 – 15.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: I haven’t checked the fine dining restaurants in the city such as the Globe and La Cucina in Al Faisaliyah Tower yet, but I’ve already visited a few of the casual dining ones such as Nandos, TGI Friday’s, Chilis, Applebee's,  Buffalo Wild Wings, Panda Express, Steakhouse, etc. I find the latter type expensive considering my means. You should have SAR 100 – 200 to make the most of the dining experience. Again, I'm talking about on average.

  • Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: I wish I could answer this. The capital city is known for its strict laws that absolutely stifle production, importation, and/or consumption of alcoholic drinks. Riyadh is the very centre of Islam. Mecca is very close to it.  You get the picture.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)?

A: Yes, I do, especially for Asians. Based on what I heard, saw, and experienced in the last five years, employers take care of opening bank accounts of their employees. This is the general case. Nevertheless, to make sure that you get it processed or do it right the first time, make sure that you have the accomplished account opening form, certificate of employment that shows your monthly or yearly salary, and clear photocopy (in colour if possible) of the iqama. 

Special Note as of January 2017: The Saudi Arabian British Banks require the account opening form to be accomplished online prior to visiting the concerned branch. Manual forms are no longer accepted.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: So far, I would say it’s fair...good. I’m working in a company where most of these transactions are being done, if not facilitated, by its Human Resource & Administration Department.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: Yes. I never had problems with our healthcare insurance company’s affiliated hospitals or clinics yet when it comes to availing the benefits. 

I’m fortunate to have been hospitalized only once because of a nonfatal infection. I was happy with the way Dallah Hospital in Riyadh took care of me then. Excellent service I must say!


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in the Philippines or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)?  What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: Yes. My gratitude to the company I’m working for because it gave me that privilege.

I’m satisfied with the current status of our company’s healthcare insurance when it comes to cost and results. 

The essentials should be out-of-area emergency services, inpatient hospital and physician care, outpatient medical services, laboratory and radiology services, and preventive health services. The extent of what employers could and should cover when it comes to each of those essentials is beyond the expats’ influence.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: The most memorable slashed stressful about the packing was deciding how many clothes and stuff to bring because of the baggage size and weight restrictions.   It took time for me to come up with the final items.  This is my very first job overseas. (It’s still is.) I actually didn’t bring shorts but boxers because when I had the Pre-Departure Orientation Seminar, I was warned not to considering Saudi’s conservative nature. I found out soon that it's not true. We can wear shorts here. 

The second question is not applicable, I think. I’m in the company accommodations. It’s where I’ve been staying since day 1.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: Learning the Arabic language.

I’ve been here for five years yet I haven’t mastered a single percentage of the language. It’s a shame.

I did try to seriously learn Arabic of course, but each time I mispronounce the words or mess the grammar up, my Saudi tutors/colleagues laugh. They also said that I’d rather not push on with it because I sound ridiculous and I’m speaking the way their educationally-challenged counterparts speak.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)?

A:  The positives would be tax-free salary; reduced spending; the unique topography, culture, and people; and is located at the center of the world.    

Tax- Free Salary

According to what I read, an expat here only pays two percent of his total wages into the social security system. This means most of everything he earns will go straight to savings.

Reduced Spending 

Riyadh, being the centre of Islam, is known for its lack of entertainment, at least according to non-Muslim’s definition of it. Consequently, there’s very little to spend money on. 

Unique Topography and Lavish Architecture 

KSA’s landscape is something truly beautiful to someone from the Far East that has a completely different surface features like the Philippines. The kingdom boasts countless free-for-the-eyes rock formations and deserts. The same goes for lavish skyscrapers. 

KSA has been in a flinty horse race with the UAE when it comes to the world’s tallest, plushest skyscrapers since the 21st century. The former is currently erecting another superstructure that will bury Burj Khalifa in the ground by 2019. 

Unique Culture, Traditions, and People 

Exposure to differing cultures and traditions as well as to the locals and fellow expats from different ethnicities is an experience of a lifetime. Having and gaining friends from different parts of the globe is also something. 

My idea of home is now borderless and that it's a feeling. My horizons broadened beyond what I could have imagined five years ago. 

Being Located at the Center of the World 

This one is especially true to travellers. Mecca, which is near Riyadh, is centrally located on the world map so geographically speaking, Africa is on your left, Central and East Asia to your right, and to your North is Europe. The King Khaled International Airport offers flights to all of those continents. 

The negatives would be separating singles from family, the concept of family days, and prayer times.  

Separating Singles from Family 

There were countless times when that kind of practice made me bear with my hunger because I can’t enter food courts after 6:00 PM. I remember the first time when I and friends planned to go on a meat-sweet diet at the food court of our favorite mall since it was a local weekday. It didn’t happen when the food court suddenly turned into a “family only” place. We thought that’s only up for Thursdays and Fridays but it’s really more of when the guards want to impose it. 

Family Days 

Their concept of a family day is a bit weird. Pestering if you may. Why can’t singles enter the malls during Thursdays and Fridays? 

Prayer Times 

This one is solely for the reason that there’s no way we could get fixed prayer times. Eateries, restaurants, and boutiques close five times a day for prayers. There are references to them but they usually exceed. Worst, the stop entry policy’s times aren’t consistent. Some shops close 20 minutes before a prayer time while others close a lot earlier or later. 

What matters at the end of the day though is that the positives outweigh the negatives. I'm more than happy with that.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: Riyadh is teeming with nature, historical, architectural, shopping, and gastronomical attractions. You’ll be surprised at how interesting and alive the city is. 

I'd just share five though. That way, you get to visit my travel blog (yobynos.wordress.com) for more and on how to get to each of these magnetizing places in Riyadh. 

5. Wadi Hanifa, Al Masani 

Wadi Hanifa is a narrow valley that showcases the ruins of the old city of Diriyah, which is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the historical Alealb Water Dam. A perfect picnic spot most especially for the locals. It boasts approximately 30,000 verdant desert trees in the middle of the valley; 7,000 date palms along hiking areas and pathways; flowing water channel and natural landscapes.

If you want a quality time with loved ones with the aid of gentle breeze from the lake and lovely birds chirping on trees, this spot is the place to be.

4. Al Haeer (Khamsa Khamsa), Al Ghnamiah

Al Haeer, more popularly known as Khamsa Khamsa and originally a school for horseback riding, is defined by its laid-back atmosphere. It'll make a visitor appreciate simple things like seeing people singing at the karaoke bar, playing billiards, merrymaking inside nipa huts, eating Asian dishes, getting a breath of fresh air under the trees, and a whole heap more.

No wonder, the place became the most favorite spot of Asians particularly Filipinos.

3. King Abdulaziz Historical Centre, King Faisal Road, Al Murabba Quarter 

This Centre is the home to the bushiest public park in the city proper; Al-Murabba Palace; Traditional Mud Buildings; Darat Al-Malik Abdulaziz; King Abdulaziz Public Library; King Abdulaziz Mosque; King Abdulaziz Auditorium; a modern road network and walkways; the most notable landmarks in the Kingdom (Riyadh Water Tower); and the National Museum.

KAHC never fails to tempt visitors with its cultural and historical flair as well as pieces of lavish Middle-Eastern architecture that harmoniously dance with the elements of nature. It's the place in the city “city” that gives you that genuine feeling of being in a tropical spot.

2. Rawdat Khuraim, Wildlife Sanctuary

Rawdhat Khuraim is basically a wildlife park established in 2005. It's not only famous in Riyadh but the whole Kingdom because of its nature reserves that bloom during spring—the best time to visit the place. It's now one of the Kingdom’s most favorite camping grounds and undoubtedly a sought-after spot for wildlife and sunset/sunrise photographers.

1. Wadi Namar, Al Warad, Namar

Wadi Namar is an area around the lake of Namar dam, which is 50 meters and deep 2,000 meters long, from the southern side of Al Warad. This attraction turned into a favorite hang-out of weekend revelers upon its public opening in 2012.

A place with an eldritch beauty all of its own best describes Wadi Namar. A broad span of the Namarian azure sky is gashed above it, making it appear like nature’s arena in most pictures on the internet.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: I've no plans at the moment. Projects back home are (still) in the works.


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?


  1. The not so good stories you heard and read about Saudi Arabia are just but isolated cases. It’s one thing to read and hear about Saudi Arabia, and another to actually live in it. 
  1. There'll always be someone who's smarter, more handsome, or just better than you. What usually happens is that you unconsciously make yourself to be a copy of that someone. Turn that someone into an inspiration instead. 
  1. Don’t be afraid to meet new people. If you want to gain a new perspective, seek new opportunities, or learn about new ideas, interact with other people. The benefits of welcoming new people into your life far exceed being home all the time. The former is the only way to grow past your current level. 
  1. The modern world is borderless; bigger opportunities are out there. Grab yours. Don’t hesitate about leaving your comfort zone for better opportunities. It’s no longer a matter of choice nowadays. 
  1. Never forget to immerse in nature once in a while amid your busy life. This is a requirement especially if you’re someone from the city where constant uproar is a given. Climb a mountain, watch the sun as it sets or rises, swim in the sea or simply enjoy nature’s bounties and your connection to them. Immersion in nature is a fuel for the body and soul. Doing that, through traveling, in this day and age is a necessity 
  1. The world is indeed bigger than you could imagine. Go explore it.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)?

A: Yes, I have two: "Stories of the Wandering Feet & Mind" by Sonyboy Fugaban and "Pixels For Four" by Elizabeth Palacios. (Thanks for giving me the chance to plug my blog!)

Stories of the Wandering Feet & Mind covers general patronage like travelling, food, nature, expat life, (occasionally) grammar, and other topics. It's a bridge of knowledge to those interested in travelling to or working in KSA.

Pixels For Four is a realistic and engaging blog about a family based in Riyadh. The stories focus on their travels in general, which speak a lot about their routine, with bits of other topics.