It is probably odds on that you will choose to send your children to an international school, if posted to Riyadh, but don’t forget that even international schools have been known to close their doors because they are not ‘Muslim enough’ and don’t expect any school to be totally western.
Denham Ibn Dawwas built a wall around this desert city in 1590 and, over 500 years later, walls still feature prominently, when living in Riyadh, if you are an expat. The same question about the fortifications around the carefully guarded 21st century compounds is as relevant today, as it was in the distant past – are the barricades there to keep the people inside safe from the locals or to keep the locals safe from the people inside?
Behind the walls of the compounds are roomy (if architecturally uninspiring) villas, green gardens, swimming pools and children on bikes. In fact it’s not that dissimilar to Californian housing estates, except that it’s a lot hotter (temperatures can rise to 50 Celcius in the summer) and there’s the ever-present threat of dust storms that make a San Francisco fog look like a patch of river mist.
Outside these safe havens, the options for entertainment are somewhat limited and mainly consist of upmarket shopping malls (think Armani, Gucci, Versace etc.), although there is also the Souq Al Thumairi (a favourite with expats) which has a more ethnic offering of rugs and incense and an unexpectedly wide selection of restaurants. Remember, strictly no alcohol, so celebratory champagne consists of apple juice and sparkling water.
If your life is taking you on a tour around the world, you will probably put the curricula offered by international schools towards the top of the list, when it comes to deciding where to send your children. If the curriculum remains the same, they will only have to cope with a change of venue when they transition from one country to another or when they go back home.
In Riyadh, the choice is fairly simple as there are only a very small number of international schools, which have been given permission to deviate from the Saudi National Curriculum. Apart from the curriculum problem, local schools in Saudi Arabia are single sex and culturally too foreign for almost all children of non-Arab nationality.
Basically, this leaves the following limited selection of schools that are regularly considered by anglo-phone or franco-phone families posted to Riyadh: one British school (British International School), one American school (American International School (AISR), also offering the IB Diploma), two Australian / British schools (Saud International School , Multinational School), one French school (École Francaise Internationale de Riyad), two International Baccalaureate schools (King Faisal School, Advanced Learning Schools) and the Abdulaziz International Schools - Al Sulaimaniah which teach the SABIS curriculum.
Four of these schools, Abdulaziz, Advanced Learning, King Faisal and Saud International teach boys and girls separately, with the latter only being taught at King Faisal up to the age of six.
For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on The GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Riyadh considered by expats'.
The school run
Never underestimate the importance of how long it takes to tackle the school run in foreign cities, where log jams occur at particular points of the day. In Riyadh, there’s the additional hazard of prayers, at drop-off and pick-up times, which can result in a massively longer journey. Most international schools run a bus service or there is the luxurious alternative of your husband’s (and your husband will be the breadwinner here) driver. He tends to know the idiosyncratic, regular and often puzzling alterations to the best routes, by instinct, as well as knowledge.
The time taken to reach international schools from the most popular expat compounds tends (rather surprisingly, considering that Riyadh covers the same area as Greater London) to be roughly the same at 20-30 minutes. Luckily, intelligent developers of these schools put two and two together and made sure that the product was in fairly easy reach of its potential purchasers.
Definitely not one of the corners of the globe that encourages international schools and foreign ways, so the choice is narrow and a lot of families face up to having to be apart from their children in term-time and sending them to board back home.