The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has implemented major reforms to its labor laws in recent years, significantly impacting common contract terms for employees in both the public and private sectors. These changes come as part of the Kingdom's Vision 2030 plan, which aims to diversify the Saudi economy and provide more opportunities for Saudi citizens in the workforce.
Some of the most impactful reforms include introducing new rules around fixed-term contracts, regulations around transferring employee sponsorships, expanded benefits and allowances, formalized probationary periods for new hires, and enhanced rights for persons with disabilities. This article will analyze these key reforms in detail.
Recent Changes to Saudi Labor Laws
In September 2021, the KSA government changed its existing labor laws under the Federal Labor Law. Some of the most significant changes impacting employment contracts include:
- New limits on working hours and mandatory rest breaks
- Expanded employee leave allowances
- Updated rules on terminating employment contracts
- New protections against workplace harassment
- Formal definition of wage abuse and payroll fraud
In August 2023, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Law (ROPWD) was also enacted to protect and promote employment rights for disabled persons. Its key features are the following:
- Ensuring access to employment opportunities without discrimination
- Requiring workplace accommodations for disabled staff
- Awareness campaigns to promote inclusion
These amendments provide enhanced rights and protections for all employees in Saudi Arabia. The reforms limit arbitrary actions by employers and provide clearer guidelines on contract terms that benefit both businesses and workers.
The Transition towards Fixed-Term Contracts
Historically, most employment contracts in Saudi Arabia were open-ended agreements with no defined end date. However, reforms in 2021 have shifted policies to promote wider use of fixed-term contracts, especially in the private sector.
Fixed-term contracts are now limited to a maximum duration of two years, with an option to extend. These contracts automatically terminate on the end date unless both parties consent to renewal.
[fs-toc-omit] Pros of Fixed-Term Contracts:
- Better workforce flexibility for employers as they can adjust staffing needs
- The ability for employees to renegotiate improved terms after a defined period
- Promotes mobility between companies instead of life-long jobs
[fs-toc-omit] Cons of Fixed-Term Contracts:
- Less job security for employees without guarantees of contract renewal
- More frequent need to search for new jobs as contracts expire
- Potentially complicated termination calculations for long-serving staff
Per Article 75, either party may terminate an employment contract by providing written notice at least 60 days in advance for monthly paid workers or 30 days for non-monthly paid staff.
If a contract is ended invalidly, the affected party is entitled to compensation under Article 77.
- 15 days' wage per year of service for indefinite contracts
- Remaining wage for fixed-term contracts
Compensation cannot be less than two months' wage.
Private companies have welcomed the push towards fixed-term hiring as it allows them to react faster to economic conditions. However, some experts caution that employees on repeated short-term contracts lose out on key benefits reserved only for long-serving staff.
While fixed-term contracts are now more popular, open-ended agreements remain common, especially in government entities and state-owned enterprises.
Transferring Employee Sponsors
Under Saudi Arabia's kafala (sponsorship) system, expat workers had their residency and employment tied to a specific Saudi sponsor (usually their employer). Transferring to a new company required the permission of the current sponsor.
Recent reforms have made the sponsorship transfer process easier by removing employer consent in most cases. The new automated online portal for sponsorship transfers is designed to be faster and increase labor market mobility.
[fs-toc-omit] Key features of the new transfer rules
- Employees can now directly request transfers without employer approval
- Transfers are possible after one year of service with the current sponsor
- Fast online system replaces lengthy paperwork processes
- The new employer must have a suitable position approved to receive worker
The one exception is workers in highly-skilled jobs earning at least SAR 30,000 per month. For this category, transfers still require employer consent due to their critical roles.
This reform gives employees more control over changing jobs without restrictive sponsor control. The smooth transfer of sponsorship helps improve Saudi Arabia’s appeal to global talent.
Differences: Public vs. Private Sector Contracts
Employment terms can vary substantially between public sector jobs with government ministries and private sector careers in energy, banking, healthcare, and technology.
[fs-toc-omit] Public Sector Contracts
Government and public sector entities provide some of the most attractive employment packages in Saudi Arabia, including:
- Higher job security and usually open-ended contracts
- Superior employee benefits – excellent health insurance and pension contributions
- More annual and sick leave allowances
- Clear promotion ladders and career development pathways
- Standardized pay scales with fixed government grades
- Restrictions on firing procedures without warnings
However, there are also some limitations around innovation and talent retention facing government departments. Bureaucracy can hinder fast-paced decision-making, allowing the private sector to offer more exciting projects.
[fs-toc-omit] Private Sector Contracts
In comparison, private companies in Saudi Arabia have more flexibility around compensation and employment terms:
- Salaries and benefits are based on company policies, not fixed grades
- More use of fixed-term contracts with variability in lengths
- Usually, more working hours and less generous leave entitlements
- More emphasis on performance management over tenure
The private sector offers faster advancement opportunities for top performers, but compensation can be highly unequal. Some sectors still have a concerning reliance on large expat workforces, too.
[fs-toc-omit] Probation Periods for New Contracts
Saudi labor law amendments in 2021 formalized and set limits on probationary periods for new employees.
Contractual probation periods now last up to 180 days for skilled professionals and 90 days for all other roles. Employers cannot enforce probation beyond these thresholds.
[fs-toc-omit] Key features regulating probation terms
- Probation periods must have clear start/end dates
- Employers must provide regular performance assessments
- Termination during probation does not require advance notice
- All other employee rights remain protected
The updates provide much-needed clarity on appropriate probation lengths. Without clear regulations, some new hires faced very lengthy periods without job security assurances.
A reasonable probation window allows employers and employees to evaluate fit before transitioning new staff to established contracts. However, businesses cannot abuse probation as an extended trial with reduced benefits.
[fs-toc-omit] Expanded Benefits and Allowances
Alongside the growth in contractual employment, Saudi Arabia has implemented new rules to ensure employers meet workers’ material needs.
Recent reforms expand mandatory benefits as well as introduce a minimum cost of living allowances for low-wage workers.
- Employer-paid medical insurance is required for all non-Saudi workers
- Standardized calculation of overtime pay rates
- Guaranteed housing allowance or employer-provided accommodation
- Transportation allowances for private sector staff below certain income levels
- Mandated annual air ticket cost coverage for expat workers
These changes ensure contract terms provide a safety net covering essential living expenses in Saudi Arabia. The reforms targeting low-income groups also aim to make minimum wages go further.
With robust employee protections codified into law, workers can feel reassured that their basic rights will be respected when signing contracts.
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The Final Word: Employee Rights Expanded but More Personal Responsibility
The sweeping reforms to Saudi Arabian labor regulations and employment contracts grant significant new protections and benefits to workers across the Kingdom. However, the nature of careers is also transitioning towards more individually driven decisions.
With multi-year fixed-term contracts now the norm for many private sector jobs, employees have more control over changing employers but also assume more responsibility for planning their career trajectories. Navigating between contract offers, negotiating improved terms after probation periods, and balancing job security with advancement prospects are all increasingly important.
Workers must understand their guaranteed rights and personal career priorities when signing or renewing contracts in Saudi Arabia’s dynamic job market. Those who embrace the changes as empowering can thrive, but passive employees risk being left behind.
Ultimately, the Kingdom’s economic future depends on unlocking the full potential of all its human capital. The recent slate of pro-worker reforms goes a long way toward building trust and alignment between Saudi employees and employers.