Disclaimer: What follows is a combination of openly-available facts and some personal opinions. The opinion parts are my own and I don't claim to speak for anyone else. I did not intend for this to be "the answer" to this question; it deals with only one country/university.
I was born and raised in the United States, and got all my degrees there. I have now been a professor at KAUST for 5 years. I certainly came here by choice; I had good competing offers at some top programs in my field in the US.
Are you bound by the restrictive laws that govern most citizens?
To a significant degree, yes. For instance, alcohol, pork, and a number of other substances are not permitted anywhere in Saudi Arabia. On-campus housing for single students is in separate buildings for men and for women.
However, KAUST is exempt from a number of the social customs that are in effect throughout the rest of the country. For example:
- KAUST is the only university in the country where males and females learn in the same classroom together.
- Women can drive on the KAUST campus (with a license).
- Women do not need to wear the abaya (burkha) at KAUST, or to cover their hair, etc. They dress as they please, within professional standards of modesty.
KAUST is not completely unique in these respects; the Aramco "compound" (which is really a small city) in the Eastern Province has similar exceptions. The KAUST campus and the Aramco compound are also the only two places in the country with a movie theater.
Of course, we frequently leave the campus to go to Jeddah. My wife can't drive there and wears an abaya. Also, the university culture at KAUST is more top-down than at most US universities, which I believe is a reflection of the local culture. But our current president is changing that to some degree.
Did you bring a family or significant other with you? What has their experience been like?
I brought a wife and two young children (my third was born here). They are happy here -- if not, we wouldn't have stayed! Frankly, KAUST is an ideal place to raise a family. My children have friends from almost every imaginable culture, religion, and race. They take lessons in things like piano, swimming, and ballet. The schools are excellent and the community is extremely safe (I don't even lock my bike). I'll often bike to my childrens' school and take them to the park for lunch; everything is within five minutes by bicycle here. I live 1 block from the beach and my morning commute is a short bicycle ride through beautiful surroundings.
Life is pretty relaxed and hassle-free because the university essentially manages everything (and manages it well). My wife doesn't work outside the home. She participates in a number of community organizations and has time to devote to friendships, hobbies, and especially to our children.
I'll add (since most westerners find it surprising) that there are many single western women who work here very happily.
Do you expect to stay at this institution for your career, or will you eventually try to return to your home country/a western country?
I came to KAUST because it was an adventure and chance to build something new and worthwhile. My initial plan was to spend perhaps 3-4 years at KAUST and then go back to the US. However, I have since realized that I have the ideal academic job (by my own criteria, at least):
- Extremely generous funding with no need to write grant proposals (KAUST has one of the world's largest endowments and only about 120 faculty).
- Light teaching load (1 MS level course and 1 PhD level course per year), which also has allowed me the time to be bit innovative and try things like inquiry-based learning.
- A relatively light administrative load, compared to what I hear from colleagues in the US. This is largely due to having excellent and plentiful support staff.
- Long-term job security with the freedom to do research along any direction I wish (university positions generally include this, but other careers I considered do not).
- Essentially unlimited access to a world-class supercomputer (200 Tflops, upgrading to 5 Pflops next spring). This is relevant to my particular field; other researchers here get similar benefits from other exceptional facilities.
Now I suppose the last bit of this post sounds like an advertisement, and I can't really help that. In light of all this, I don't plan to leave any time soon.
I've been planning a series of retrospective posts on this topic for my blog. I will link to that here if I get around to writing it.
Some updates in response to comments:
- KAUST is committed to avoiding gender (and other types of) discrimination. There are very many women (married and single) who work at KAUST. There are many families in which both spouses work. I can add that the opportunities for women to work in Saudi Arabia (outside of KAUST) have increased dramatically in the last couple of years. As of 2016, KAUST's student body is 40% female and about 40% Saudi, so I'd guess around 16% are Saudi women. Hundreds of Saudi women work at KAUST. They are treated no differently from foreign (or male) students/employees.
- Because most of us have close ties to groups in the US and Europe, KAUST researchers travel a lot. We also have a large, steady stream of international visitors. For instance, the last three presidents of my professional society have each given a seminar at KAUST.