As George Sayen says, Saudi really is not as bad as it's cracked up to be. As far as the work is concerned, the capital markets and private equity/M&A deals, along with major infrastructure and construction projects, are the biggest and most interesting in the region by some distance.
It has an understandable reputation as being a tough place to live; it is strictly dry and women have a hard time in general. For this reason 99% of eligible would-be recruits have tended to dismiss the idea out of hand in the past without ever exploring the practicalities, although this trend is steadily shifting as global markets continue to flounder while the Saudi economy continues to boom.
Most Westerners live in expat-only compounds which look more like luxury holiday resorts (minus the pool bar & casino, naturally) where you can pretty much do as you please. These mega-compounds, while not cheap (i.e. a 4 bedroom house will cost c$50,000/year), are effectively highly secure townships and usually house around 10,000 people. Their leisure facilities are top class and the communities are great places for young families. Granted, when kids become teenagers it becomes a bit more of a challenge, and you find many expat families moving on when their kids reach that age.
A lot of Western bankers, lawyers etc. go there intending to stay for 1 or 2 years, get a foot in the door in the region and then move on to the UAE or Qatar, but end up staying for longer because they find the work so good and the lifestyle so healthy. Compulsory detox has its advantages!
Women are gradually becoming more prominent in the workplace and although they aren't allowed to drive (yet), change is slowly coming to the Kingdom. One Saudi tells me that King Abdullah wants to make the roads safer before allowing women to get behind the wheel. Although such a claim may be considered lip-service by cynics, the speed cameras lining the major roads of Riyadh these days, and the harsh fines they bring, is evidence of commitment to progress on that front.
Riyadh is certainly not for everyone, indeed there are many that can’t stand it. However, for those lawyers who thrive on good deal work, enjoy taking home an inflated tax free salary (law firms typically pay c.30% above their London rate), want to raise their kids in a safe environment that promotes an outdoor lifestyle, and can put up with living in a state of enforced detox for a few years, it really is not a bad move at all.
Swimming, playing tennis and reading books by the pool every day can take its toll and you would need to be patient to survive there. If, rather when, you want to escape and let your hair down, Dubai is 90 minutes away by plane and Bahrain is 3 hours away on the road. Commercial air travel within the region is relatively cheap and petrol costs around 1/15th of current UK prices.
The Saudi's are extremely hospitable and although their culture is difficult for women and for those who enjoy a regular drink, the high volume of high-value work marks it out as a real anomaly among global markets, in that there is virtually immeasurable opportunity there for those willing to take the plunge.