BACKGROUND The public sector healthcare system in Saudi Arabia, essentially financed by oil revenues and 'free at the point of delivery', is coming under increasing strain due to escalating expenditure and an increasingly volatile oil market and is likely to be unsustainable in the medium to long term. OBJECTIVES This study examines how satisfied the Saudi people are with their public sector healthcare services and assesses their willingness to contribute to financing the system through a national health insurance scheme. The study also examines public preferences and expectations of a future national health insurance system. METHODS A total of 36 heads of households participated in face-to-face audio-recorded semi-structured interviews. The participants were purposefully selected based on different socio-economic and socio-demographic factors from urban and rural areas to represent the geographical diversity that would presumably influence individual views, expectations, preferences and healthcare experiences. RESULTS The evidence showed some dissatisfaction with the provision and quality of current public sector healthcare services, including the availability of appointments, waiting times and the availability of drugs. The households indicated a willingness to contribute to a national insurance scheme, conditional upon improvements in the quality of public sector healthcare services. The results also revealed a variety of preferences and expectations regarding the proposed national health insurance scheme. CONCLUSIONS Quality improvement is a key factor that could motivate the Saudi people to contribute to financing the healthcare system. A new authority, consisting of a partnership between the public and private sectors under government supervision, could represent an acceptable option for addressing the variation in public preferences.