Life in Saudi Arabia: From a Foreigner’s Perspective
Life in Saudi Arabia is, as one might expect, quite different from anywhere else I've ever lived or traveled. One of the most traditional societies, it is shaped by Bedouin culture, and governed by firm Islamic beliefs and traditions.
It is a sea of black and white, men wearing long white thobes, women covered in black abayas. There are segregated areas for single men and families, mandatory closures of shops and restaurants during prayer times, insane traffic, sand storms, camels transported on trucks, and an incredible desert landscape. There are traditional souks with men in thobes and checkered headscarves, smoking shisha, and chatting with each other in oud-scented passageways, and there are sleek megamalls with internationally known brands and cafés where young women, uniformly draped in black, enjoy shopping or a cup of coffee together, always with their noses in their phones. Living in Saudi Arabia as a foreigner is exciting and a slightly surreal experience.
LIFE IN THE DESERT
It's hot, so hot! In the summer, the temperature is a constant 110F+ degrees (upper 40s in Celsius). The air conditioners work at full speed, in our house all 13 of them. The air is dry, below 10% humidity. Stepping out, feels like a shot of hot air from a hair dryer. Almost everything from the roads to the buildings is the color of sand, just like everything outside is always covered with a thin layer of sand. Every bit of wind means that sand creeps into your house, onto the trees, and covers your car. But surprisingly, even in this desert heat, there are always bougainvilleas brighting the beige landscape with their vibrant color. The winters from October to March are pleasant with lower temperatures and a bit more humidity.
It is amazing how the sand-colored cities transform and light up with neon at night. From food trucks to desert camps, everything shines in bright colors of red and green. The streets that have been sun-baked and empty during the day are flooded with people at night.
Despite the gleaming high rises and neon lights in the cities, you still get a feel of the fairly recent transition from the nomadic way of life. The deserts along the roads are dotted with Bedouin tents, herds of camels and goats; trucks carrying camels and goats speeding by. Once I even got a glimpse of a goat on the back seat of a car.
What's shocking is that the locals have turned these roadside deserts into a dumping ground and you see everything from abandoned cars and old furniture to plastic littering the ground. The strangest thing is to see families having picnics next to this rubbish and building debris.
SAUDI DRESS CODE
Saudi dress code follows the strict Islamic principle of modesty. Foreigners are expected to be respectful but do not have to follow the dress code as stringently as the locals. When local women are mostly covered in all black, expats sometimes wear lighter colored abayas in the summer and they do not have to cover their hair. Airports and some high end restaurants allow foreign women to remove their abayas and on golf courses ladies can even wear skorts.
Update from September 2019: after the kingdom started issuing tourist visa, a new dress code was published and foreign women do not have to wear abayas. Going abaya-free is still not that common and many still find it easier to wear an abaya for convenience.
SAUDI DRESS CODE FOR LADIES
Saudi women wear full length abayas, almost always black. Most cover their hair with a hijab, a black gauzy scarf, or a niqab, a black face veil made of sheer material. Typically, women cover themselves in the presence of any men they are eligible to marry which includes adult cousins, brothers-in-law, and ex-husbands. The most common footwear seems to be sneakers. The handbags they carry are often high-end designer and just big enough for a phone and a credit card.
SAUDI DRESS CODE FOR MEN
Saudi men wear a white (sometimes tan or gray) ankle-length shirt, thobe, with a large checkered red and white or plain white headdress, ghutra, often designer made. Many wear gold cuff links with their thobes. The ghutra is held in place by a black cord, agal. The crochet or knit cap, tagiyah, goes underneath the scarf to help hold the scarf on the head, but it can also be worn on its own without the scarf.
There are many ways to wear the scarf: throw both ends of the ghutra onto the opposite shoulder, throw one end of the ghutra above your head while leaving the other end as it is, wear it bunched up like a delicately balanced bird nest, or just loose on your shoulders. It's amazing that even when a Saudi man walks fast, his ghutra never falls off.
A self-respecting Saudi man will never buy his thobe off the rack and will always get it custom made. The thobe that looks so simple, is actually made of 24 pieces of fabric and does not have side seams. It has three pockets, so Saudi men do not have to wear handbags, considered feminine by some Saudis. For special occasions, men wear a tan or black cloak, bisht, with gold embroidery over the thobe.
Saudi men and women wear quite a lot of perfume. The scent does not always come from the expensive perfume bottles. In fact, when incense is being burned, both men and women hold the smoking burner close to their clothes and hair for the scent. Most men also have incredibly well groomed beards and women wear heavy and meticulously applied make up.
Dates, Arabic coffee, camel milk, yoghurt, lamb come to mind when we think about food in Saudi Arabia.
The national dish of Saudi Arabia is kabsa, a rice dish flavored with cloves, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, bay leaves, and nutmeg, and topped with lamb, camel or chicken. The traditional way is to serve the dish on a huge platter on the floor, everyone sitting on a carpet and floor cushions around the platter and eating with their right hand (never the left one), pulling chunks of meat off the bone. For special occasions a whole lamb or camel is roasted to show generosity and shower guests with abundance. Even when one guest is expected, some roast the whole lamb.
The other traditional Saudi dish is jareesh, a crushed wheat dish topped with caramelized onions.
COFFEE AND DATES
Arabic coffee (gahwa) and dates are a symbol of Saudi hospitality and generosity. Coffee is elegantly served in copper coffee pots called dallah and poured into small cups. The coffee beans are only lightly roasted and the coffee is of golden color, different from the coffee served in other Arabic countries. Saudi coffee does not have a strong coffee flavor and tastes almost like strong cardamom tea. Cardamom, cloves and saffron are added to the beans when making the coffee. The coffee is never sweetened but is always served with sweet dates. It is assumed that guests will accept at least a small quantity of drink and it is considered rude to decline the offer of a drink. Once you have finished the cup and hand it back to the host, the cup is refilled again. Shaking the cup lets the host know that you are done. When you are visiting a Saudi home for dinner, the serving of coffee is followed by a serving of sweet tea and only then dinner. After dinner, coffee and tea are served again and by that time it is probably midnight if not later.
The grocery stores are as well stocked as in any western country and the likes of Tamimi (Safeway) and Carrefour are everywhere. What's different is that the stores close for half an hour during the five prayer times. Small stores close completely, the larger ones let shoppers continue their shopping, but they have to wait until the prayer ends to weigh their vegetables or to check out. Pork and alcohol are illegal, but stores stock non-alcoholic beer and wine. Weighing the vegetables is one of the things that foreigners have to get to used to. There is often only one person behind the scales weighing and labeling every shopper's bags of produce. Families are big and people buy a lot of food, so the lines can be long. The shop assistants are used to running back to the weighing station when a bag of produce without a label is found at check out.
There is no shortage of choices when it comes to restaurants in the major cities. Fast food joints are ubiquitous, and you will find anything from Fuddruckers to Five Guys over here. There are international brands and chains like Ladurée, Fauchon, Eataly, Cheesecake Factory, you name it. The food quality and service is not always the same and every now and then you get a gem from the waiter like "don't order that, the chef does not know how to make it". Every country has its quirks.
Just like in the stores, restaurant service stops during prayer times and music is turned off. Those who are in, can stay but the blinds and curtains are pulled down and doors are locked. Sometimes you see chefs and patrons pulling out a prayer rug together, praying right in front of you. Going out for dinner always requires a bit of planning, making sure you'll get there early enough to place the order before prayer time and then to get your bill before everything closes again.
Since gender segregation is the norm, most restaurants have different entrances and sitting areas for families and single men. Privacy is the key and many restaurants have booths behind heavy curtains that make them look more like hospitals than restaurants.
Update from September 2019: Things are changing in Saudi and now more and more restaurants are changing their segregation rules and getting rid of the separate areas for men and women. Some stores stay open during prayer times but it is still not that common.
No surprise that the country boasts a number of opulent shopping malls filled with global brands like Chanel and Tiffany & Co. There are well known department stores such as Harvey Nichols, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer as well as Victoria's Secret, Zara, Sephora, and other brands ubiquitous around the world. If you see an ad that has a picture of a woman, her face is blurred. Some malls have "women only" floors and some stores are for "families only." Even in the "women only" areas, most stores don't have fitting rooms. Some savvy shoppers will buy the clothes in cash, go to the mall's restrooms that have private prayer rooms, try the clothes on, and return them right away when needed.
Just like in restaurants, the stores close during prayer times. In the malls they just pull down their shades, lock the doors and for half an hour everything is quiet. Then, one after the other, the stores start opening up. There is no particular reopening time and it seems that they open whenever they feel like.
The traditional souks sell everything imaginable and rugs, handmade furniture, lanterns, incense burners, and Arabic coffee pots are usually the expat favorites. It's a country where gold is abundant, whether it is jewelry or gold plated housewares. You could decorate your entire home in gold. Gold jewelry is massive and the prices are quoted per gram, no matter how intricate the design.
Further reading: Souk Al-Zal: Things to Buy in Riyadh’s Oldest Market
Saudi traffic is infamous for its deadly accidents. The drivers' race-track approach to driving can be terrifying, especially when you see serious accidents on the roads. Reversing at speed, creating lanes where they do not exist, overtaking left and right, never turning a blinker on. Defensive driving is the key and the middle lane seems the safest. Even then it never feels safe - it's scary how many drivers are texting and staring at their cell phone screen while driving at a high speed. Looking at the drivers wearing headscarves makes one wonder whether the lack of peripheral vision has something to do with the accidents as well.
Navigating is difficult not only because of the long and confusing street names (do I have to take Al Imam Saud Bim Abdulaziz Bin Mohammed Road or Prince Turki Ibn Abdulaziz Al Awwal Road?), but also because of the never ending construction work. You can never trust your GPS and will likely have to take a long detour because of unexpected roadwork. There are very few traffic lights and if you want to turn left, then most of the time you have to do a U-turn. Sometimes it is quite a long drive until you have an opportunity for that.
There aren't many female drivers out there, even though women can drive from June 2018. Perhaps the insane traffic is one of the reasons.
When you are a foreigner, you will most probably live in a secluded and heavily guarded expat compound. Women do not have to wear abayas and some compounds have even banned them, there are pools and tennis courts, coffee shops and small stores.
The sand-colored homes, behind high walls, have several entrances: one for the residents, one for female guests, one for male guests. There are also separate living areas intended for men and women. Most Saudi homes have a room on the top floor for the maid and a driver’s room next to the carport, separate from the main residence.
It is interesting to note that since Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca, the footboard of the bed must always face a different direction in the house. Similarly, the commode never faces Mecca. In the the living areas, large sofas and armchairs (or cushions on the floor) are placed all around the periphery of the room with coffee tables in front of them for serving, and the middle of the room is empty like a ballroom.
There are no concert halls and opera houses in Saudi Arabia yet but things are changing. A new plan for Riyadh was recently unveiled for an ambitious $23 billion project to create a public park with an opera house, golf course, race track and much more. Saudis are spending billions overseas on entertainment and it sure seems like high time to bring the money back home.
There are now various music festivals in Riyadh and recently David Guetta and many other DJs performed in Riyadh. The Saudis have hosted international equestrian competitions, boxing and tennis matches, as well as Formula E races.
After a 35-year ban, movie theaters re-opened in April 2018. Just try to figure out the movie times—when exactly is 606 minutes from now? The movies are mostly action movies and since Saudis are night-owls, you can even go to a 2AM showing.
Saudis love to spend time picnicking and food trucks have become a thing. In November 2019 the Taste of the World festival brought multiple Michelin-starred chefs to Riyadh and every now and then a popular restaurant fro abroad opens their pop up in Saudi. The latest one was Coya from Dubai and we expect to see many more in the future.