Arabian Holidays: Shopping the Souks

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style…

Walking through an alley at Diyirah souk

Okay, so shopping is a little different here than what most Americans are used to. And the quantifying ALL the differences is way beyond what one blog post can hold. I should be able to milk this topic for a solid dozen.

But this is a good place to start: the souks.

Yes, the malls of Riyadh are famous and plentiful. It’s in the malls that you find Sephora, Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, Marks & Spencer, dress shops, hypermarkets. But do you think the people on my gift list are going to be happy if I go to the other side of the world and come back with sweaters from the Gap? No, I need to find someplace else to shop.

Saudis are new to city living. And new to malls. Long-term expats tell me the malls weren’t here twenty years ago, and Riyadh was just a really large version of the mud brick villages (new! now with concrete block!) scattered around the desert, where most people’s grandparents grew up. Shopping happened in souks, which are just open-air markets. Merchants grouped together by type, so you’d go to the camel souk for Bedouin supplies, the gold souk for jewelry, the clothing souk for clothes…you probably have the pattern figured out by now. If you’ve been to an American farmer’s market or a European Saturday market, you’ve been in a souk–fruits and vegetables over there, sketchy electronics over there, cheap sunglasses and weird shoes over there. As Saudis migrated to cities, they brought the souk paradigm with them. As I’m sure the Europeans did, too, when their cities were new. So you have actual souks–sprawling, rabbit-warren-like arcades of stalls and storefronts grouped by type, such as you see above or in my photos from the second-hand souk, taken earlier this fall. (It’s morning in the shot above, so a lot of shops aren’t open yet.) But the souk model also influences the way other shopping happens.

Riyadh streetscape on a Friday morning

This is not a bad neighborhood. This is a street near our home, and pretty representative of what you see all over Riyadh: mile after mile of concrete block cube-style buildings with rectangular, plate-glass shop openings at the street level with roller-style pull-down doors or metal gates. And a bunch of trash in front. Above are apartments. (In this case, it’s Friday morning, so the shops are closed and the normal jumble of every-man-for-himself mis-parked cars is missing.) What’s souk-like is the way the business are arranged: same-type businesses tend to cluster together (interrupted by mini-supers, pharmacies, and eateries). A row of car-rental storefronts, a city block of lighting stores, another of furniture stores, another for tile shops.

Figure 1: The snuggle effect

To the American mind, this is puzzling. If you’re trying to sell teddy bears, why on earth do you want to snuggle up with your competitors? But here, shoppers would never find you if you eschewed snuggling. The snuggling produces a mass big enough to be a landmark people know about.  Refer, for example, to Figure 1. Do you see how much bigger the fuzzy mass of puppy and bear are together than either would be alone? None of these individual shops has an advertising budget–any more than the stalls at the farmer’s market do–so standing alone they’d have no way of letting shoppers know they’re there. People around here start their search for what they need not with Google or Yelp, but by asking “Do you know where you can get teddies with ribbons round their necks?” Then someone will say, “Oh, the adorable fuzzy thing stores are along Ali Bin Somethingorother–you know, just south of King Somebodyelse.” That block of roadway becomes, in essence, the fuzzy thing souk for that part of town.

(This is a forced example, I know. It was driven by the Google image result for “snuggling.” Of course you’d never ask where to buy a teddy bear because stuffed animals aren’t sold here, silly. Another story for another day.)

But the street-front shops are driving destinations. If you’re shopping a number of lighting stores, you might park your car and go to the eight or ten right in front of you, but you cross the multi-baracaded street at your own peril (especially at night, dressed all in black), and you’re separated from the next block by another uncrossable street. This kind of shopping is an evening errand that you do with a Man…who has a Car and can drive to the next block. Or that the Man with the Car does on his own. If you’re going to stroll and shop, outside a mall, you’re going to a souk. A real souk.

In the picture at the top, we’re in one of the alleys between souk areas at Diriyah, the sprawling souk that sits near the site of Riyadh’s original mud-brick settlement. Twenty years ago, if you were going to shop, it was there. Duck inside, and you see something like this:

Bedouin souk, Diriyah, Riyadh

This is the Bedouin souk area, To my right, beside the blue bags in my hand, are tent furnishings. And I’m not talking about sleeping bags and blow-up mattresses. No, Arabian tent furnishings are rugs, floor cushions, and sofas or back rests for sitting on the floor. Rope curtains with tassels. Plus camel supplies. This fellow is just walking into the souk to find out where to unload his truckload of camel saddles:

Camel saddles outside the Bedouin souk, Diriyah, Riyadh

Fun, to be sure, but not very practical for Christmas giving.

On, then, to men’s clothing:

Inside the men’s clothing souk, Diriyah, Riyadh

Much to my surprise, it turns out that not all red-checked headscarves are the same. Men who shop here are actually making decisions between these:

Shimaghs and ghutras inside a men’s clothing shop, Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

But they had plenty of time to develop a sense of style as little boys:

Boys’ costumes, Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

Okay, again I’m being distracted. I don’t think my daughter and son-in-law would appreciate us arming their 8- and 9-year-old boys with daggers. Perhaps I’ll fare better at the gold souk:

Gold souk, Diriyah, Riyadh

Off these grimy alleys, with the clattering old gates and faded signs, are stunning jewelry shops. My phone camera struggled to deal with the contrast, but my friend Patty managed to get this one:

Inside a jewelry shop in the gold souk, Diriyah, Riyadh

But gold is gold, folks, the world over. There are no deals to be had, so…sorry, kids.

Now, because shops close at around 11:30 a.m. for prayer, and in the traditional souks tend to stay closed through the afternoon (reopening after afternoon prayer, sometime between 3:30 and 4:00), the compound bus goes early in the morning so we can maximize our time there before 11:30. Only a few shops are open when we first arrive. This week, the Al Shark craft-and-who-knows-what store was the place to kill time and find, oh, all kinds of stuff before other Kuwaiti Souk shops opened.

Treasures at Al Shark, Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

Let me help you figure this out. Those are Flower Fairies scented sachets on the right, next to “best quality” police whistles, next to mouse pads that look like oriental rugs, above gold-covered cardboard place cards. YES. Turn around for plastic air horns, novelty clocks, and clown shoes.

Treasures at Al Shark, Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh


Clown shoes at Al Shark, Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

Yes. Clown shoes. Sometimes “living lightly” means not having what you really want, doggone it. Back to the souk.

But look at the furniture shops!

Furniture at the Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

Be advised: Anything that sits still for very long in Saudi Arabia will be gilt, embellished, or tufted.

Home decor shop at the Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

Unfortunately, this shop was closed, so we had to snap pictures through the glass. Oh, how I would’ve loved to see it with all those lights turned on. So I found comfort on the divan:

Gold divan at the Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

And played hide-and-seek among the abaya closets:

Abaya closets at the Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

Around the corner were the fabric shops:

Fabric shop at the Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

Yes, fabric shops. Those dresses are draped and pinned. You can see the bolts of fabric beyond the display window, through the glass.

Fabric shop display window at the Kuwaiti Souk, Riyadh

(When you get that black one figured out, let me know.)

Okay, seriously. I have to focus. Close my eyes and go straight through the gold souk at Diriyah to the shops of trinkets, collectibles, and gifts clinging to its edges. I’m finally on track.

Finding collectibles at Diriyah, Riyadh

I actually found some things up this alley. But I’m keeping my secrets for now. And that doesn’t mean I’m finished. I’m sold on souk shopping, and will be back often. Rate for yourself, if you would, the irresistibility factor of the antique shop:

Inside an antique shop at Diriyah, Riyadh

Or the Afghan/Pakistani handicraft shops:

Inside Bedouine Art, Shop No. 12, Diriyah, Riyadh

Inside Royal Kashmir, Diriyah, Riyadh

Are you catching my drift? I just love handling this stuff and hearing the stories. Lunch boxes from Afghanistan, wedding jewelry from Saudi Arabia, hand-painted bottles and plates, daggers, camel bells, astrolobes, mascara cases, perfume bottles, jewelry chests, carved camel-bone panels…

Too many choices, too little time to decide. But when you get right down to it, nothing says merry Christmas like a camel saddle, right? I think I’m done for this year.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

*Extreme photo credit goes to Cheryl Glassett and Patty Jones, who bailed out my lazy bad self when I either (a) forgot my camera or (b) couldn’t be bothered to download my own pictures.

8 thoughts on “Arabian Holidays: Shopping the Souks

  1. John Read says:

    Wonderful experience Margo, thanks for sharing.
    Yes you may wonder…what’s a man doing saying that. Well I grew up doing souk style shopping in Melbourne Australia. Indeed we had many such lane shops all over Melbourne, mine were in St.Kilda, let me see if I can locate an old photo to share…
    No not that…ummmm
    Yes, this gives you some idea…
    Closest I can get to this area, or Smith Street Collingwood or the back lanes of Flinders St in the City (Of Melbourne). Struck by nostalgia…thanks for that experience.


    • margocatts says:

      Those are great to see! Yes, outdoor European markets look (and work) like souks. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that a market in warm-weather Melbourne would be about the same. Really–souk-style shopping works much better than the American model of shops spread all over the place.


    • margocatts says:

      I haven’t seen any, but I also haven’t been looking for any. 😉 There are so many fabric stores because people have gowns made for all kinds of occasions, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see that the only shops for actual finished wedding gowns might be very exclusive shops with foreign designer gowns. I’d welcome any comments from someone who knows better!


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