Saudi Cheat Sheet

When people learn I live in Saudi Arabia, the first question tends to be, “So what’s it like there?” A big question. But given enough time (say, a meal, rather than a cash-register transaction), the conversations generally cover the same ground. Here, then, are the basic answers to the basic questions about what it’s like in Saudi Arabia so you don’t have to dig through a dozen cryptically-titled blog posts to find the answers. (I have, however, provided links to blog posts that go further on each topic, in case you’re interested.)

Is it really hot there? Yes, it’s hot, but not all the time. The annual weather cycle is pretty similar to Phoenix, Arizona, with half the rainfall. Summers can get over 50C / 122F. Winters are mild and sunny, with cool nights and light-sweater days.

Do you have to wear…(vague head-to-toe hand gesture)? Women are required to wear an abaya in public. It’s a black gown that reaches from collar to floor and out to the wrists. It’s easiest to picture if you think of a Hogwart’s robe. It’s meant to be worn over your clothes, but what’s under is your business, sister, so suit yourself. Yes, it’s hot in the summer, but when it’s seriously hot you’re not spending time outside no matter what, so it doesn’t make much difference. Women are also supposed to cover their hair, but non-Arab women typically only carry a scarf and put it on when a muttawa (religious police officer) asks them to. And then take it off as soon as he’s out of sight. (Oops! Busted!) *Update: In the time since I first wrote this, I grew to wearing the headscarf most of the time when I was shopping in the souks or out walking around. The gesture is appreciated, and I would just as soon not be responsible for further angering some passerby who already thinks the country’s values are under assault.)

Most Arab women of the Najd (the central part of the country, where Riyadh is and where dress is the most conservative) wear a black headscarf (hijab) and face covering (niqab) when in public.

There is no requirement for men to dress a particular way, though Arab men typically wear a thobe (white long gown) and ghuttra or shemagh (headscarf, white or red-checked). Saudi men rarely appear in western dress (while in Saudi Arabia, that is), but the mix of nationalities in the country means you see pretty much everything. (You can see pictures and find a more thorough primer on Saudi dress here.)

Religious Police? Yes, you read that right. There is such a thing. Religious police, known as the muttawa or haia, enforce adherence to Islamic behavior. They are the ones who  stop suspicious-looking couples to ask for proof they’re married or related (mingling of unrelated males and females is forbidden), who tell women to cover their hair or cover more modestly, or fine businesses for not closing at prayer time. Among other things that usually end up in news reports people share with comments like “Can you believe this?” (More on living in a country with religious enforcement here.)

Wait–businesses close for prayer? Muslims are called to pray five times a day, roughly at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and early evening. (The schedule varies according to time of year, but are exactly the same in a given locale and can be found in published schedules or phone or computer apps.) Public-facing businesses in Saudi Arabia (restaurants, shops, service centers, etc.) are required to close for 30-45 minutes at each prayer time. Again, I cannot tell a lie: Added to transportation difficulties (next question), it poses a significant challenge to getting things done.

How do you get around? That thing you think you heard about women not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia? Yeah, it’s true. Surprisingly, there is no law against women driving, but it is forbidden. Got that? Remember, it’s a theocratic monarchy, so religious edict is given the force of law. There’s a lot of debate on this topic, with many Arabs arguing that there’s no Islamic justification for the custom, but for now it’s just the way it is. There’s no public transportation, so women rely on husbands, fathers, brothers, hired drivers, and taxis. Many compounds also provide buses that take women to shopping destinations and children to school. It’s a pain. I cannot tell a lie. (You can read about the protest movement to allow women to drive here, and the consequences of not being able to here and here.)

What do you do there? More and less than you’d think. More as in “Wow! You can have fun there?” and less as in “There’s no entertainment. None. Really.” There are no movie theaters, music venues, clubs, bars, festivals, parks, participatory sports…honestly, I can’t think of everything you can’t do. Just think of an entertainment, and it likely doesn’t exist. Unless you’re thinking about football/soccer, but only men can attend matches. There are restaurants. And malls. That’s it. In addition, men and women are strictly segregated, with separate entrances, facilities, or even hours for “singles” (men) and “families” (women, or women with men) in most public places. More restaurants are starting to offer “open” dining rooms, which look like Western restaurants, but they all offer private booths with curtains or screens where women can remove their face covering while eating without exposing their faces to anyone other than their husbands and children. There is no culture of dating, so there are no places for men and women to do things together, other than eat or shop. (And malls are super-sized and everywhere. For more on shopping outside the malls, you might like this post.)

But you can have fun. Expat networks and communities are vibrant, and you can find friends who like to cook, travel, go on desert outings, hike or play on the dunes, quilt, sing, learn languages, paint, exercise…honestly, I can’t think of everything you can do. But finding something to do in Saudi Arabia is kind of like looking for a movie on Netflix: If you have one particular thing in mind, you’ll never find it, but if you’re willing to be flexible you can always browse a little and come up with something good. (Read here for what “fun” can look like.)

What’s the food like? When you think of Middle Eastern food, you’re thinking of Lebanese food. Syrian food. Turkish or Moroccan or Ethiopian food. I promise you’ve never been to a Saudi restaurant outside Saudi Arabia. The national dish is kebsa, which is usually pressure-cooked meat with a few vegetables on a bed of rice. It looks and tastes brown. (See a picture here.) It shows up at every business event my husband attends. So…we’re usually looking for something else when we go out. Good restaurants are findable, and mediocre ones are easily findable, with everything from burgers and American chain restaurants (Chili’s, Applebee’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, TGIFriday’s, etc.) to upscale Italian and French dining. No Michelin stars here, but a very pleasant night out.

Grocery stores look much as they do in the U.S. or Europe, largely because most groceries are imported. (Desert farming is too expensive to make large-scale production realistic.) The import pipeline is undependable, though, so it’s a good idea to buy up things you like when you see them because you can’t assume they’ll be available next week or next month. Two things you’ll never find, though, are alcohol and pork, which are illegal. No wine, no beer, no gin or whiskey or tequila. No bacon, sausage, ham, pork chops, chorizo, carnitas, pancetta, or pepperoni. Well, not the real ones, at least. Knock yourself out on beef bacon or turkey ham.

Where do you live? Foreigners are not required to live in separate compounds, but many do. A compound is a walled, secured community where residents are free from the religious restrictions enforced outside. They vary in size. Westerners who work in the oil industry tend to live in the Eastern province in compounds that are like small city-states, with their own utilities, shopping, movie theaters, sports… Where I live, in Riyadh, compounds are much smaller, anywhere from a large city block to a small collection of homes or even a single apartment building. Inside the compounds, women are free to walk around in western dress, to drive, to swim, to go to the gym, and both sexes mingle freely. (Read more about compound life here.) Those who choose to live outside compounds get a LOT more house for the money, but have to live without the amenities. The transportation obstacles alone can make outside life very isolating for expats who don’t have the large, vibrant family networks that Saudis do.

Do you feel safe? That’s a complicated question. In general, yes, but in some ways less safe and in other ways more than I do at home. Those black robes which are supposed to protect women from the eyes of men are not, in fact, female erasers. Men leer and stare and brush by far more than I’ve ever seen in the West, and I’m always alert to who’s around me when I’m out in public. There are neighborhoods I wouldn’t go into in Riyadh, just as there are in any city in the world. Traffic is just a few speed-cameras shy of lawless, and feeling safe on the road requires a far higher level of concentration than you knew you were capable of. But penalties for serious crime are serious indeed, and you are far more likely to be involved in a traffic accident than to be robbed or assaulted. Within the compound, children roam far more freely than they do in American neighborhoods, and people look out for each other.

But I know that’s not what people really mean when they ask this question: Are you afraid of terrorists? But they’re trying not to say it. Let me be very clear on this one: No. I’m no fool–I keep close tabs on what’s going on among militant groups in the region, but “the Middle East” is not a monoculture. Saudi Arabia is a sovereign nation with its own strengths and troubles, distinct from those of its neighbors. The most conservative of its people want a sheltered Islamic state unpolluted by Western ideas; the most liberal want a nation that offers everything they enjoy as visitors to the West. But all want peace and respect and a safe place to raise their families as they wish. Arabs are kind and generous and faithful to their friends; they love God and they love their families. They are heartbroken by those who do evil under the banner of their shared culture and faith. There will always be people who fear the world around them, who hate change and growth because deep down they are afraid, but those people are not confined to any race or nation. And there is no better cure for fear, hatred, and prejudice than face-to-face engagement.

Am I afraid of terrorists? No. But I am afraid of what happens if we isolate ourselves from one another. So I live in Saudi Arabia. Respectfully. Bemusedly. And very happily.

76 thoughts on “Saudi Cheat Sheet

  1. Kyle says:

    I have friends who live there for work and they paint such an interesting picture of it. They are only there for the money (of course!) because otherwise, they would never in a million years go to a desolate and dirty country. It’s really sad but they say Saudi is filthy and the locals leave or dump their rubbish everywhere and it is so hot half the year that they are stuck indoors. Everything—and they really mean everything—is different and backwards. And extremely expensive! A family with a few kids easily spends $1300 per month on just groceries alone, and the produce and meat is horrible. Very low quality food. They don’t know how they could do it for longer than 5 yrs but they will try to stick it out. It’s just not what it is cracked up to be by all the job promo’s. I haven’t heard great things about it other than the pay and the benefits.

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    • margocatts says:

      All of it, absolutely true. What I keep in mind is that I’m watching a nation in transition, at staggering speed. Most women my age weren’t in school when I was playing hopscotch at recess, and are now illiterate. In fifty years they’ve gone from an almost entirely rural Bedouin society to an almost entirely urban one, and are torn ten different ways trying to figure out what that society should look like. Seeing the debate first-hand, seeing what kind of society has grown out of an isolated nomadic one, seeing the interplay of religion and government play out in daily life are fascinating to me. Living there can be maddening and baffling, but I take the frustrations as the tuition cost for what I’m learning.

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    • amandakocz says:

      “Everything—and they really mean everything—is different and backwards.” “Very low quality food. They don’t know how they could do it for longer than 5 yrs but they will try to stick it out.” Haha that’s just how I felt when we came to live in the US from Australia! We got over it though 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • margocatts says:

        Haha! I can think of a few backward things right off the top of my head–two-party politics, gun laws, education, health care, sales tax…am I off to a decent start? Oh–and the low-quality food. I had the same reaction when I moved inland from California. (Who dropped all the fruit?) I love what moving around does to one’s sense of perspective. I can’t pretend the trash, the ragged infrastructure, the poor construction and maintenance aren’t there, but there’s a context that takes work to understand. I’m well aware I’m only scratching the surface.

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    • Livia Finman says:

      Perception has everything to do with expectations. What your friends could say instead is this: We fell for the hype, we did not do enough of our own research, it was not what we expected, we are disappointed, and although we would like to leave, we are choosing to stay. We have weighed our options, and it makes more sense to stay… For the rest of us who chose to stay, Saudi Arabia was unique and beautiful, it brought amazing people together, it made us stronger. Our community is one of love, loyalty, and continued respect. And as the author stated, “There will always be people who fear the world around them, who hate change and growth because deep down they are afraid, but those people are not confined to any race or nation. And there is no better cure for fear, hatred, and prejudice than face-to-face engagement.” Safe travels! DH ’94

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  2. M. Wixted says:

    We lived in Saudi Arabia for 25 years. What the author wrote is accurate for the Riyadh area. However, we lived in the Eastern Province. I was a bit of a rebel and did not wear an abaya when going into town (Al Khobar), instead just covered with a long sleeved shirt and long pants. Never was I hassled by the religious police (mutawas).
    We enjoyed taking our kids to the amusement parks. There are several in the area. Otherwise, we went across the causeway to Bahrain for a more normal experience. There you can drink wine with dinner, buy pork at stores that cater to non-Muslims, and wear Western swimsuits on the beaches (even bikinis!).
    Sadly, I would have to say that for the average citizen, Saudi Arabia makes the list in the top 5 “No Fun Countries of the World”. However, if you live on one of the larger compounds (i.e., Aramco), you would think you are in a small town in America. Life is full and rich there (in both senses of the word).
    If we had not had a good experience, we certainly would not have stayed so long – paycheck notwithstanding.

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    • margocatts says:

      Thank you for writing! Yes, Eastern Province life is very different, and a single blanket can’t be thrown over the whole country. I’m seeing changes even in Riyadh–a light-colored abaya, a woman walking toward a medical college with her abaya open, Arab women at a restaurant together with their hair uncovered. A friend who’s lived in Saudi Arabia for a long time is often asked “Will I like it there?” His answer: “How do you like where you are now?” Yes, life anywhere is what you make it. I know a lot of unhappy people who can’t reach the ends of their contracts soon enough. But I find our life there incredibly rich, and wouldn’t trade the experiences I’m having for anything.

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    • M. Taylor says:

      Glad you spoke up M…We’ve been here in the Eastern Province for 13 years on “THE compound” and have always viewed our experience as a positive, enlightening and enriching one, regardless of the voids here. Isn’t that what makes the experience so interesting? Why do we/would we want everywhere to be the same? Experiencing the multi-cultures, personalities and viewpoints are why we have stayed for so long….It is what you make of it, anywhere you land.

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    • joy Neumann says:

      I do not wear an abaya- I have been here 34 years. if you look up on the state dept website it states that you have to dress conservative!! does not mention an abaya!!!

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      • margocatts says:

        True–like lots of things, what’s “forbidden” is not codified as “illegal.” Women are “forbidden” to drive, though there is no law against it. I’m curious where you’ve been living. I do have friends in the Eastern Province who wear loose, fully covering clothing without an abaya, which I would have never DREAMED of doing in Riyadh. I know there’s also a great deal of leeway given to medical personnel in lab coats or other loose (but identifying) garb. My philosophy, which I became more and more conservative about the longer I stayed, was that I didn’t want to give anybody a reason to get angry. Plenty of people don’t want non-Muslims in the country at all. Why fuel their resentment further by defying their conventions? So my headscarf moved from my purse strap, to around my neck, to usually over my head when I was out walking around. Seemed like the peaceable thing to do.

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    • Patrick says:

      I grew up in Riyadh, lived there from ’85 until ’98. The best time of my life, I lived on the ROC compound and had a blast. I don’t think I would live there now, so dangerous and I there are nowhere near the amount of expats living there now, which made it great. I met people from all around the world and went to a great school in the name of SAISR, made friends for life and still drool over pictures of kabsa and shawarmas (though I found a place in my hometown in Bangkok that makes them and I was in heaven). I never once felt restricted or bored as there was always something to do, and growing up in that environment from a very young age, I guess I felt accustomed to it all. I miss the desert, camping out and having barbecues with friends from the DQ. If I could go back in time, I would honestly relive my life in Riyadh. God bless and stay safe to all the families currently out there!

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  3. Nina says:

    A fab article… Have Reposted on our fb page for our British expats new and old…
    I’ve been here 5 years and my friend 25 years… It’s not about the money.. Even tho that’s what brought us to Saudi Arabia’s door… It’s so true its you who makes a life good… Thankyou for your blog……

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  4. Stan Thompson says:

    I was there 1989-93, and found the people to be clean. I would get a food germ a few times a year from food prepared by the 3rd country nationals who were not well trained in food handling. Food in the cafeterias was generally not too good, but there were plenty of restaurants where the food was excellent. It was difficult to find a good steak, and of course no pork, but again what we did find was clean. We had no problem finding good produce. Prices may have gone up since I was there, but our grocery bill was not nearly as high as stated. We did live in the Aramco compound in Dhahran in quite adequate facilities from all standpoints. Yes, there were disadvantages, but it was a great adventure.

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    • margocatts says:

      I’m so glad to see comments like these! Yes, the Saudi people are fastidiously clean. I’ve never had any problem from food eaten in a restaurant, though I do drink bottled water. Cuts of meat are limited, and imported food tends to be expensive. But even that depends on your frame of reference–to my British friends the food is inexpensive, while I find many things to be pricier than in the U.S., while others are much cheaper. But frame of reference applies to everything, right? I gradually stopped craving pork dishes as I became less inclined to cycle through them in my head during meal planning. Whenever I do leave, I’ll miss buttery Yemeni mangoes, and mint that comes in bunches the size of your head, and six different varieties of feta cheese, and looking up at the moon and thinking “Good grief. I’m in holy almighty Arabia.”

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  5. ChristoP says:

    My wife and I lived for 12 years in Jeddah, which is Saudi Arabia’s “Sin City.” We left in 2001. We had a great time. There were parties with live bands at the embassies and in various compounds. Several amateur theater groups put on plays and musicals. Top-notch musical performers came through (as long as they were male.) We found some of the best scuba diving in the world in the Red Sea. On our frequent vacations (We worked at a British school.), we traveled the length and breadth of the country and made numerous trips by car to Jordan, Syria, and even all the way to Turkey. Europe was a lot closer than the United States, so we traveled all over that continent as well. We found the grocery stores wonderful, as they had lots of items from Europe, as well as from the States. Fantastic cheeses that just aren’t available in most of the U.S. Alcohol was plentiful. Most people made their own, but you could buy bottles on the black market if you wanted to spend a lot of money. Westerners did a lot more visiting and entertaining over there, as other forms of entertainment were limited. Camping trips were a lot of fun, and there was always something to see out in the desert. We finally returned home and ended up in Arkansas, which is a lot greener than Saudi Arabia, but our life has lost some of its excitement.

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    • margocatts says:

      Thank you for writing! I love hearing about others’ good lives here. We’ve seen what we call “entertainment” become much more social in replacement of commercial entertainment. Instead of going out to a movie, we call up friends and go to dinner. Our Thursday night compound buffet feels like a community gathering. Desert trips are unsafe to do alone, so you get together with carloads of friends. A movie in Bahrain is great, but the great secret in expat life is the extraordinary people you meet and get to call your friends ever after. I’ll sacrifice a few disappointing movies for that any day.

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  6. lisa says:

    I’m a single woman from California-Oregon living in the Eastern Province now for 7 years at the Aramco compound. I have never worn a head covering with my abaya. The religious police have never confronted me. Yes, KSA has a lot of trash (sadly) but it also has stunning trash-free sand dunes in the Empty Quarter called Rub al Khali, roaming camels, pristine trash-free beaches for kite flying and relaxing and sand castle building—that are private, and you CAN wear a bikini, wadi (oasis with water and palm trees), scuba diving in the Red Sea, a national museum, big malls, Starbucks, and Bahrain across the bridge…Abu Dhabi and Dubai are a short flight away too. Yes, having the right mindset to accept cultural differences, embracing life where you’re planted, and maintaining humor and a healthy perspective are key to expat living wherever life may take you. Thanks for your blog.

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    • margocatts says:

      Thank you, and thanks most of all for telling what you love! I would wish for everyone who says “I could never live there,” to get a chance to see that yes, you can, and you can have the experience of a lifetime.

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      • ELLIOTT SANDRA says:

        Thank you for this.
        I have been back a year, having spent 6 years in Riyadh. I returned back to the UK in 2013. I am still frustrated to hear from people; what did you do there? How could you live there? Did you have running water??

        In fact my six year journey in Saudi Arabia was a incredible journey of self discovery, gratitude, and a look at a culture both frustrating and heart warming and at times intense kindness. Some of the most empowering, happy memories were had in this country. Finding hidden passions, rescuing animals, saving so many cats and sending them back to the West, this connection with these poor, abused animals.

        Yes, there are many frustrations. The irony of living in such a place, where freedom is not for all, is that I felt more free. Free to travel, free of a complicated life,pure simplicity.

        It has to be said there were many days of frustration; a different culture and the mentality sometimes can blow one’s mind away.

        Coming back to the West is another re-entry shock!
        The loneliness of your memories there, the friends you made and the frustration that no one can understand where you have been.
        I managed to achieve some things in KSA that I would never dream of doing in the real world. Yes, this has a lot to do with having more time and little entertainment.

        But the nice thing about it and the expat life, you all have this in common.
        When I left, I felt I was ready to go. Unfortunately, coming back to the UK for me was not an easy transmission. Finding work again took several months, with a new legislation within my industry. My first year back I felt mentally in pain, nothing would go my way.
        The UK had no desire or interest to hear about Saudi Arabia, as once again they drew this poor, close-minded vision of my life there and how one could possibly spend 6 years there.

        When I finally found a job, I realised the standards in a country with restrictions and little freedom for women and no authorities for animal care actually had better standards then some of the health areas I experienced to work in here in the UK.

        It was an incredible journey.
        I have never had the opportunity to travel so much, to become a yoga teacher, to embrace a passion of animal welfare. To this day, I still miss it there and most of all I miss my peace. The strangest feeling of peace within myself though surrounded by neighbouring war torn countries.

        It is a time where I met friends that I will always hold close to my heart and they know who they are.

        Thanks to Margo Catts and thanks for sharing this post Sara. xx

        Sandra Elliott

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      • margocatts says:

        Thank you for sharing your story! I actually got my first “Do they have running water?” question today! I hope your story, added to all these others, will help those who are anxious about going there believe they can find unexpected blessings. Thank you again!

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  7. Temisan says:

    the question about what people do there is incorrect. There are movie theatres, night clubs (in some compunds), parks, yacht clubs/sailing, museums, Bedouin feasts, and plenty of participatory sports…

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    • margocatts says:

      I can’t speak to what may exist on different compounds, particularly those in other parts of the country. Life on the Aramco compounds, in particular, is very different than in Riyadh. And the existence of things that are forbidden in Saudi Arabia, but present on Saudi soil within those compounds, is one of many things that anger conservatives. To clarify, though, in the Kingdom itself, as of 2014, there are no movie theaters, nightclubs, or participatory sports (by which I mean recreational leagues or pickup activities that are open to ordinary working people of any nationality or gender). In Riyadh there are occasional small neighborhood parks, but no large open spaces for sports or physical activity, though I can think of a few longitudinal parks than run along the median or the curb area of boulevards. Football/soccer fields are flattened sand pitches, and only boys or men can play. As for sailing, well, you’ve got me there. All I know for sure is that there’s none in Riyadh!

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  8. Doris says:

    Hi, I have lived in Khamis Mushayt, Darharan, and now Riyadh for nearly 30 years and have enjoyed the diversity and changes in this beautiful country. I have no problem wearing the Abaya ( as you say it’s hot for many months and what you wear under it is your business 😉 I see the huge malls as cooler ways to power walk in the summer, and enjoy desert walking ( hashing ) with expats from all countries at weekends. Life in any country is what you make it ,in the Asir region we enjoyed diving, mountain biking and lots of rain ( which makes the air clean and everywhere green ) and all sports. In Riyadh due to the heat we just do more out of town exploring and camping ( who knew the desert could have some much greenery and the sand is so many shades of brown and red) I am a Brit abroad and enjoy my Saudi Adventure. We came for 2 years in 1987 raised our family and we are now planning our retirement.

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  9. Annie says:

    I live in Riyadh now and I don’t agree about the low quality food. It may be that it is different to the food you have in the USA but all the supermarkets sell branded products and many American ones at that. Obviously these are more expensive but if you buy a different brand your grocery bill will fall. Local vegetables are fine…why pay to have vegetables flown from the USA when you can buy a perfectly acceptable local variety for a 10th of the price.The meat and fish has always been good and there is a fine butcher in town( Forsan) who sells amazing meat. For me there are only a few products that I cannot find and I make do and adapt the recipe. I bring back things from home(UK) when I can.
    The driving is one thing I really agree with. It is frightening at times and I cross myself before each journey! Desert trips are amazing and dune driving is fun. Prayer time shop shutting is so annoying as stated. However do I like living in Riyadh? Yes on the whole I do and we are not tax free so are not there for the money. It is an experience not many people get to have so if someone is thinking about coming and is not sure tell them it is an adventure for a short time in their lives . I feel my life is a little richer from living here.

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    • margocatts says:

      Thank you for sharing! I hope others can gain confidence about life in Saudi Arabia from so many sharing what they enjoy. Yes, most of the produce is very good. There are many things I prefer in their Saudi version–great leafy heads of celery, enormous bundles of herbs, Yemeni mangoes, Saudi clementines…mmm. My big disappointment has been the meat, so I’m VERY excited to try the Forsan butcher! I have a feeling that tip is going to be a game-changer. Thank you! (And lest anyone be concerned–the meat isn’t bad or old or poorly handled, but the grade is often inferior, and the available cuts are limited. And I learned very quickly to NEVER buy any minced or ground meat product in the package! The mince is too fine and fillers make the meat gummy. I buy chopped beef and ask the butcher to mince it fresh.)

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  10. Tammy St. Germain says:

    I’ve always been curious about life for Westerners there. I’m really enjoying this blog. I just started it. The majority , of course not all, the stories I hear about life there are scary , especially if you’re a female. You might address this somewhere I haven’t read yet but how are the laundry facilities there? Do they have modern appliances and plumbing like in the U.S.? Do they use bleach ? How do they keep their clothes so white? This isn’t a joke. Im curious. I do a lot of laundry. Do they have all western bathrooms in the compounds? Is it difficult to buy good shampoo or other personal items like razors?

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    • margocatts says:

      I’m glad you asked! Those sparkling white thobes (what the men wear in summer) come from the cleaner, the same place my husband takes his dress shirts to have them laundered and pressed. When you drive by one at night it’s almost blinding from all the white hanging inside the windows. And yes, all the infrastructure of any modern city is there–plumbing, electricity, highways, Internet, cellular networks. The full array of appliances is available as well. The only hiccup is that with so many different nationalities having had a finger in the country’s development the voltage is inconsistent–American-built compounds might have 110v power, others 220v with European outlets, others 220v with British outlets, and many villas with multiple voltages running throughout the house and labels stuck to the outlets identifying which is which. (Sitting at a friend’s house I noticed an outlet labeled 127. How does that happen?) Yes, bleach and all the typical laundry products are available, as well as every type of washing machine. I just haven’t figured out whether one of the unlabeled dispensers in my washer is meant to dispense bleach. The guy who installed it seemed puzzled when I asked. Soap here. Softener here. In this one…? Bathrooms are a mix. In the compounds I’ve seen only Western toilets so far, but I’m open for a surprise. In public toilets, squatters are probably slightly more common than western toilets. All, however, have a spray wand beside for…personal cleanup. And thus, all also have a lot of water on the floor, walls, seat… As for toiletries, everything is there. We buy certain products in the U.S. just out of preference, but not because they’re unavailable. The exception, though, would be makeup for light-complected women!

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  11. liz says:

    So a friend sent me the link to your blog – and I want to say – THANK YOU for writing! I’m heading to Riyadh in a few weeks – for the first time, and as a single woman, I’ve been trying to share with friends and family a little bit about what I expect, even with out knowing! I’ve been all over the world – but never to the “middle east” except to the Dubai airport (but that doesn’t count) – so I am super enthusiastic and super excited about the experience! Thank you, and thank you commenters for sharing your experiences! It’s helping me think through a lot of things so that I can be respectful and honor both the culture I will be entering and the culture I am from.

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    • margocatts says:

      Mission accomplished! I’m so glad to hear about your eagerness to discover a place so many people are afraid of. I know a lot of single women working here as teachers and medical personnel. They face maddening frustrations, and the limitations are what lead most of them to say at some point that they’ve had enough, but they also leave far richer in understanding, breadth, and wisdom. Your experiences will be extraordinary. Good luck, and keep in touch!

      Like

    • Alice K says:

      Hi Liz, I am leaving for Qatif shortly (and suddenly) and was so interested to see your post. I, too, have lived all over the world but have just been thru the Dubai airport and that is my entire Middle East experience. I am so curious how it went and what you wish you had known then what you do now. Please share if you have time – I would be very grateful. (From getting off the plane – am I to have an abaya to deplane?) Thanks!

      Like

      • margocatts says:

        I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to get back to you! I’m in the middle of making changes to the site and overlooked the comment. By now you’re probably on the ground and have learned everything yourself. Abayas are not “required” in the airport, and plenty of women will just wear their (modest) street clothes to the car or taxi. You’ll get a lot of looks, though, and depending on the traffic and the time of day, might feel pretty conspicuous. I worried about doing a lot of things wrong, and I would wish to start again without those worries, but there’s no way over it but to live, walk around, get used to things, and learn to feel confident about what you’re doing. In general, it makes me feel more at ease to err on the conservative side. You can then loosen up as you get familiar with what people around you are doing. Enjoy your time in Saudi Arabia!

        Like

  12. Janet says:

    I lived there 18 years!! Met some wonderful people who are today good, good friend, Nationals and expats! You make it what you want! I have nothing bad to say, except missing family members while we were there

    Like

  13. Michelle Hale says:

    My family lived in Saudi back in the 50’s, 60′ and 80’s. They loved it and so did I when my father returned in the 80’s for his last assignment. My parents could speak Arabic, they embraced the culture, the people and the diversity. We got to travel and see the world. I am forever grateful for my parents, and Aramco! And so proud to be an Aramco Brat.

    Like

  14. hollying says:

    I love this post! I’ve been in the process of coming to the KSA for 8 months now (visa issues – as always), and people are always just equally floored that I’m trying so hard to get there and very curious about life there as well. This sums it up so nicely 🙂 Thanks for putting it together!

    Like

  15. Karen says:

    Our mutual friend, Barb Martin, sent me the link to your blog and it has been incredibly helpful in clearing up some contradictory information I’d been given by various people.
    I leave Aug 14th for a two year contract in Riyadh and am nervous, excited, curious and wondering “What have I done!” while at the same time feeling I can’t wait to get there.
    I can see how the people you associate with make a big difference in how well you adjust to life in the Kingdom. Would there be groups or organizations that you would suggest to hook up with since I’m female and there on my own? The desert camping and hiking sound like great fun.
    Also, I have a single entry visa which leaves me wondering how that will impact my ability to travel to other countries. I am over 60 and so it seems my employer needed to handle my visa differently for the first 90 days.

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      Welcome! I’m afraid with all the friends I’ve made in compound life and with friends of friends I’ve done a poor job of connecting through expat groups. There are lots, though–ask around among the women you work with. Necessity makes friendships quick, and people are eager to help each other. As for visa issues, be VERY careful. Stories of employer abuse of the sponsorship system are abundant and dreadful. Check with the embassy to be ABSOLUTELY sure that your rights are secure. Good luck!

      Like

  16. Kurt K says:

    Margo,
    We may have met once in Breckenridge, CO at a joint family reunion. I am Scott K’s brother. I spent the years late 1976 – 1981 mainly in Ras Tanura SA working for ARAMCO.

    You have a very nice blog here and the more things change the more they stay the same.

    I saw the bleeding tail end of the pioneer era in SA. There was only one paved 2 lane road that linked Eastern & Western Provinces. When I arrived there was no grocery store in the Eastern Province. Most roads were 2 lane and the carnage was extreme. Saudi Arabia looked like it was at war with every town filled with piles of concrete blocks, birds nests of rebar, cars up on blocks, giant piles of sand blocking roads and every third house had rebar sprouting from the the roof of the second story awaiting a third story months or years in the future.

    One evening in Al Khobar I needed to get a taxi to Dhahran so I could take the ARAMCO bus to RT. The company would only reimburse 15 Riyals for the fare but the going rate was 30. At the taxi stand the drivers eventually hatched a brilliant plan. They called Abdullah, the gay taxi driver over and he readily agreed to the fare. He was a lunatic driver in a decrepit Datsun with Oud music playing at 100 dB through blown speakers spending most of the trip longingly looking at me while veering wildly between the shoulder and left lane narrowly avoiding head on collisions at 90 KPH. He also sported an impressive tent pole. After he kissed me on the lips and reluctantly surrendered my Martin D35 he explained he had no change and pocketed my 50 Riyal note and went on his way. Lesson learned, always have change.

    I could spend weeks writing the stories from my lost youth but I am sure new material is constantly unfolding in the magic kingdom.

    For those who like to read I recommend:
    Arabian Sands – Wilfred Thesinger
    Looking Back Over My Shoulder – Frank Barnes
    Fool’s Paradise – Dale Walker

    Kind regards,
    K^2

    Like

  17. Mohammed Alenezi says:

    Hi,
    Margo Catts Thank you so much for this blog.
    well I’m not an expat here in Saudi cuz i’m a saudi citizen. I’m from Madinah where not much foreigners are here at least as far as i know.

    To be honest what brought me to your blog is searching about foreigners (westerns) in saudi. i wanted to know how foreigners (specially westerns) see living in saudi arabia.
    i really enjoyed reading every single comment in your blog. I really don’t know how to explain how happy the positive comments made me. I read in too many places about the lives of foreigners here in saudi but hand on heart nothing stopped me and made me engaged to the content as your blog does!!. I appreciate the way you write the spirit you have and the excitement and positive soul you own.

    Well i do understand how different the life is here. However i also appreciate your understanding.

    I still remember a little chat about alcohol with an american friend who has never been to saudi. What he said is: (i can’t imagine a whole country with no alcohol). what i said is: ( forget about islam rules, but alcohol is not in our culture, and i asked him if he would wake up next day and read in the news that United States banned smoking shisha in the USA will he care?). He said: (No). Then i said: ( alcohol for us is like shisha for you, you may have it if it is available but you never bother yourself running after it).

    I’ll make sure to pass your blog to him as i know he will surely love it :).

    What i read is all about personal experiences. How about getting in touch with Saudis themselves? How did you find it? What are the barriers that make you be away or sometimes avoid direct contact with them? Do you find them easy and friendly or the opposite?

    Thank you again and again and again for your blog.
    For the new people Welcome to KSA.
    For the people with experience more than my age, it is shame to welcome you in the KSA as it is your place more than it is mine :)))))

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      I am excited to hear from you, and so VERY glad to hear that you’re pleased. My excitement maybe gives a hint to the answer to your questions: I would LOVE to get to know more Saudis, but have not been able to step across the divide. I can come up with some reasons on my own, others I can only guess, and others I may never know. The short version: my world is segregated from yours by language, gender, nationality, custom, religious restriction, and circumstance. This is suggesting another blog topic…I would love to be in touch with you more about it. Thank you, thank you for writing!

      Like

  18. Charlotte Harvey says:

    really great to read your comments! You are an excellent writer.
    We are out of Saudi now but were there for 5 years.Here’s what I noticed, at least in Khobar: America may be addicted to Saudi oil, but America has pulled one over on Saudi–Saudis are “addicted” to American fast food–and with that comes obesity, diabetes and over the top corporate consumerism. Through fast food, Saudi is more “chained” to the west than they realize!!

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      Thank you! Yes, McDonald’s is the nasty gift we leave everywhere we go, isn’t it? The modern smallpox. But on the flip side, once countries start getting tangled up in commerce they tend to do whatever they have to to keep the peace. Perhaps a contract written between McDonald’s and its franchisees has more clout than a treaty between governments. Once can hope!

      Like

  19. Andy Smith says:

    While its great that so many people have fond memories of life in Saudi, don’t forget that this is a life that the average expat in Saudi doesn’t get to experience. Life in compounds is a bit more privileged, and I wonder how different people’s feeling about life in the Kingdom would be if they weren’t lucky enough to be on a nice Western style compound. And I’m not referring to the third-world migrant workers, I’m talking about middle class expats (mostly Asians and non-Saudi Arabs who aren’t on compounds).

    Granted, I have met some who don’t live on compounds who do enjoy their lives in Saudi. But being a white person on a compound in Saudi makes a HUGE difference as to how much you will enjoy your life there.

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      I agree 100%! Yes, compound life does a lot to soften the blows. I have friends who live outside compounds (by choice) and will tell you that despite the bigger homes and lower prices, it’s isolating. The challenges to conducting daily business (getting groceries, getting out to see other people) can become an unrelenting grind as well. I’m quick to tell people that there are three Saudi Arabias (Red Sea side, Riyadh and the central areas, and the Eastern Province), and that your experience with the country will vary widely depending on where you live. Beyond that, the word “compound” has very different meanings depending on whether you’re talking about Aramco or anyplace else. Anyone preparing to move there needs to be able to filter what they hear based on the experience of the person telling the story. Thank you for pointing out the warning!

      Like

  20. syed says:

    Hi to All,
    I am Pakistani national I lived in Saudi Arabia about 8 year. First 4 years I worked for a company and saved some money then I start my own business in my business experience I hire a Saudi to use his company for my business and pay him his monthly dues as we committed. After 4 years of his good reputation one day suddenly he freeze my all bank accounts which I was running under his company name he took over my SR. 200,000.00 and my other market loss is 300,000.00 my total loss nearly SR. 500,000.00 from which he never return a single riyal.

    Any buddy have any idea to help me please do share service379@gmail.com I have all the documents caned of that Saudi like his Saudi card passport house bill company registration etc. I know where he live in Jeddah but still I am unable to do anything
    Thanks and God bless everyone

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      I’m sorry to hear your story, but it is sadly not unique. I will post this comment but you will be more likely to get answers elsewhere. This post and most of the comments are a year old, and it’s unlikely that someone who can help you will see it. Look for forums or Facebook groups where people are communicating daily. Best of luck to you!

      Like

  21. dreamfreely says:

    Hi, I will be moving to Riyadh in a couple of weeks. I would like some tips on what to pack. I want to take enough clothes but not too much. What are women expected to wear under their abayas (both at work and while out shopping)? I will be living in Riyadh but not in a compound. I am expected to be living there for about 2 years. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      Pack as much as you can! Shopping for clothes in Riyadh is hard. Many shops don’t have fitting rooms, and return policies are very tight. As for what to wear under the abaya, it depends on the abaya and the workplace. With an over-the-head abaya, you can treat it like a dress by itself in hot weather. If it opens in the front, you need to be careful–the snaps tend to pop open at the least provocation. In some (mostly western) workplaces women wear the abaya pretty casually–on, but open, with professional dress underneath. In others women stay fully covered all the time. Take care, though, not to get too lazy–pajama pants peeking out are not okay! I found myself with a wardrobe of mostly loose, cool clothes, with enough warmer things to get me through the one or two months of winter. Enjoy your journey!

      Like

  22. Cynthia Pennings says:

    My husband and I have lived here for 25 years (Yanbu and Al Khobar) and will be retiring at the end of this month. I know a lot of people will think I’ve got rocks in my head, but I will really miss this place, the friends we’ve made and the opportunities we had as expatriates. This country will always hold a special place in our hearts.

    Like

  23. Caroline Guy says:

    If you have lived in other Middle Eastern countries then from my experience living in Saudi is extremely hard. I lived n Ryadh for 9 months on a compound , there to try and live as normal a life as possible and of course to support my husband. I absolutely hated it, yes you can make friends on the compounds, yes you can join a stitching and games group if that’s your kind of thing but what I found was if you make friends they tend to be in groups and of course I hate to say but it is true, groups of women do not always get on. I made friends with a couple of lovely people but unfortunately the lifestyle on the compound meant you would end up being part of a group anyway. Being sociable is one thing but to be expected to always be involved with each other was not my cup of tea. I had my dog with me and the rules in place saying dogs were not allowed to sit outside of the compound restaurant while I sat to have a coffee I found difficult and frustrating seeing as though cats were freely roaming around everywhere with no owner taking any responsibility!! This may seem quite trivial to a lot of people but for me and my dog!!! It wasn’t, my dog being 15 years old and previously living in Bahrain for years before, he was used to a morning walk and a little sit down outside of a coffee shop, and believe me something as small as this made such a big difference to my day! I had read about what to expect living in Saudi and I had friends who had lived there some time ago but I really do think you have to experience it yourself , again I would say that going there from somewhere else made it so hard for me, the little things you take for granted elsewhere are just non existent in Riyadh. Shopping for clothes , an absolute nightmare, no fitting rooms apart from Debenhams in one of the big malls where it is located on a women’s only floor. If you buy any clothes you can try them on in a ladies fitting area in the toilets but this is after you have bought them!!! Then if they don’t fit or you don’t like what you’ve bought you can take it back for a refund but my god what a headache that is !!! Sometimes you can get a refund at the shop ( be prepared to spend time waiting to be served too ) you’ve bought it from or they send you to a customer services desk somewhere in the mall to get the refund!! I can’t tell you how much time this takes up especially if you have gone shopping on the compound bus and are rushing to get back as the bus only stays waiting for a certain amount of time! That and trying to fit in other bits of shopping and remembering to clock watch because shops and coffee shops all close for prayer times, oh and some start to close a good 20 mins or so before its prayer time!!! A simple going t get a coffee is also hard, I found most workers in the coffee shops spoke Arabic , not a lot spoke or understood English, in Bahrain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Dohar , nearly everyone speaks English so it’s not soul destroying to ask for a cappuccino, semi skimmed milk with chocolate powder on top !!! My god try asking for that in a Starbucks in Riyadh !!!! I always felt miserable when shopping in Riyadh, you look around from where you are standing and all you see is black, don’t expect background music in shops or even in restaurants as it is not allowed. I couldn’t understand either how women have to cover and not to draw attention to men BUT you see women’s underwear shops with manequins displaying sexy underwear in the shop windows!!! AND the Arab men being able to see this ????? I really could go on and on and some people may read this and not agree but I have only wrote the truth, my experiences and no one will change my mind to how I felt about this place. I chose sadly to leave , my husband stayed to work and for men the place is liveable , it has to be if they have a job there. I appreciate and support other nationalities and their cultures and absolutely love the other middle eastern countries but this place is seriously behind the times, I found it hypocritical ( most Saudi men get out of that place and go to Dubai and Bahrain at weekends to drink, party and be with women!!!!) I know because I have seen it, that to me doesn’t make me respect Saudi living and having to adhere to their culture and way of life.

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      Yes, the challenges are acute and many people find them unacceptable. I got lucky, and landed among people I cherish, who helped me learn my way around and made it easy to laugh and roll along with the adventure. For anyone without a circle like that, change circles! Join groups, look for work, pursue a passion. For my part, I would be sorry indeed to have missed the experience of living in Saudi Arabia.

      Like

      • Caroline guy says:

        thanks for your reply Margo, yes I did all of those things you suggested in Bahrain and I worked there too before I left to go to Ryadh, this is what made living in Saudi and on a compound so hard for me. As I said Saudi isn’t for everyone , I gave it a try and I didn’t like it, respect to other women who live there quite happily but for me, life’s too short, live life to the full !!! hence my decision to not stay .

        Like

      • margocatts says:

        I feel your pain! Yes, as I said, I got lucky with my circle of friends, but I know women who were in compounds where they found a “mean girls” culture in the social circle, or just couldn’t find anybody to connect with. Then there are those outside the compounds, or in very small ones, who instead feel terribly isolated. I’m so glad to hear that you had good experiences elsewhere in the Middle East, and that you had the opportunity to move on when you wanted to!

        Like

  24. Carl Ash says:

    Margo, given the opportunity to try endemic Saudi foods…. there’s NOT much to choose from. In the region where you are (Naij) there is a dish called ‘Mithloutha’ which, as the name implies in Arabic is a ‘three layers’. This is accurate as the dish has a bread base layer, then meat (usually ground beef or lamb) and then a vegetable layer. Very tasty!! Have a look around for a restaurant that purportedly does ‘Saudi Foods’ and ask… 15 years ago it was a place on Takahsoosi, but I cannot recall the name. We ALL pick up new hobbies in Saudi! I’ve learned to SCUBA dive (divemaster level now) and certainly we ‘create’ our bevies…… Working on year 16… Now been up on the west coast between Yanbu and Jeddah for the past 11 years… It’s MUCH nicer than Riyadh…

    Like

  25. jo says:

    Beautiful perspective on Saudi just two objections:
    – Riyadh has beautiful parks, Salem Park with its manmade lake and plenty of kids entrateiment area, Malaz park with singing fountains.
    -There are still illiterate women true but many women were studying as teacher or doctor even 20 years ago, and King Abdullah has made huge efforts to improve women instruction
    -Princess Noura University is one of largest and more modern girls university in the world

    A piece of my heart still in Ryiadh.

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      Thank you! I wish I’d know about Malaz Park–I would have loved to see the fountains. And I do have a later post on the parks at Historic Diriyah. But parks are not part of the cityscape; you don’t see them driving around, and those that are there are, sadly, so badly littered with trash that it’s unpleasant to spend time there. Yes, there are more university educated women than men now in Saudi, but I am (cough) old enough that it was unusual for girls to be in school when I was school age myself. And I’m afraid that Princess Noura University is a travesty. The women of Saudi Arabia deserve better than a facility that is crumbling while it is still new. I know many engineers who are trying to repair it, but many buildings were so shoddily built that they aren’t salvageable. I hope that the money can be found and prioritized to make it what it should be. Riyadh will be the richer for it!

      Like

  26. Suemi Solorzano says:

    Hi Margo!
    I recently found your blogs and they are fun to read and very interesting. My boyfriend has a job offer for KSA and wants me to go with him, you are the first that i find that writes positive things about Saudi Arabia, everyone i talk to or most other sites say how awful and dangerous it is for women. we have talked about marriage and have no problem with that to be able to travel there, but my biggest issue is that i hardly find comments about taking your children with you, i have a 9 year old girl and can’t possibly leave her behind for a whole year! yet when you read about girls being stolen and women having 0 rights it does scare the hell out of me if anything happened to my girl once we are over there. i think i might as well stay behing since i am in such panic of actually being in KSA.
    I’d appreciate your comments, advice, suggestions…anything

    the seriously confused girl from Mexico

    Like

    • margocatts says:

      In a closed country, it’s hard to get clear reports about what it’s like there. A lot of expats are miserable. A lot have a wonderful experience. And many, many are there with their children, happy, having a great experience. The different regions of the country are very different from each other, so your experience will vary depending on where you live. But I will tell you that you have no more to fear there than anywhere else in the world. Your paperwork is handled by your husband (to be!)’s employer, so the main thing is to make sure that you and your daughter have perfectly clear paperwork with unlimited entry-exit visas. Once you get there and start to make friends (which happens very quickly) you will learn how to go about normal activities. You and your daughter have an opportunity for an extraordinary experience! Blessings to you!

      Like

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