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.