What is it like in Saudi Arabia? My week-long business trip to Saudi Arabia has been an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve experienced so many feelings, often mixed feelings. I’ve had bizarre dreams many nights, a sign that my brain had a lot to process during the day.
A few (bizarre) impressions from Saudi Arabia:
- The plane to Jeddah: a 40,000 feet high changing room
An international flight to Jeddah is hilarious because almost the entire plane changes outfit halfway. Men dress down, women dress up.
Men flying to Jeddah are often pilgrims on the way to Mecca; at some point during the flight, they swap their shirt and trousers for the ihram, a sort of big white towel they wear as a toga.
For women, arriving in Saudi means adding layers, and in particular an abaya, a dark, plain, loose, full-length over-garment, which it is recommended you get before you board the plane so you can arrive in a Saudi airport wearing the perfect attire.
And whilst this means, as a female, that your body is completely hidden, I’ve seen quite a few men really embarrassed that the ihram was showing their bellies and love handles, and were constantly trying to pull the towel down to mask their forms.
What a bizarre feeling, to see pilgrim males embarrassed to show their curves!
- The rhythms of daily life
Navigating opening hours in Saudi Arabia is a real struggle. Places like museums typically have different opening days for women and men, so you really need to plan ahead to make sure you arrive somewhere at the correct moment.
Another challenge is the regular interruption that prayer time represents. Five times a day, life pauses for up to 30 minutes. I was in Saudi Arabia for market research, and we had to offer a break in the middle of the group discussions for the ladies to pray.
Many shops and restaurants close, but interestingly, they won’t kick you out if you’re already in; so the challenge is to arrive at least 10-15 minutes before prayer time.
I was in a supermarket during the afternoon prayer; the music and some of the lights were shut off, the staff completely ignored me, the store went quiet. It felt as if I had been locked inside the supermarket after hours.
What a bizarre feeling, to be left alone inside a supermarket several times a day!
- The femininity and nuisances of the abaya
Life in Saudi Arabia for a woman means wearing the abaya all the time, which is a pain in the neck, really. The weather is way too hot to add an additional layer, the abaya prevents you from enjoying the refreshing breeze of the wind, and the fact it is constantly touching the floor, in a desert country, means that it’s getting dirty pretty quick.
When the wind blows hard, the abaya gets trapped between your legs and makes it difficult to walk. In escalators, I’m always worried that the abaya will get stuck and tear apart.
But indoors, what a feminine feel to wear a long robe, which is large enough to flow around you as you walk and turn. It sometimes gave me the feeling of being a princess from another era, when women used to wear petticoats under their long dresses.
What a bizarre feeling, to experience a boost of femininity whilst hidden under an oppressive garment!
- The constant segregation of the genders
If you want to freak out a conservative Saudi cleric, just mention the possibility that a woman may have speak to, or even see, an unrelated man.
Layout, architecture, operations, everything is designed to maintain a precise segregation of genders.
Businesses typically have a backdoor (I call it a shame door) for women and families to enter and stay in a space that is hidden away from the public, so men cannot see them.
But all service-related jobs, including waiters and shop assistants, are male, so the opportunity for women to enjoy full privacy are really scarce.
Many restaurants even separate booths closed by a curtain or screen, so women can uncover their face when enjoying a meal; and the waiter has to knock and ask permission every time he enters with a new dish, meaning women can have the time to put their niqab back in place.
Two days ago in Riyadh, spotting a Starbucks right when I was in need of WiFi, I made a terrible mistake and entered the coffeeshop through the main door. I didn’t realise it immediately, because as a female in Saudi Arabia you are used to be surrounded by nothing but males.
But as a female, I was supposed to use the other door, the one that’s on the side, the one that’s reserved for women.
What a bizarre feeling, to be told off for entering a store through the main door!
- More than ever, my white privilege
I am a white European person; all my life, I’ve been witnessing what white privilege is about. I grew up in a multicultural environment, and the concept of white privilege made me really, really angry when I was younger.
Over the years, I’ve learned to admit it, if not accept it; but it’s still something I am really not proud of.
Many women wonder what it’s like to travel as a female in Saudi Arabia; is it even safe to travel to Saudi Arabia? And the answer is, it depends on your religion.
Time to debunk some of the myths: many of the rules and restrictions don’t apply to non Muslims like me. I didn’t need a male guardian, I didn’t need a male to pick me up at the airport, I didn’t need a male permission to leave my hotel, I didn’t even need to cover my face and hair.
And as a white European, none would question whether I am Muslim or not.
There is a lot I’ve been doing in the past week, such as walking around, visiting restaurants alone, having a conversation with a male shop assistant, shaking hands with a local man, exchanging a laugh and a high five with a male taxi driver, etc., that no local, Muslim woman would even dream to be able to do.
I have travelled in other Islamic, conservative countries before, and was typically experiencing the same treatment as local women, which was extremely tough. Nowhere like in Saudi have I had the chance to enjoy a different treatment than the locals, for not being Muslim myself.
What a bizarre feeling, to enjoy my white privilege to make my travel richer…