Living in Saudi Arabia as a foreign woman. How does it really look like?

Living in Saudi Arabia as a foreign woman. How does it really look like?

March 2014: I came to Riyadh with basically no knowledge about life in Saudi Arabia. It’s not the most popular emigration destination for Polish people, so I didn’t know anyone who lives or used to live here before. My research was based on the Internet and media. And these sources were full of quite scary stories, based on stereotypes.

First stress – I’m landing at night, and I have no abaya, neither hijab. That means that I will break the law before even I get to my new home. I was a bit confused to not get myself into trouble without knowing that I’m doing something wrong. But nothing bad happened that night, neither for the next six years of my life in KSA. 

It took me only a couple of days to get used to new rules and situations. The first surprise about the country – incredible heat and no sidewalks. I always prefer walking over driving, but it was impossible with the distances and temperature outside. Additionally there was no public transport at all, so I had to move everywhere by taxis. Within few days, I have learned that it’s better not to mess with Mutawa (religious police), not to be fooled by a cab driver and that the guy who follows your car it’s just a bored teenager asking for your number. Those times are anyway over as there is no more Muttawa on the streets, Uber makes your life easier, and teenagers moved to Snapchat. 

Living in Saudi Arabia – the most common stereotypes which I hear as a woman

It’s hard to live in Saudi as a single woman because you need a man guardian to do most of the things.” No. You don’t need a man guardian if you are an expat. This rule applies in some cases only for Saudi citizens. 

You need to cover from head to toe. “A foreign woman no longer has to wear an abaya. Covering hair is not mandatory, even for Saudis. 

It’s dangerous for a lady to live here.” I wouldn’t say that. If you follow some common-sense precautions, you will feel here as safe as in any other foreign country. 

I can’t drive in Saudi Arabia.” Since 2018 you can. Another thing is that you will need time to get used to the way of driving here. It’s kind of crazy to compare to Europe or the USA. A bit like the law of the jungle – the strongest (or smartest) survives 😊 How to convert your driving license to Saudi one here.

There is no social life here.” That’s my favorite one😊 Trust me, there is. It’s not forbidden to meet your friends, though. You can go out to the restaurant normally. Most of the foreigners live in the compounds, which are super lively places. There are parties and concerts organized by embassies, and now Saudi is in the phrase of introducing many events. You can go to the cinema as well. 

I can’t travel as a woman.”You can travel on your own. That’s normal, even for Saudi women. It’s ok also to rent a hotel room or a car by yourself. 

Saudi Arabia today – rules you should follow as a woman living in KSA

  • Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country. Everything here is dictated by religious principles, including the law based on Sharia. Prayer times determine the rhythm of the day. It means that for half an hour, everything is closed completely. That’s why before you go out shopping or to the bank, check if you have enough time before it is closed for prayer again. Practicing in public any other religion than Islam is prohibited.  
  • Remember that cultural and official rules are two different things. If you want to blend into society, you can wear a beautiful and stylish abaya. I think it’s quite comfortable, so I still wear it sometimes. Otherwise, stick to modest clothing – long sleeves, covered legs, and no excessive cleavage. According to the official rules, you should always cover your arms and knees. 
  • Do not bring alcohol to Saudi under any circumstances. It’s banned even in the hotels. 
  • Taking photos of people without consent, it’s a crime. Especially pictures of women. However, as a photographer, I can tell you that when you ask politely, they have no problem with it. 
  • Separation of men and women – Saudi slowly opens up for tourism and foreign visitors, but there are still many places when women are isolated from men. New restaurants don’t have separated sections, but don’t be surprised when you see ‘family’ and ‘single’ signs. Banks have ladies branches, and some events are dedicated to men or women only. 
  • Whatever is normal in your country, it might be understood differently in Saudi. Sometimes being too friendly here is considered as you are interested in a man, not only about the conversation. Asking for the number or Snapchat means usually dating, not talking about the weather. And don’t get offended if someone asks you if you are married – it’s very common here. For peace of mind, you can admit it. It cuts most of the annoying conversations. 

Girls just wanna have fun – Shopping, beauty and fitness in Saudi Arabia

Imagine the country where most of the traditional entertainment like concerts, cinemas, etc. were banned for years. What would you do for fun? Of course, shopping! That’s why Saudi Arabia is a pretty good place to spend some money. There are plenty of shopping malls. You can also check traditional souks or luxury shopping centers with designer stores. Most of the shops don’t have fitting rooms. You have to try your shopping in the toilet or at home. 

Some products are more expensive than in Europe, some of them are cheaper. I’m trying to shop my cosmetics and makeup abroad, but electronics have reasonable prices here, due to low taxes. Recently Saudi is getting better with the variety of organic and healthy products, but still, it’s not the same as the western world. You might be surprised, but it’s quite hard to find tampons here, so better bring them with you. 😊

Beauty salons and hairdressers

There are plenty of beauty salons and hairdressers for ladies. However, if I have a choice and I can travel, I usually do it in Europe. Prices in Saudi for good quality service are much higher, and it’s hard to find something with a “Western vibe.” 

Sport

There are a lot of gyms for ladies. The prices are higher than the men’s gyms, but they offer a wide range of additional classes. Yoga becomes recently really popular here so that you can find many studios or a private instructor. There is no ban on running, biking, or rollerskating for women; however, it’s not yet very popular.

If you plan to stay in a hotel, ask before if the gym will be open for women too. It might happen that there will be a limited time when you are allowed to use it. Usually, hotels ban ladies from using the pool. 

Conclusions

There are so many stereotypes about living in Saudi Arabia. I had no big expectations when I came here, that’s why I was surprised positively and adapted very fast. There are, of course, many things I miss from Europe, and many rules I don’t agree with. But this article was meant to be written to prove that there is no point in being scared. After more than six years, I can easily call Riyadh my home. 

I would love to hear about your experience of living in Saudi! Leave the comment below to share your story. 

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Wadi al Disah – a natural wonder of Saudi Arabia. How to get there – useful tips.

Wadi al Disah – a natural wonder of Saudi Arabia. How to get there – useful tips.

The word Al Disah literally means “the valley of the palm trees.” If only one word could describe more, I would add: “the valley of the palm trees, the freshest air in Saudi Arabia, the silence broken only by bustling wildlife.” Wadi Al Disah is the Grand Canyon of Saudi Arabia. Still, with one difference – there are no crowds of tourists coming from all over the world. It’s a quiet, beautiful and peaceful place, where you can connect again with nature. At least it’s not yet crowded, so I was very excited that I could experience it before the mass tourism comes. I’m sure someday it will as this gem can not stay hidden for so long. The Saudi government is currently working on a development project in this region to receive more visitors in the future. 

Wadi Al Disah - how to get there


Known as well as Wadi Qaraqir or Wadi Deesah, what makes it so spectacular? After entering the valley, you will be hit by its size and enormous space. The cliffs can reach up to 500 meters high. The fauna and flora surprises with its abundance thanks to the water streams running towards the village. 

Wadi Al Disah - how to get there

Wadi Al Disah – how to get there? 

The valley is located in the Tabuk region, and you can enter it from two sides. First- the eastern one, which is closer to the city. It takes around 1.5 hours to get there. The second one – about 250 km from Tabuk airport, will lead you through Al Disah village. The canyon is approximately 15 km long. If you have 4×4, you can enter from one side and drive through the whole canyon. 

Wadi Al Disah - how to get there

What to do there?

  • Hiking- Wadi Al Disah is the perfect spot for hikers. Park your car at the entrance and enjoy the walk. 
  • Rock climbing 
  • Explore the nearest village – if you want to spice up your trip with a historical accent pass by the little town of Disah. There are tombs and inscriptions traced back to the Nabatean era and some other ancient buildings
  • Camping – take a basket of food, carpet, Arabic coffee and enjoy the nature in Saudi style
  • Bird watching – bring binoculars with you if you love birds
Wadi Al Disah - how to get there

Wadi al Disah – my tips and useful information

Do I have to have 4×4 to go to Wadi al Disah?
No. You can drive a standard car and park at the beginning of the valley, where the asphalt road turns into a path. Then hike along the canyon. Version for brave/social: if you see some local people, often using 4×4 pickup trucks, I’m sure they will be happy to take you with them deeper to the valley. I advise preparing a few keywords in Arabic because it might be hard to communicate in English. 

Be aware that there is no network/Internet inside of the valley and often outside of big cities in Saudi. Prepare yourself before and download the map. 

Wadi Al Disah - how to get there


Tabuk is the biggest city on your way. After leaving, you will find only small bakalas (grocery stores) without fresh food. I suggest to supply yourself for the trip with some food and plenty of water in Tabuk.

Wadi Al Disah - how to get there



It can happen that you will not see an open gas station for more than 70 km on your way. Take it into consideration and fill up your gas tank. 

Mountain biking in wadi is possible; however, sometimes it might be hectic – some parts of the road are very sandy. 

The best time to visit Wadi Al Disah is between November and March when the weather is not yet extremely hot. 

Wadi Al Disah - how to get there
It’s so easy to register in (Saudi) stem cells registry and save a life

It’s so easy to register in (Saudi) stem cells registry and save a life

What is actually leukemia?

Blood is made of 3 types of cells: white blood cells that fight the infection, red blood cells to carry oxygen, and platelets that help the blood to clot.
Every day, billions of new blood cells are made in the bone marrow – most of them red cells. But when you have leukemia, your body produces more white cells than it needs. And there are no “normal” white cells. They can’t fight infections properly. Because there are so many of them, there is no more space for red cells to supply oxygen, platelets, and “healthy” white cells to support the immune system. This affects as well the function of the body. That’s why leukemia is called blood cancer. No one knows what exactly causes leukemia; so, we don’t know how to prevent it.

Is there any way to fight leukemia?

Yes, there are. It might be radiation, chemotherapy, and some of the patients can be qualified to receive blood stem cells or bone marrow transplantation. And this is where the magic of medicine starts. As bone marrow of the diagnosed patient produces “broken” cells, it needs to be replaced. From where? From another, healthy person who is a genetically-matched. However, it’s very hard to find someone whose DNA matches enough to qualify for a transplant. That’s why there is an international registry for potential donors all over the world. The donor who qualifies might live very far away.

How does it work?

Let’s assume that you want to rescue someone’s life and register as a potential stem cell or bone marrow donor. All you need to do is to visit the registry, fill the quick form, and let the registry employee collect the swap sample for investigating your DNA profile. That’s it. After around 3 months, the result will be uploaded to the international stem cells registry. As I said, there is likely someone who will be fit to get your stem cells. Only around 30 % of patients can find their match. So if it happens, you will receive the call to carry out more detailed tests and check if both of you can make it safely.

So what happens if I meet the conditions and there is someone who matches my profile?

Congratulations, it looks like you will be able to do the most significant thing in your life and rescue another human being.
There are two types of transplants.

The first one is called stem cells apheresis, which means “to separate.” It’s a straightforward procedure that is similar to blood donation, with one difference. You will be connected to some kind of device which takes your blood, but at the same time filters your stem cells and puts it back. Ok, but what are the stem cells? Stem cells are not yet “specialized” cells. It means that they can become white, red cell, or platelet. They are produced in the bone marrow and released to the body in a bloodstream.


The second method might seem a bit scary but is quick and very safe. You will undergo a small procedure under anesthesia where a doctor takes a low dose of your femoral bone marrow by a needle. It takes around half an hour, and it’s completely risk-free. In only very few cases, the second procedure is recommended (for example, for kids). Still, you have to remember that you always have the right to choose the method. However, in my opinion, if I knew there is someone who is dying, I would not hesitate to save a life and go for the required procedure.

How can I register to be a stem cell donor in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia has its international registry located in King Abdullah International Medical Research Center in King Abdulaziz Medical City. You can find their numbers, as well as WhatsApp on their website: King Abdullah International Medical Research Center.
The appointment is not required, but I was advised to message them before I come. The team is fantastic, and they proudly registered already more than 70 000 donors. Of course, the registry is international, so if you do it in Saudi, you don’t have to register anywhere else.
If you don’t live in Riyadh, contact them, as they can arrange swap collection by the cooperating facility.
That’s it. Simple and easy! #join_and_save_a_life

Saudi driving license for women. How to apply and convert the international license.

Saudi driving license for women. How to apply and convert the international license.

It finally happened.  Girls power won and women in Saudi Arabia got their right to drive cars, bikes, motorbikes, ubers and whatever they want to drive.  Now it`s time to face the machine of bureaucracy and become the queens of the roads. Fasten your seatbelt and follow these steps to have a smooth and fast ride.

Can I drive with the international driving license in Saudi or should I convert it to the Saudi one?

According to information I got, you can drive in Saudi with your original driving license or international driving permit for the first three months of your stay. After this period, you should convert it to the Saudi license. Temporary visitors on business visas can drive the car with an International or Domestic driving license.

 

How to convert your current driving license to a Saudi one? Step by step guide for expats and Saudis with  licenses from outside Saudi Arabia.

 

1. Translate your existing driving license to Arabic

You will need it to complete the online registration and to make an appointment for the next steps.

I did my translation at RENAISSANCE Translation Office. They translate from English to Arabic for 50 SAR. It`s enough to send them a photo or scan of your document by email: info@aljarboulaw.com and you will get the translation done the next day. Usually the price for such service should be between 40 and 100 SAR, depending on the language.

2. Open MOI (Absher) account

To start procedure of converting your license you need to have an account at Ministry of Interior (Absher). You can register here.

Be aware that the website doesn’t work on all browsers (as in my case in Firefox). If you open the page and it`s blank, try from another one.

To complete registration, you will need to provide the information such as your ID number or mobile phone. At the end of the procedure you will be asked to validate your account. I did it through online banking, but the other option was to do it at certain points in the city (there is a list to choose the best location for you).

Remember to write down your password and username. You will use your Absher account not only to apply for a driving license, but in the future, this is a place where you can see your fines and traffic violations and other personal information.

3. Log into the Saudi Driving License Portal to make your appointment and send documents

To schedule the appointment for a Saudi license you will have to log into https://www.sdlp.sa/login . Use the same username and password as you created in step number 2. Unfortunately for now the website is only in Arabic version, so to complete the procedure you may need help from an Arabic speaker.

You will be asked to upload scans of the following documents:

  • Iqama (Residency card)
  • Domestic driving license
  • Arabic translation of your current driving license

Once you are done with it, you can choose the appointment in Moroor Traffic Office for your driving test and obtain (finally!) the license. There are two locations in Riyadh which you can choose: next to the airport (https://goo.gl/maps/KnK1ZEc5gFT2) and in Rimal area (https://goo.gl/maps/8z7mazetBVC2)

4. Pay the deposit fee

Before you go to your appointment you need to pay the new license fees. It can be done by SADAD payments. Cost: 200 SAR for 5 years and 400 for 10 years .

5. Get the medical report

To get the medical report you need to go to one of many authorized hospitals in the city (the list is available in Saudi Driving License Portal. I did mine at Suleiman al Habib Hospital. You will be asked only to do an eye and blood test to determine your blood type. Once you are done, they will send your report to Moroor electronicly (they might ask about your sponsorship number – it starts with 700 number and you can get it from your employer). Once the report is sent to Moroor, you will receive a confirmation by SMS. Medical tests are covered by insurance, otherwise you have to pay around 120 SAR).

6. Driving test and printing your license

Once you are done with above steps you can go to your appointment at Morroor Traffic Office. Don`t fortget to bring your current licence, translatioan and Iqama. After you register at the reception, you can submit your documents and proceed to the square to do your driving test. Below picture shows what you will be examined about:

 

You will be driving alone in the car and the officer will be watching you from outside. To pass the exam you will have to park in parallel and do a three point turn. But don’t panic! The officers are very lenient and polite, not very strict, so I am sure that as long as you don’t crash the car into the wall or do another disaster you will pass the test 😊

Important tip: don’t be like me and drink too much water before your exam. Apparently there is no woman toilet there 😊

After the test, the officer will go back with you to the office to finalize the procedure and print your driving license. And this is when the fun part starts. Good luck and see you on the road!

 

 

 

Saudi driving license for women

Truths and myths about life in Saudi Arabia #1

Truths and myths about life in Saudi Arabia #1

Every time when I come to Europe I am questioned how is to live in a “golden cage” as Saudi Arabia is often called. Especially in Poland, a country where basically there are not many Saudis, people can not imagine how an ordinary day looks like. Oil, dollars, princess, terrorists, camels, desert …  I didn`t know more three years ago.

1. I HAVE TO COVER MYSLEF

Truth. In Saudi Arabia every woman in public places mandatory has to wear abaya. It is a kind of loose cloak covering the feminine shapes. Usually in black, although becoming more common concessions to this rule. But not every abaya is the same and you can find really beautifully crafted ones. Saudi mastered the art of decorating: flowers, colorful ornaments and stones make even an ordinary black cloth looking nice. The greatest proof of this is the fact that such designers as Gucci and Dior sew special collections for Saudi women.

In addition, every woman should cover her hair wih scarf called Hijab. This law is less strictly followed and you can meet on the streets a woman with uncovered hair, but always with a scarf around neck, in case of religious police called muttawa ask for it.

Saudi women with their own choice often cover also face by niqab and even hands with gloves.

2. WOMEN CAN NOT DRIVE

Truth. In Saudi Arabia is strictly forbidden to drive a car by a woman and attempts to break this law are punishable by lashing. However, most families employ their private driver. Also the city is full of taxis as well as applications like Uber or Easy Taxi have become extremely popular. Actually there is no public transport but this will change soon due to building of first subway in Riyadh. Increasingly, we hear that the government is slowly preparing society for the abolition of this law.

3. BESIDES CIVILIAN POLICE LIFE OF RESIDENTS ALSO CONTROLS RELIGIOUS POLICE

Truth. Called muttawa or oficially Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Deals with enforcement of compliance with Islamic law, such as dress code and covering, separation of women and men and respect of prayer times. Personally, I had contact with them only a few times when I was asked to cover my hair.  Quite easy to recognize because they do not wear uniforms only characteristic Saudi robe – bisht and long beards.

4. SAUDI ARABIA IS BACKWARD COUNTRY

Myth. How many times I have heard the question if I live in a tent and if I ride a camel... No, I live in the house and go to work by ordinary car ;( There are new universities, also many Saudis study abroad, coming back to the country and trying to implement Western lifestyle. As a very attractive market to invest, many companies opened here their branches. Riyadh is exploding city, despite the crisis still full of investments.

5. ALCOHOL AND PORK ARE PROHIBITED IN SAUDI ARABIA

Truth. Alcohol in Saudi Arabia is completely prohibited. Completely means that there is no in hotels and shops (well, unless Budweiser 0%) and attempting to smuggle severely penalized.

6. I CAN GO OUT AND TRAVEL ONLY ASSISTED BY MAN

Myth. Quite the opposite – company of a man who is not husband or family is forbidden. So in my case I would not have any option to do anything. I go everywhere alone – to shops, banks, restaurants and never heard the command to come back with a man. I can also leave the country without permission of my company.

7. THERE ARE NO CINEMAS, THEATERS AND CLUBS IN SAUDI ARABIA

Truth. First of all any form of public music is banned – it means when you go to Bershka or another shop in the mall, you will even not hear loud songs like in any other country. The second reason for banning on cinemas and theaters is that in such places it is easier to mix between sexes. As well harsh censorship does not allow to display many movies.

8. DAY IN SAUDI ARABIA DEPENDS ON PRAYERS

Truth. One of the main pillars of Islam is prayer 5 times a day. In Saudi Arabia all restaurants, offices and shops are closed for prayer time, even the ones in shopping malls. If I plan to do some things in the city, I always consider that at the time of my arrival everything may be closed. After some time expats get used to it and treat prayer time as the next coffee break.

It is also forbidden to cultivate a religion other than Islam, this also applies to holding a Bible or even a cross.

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9. SAUDI ARABIA IS FULL OF MONEY… AND OIL

Myth. Not all Saudis are rich and earn a fortune. Many of them earn as much as the average in Europe and live on modest level. Saudi Arabia is a country of contrasts, so you can see a woman begging on the street and right after Saudi spending fortune on shopping. The truth is that average citizen employs maid and driver, also children have nanny but here this is not a sign of luxury. Middle East countries have become rich quickly on the extraction of oil.  Price 0.23 $ per liter is still impressive (last year was approx. 0.15 $), but the truth is that some day oil will finish so Saudi Arabia is looking for alternative sources to finance its expenditure.

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10. I CAN`T GO TO RESTAURANT IN MIXED COMPANY OR GO ON A DATE

Truth, but expats have found way to circumvent the law. First of all, in the closed areas for expacts, called compounds life looks quite the same as in Europe. There is no abaya, religious police and harsh rules. In order to legally go out to a restaurant in a larger, mixed company, just take with you one marriage and you will be treated as a family. All restaurants, offices, banks have separate entrances for men (single section) and women and families (family section). Even queues in MacDonald are determined according to these rules.

11. AS A TOURIST I CAN NOT COME TO SAUDI ARABIA

Truth. If you’re not a Muslim going to Mecca, it is not possible to come to the country as a tourist. Saudi Arabia only issues business visas.

Silver Sands Beach in Jeddah – the place in Saudi where you can feel like in Europe

Silver Sands Beach in Jeddah – the place in Saudi where you can feel like in Europe

Silver Sands Beach Resort – how to get there?

The resort is located approx 40 km from the city center. Not many residents of Jeddah know about the place. The stuff from our hotel did not even know anything about the private resorts, neither taxi driver, so we had to use Google Maps (coordinates: 21.7727N 39.0556 E). You should go towards the direction of the North Obhur district. The resort is not marked, and it looks very inconspicuously from the outside.

Silver Sands Beach – Price

A single entry during the weekend costs 150 SAR (approx. 35 EUR); admission for children is the cost of 100 SAR (approx. EUR 25). There is also an annual membership for the price of SAR 5,000 (approx. EUR 1200).

Facilities

The whole place is really big. There are plenty of sunbeds, umbrellas, and showers. The resort does not rent the towels so you have to take your own. It’s divided into two parts, the beach with shallow access to water and a small island in the middle. The second part has access from the shore directly to deep water so it’s usually occupied by fishing or doing water sports (kite surfing, windsurfing, snorkeling). There is also a large playground for children, a restaurant, water bicycles, and a volleyball court.

Silver Sand Beach is described as one of the best resorts in Jeddah. The place where you really can feel like on holidays When I went there for the first time I was quite shocked that I can wear a bikini while I’m still in Saudi and nobody cares. The price for admission is definitely worth a day spent on the clean, sandy beach in the crystal blue water and the atmosphere of Western resorts.

Have you been there? Let me know if you like the place!

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