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.”
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.
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.
Brilliant article Ola, very accurate & objective. Foreign (single) female life here isn’t really as impossible as often depicted in western media, even if it gets annoyingly inconvenient at times. It helps you to develop that problem-solving attitude while being creative and resourceful. So many unexpected thrills too: perfumed oil shopping, historical sites (al Balad in Jeddah!) and beautiful nature (palm grooves, Red Sea). It’s a whole different world here & very exciting to discover for those with open mind! Greets from Sharqiya!
Thank you Ula <3 Your comment perfectly summarizes living in Saudi. Hugs from Riyadh 🙂
Hi Ola, Thank you for all the information provided. Your article confirms exactly what I had in my mind. I can’t wait to move to Riyadh and try this new life experience.
Hi, thanks for that. There is not many sources to get the polish perspective We are discussing moving to Saudi with whole family but I must admit I have lots of doubt. How about working? I learnt non Saudi women are not allowed to work – aparat from teaching ?
I loved this article of yours, very positive outcome and really motivating.
I’d like to know more about the visa, how you lived there, how long it takes and what type of visa it is.
I’m aswell an European citizen, from the Balkans.