Riyadh Stories and Tips

Dealing with Riyadh and Saudi Arabia

Closed for Prayer Photo, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Living in -- or even visiting -- Riyadh requires patience, adaptability, and tolerance in roughly equal measure. If you don't possess them, don't even think about going even if for just a little while.

The first thing you'll notice when you go out for the first time is the lack of women alone in public places, whether on the streets, in hospitals, in banks, in shops, supermarkets, or in the suqs. You see almost none. The reason for this is that according to the Qor'an, women must be "protected" at all times; in other words they must be accompanied by someone. Aside from going out with friends, the only males they can legally be seen with are brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers. They must also cover themselves. The Qor'an dictates that only their hands and faces may show, but this is the liberal interpretation. The conservative Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia does not even allow their women that freedom: they must cover their faces as well. Some will choose a mask-like face covering, so that the eyes will show. Most do not, however. So how does all this affect the foreign visitor?


First, women, if they want to feel half-way secure on the streets and do not wish to be stared at, really should wear an abaya, a light-weight, black, floor length cape of sorts that covers the body and the arms. A head scarf -- at the very least -- is wise as well. Under no circumstances should a woman go out in public wearing, let's say, a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt. If you are seen by a mutawa -- a religious policeman -- you will most likely be caned on the spot and very possibly arrested. It goes without saying that a bikini is totally out of the question around a pool or on the beach. (The only exception to this is on a company compound that is strictly off-limits to Saudis.) If a woman rides in a taxi or in a limousine alone, she must always ride in the back seat. If she doesn't, the car is involved in an accident, and she is determined not to be the wife/sister/daughter of the driver, she will be subject to arrest and deportation -- along with her husband or family. If she rides a city bus, she must always ride in the rear women's compartment. There is a buzzer in the back to signal a stop, but it may or may not work...

Prayer Times It's hard for Westerners to understand the extent to which Islam dictates daily life in the Muslim world until one goes to Saudi Arabia. Very soon after arrival, the reality sets in: when the muezzin's call to prayer issues from the loudspeakers of every mosque, all business stops. If you are shopping, you will be asked to leave the premises. If you're in a restaurant, the doors will be locked and the blinds closed. If you are driving in a car, you may see someone pull over, stop, get out, and begin his prayers. This happens five times a day: once at sunrise, again at noon, a third time around 4:00, again at sunset, and the final time is around 8:30 or so. I say "around" because prayer times are very precisely timed for each city and are published in the media each day. TV and radio programs are interrupted by the call to prayer as well.

Holiday timings
Except for National Day, which is a very low-key affair in the Kingdom, all holidays are religious. The two 'Eids are the most important. The first comes at the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan; the second during the Hajj the month of the pilgrimage when pilgrims from across the world converge on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Since the Hegiric calendar operates on a lunar schedule, a year is but 355 days. Therefore, all holidays "move" by about 11 days backward around the Gregorian calendar. And since the month begins when the new moon is physically seen, the precise day of a holiday can never be predicted. Indeed, it will often be different from one country to another. All this causes immense confusion, especially when you're trying to plan a vacation!

Restaurants are divided into two sections: a general eating area for men and a separate and usually smaller section for "families". This is either on another floor or is completely screened off from the view of anyone in the male section. Depending on the diligence of the mutawas, single women may or may not be allowed to eat alone in the family sections. And at fast-food, take-out restaurants there may or may not be a special window for women. If there isn't and there is no family section, either, then single women can't order anything at all.

Banks, Hospitals, and Government Offices
These all have separate entrances for men and women. Hospitals and government offices will have separate waiting areas as well. The same holds for any kind of clinic ordental office.

The Ministry of Information keeps a tight rein on the media and all publications entering the Kingdom. Any reference to Christianity or Judaism is strictly expunged: if a photograph appears in a newspaper or magazine that shows a cross or a star of David, it is obliterated with an opaque magic marker. The same thing goes for any exposed flesh above the ankles or below the neck. Bare shoulders will even be blacked out. Any article appearing in a news magazine that is critical of Saudi Arabia, for example, will be similarly obliterated. This kind of thing can be carried to ridiculous extremes: while transiting Riyadh on a flight between Islamabad and New York, security nearly confiscated a coffee table book about Pakistan because the inside cover showed Islamic (!) geometric designs that were similar to stars of David -- except they didn't have the cross pieces that turn the star into a pentagon and five triangles.

Beyond the strictures about women, this is the single-most aggravating and infuiating aspect of life in Saudi Arabia. Whatever you do, from arranging the installation of a telephone to applying for a driving license you find yourself running around looking for obscure offices and personages from whom you must obtain a signature. This bureaucratic two-step is enough to drive you to drink -- or worse. It took me six weeks and 7 taxi trips to offices 20 kms away in order to get my driver's license, for example. Telephones are even worse. Foreigners not only have to jump through the government hoops but must have a Saudi national who will guarantee the application because too many have left the country leaving horrific telephone bills.

Passports & Exit/Re-entry Visas
Each time you leave the Kingdom, you must obtain a combination exit/re-entry visa, which costs around $30 each time. These are obtained through your Saudi sponsor, who also, by the way, keeps your passport for the period of time you are in the Kingdom. In lieu of one, you carry a small identity card -- brown for non-Muslims, white for Muslims -- called an iqama. This must, theoretically, be on your person at all times you are out and about. The iqama stipulates that you must remain within a radius of 60 kms of your place of residence; otherwise you need a letter from your sponsor that will allow you to go elsewhere. In practice, this proviso is generally ignored if you fly from one city to another.

Recently, within the past six months or so, the Saudis have begun to issue tourist visas to small groups of foreign visitors. Not unlike the old Soviet Union, you MUST be on an escorted tour and all reservations must be made in advance. Most foreigners in the country are there to work.

The Holy Cities, Mecca and Medina
The two holy cities are off-limits to all non-Muslims.
Each has a ring-road and a freeway bypass with check-points at the exits for the two cities where cars are always stopped to determine if each passenger is a Muslim. You will have to turn around if you can't produce the proper documentation.

Photographers must be exceedingly circumspect in where they aim their cameras. I never had any trouble, but I was always extremely careful. You're in the most danger if you try to shoot women. Not once did I even aim a camera in the direction of a Saudi woman. This has gotten lots of people in hot water. Otherwise, it's best to avoid photographing government buildings of any kind. This can get you in lots of trouble. The same goes for airports, too, of course, though I've certainly taken shots at KFIA airport and out of aircraft windows and had no difficulties.

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