In this blog series I share my experiences with the Middle Eastern countries that I visited. In this episode: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
Once upon a time, when I was still working in nuclear medicine, I did a lot of business with the Middle East. A few times I was lucky enough to be able to travel to the Middle East region. I became rather passionate about this region, mostly because of the super kind people! How is it to visit Saudi Arabia as a Western woman?
Man and woman in traditional Arab clothing in Riyadh
Here we go…
Schiphol Airport, checking in for my flight to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. It was the first time in the Netherlands someone asked me: “Do you have your headscarf and your male guidance with you?” Sure, all arranged… What did I get myself into?!
Schiphol Amsterdam Airport, The Netherlands
Women vs. men
With regards to clothing, Saudi Arabia is still very traditional and strict. Women have to cover themselves up, it is mandatory by law. So did I. I pre-arranged to receive my black covering dress (abaya) and headscarf (hijab or shayla) from our local distributor upon arrival at Riyadh Airport. It was already pretty damn hot (45+ degrees Celsius), the black dress did not make it easier to bear those high temperatures, especially the times when there was no air-conditioning!
The good side of this black dress I saw was that I did not have to think what to wear every morning – the black dress it is! Easy peasy. Although getting the headscarf right and ensure it would stay there the whole day, was another challenge. One time I saw a lady tripling over her child because her lack of sight due to her face-covering niqab, I felt sorry for her.
Let’s be honest; women do not have the same rights as men in Saudi Arabia. Slowly this is changing though. As of June 24, 2018 Saudi women can finally get their driver’s license! Very exciting news. Whether or not their husbands, fathers and brothers will allow them to actually drive is a different matter. We’ll see!
Work & shop
On the other hand, doors were opened for me to buildings and rooms that women normally never enter. Men access only! Women cannot work in Saudi Arabia, only in a few, very particular ‘female areas’ it is tolerated. At this point only 4% of the workforce in Saudi Arabia is female.
For example in the malls, men work at the shops, including lingerie shops and such, which leads to some discussion in Saudi Arabia. This is a happy place for people who hate trying on clothes; there are no dressing rooms in the shops. This because it is considered a risk to create the opportunity to potentially break the strict Sharia rules (you might see any naked skin for example).
One of the things I noticed in Riyadh are the many medical centers. I remember we drove on this big road, seeing both left and right at least one medical center at every hundred meters or so. Cosmetic surgery is booming in Saudi Arabia. Besides, Diabetes Mellitus, one of the fastest-growing health problems in the world, is now reaching epidemic proportions in some Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia is in the top 10 (around 25%)! A serious risk when everybody drives around in their big, airconditioned SUVs and not being able to do any sports outside.
All those medical centers and patients create a high demand for doctors. If you are a Saudi and you have the capacity to learn well, the government is very supportive. All you need to do is apply to the university of your choice and get accepted. Many Saudis study at American Ivy League universities and the government pays everything; from tuition to housing and having your own family staying with you there. In Riyadh there are also an Imam University and a University for Women.
Our big fat black SUV
Food & drinks
Contact between unmarried males and females is avoided in all possible ways in Saudi Arabia. For example in restaurants, females can only enter when there is a family section. Otherwise, it’s men only. Curtains on railing racks around the table provide the guests’ privacy, so females can take off at least their facial scarf (part of the niqab). I saw women holding up their face scarf piece with one hand while spooning in their food with the other hand. Did not seem very comfortable.
Saudi food is not necessary the healthiest, but tasty, with delicious spices and other ingredients Western people are usually not familiar with. The restaurant I can recommend in Riyadh is Karam Restaurant.
One day it was lunch time and we drove up to a Riyadh branch of Subway for lunch. As this was a small place without family section, I could not enter and stayed in the car. Unfortunately my Saudi friend forgot to keep the engine running, so after a few minutes I started to melt in the hot car without the air-conditioning on. Pfff… Now I know how those dogs feel like when kept in cars in the middle of summer!
Sipping Saudi champagne, watching over the city lights from the Al-Faisaliah tower… Of course this is not real champagne, alcohol is forbidden in Saudi Arabia. They do have humor those Saudis!
Foreign woman in KSA
Female solo traveling is currently still NOT ALLOWED in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia! Forget about it. Those who try should expect to be detained. But let’s say your husband or male colleage has a meeting and you do not want to stay inside the hotel all day? How about taking this Tour for ladies around Riyadh City? A simple girls hang-out at a mall and/or restaurant to socialize and get to know the locals. Recommended for those who love to meet with new people and explore local food/ restaurants. Duration: 3 hours.
When we got back to King Khalid International airport, I remember a long line of people standing outside, waiting to get inside. Based on their situation and luggage, most likely workers from abroad. Many foreign workers can only afford to go back to their families at home once every so many years.
Our big black SUV dropped us of at the shiny sliding doors of the International Departure Terminal. Immediately a guard popped up out of nowhere and guided us quickly inside, straight to the check-in desk. I never felt so embarrassed and privileged at the same time. It was not the Royal Terminal that King Khalid International airport of Riyadh also has, but the different treatment was so obvious!
People waiting outside Riyadh International Airport
Where to sleep
If ever in Riyadh, I would recommend staying at one of these luxury hotels:
How to get there
KLM has direct flights between Amsterdam Schiphol airport (AMS) and Riyadh (RUH). Most Middle Eastern airlines have connection flights. Turkish Airlines is quite competitive priced on this route, but it will require a stop-over in Istanbul. Jeddah is another important airport for KSA.
While at Riyadh King Khaled International Airport, I would suggest to treat yourself with access to the Plaza Premium Lounge and relax before flying out. The lounge provides an excellent ambiance with services ranging from comfortable seating, food and beverage, shower facilities, Wi-Fi and international newspapers and magazines.
Did you know…
Some facts about Saudi Arabia:
- Number of inhabitants: >28 million
- Size: 2.206.714 km2 (mostly desert)
- Capital: Riyadh
- Official language: Arabic
- Currency: Saudi Riyal (SAR)
- King: Salman bin Abdoel Aziz al-Saoed
- Religion: Islam (Wahhabism, Sunnite)
- KSA still executes death penalties (130 in 2017) according to Sharia Law. It is usually carried out publicly by beheading with a sword (source: ESOHR), sometimes shooting. Afterwards, sometimes the beheaded body is publicly displayed (crucifixion) at a central square for one or more days.
- KSA borders with Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Persian Gulf, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Yemen, Egypt, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.
- The Middle East is part of the continent Asia.
If I ever get the chance to go back to Saudi Arabia:
- I would like to visit the Ruins of Diriyah, Madain Saleh and the city Jeddah. I heard this city, located just one hour west of Mecca, is more liberal with regards to clothing and such. Curious to see how it is there. Ethiopian Airlines uses Jeddah as a hub to Addis Ababa by the way.
- I will take some better pictures! Sorry for the poor quality of the shots in this blog post. I made them with an old iPhone and Canon. So no fancy photos this time, yet I hope you appreciate the story.
Many thanks to Charbel, Koen and my dear friends at AZM for making this trip to KSA such success! I will never forget it.
I hope you found this blog post interesting to read. Have you been to the Middle East? What are your experiences? Do you recognize something from my story? Or would you like to go to the Middle East soon? Please share!
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