GUEST ARTICLE: You don’t go to The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a tourist. In fact, there’s no such thing as a tourist visa in Saudi. The only holiday makers are on their religious pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj. If you are not Muslim, the only way to get into the country is with a work or family permit.
We moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2002 after my husband accepted a position with a Saudi Government department. It’s always hard to know what to expect when moving to a new country, but nothing could have prepared us for what Saudi life was like.
It took 3 months after my husband arrived for my dependant visa to be approved. As we would soon find out, everything a woman does in Saudi is dependent on her husband, father or close male relative.
My husband met me the airport with an abaya because it would be indecent for me to not be covered amongst all those men. As a westerner I was not expected to cover my head whenever I was out in public, but from the neck down I was sheathed in a voluminous black cloak covering all but my feet and hands.
Amongst Saudi women there are various levels of covering, ranging from a simple abaya and head scarf covering the hair to a full veil, gloves and socks so that not an inch of flesh was showing. The level of covering is usually dictated by the husband or father.
I approached our move to Saudi with some trepidation. It was less than a year since 9/11 and the reports of conditions for women there were fairly grim. The reality was a complete culture shock in the truest sense of the world. Their culture was the polar opposite of ours in so many ways.
Like most expats we lived in a walled compound with numerous villas and services such as a restaurant, grocery store, several pools and a gym. The vast majority of residents in the compound were expats, so within the walls it was basically “western rules”, meaning a more normal life for us. We were lucky to have satellite TV and an internet connection as a link to the outside world (albeit with some internet censorship).
Outside the compound, however is another world. As a woman my movements were severely restricted, and not just by the need to cover in public. Women in Saudi are not allowed to drive vehicles. It’s one of the few countries where this is still the case. There were several expat women’s groups designed to occupy bored housewives, but activities were limited, involving mostly coffee mornings, shopping and lunches. There are no cinemas in Saudi.
Mixing between unrelated males and females is forbidden in Saudi. Most social functions are single sex only and there is barely even eye contact made between men and women if the groups cross paths. Stories floated round amongst expats of single men spending a night in jail for holding hands with their girlfriends in public. Restaurants were divided into 2 sections; families and single men, screened off from each other. It would be entirely inappropriate for single men to sit in the same room as women not related to them.
On a holiday to Egypt which, although predominantly Muslim, is much more relaxed than Saudi, we were struck by the image of teenagers, male and female, hanging out together at a cafe. A sight you would not look twice at back home, but after months of complete segregation of the sexes, the contrast between the countries was marked.
Even a wedding in Saudi is 2 separate parties, one for men, one for women, with the bride and groom meeting only briefly to exchange vows. Away from the men, the women discard their abayas to reveal elaborate gowns and designer clothes. A young Saudi woman might take particular care in her appearance in order to impress a potential mother-in-law, who is always on the lookout for a suitable wife for her son.
In many ways, Jeddah is a modern and sophisticated city. The wealthy (many of whom are part of the extensive Royal Family) are extremely wealthy and every designer shopping outlet you could think of is represented. People drive fast, big cars on well-sealed multi-laned highways. They all have mobile phones, expensive jewellery and live in enormous homes.
But take a walk through Balad, the souk (market) in the old part of town and it’s like walking back in time. The streets are narrow and the three, four and five storey buildings are constructed from wooden beams and blocks made from sea shells and coral, giving many of them a pink glow. The stalls sell everything from fabric to dates to gold to electrical appliances and wandering through the meandering passageways is like running the spruikers’ gauntlet. Many of the sellers are Africans working to earn enough money to pay their way home after a Hajj pilgrimage.
The city of Jeddah is set on a flat coastal plain with an escarpment about 20 kilometres to the east and is very sandy. The coastline of the Red Sea is called The Corniche and is dotted with hotels, restaurants and theme parks, although the beachfront has not been developed to cash in on the tourist dollar. Not only are there no leisure tourists, but the strict code of conduct is not compatible with beach life as we know it. Women who swim at the public beaches do so in their abaya and clothing.
Jeddah is also renowned for its sculpture. In the seventies and eighties the Mayor of Jeddah encouraged local businessmen to donate sculptures and monuments to the city, which they have placed in the middle of roundabouts (some of which are enormous) and on other empty stretches of land. The sculptures generally celebrate the characteristics of Jeddah and there are many boats, reflecting Jeddah’s role as an important port.
In the Kingdom is technically forbidden to produce a representation of any human form. This is why photography can sometimes be tricky and is also why very few of these sculptures are of people. One depicts an eye; a few with hands, no more. The sculptures range from a fleet of boats, to camels, a giant bicycle and my personal favourite, a Golden Mini on a flying carpet.
During our time in Saudi we decided to start a family. The timing was right since I was not able to work (Mostly women only work as teachers and nurses). Private medical facilities are world class in Saudi and my pregnancy passed smoothly.
With only 4 weeks till our baby was due, the Allied Forces commenced operations in neighbouring Iraq and we spent a tense few weeks wondering how we would go about evacuating a heavily pregnant woman, if necessary! There was much anti-American sentiment during this time, and many expat women prudently decided to cover their heads to oid attracting any unnecessary attention.
When the time came to have the baby I was admitted to hospital. I was a little taken back that it was my husband who was required to give consent for any potential surgery – to me! Once again, my husband was expected to make decisions on my behalf, even about the most personal issues. Our daughter was born safely in May 2003. There were many cultural differences in relation to feeding and caring for the baby, but the medical services could not be faulted.
3 days after we brought our baby home from the hospital, Al Qaeda stormed 3 residential compounds in Riyadh and exploded a car bomb, killing 35 people and wounding 160. These compounds, much like ours in Jeddah, housed mostly Westerners, in particular Americans who were targeted for working for defence contractors training the Saudi National Guard.
A Canadian colleague of my husband’s (working for a Saudi company) was badly injured in the attacks. Security around expat compounds around the country, including ours was immediately stepped up. Our gates were now manned by the National Guards armed with machine guns and driving armoured vehicles. Every step outside our front door was a reminder of what could happen.
Our time in Jeddah was drawing to a close but these events accelerated our plans to leave. It was a fascinating and challenging experience, but not the optimal environment for a newborn baby!
This travel diary has been written by Roaming Aussie Mum originally from Perth but currently living in Northwest Mexico with her husband and 2 daughters. They left home over 8 years ago and have been roaming the world and parts of Australia ever since. Her blog is mostly about life as an expat in Mexico as well the joys (and challenges) of being a Mum to 2 girls.
If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution