Saudi Arabia: The Magic Kingdom

A view of a mosque in the city of Jeddah at the the sun set in Saudi Arabia

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.

map of saudi arabia

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.

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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.

Souq al-Alawi at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

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

Photo sources: Mosque at sunset, map of Saudi Arabia, Souq al-Alawi

17 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia: The Magic Kingdom”

  1. My cousin was a nurse to one of the Saudi Royal Families. Basically a glorified nanny. She has similar stories about the restrictions of life in a very strange place. I have spent a good deal of time in Asian muslim societies. Although they retain much of the underpinnings of muslim values, they are much more inclusive and easier to integrate with.

    Fascinating article.

  2. Its is quite interesting that these are degrees of Muslim countries as the media tends to lump them all together. Your bit on Egypt make is sound like a pleasant place to visit which certainly wasn’t my opinion prior to reading your post

  3. Thank you for writing about your Saudi Arabian journey. I myself lived in Jeddah from 92 to 99. It was a fascinating adventure and I am working on writing about my experiences there as well. It is indeed a culture shock both going there and returning to “civilization” here in the States. I am constantly searching the web for people’s accounts of living in Saudi Arabia and yours was an enjoyable read!

  4. Such spirit and such an inspirational article. I find myself in the shadow of racism sometimes, saying things to myself that aren’t respectable of the middle east. But your article brings out some of the goodness of those people.

  5. I admire your sense of adventure as you appear open to new experiences. The fact that you attempted to adapt to a culture and lifestyle that seems so different is testament to your open-mindedness and “malleability.”

    It must have been so frightening to be surrounded by such anti-Western sentiment, particularly as you were planning to give birth — in essence, in such a vulnerable position.

    I’m so glad that a happy ending seemed to materialize for you and your family.

  6. You must be very brave wife for migrating to that place. Staying at a place which is very much opposite from your culture is very difficult because there is a certain level of adjustment to be able to fit in. Interesting blog. Thanks.

  7. I think you’re right Linda, but it can also be a hugely rewarding and interesting experience too…one that can change many people for the better. It obviously depends on the person but the Middle East is hardly the picture of oppression many make it out to be – embrace the culture and you’ll be better off for it.

  8. hey i liked ur article very much espeacially since jeddah is my hometown…i am now in the states for my undergraduate studies….I like how you described ur struggle with the lifestyle,,,i know it can be very hard for both men and women….but i believe the worse of all is the part where they require ur husbands permession even for medical stuff….I truley wish you had a better experience over there, maybe u wouldve if u knew the right people….

    and to the guy askin if the baby got the citizenship..the answer is no…almost the majority of countries in the world dont offer citizenships to people who r born there.

  9. Saudi Citizenship? NO. A fact of life for expats or any non-Saudi is that anyone born in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) who is not Saudi is almost always a sponsor’s dependent with rights to reside in the Kingdom only insofar as the expat parent has the right to reside there, which is almost always because he has a job with the appropriate job visa. This is true for the rest of the dependent’s life, unto death. In rare circumstances a non Saudi with enough influence (wasta) will be accorded citizenship. At a certain age of maturity, the dependent will even have to transfer his “sponsorship” that is, work privilege, from the father to another sponsor for work. As an expat who has never lived in a Western compound, I can tell you that our perspective of the Saudis is well, a bit different, owing to the amount of, ahem, culture, to which we are exposed to directly, with rarely a chance to escape the air of local landscape.

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