Before I went I researched a lot about what to wear and expect but found very little information – so this is an educational post to spread information for future women travellers to Saudi!
Me and my colleague rocking our abaya’s – the way they flow is quite elegant!
The abaya is the one thing you definitely need on any trip to Saudi.
An abaya is a long usually black (more on that later) cloak that covers from neck to floor. The law (!) in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) is that all women need to wear these in public. If you are Muslim you need to cover your head, but if you’re not then you don’t *need* to but it’s advised to have a head scarf handy.
Selfie in the airport lounge – you can see my neck (and hands) – but that’s it.
The strictness of the country differs on where you are. The capital Riyadh is the strictest place – you’ll need your abaya on on the plane before you land, and the religious police there have been known to harass westerners who are showing hair…. (Hence the headscarf requirement). I think the reason that Saudi is so strict on this and other Islamic issues is that the King is the custodian of the most revered site in Islam = Mecca.
A lot of Saudi women go further than just covering their heads with the hijab (headscarf) and are veiled with a niqab covering their faces so just the eyes are visible. The most extreme I saw was the burka – where a lady has material literally over her face, for me the images of blue burqas from Afghanistan come to mind, but in Saudi these were black (thought to be more modest, however possibly the biggest marketing ploy by someone with excess black material in stock?! Believe what you will…)
Photo credit: LavenderJean at http://cloudmind.info/hijab-niqab-and-burka-faq/
However where we were staying in Dharhan on the north coast, it’s a bit more relaxed and I was able to get though the airport without my abaya on. To be fair I was wearing a blanket like poncho and modest clothing (loose trousers and a dress over the top – think form skimming aka shapeless and you get the idea!
In my abaya in the business class lounge at Dammam airport.
I did put the abaya on to exit the airport and for all times in public, either walking outside the hotel or getting taxis. I didn’t need to wear it at the client offices or inside the hotel, but I still wore modest clothes. We were lucky though – our client is quite liberal and wearing trouser suits or even a dress (!) was fine inside the office (my colleagues and I all stuck to trousers though).
Office selfie – here I’m wearing a long sleeved high necked dress from Primark over loose trousers. In general modest dress in Muslim countries should cover your arms past the elbow, with no cleavage and be long enough to cover your bum.
Wearing the same combo with loose long cardigan over the top (air con is cold!) at dinner in the hotel restaurant – no that’s not real beer! Saudi is a completely dry country, but you can get fake, aka non alcoholic beer, aka placebo effect! Moussy was the best beer (don’t go anywhere near the Budweiser – it’s digusting!)
I’ve heard that Jeddah on the south coast is also more relaxed with colourful abayas worn open (some have zips up the front, so it’s like leaving your coat open).
Top tip – get your abaya before you fly in!
The internet is good for this if you have time, we got ours from Lebaas after some googling, otherwise head to your nearest mosque as they should be able to sort you out or point you to a shop nearby. Of course you’ll probably get better choice in Saudi – my abaya cost £20 plus delivery, but was too long (I was ok when wearing heels but it was a trip hazard in flats! It also didn’t have the zip up the front which makes it easier to get in and out of without leaving makeup around the neckline 😖
Another selfie (I know I’m sorry!) when we went on a walk out on the Corniche outside the hotel. Our male colleague came with us to get icecream, and us girls wore our trusty abayas – we ended up looking like his two wifes! (ps it is pretty windy out in KSA and I think showing shoulder like this would be frowned on in other areas…)
Where we stayed in Al Khobar I think it would be OK for women to walk around without a male, but it made us feel more comfortable to have my male colleague there. We all shared taxis to and from the client site together, however in Riyadh this would not be possible. A colleague from the Riyadh office told me that if he went to a meeting with a female colleague they needed to get separate taxis and remember women can’t drive at all over here…
In our hotel Le Meridien Al Khobar, there was a separate gym for the ladies (a quarter size of the men’s!) with sauna and steam room, a pool (completely off limits to women as it was outside, overlooked and effectively public!) tennis and squash courts that I never tried to get on, but may have been off limits to us also.
Luckily we were kept very busy with work the whole time we were out there, so I didn’t really feel the restrictions and it was an interesting experience and a great opportunity to visit somewhere I would never get to without that work visa. I may yet be out there again soon!
I did manage a weekend in Dubai visiting friends, where you could definitely feel the difference when it came to dressing. Read more about how to dress in Dubai on Arzo Travel’s post on the subject: How to Dress as Women in Dubai.