(Stories of Daily Life in Saudi Arabia)

by Unda DeVeil

A short introduction. Stories of every day life in Saudi Arabia, as seen through the eyes of a British woman living there, may interest some of you. I hope so, as it is my intention to write something witty and amusing as well as to give an idea of daily life in a totally different culture and lifestyle.

So, what exactly do you find to do all day?

It's a question asked by so many friends, family and people I meet, when they find out I'm living in Saudi Arabia. I suppose they have visions of women being locked indoors, tied to the kitchen sink, not allowed out, can't do this and can't do that, in this male dominated world. Or maybe they think I'm stuck out in the middle of the desert beyond any sight of civilisation, living off camel milk and sand. Their main concern seems to be my lack of social life and just how do I cope in a country without cinemas, theatres, clubs, pubs or bars. Well, yes it is a male dominated society, which is clearly evident, and there appear to be many strange rules and regulations (mainly stemming from religion, and men), and there are lots of things which women are forbidden to do. But there are plenty of things we can do, plus ways and means around some of those things forbidden.

My philosophy is that if you're going to live here, you won't be a happy bunny if you hang onto a negative attitude. And believe me, I'm alarmed by the vast number of expats who do nothing but moan and groan about their life here. It's no good thinking, well in Britain I could do this, and at home I could do that, yet here I can't do this and I can't go there etc . There are two answers ­ if it's that bad then go home, or, if you're staying, keep a positive mind. There's plenty to do, it's just a case of finding it.

That said, I'm going to continue by giving you one of those Day in the life.... type of things, except I don't want you to miss out on knowing how much fun I have, so I'll make it a Week in the life..... in instalments.

Ready? Here goes, day one.

Saturday. The first day of the week, and I'm woken by my husband's alarm at 7.15am. I open the curtains and see the automatic sprinklers watering the garden, though there's little hope the dry brown lawn will ever be one of those lush green ones, but at least the flowers are getting some water before the day gets unbearably hot. The sun's been up for a while, it's already 35C out there, and I'm grateful the air conditioning is keeping the house a pleasant 22C indoors. Husband off to work, breakfast etc finished, bung the weekend's dirty washing into the machine, and I'm ready for the off. I put on my abaya and scarf and go out into the street for a taxi (I'm not allowed to drive and local buses are for men only). The sun is beating down on me, there is no shade, and I really hope I don't have to stand here waiting long. A taxi screeches to a halt, it's gone past, but the driver has seen me and reverses at top speed back towards me, making all the other cars swerve to avoid him. I stand at his window explaining where I want to go. We use a mixture of English and Arabic to communicate. The driver tells me his price. Far too high. I give him my price, but he shakes his head. He tells me he wants to put the meter on…a sign he's not sure how to get there, or more likely, a sure sign he hasn't a clue where it is. I ask him again if he knows where I want to go and he nods and mumbles, but I'm not convinced. I ask him to repeat the address to me, but he cannot, he just repeats his price. Meanwhile another taxi has screeched to halt (nobody drives slowly here, they all think they're at Le Mans) and the driver is calling to me. Traffic is now swerving around both taxis which are parked side by side. I tell the first taxi driver to go. And I start the whole process again with the second driver. The first driver won't go, he insists on staying, though it's obvious he hasn't a clue where it is I want to go. Luckily the second driver repeats the address to me, and we quickly agree on a price. It's a little on the high side, but by now I'm hot and dusty, and just want to get out of this 40C heat. I fall into the back seat and ask him to put on the air conditioning. He starts to protest, so I tell him to stop so I can get out, whereby he reluctantly puts it on.

Who needs this hassle when the day has only just started!!

We speed through the streets of Riyadh, ignoring red traffic signals and narrowly avoiding being involved in at least 3 accidents (all quite normal driving in this part of the world) and eventually arrive at the private compound where I'm attending the AWR monthly coffee morning. I go through the security checkpoint which is fairly straightforward as I am a ‘western passport holder', and immediately take off my abaya and scarf. Underneath I am wearing normal clothes, as there are no restrictions here. YEEHAAAH!! a compound is pretty well immune to the outside laws. Two points to make here. One, these meetings have to be on a private compound as any public gathering of people is forbidden, more especially a crowd of women…(we apparently make the ‘powers that be' a trifle nervous), so by being on a compound we are fairly safe. Secondly, by calling it a coffee morning, we can actually get away with having bazaars, seminars, talks, meetings, whatever, as the Muttawa (religious police) believe a coffee morning to be 5 or 6 ladies sitting in somebody's house having a cup of coffee, and in their opinion this is quite harmless.

The AWR or American Women of Riyadh, which has around 100 members, is a very friendly group of expat ladies of all nationalities, who meet up once a month to enjoy a morning together. This morning we've got an Indian cookery demonstration, plus the usual sandwiches, cakes, tea and coffee to enjoy. But I would say the main reason women go to these things is to meet up with each other, it's the social aspect we want, and we seize the opportunity to exchange knowledge of forthcoming events (if these things are not supposed to happen, then they cannot be advertised). It's not a country where women can easily find work, unless you've secured a teaching or nursing contract from your home country, so basically the majority of us are housewives who are not used to being at home all day. These coffee mornings are what we look forward to.

By midday the Coffee morning is over, so I put on my abaya and scarf to step back into the ‘outside world'. Luckily I have a lift back home with a friend who has her own driver. Bliss: no hassles with taxi drivers, no haggling over prices and no explaining the route. I get home and have a quick lunch whilst watching BBC World, TV news. I try to catch the news headlines at least once a day - can't become too blasé in this part of the world. A quick change of clothes before I disappear out the door again, trapping a yard or two of black abaya in the process, as I launch myself into another of the great taxi malarkys and a hoped for uneventful trip to the Health Club. Ladies only, of course. I'm lucky that I've found a fairly ‘westernised' health club…by this I mean I can wear normal gym clothing to exercise in, except anything which shows a midriff, so no cropped tops or bikinis. Otherwise it's normal Unlike the place I used to go, where they insisted on tops up to the neck and with sleeves at least to the elbow, shorts which came at least to the knee, and for the swimming pool you had to cover legs and shoulders, and nothing too clingy!! And this a ladies only club (as they all must be)!! A man wouldn't be allowed within 2 miles of the place!! I haven't the space to tell you what the local ladies wore, but let's just say it was twice as much as I would wear if I were spending the night in a paper bag pitched on the side of Mt. Everest!!!

However, I'm glad I've found a really nice Health Club to go to, and one which won't be closed down as was the last one I joined. Another of Saudi Arabia's strange laws: women are not supposed to have gyms or clubs ­ maybe it's because we'll enjoy ourselves too much!! So for this one, I enter a hospital's main entrance and go to the side of reception where there is a ‘ladies only' lift which will take me straight to the top floor, signposted “Ladies PhysioTherapy Centre”. I enjoy a couple of hours in the gym, and after a quick jacuzzi I join some friends at the juice bar before making my way home, via the great taxi malarky, only this time made worse by the fact that I have timed things badly. I have left the Health Club during Prayer Time, and the roads are not very busy.

I eventually arrive home, do a quick check for phone messages and e.mails before I look out the shopping list and wait for my husband to come home so we can go shopping with the car... so much easier than the great taxi malarky. Also, if we time it right, we can get into the supermarket just before the next prayer call so we get a ‘lock in' and can at least continue with the shopping rather than having to sit and wait for the half hour to pass.

This evening we've been invited to a cocktail party at the Australian Embassy, so there's no dinner to cook, YEEEHAAA!! We'll get fed and watered there. A thing to mention here is that there's that wonderful strange law with Embassies ­ something about standing on the soil of an Embassy being the same as standing on the soil of that country. What I'm saying is that all these Embassies have a bar!! Yes, they have real alcoholic drinks! So you see, to get invited to anything at an Embassy is a really BIG DEAL here. An invitation is like gold dust, a thing of envy to be waved under friends' noses... only you have to be invited, so you have to know the right people or have a contact or just be in the right place at the right time, or whatever. Anyway, gotta dash, can't stop here chatting all day, I've a party to go to... It's crazy. It's Saudi.

Watch this space....