Category Archives: society



Can someone please explain this to me?


What I mean is, what is a shop like this doing in the middle of Panorama Mall, one of the most popular shopping malls in Riyadh?

This shop was next to the entrance of the washroom, where Camelman and I were waiting for Camelmum and sis to get ready for prayer time. At first glance, I thought this was just a run-of-the-mill women’s lingerie shop, like La Senza or Victoria’s Secret (not uncommon, by the way, to find these global brands in the shopping malls in Saudi). But upon closer inspection, I realized there seemed to be an awful lot of tassels, feathers, and rhinestones.

And there it was, in broad fluorescent light for all to see, one of the most risqué outfits I have ever seen. In a shopping mall.


Camelman wouldn’t step foot in the place, but I was too curious …

Yes, that does appear to be a rhinestone-encrusted handle of … something:


And no, I am not sure whether that is supposed to be a piece of jewelry or clothing:


There were other ‘outfits’, potions, and elixirs too, and I won’t get into detail about those because my parents are probably reading this.

And then the call to prayer sounded. My brain literally started to hurt.

Welcome to the Magic Kingdom

My friend introduced me to the ‘Magic Kingdom’ moniker for Saudi Arabia last year. It immediately conjured up memories of the first time I visited Disney World in the 1980s and being enthralled by the visions of the future showcased at Epcot Centre, complete with holographic telephones and robot butlers.

I think that was the last time I saw a hologram in real life. But last winter, arriving again in Riyadh after being away for more than 6 months, I was pleasantly surprised to land in the brand spanking new King Khalid International Airport arrivals area – complete with a projected image of a customs officer welcoming us to Saudi Arabia. OK, not quite a hologram, but close? It’s a Small World After All was in my head all the way through to the baggage carousel. Welcome to the Magic Kingdom, indeed.



No Woman, No Drive

Thanks to camelman for sharing this with me …

at the airport

Although the restrictions can be stifling, I have identified a few perks of being female living in Saudi. (Of course, some of these “perks” are likely also associated with nationality – i.e. being a Westerner vs. Saudi vs. other nationality.) Take your typical experience at the airport. Usually, the sight of the line-ups for the foreigners in the immigration area is enough to induce a sinking feeling of dismay, particularly after a long flight. But in the Riyadh airport, they usually reserve a counter for the foreign females and if you flash the right passport (e.g. from a Western country), you get whisked over there right away. Meanwhile, the lines for the male travelers who are not Saudi or GCC can extend at least the length of the hall.

(I have recently found that having a North American passport in hand has also come in handy for bypassing the airline counter lines and getting checked in at the “special needs passenger” desk, as long as I don’t have any luggage I need to check in.

Similarly, at the security area, women have to enter a separate room for “security screening” by female security officers. I put this in quotations because this involves little more than a cursory swipe with the wand, once across the front and then across the back. No metal detectors and certainly no pat-downs. When you enter the room, they are usually drinking tea, having some snacks, and checking their phone, and I often have the same feeling you get when you’ve found yourself somewhere where you’re clearly not invited. Most of the time, they don’t even bother standing up from their chair. So they swipe you from a seated position; I guess they can at least check that you don’t have anything packed around your waist – and then you’re through. Meanwhile, you would have placed your bags through the x-ray machine outside, and by the time you’re through the female security room, your luggage is waiting for you at the end of the conveyer belt.

So all in all, if you’re a woman, it’s a relatively pleasant and very quick passage through the airport, albeit with some disconcerting security practices. Yet another perk of being female in Saudi.

matchmaking, Saudi style

The other day, as I was chatting with a new acquaintance of mine, I found myself wondering, what’s her last name? does she come from a nice family? should I introduce her to so-and-so? This brings me to another sign that I have been Saudi-ized – wondering whether the young Saudi women in my circle could be a potential match for some eligible young Saudi bachelors that I know.

There’s a lot of sensational anecdotes about marriages in Saudi, such as stories about elderly men getting married to young teenage girls. While unfortunately such situations do occur, they certainly shouldn’t be considered the norm. Why such situations are allowed to happen in the first place is another issue entirely.

But here, I want to describe what, from my knowledge, happens when a young, twenty-something man or woman from an urban, middle-class family wants to get married. As you know, there is little or no opportunity for young men and women to mix (officially) as they are growing up,  and dating openly is absolutely out of the question. (There is dating, but it’s not like you can bring your girl/boyfriend home to meet the parents.) I know of a couple of eligible Saudi bachelors who have let their parents know that they would like to find a wife. Now the wheels start turning. The bachelors’ mother and sisters, and possibly aunts and cousins, will start inquiring (discreetly) about potential mates. They may have already had someone in mind (e.g. she may be a classmate of the bachelor’s sister), but need to find out more information about the woman’s family – what are her parents like? Are they open-minded? Are they nice people? What sort of work do they do? What are her brothers and sisters like? What type of family are they? (It goes without saying that the family must be tribal; not necessarily the same tribe, but belonging to some tribe. Again, that is another issue altogether that deserves a separate post.)

Of course, a young woman may even have no idea that she is under consideration by a friend or a friend-of-a-friend of hers as a potential match for one their bachelor relatives. It’s a very delicate situation for the bachelor’s side too. Saving the feelings of any “candidates” (sorry, I can’t think of a better term to use) is of utmost importance, and the topic is not even broached to her until they are very confident that the bachelor will like her. So there’s a lot of surreptitious observation of the candidates, e.g. if the bachelor’s sister attends classes or a wedding celebration with the candidate, and observing her behaviour, demeanour, and attitude in different settings.

[That being said, imagine yourself as a 20-something young Saudi woman. You may always have to assume that you are being evaluated by your friend/classmate/co-worker/acquaintance as a potential wife for their brother/son/nephew. That’s a lot of pressure – that is, if you care about getting married. Rather than go through this potentially nightmare-ish scenario, some Saudi women have chosen to focus on their careers and not get into this process at all.]

So if you’re on the bachelor’s side, once you have identified and agreed upon someone, the bachelor’s father may phone the woman’s father, and introduce the idea. In the case of one of camelman’s nieces, that first phone call then initiated months of “investigation” by her father and brothers. They knew the family was reputable, so they pursued it. They talked to the guy’s classmates, co-workers, boss – basically used all their connections and did everything they could to find out as much about him as possible. This was done as surreptitiously as possible too. (I don’t know if that’s typical, but how else can the woman’s family find out about someone in this kind of society?)  Once they were satisfied, Camelman’s niece could meet the guy in person (chaperoned, of course). They liked each other, and so continued on into an “engagement”, getting to know each other more by phone/text and other supervised visits. (Eventually they got married and so far, this process has seemed to work out successfully for them.)

This is just one example of how marriages take place in Saudi, and from what I understand from Camelman’s family, is a typical scenario among the city-dwelling middle-class. As a female, it’s basically like you’re waiting for men to inquire for you. However, I should emphasize that, at least for Camelman’s family, the women could always say yes or no about whether she wanted to even meet the guy, let alone marry him.

Unless you come from a very open family, it would be very difficult to introduce someone you met yourself to your family and be open about how you actually met them (e.g. if you met someone on Facebook or other online social network). You could potentially come up with a scheme to get around that, but if that weren’t possible, you’d be in a difficult position. Every family and every situation is different, of course, but I think that people have to start questioning whether they are harming or helping their society more by insisting on this unnatural separation of males and females, especially during their formative years. The statistics about divorce rates in Saudi, despite the very strong social and religious stigma about divorce, may say it all.

you know you’ve been Saudi-ized when …

I know I have been quite lax about updating this blog, and to my faithful readers – all 10 of you 😉 – I do apologize.

In thinking about why I may have been less inspired to keep this up, one thought came to mind – have I been Saudi-ized?

Granted, this place certainly seems less strange to me, and dare I say, it is almost like a second home now? So how is it that I feel that I have become Saudi-ized? Well, a few indicators for me:

– I don’t bat an eye when I see a car driving down the street in the wrong direction, or better yet, driving in reverse down the street. He probably just missed a turn or is taking a short-cut.

– I respond to most questions with inshallah.

– I feel like I am not decently dressed if I go out without covering my hair.

– Going to the mall is just about the most entertainment I settle for these days.

– A party isn’t a real party unless there’s a whole lamb being served for dinner!

– I like to have my coffee and sweets (dates) before dinner, and sometimes again for dessert too. Hence, the Saudi seven.


Have I mentioned that I think that change in Saudi will be driven (ha, no pun intended) by the women? Wadjda is the first feature film to be shot in Saudi Arabia and just debuted at the Venice Film Festival. It was directed by a Saudi  female filmmaker named Haifaa Al-Mansour and from what I can tell, has garnered great reviews so far. I love the fact that they shot it on location in Riyadh. Quite a feat considering that pointing even a cell phone camera in any direction can arouse suspicion and dirty looks. And check out this photo of the director and one of the film’s actors (also Saudi) on the red carpet. The image of Saudi women continues to evolve …

Can’t wait to see the film. Hope it somehow makes its way to Canada. Or you never know … maybe I’ll see it next time I’m in Saudi Arabia?