Saudi Arabia & Dress Codes

I’ve received a number of private emails from individuals, non-Saudi male and female wanting to know what is appropriate attire in the Kingdom. Naturally the woman must begin with her abaya. So starting with the abaya she needs to decide on what kind of abaya she will wear depending on the occasion or function. What I mean by that is in some cases when a professional woman in business may be having a mixed meeting with men and women or meeting with a man or attending a mixed function such as a conference or seminar, then the abaya will be her professional dress. In that capacity there are a wide variety of selections of abayas available. Yes, the standard abaya is predominantly black but they also come with swathes of color and differing styles of sleeves which can set abayas apart. The trimming and appliqués also make abayas individualized. And last the cut of the abaya can vary as well. Many professional women I know who have to wear abayas when making presentations usually have several “business” abayas which are made of good clothe and suited to their tastes. Women, like the men and their thobes will have multiple abayas in different fabrics depending on the weather. It is also typical for women to design their own abayas.

 

When a woman is simply out and about (in a non-professional capacity) depending on her preference, she can wear an abaya that is very simple or if she chooses, more elaborate with color and various designs. But what about underneath the abaya? Again, it really depends on the circumstances of where one is going. Some work places such as hospitals are mixed and a woman will generally wear a lab coat over her professional clothes. In other places such as universities, banks or other women-only work areas, women can freely wear what they choose. However one should remember that the Kingdom is a conservative culture so modest professional dress always makes the best impression. A fashionable business suit whether with slacks or long skirt (to the ankles) always looks nice in such settings. If invited to a reception or a Saudi’s home and there is a possibility that the function may be mixed and an abaya not required, it is still suggested that a woman dress modestly which also subtlety conveys her understanding of the culture and traditions.

 

Now at women-only functions and especially weddings, one will see the full gamut of attire from modest and conservative to the most revealing. My recommendation in general is to remain leaning to the more modest side. Is it really necessary to display large amounts of bare skin just because all the other women are? And again, I try to remember that I am not only the wife married into a respected and known Saudi family but also realize I may be looked at closely as “that American and let’s see how well she understands the Saudi culture.” Therefore this reinforces why I may also choose to dress more modestly perhaps than some of the Saudi women. I don’t want to appear too revealing or risqué and end up having inaccurate impressions made either of me or sending a message about stereotyping of American women and their dress code.

 

Seguing to men and what is appropriate dress code for them… to begin with I have come to know a number of expat men in the Kingdom who have chosen to take on the traditional Saudi dress of thobe, smaugh and ghutra. They have told me they chose the Saudi dress for several reasons: it is practical; made for the weather and climate of the Kingdom; and makes them feel more comfortable and accepted. But if you are a non-Saudi man and do not feel comfortable in the Saudi dress, then what is appropriate? Again, it depends on the circumstances. For example, if working in a professional environment and depending on the position held, a traditional western suit with tie may be most appropriate. Or perhaps a “casual suit” will be appropriate if in the heat of summer where one has a lightweight suit, shirt and no tie. In other working environments trousers and shirt may be acceptable without a suit coat. I have seen men in both short and long sleeve dress shirts. It is unlikely the Saudi man would wear short sleeves to a working environment but some expats have chosen to do so. It is not recommend that the expat man wear shorts, tshirts or other casual clothing to work, especially if working in an environment with Saudis. Again, I stress the emphasis on understanding the culture and traditions of the Kingdom.

 

The same applies to the man if invited to a reception or function that will either be mixed or at the home of a Saudi. He should remember to dress perhaps more formally in the sense of not wearing jeans or tshirts. Depending on the formality of the invitation, khakis and sport short are acceptable for a casual function. And if invited to a male only function such as an informal gathering at an estraha, it may be okay to wear shorts and tshirt if one has a close friendship with the host and has ascertained the function is very casual and informal.

 

If male and female expats live in a western compound, then they may basically wear whatever they choose. And if meeting with other expats then the general western dress code rules will apply.

 

Lastly, for women, I always recommend that when out and about, carry a scarf. I am not suggesting one must cover their head but it is a wise idea to have one in the event of an unexpected scenario such as coming face-to-face with some muttawa, or if one is in an auto accident (God forbid) and not wanting to draw further attention to oneself. It is always a wise idea to plan ahead for an unexpected situation.

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33 Responses

  1. Or:
    men -> white
    women-> black

  2. AA Carol,

    Would like to know if having to wear the abaya is law and does it have to be black? If the answer is no, why do the women wear it and why black? Just curious! Thanks! ; )

  3. Hi Tina,

    It is not specifically law that women must wear an abaya. It is culture. They wear it to conceal themselves and portray modesty and of course, black is the most concealing color of all.

    A while back I was talking to a female diplomat from one of the embassies here in Riyadh. She said that the guidelines of the embassy for women is that it was their choice on whether they chose to wear an abaya when they went out to professional meetings. And in most cases they did in order to be culturally acceptable.

  4. Okay Aafke…I’ve not finished my morning coffee yet so I’m needing help with your comment. Are you suggesting my post on dress codes could be more aptly named Men White and Women Black?!

  5. Carol,

    While I can completely understand this, I would just think that black everyday could become quite depressing, kinda like winter in America.You know when spring finally comes and you get all of the pretty colors back ot of your wardrobe and everything is colorful and cheereful again, thats the best!!

  6. Tina,

    I agree with you. I do personally find the black depressing and kind of claustrophobic and also not to mention so heat invasive during the summer months.

    Yes, I remember how in the States it seemed like fashion etiquette dictated not to wear white until after Easter and stop wearing white after labor day! (smile)

  7. Oi! I wear black most of the time!
    But I liven it up with really large earrings.

    Bedu: You didn’t have your coffee, and I came home very late yesterday night totally nackered and decided that the whole post could be condensed into : men-> white, and: women-> black!

    But to be honest, I love talking about fashion, clothes, asseccories, and I love ranting about ridiculous rules, so I’m going to highjack your blog and write a really long comment.
    By the by, I found this site, I thought you might enjoy it; it contains many photo’s from and around Riyad from the 1960’s. Including ”new” buildings which have probably gone again by now. One shows a group of women, some light colours can be seen.

    http://www.wheelerfolk.org/military/album_index.htm

    Which brings me to the historical stuff: I have seen vintage photo’s where women did not completely veil in Saudi arabia,ánd wore bright colours. I have seen a documentary on German television where they filmed in a small museum in a village where there are many paintings of modestly dressed but unveiled village women from the thirties. The gremans commented abou it, but nobody wanted to talk about it, except one man: he was not happy with his wife and daughter having to go about completely veiled and very uncomfortable, He told how people came from Riyad decades ago and forced this dresscode upon the village women.
    The operative word is ”force”.
    Read this interesting report from Reuters:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/inDepthNews/idUSL136115520080501?sp=true

    So I take it that this walking about covered in layers of black is comparetively new, and is forced upon the majority by a small minority, who delight in suppressing women.

    I particularly noted the * They have told me they chose the Saudi dress for several reasons: it is practical; made for the weather and climate of the Kingdom*
    I bet! Considering the temperature I’d probably prefer it myself.
    But no, not for women: they have to be kept as ucomfortable as possible.

    Fashionwise, I must admit that as soon as I read topics like this my mind starts to design abaya’s. which I wouldn’t mind wearing as the weather turns cold again. I’m even fully veiled complete with gloves when temps drop lower than -10 degrees Celcius.

    It’s quite an interesting challenge to tackle: A black over-gown, that has to be long, and closed, yet as light as possible, suitable for easy movements, handy taking it on or off, and suited to the blazing heat.
    And look nice.
    Sorry, can’t be done.

    As far as dressing goes, I think that showing a lot of skin is neither elegant, nor attractive. And in no business environment does it come across as competent and businesslike.
    And for partying, I think there are very elegant and sexy evening gowns that do not rely on showing as much skin as possible. Now I dó think that all these skimpy fashions, are an American influence. All these silly, badly advised pop-singers, and actresses with their ridicuously revealing outfits. I find that uncomfortable too, and embarassing! Last week a girl in front of me in the supermarket needed something from her bag, and bent down to rummage inside, she had these really lowcut jeans, and I looked straight down her string into her trousers Aaaaarrrggghhhh!!!!! Yuk! Disgusting! I couldn’t make up my mind if I should tell her how unpleasant an experience that was for me. I’m a coward after all, I didn’t.

  8. I think I’m in spam!!! :´(

  9. I dont’ know why your comment went into spam!

    I’m like you and fantasize on designing my own abaya with pockets and velco strips, some fittedness and some defient flashes of color with a grinning kitty!

    However here in the region the fashion designs seem more influenced by whatever the women tend to be wearing on the Arabic (Lebanese) channels which is usually kind of form fitting and scanty.

    I agree with you….covering more looks better and keeps folks guessing about what is underneath!

  10. Probably becuase it’s such a long rant combined with two links.

    I’ll make one for you if you send me your sizes and a list of what you want from it, and which kind of material you’d like. I mean it! I saw a nice black linnen on the market the other day :)
    I’ll make a drawing and send it to you and if you like it I’ll make it for you. I make lots of my own clothes. I’m fairly good at it and have a state of the art sewing machine.
    Are you sure about the velcro? How about some large soft hooks, the ones they use for fur; easy to handle, fast, and little chance of snagging a pretty veil.

    Hmm, I do like formfitting here and there, and I like diaphanous materials in layers…

  11. This is very interesting regarding the foreign men who have chosen Saudi dress. My Moroccan husband has specifically told me not to wear Moroccan dress (such as from the Western Sahara region of Morocco, even though I was given an outfit by a woman from there, and shown how to wear it) because he said people might think I was “making fun” of them by wearing it. On the other hand, it is no problem for a foreign woman to wear the standard “djellaba” especially during Ramadan; however, it would never be appropriate for a foreign woman to wear one to work, except for a special event or party.

    Madame Monet, in Marrakesh
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine
    winewriter.wordpress.com

  12. I forgot to say, the black question was explained to me by someone in Morocco who wears black. They say it is because they are trying to do things to NOT attract the attention of men (which, in Islam, shows that you are a “virtuous” woman). They feel wearing ANY color can attract a man’s attention, as can a woman’s laughter, or even her VOICE (which is the reason for the objection to having a woman Imam, even if she is behind a curtain).

    Madame Monet

  13. Aafke,

    You are one of the loveliest individuals and here’s a virtual hug for you! I will have to email you more on my thoughts on abayas particularly with your wonderful artistic talents…hey, I bet you could get into a whole line of business “Designed by Aafke”

    Madame Monet,

    Welcome to the blog and thanks for your comments. I can say that in the many places where I lived during my foreign service career, I usually embraced the local traditional dress. I absolutely loved the design, feel and practicality of the shalwar kameez of Pakistan and continue to wear them often today. Although must say, I never really mastered the art of wearing the sari when I was in India and had a near disaster when I attempted to dance in one once at a wedding party! That’s interesting that your husband’s advise was to avoid dressing local on the perception of making fun. And yes, another reason for the black as well is to blend in and not attract those men who just cannot control themselves… (said tongue in cheek!)

  14. I just found your blog recently. I think I came to it through the WordPress tag surfer. Anyway, I’m really happy to have found it and think you write on a LOT of fascinating issues.

    Best regards,
    Madame Monet, in Morocco

  15. wpm,

    It is great to see you enjoying the blog. Carol does take great care in choosing interesting topics. She has left a few daily topics for me to post while she recuperates over the next few days.

    Welcome to the blog.

    Blog Moderator.

  16. I’m travelling to Saudi – Riyadh, Jiddah and Dhahran – with my 16 year-old son. I plan on wearing an abeya when necessary, but what should my son? Could he wear shorts when sightseeing?

  17. Long trousers and long sleeves are generally recommended, but I leave it to the Saudi based and American Bedu to give you the more informed opinion.

  18. Pamela,

    Much depends on where you and your son will be going. To my surprise just yesterday I saw several (Saudi) men wearing shorts (to the knees) on the streets of Riyadh since it was a balmy day.

    In Jeddah and Dhahran there would likely be less scrutiny if your son choose to wear shorts (to the knee) and a t-shirt. And if it is a scorcher in Riyadh, he can wear the same.

    I hope you enjoy your time in KSA.

    Regards,
    Carol

  19. I am s-o-o-o happy to have found your site!

    I am getting ready to move to Saudi Arabia (I will be living just outside Taif). I was told to purchase an abaya but because several of my friends who have seen a photo of the clothing I bought have said that they think it won’t pass the muster in Saudi Arabia – I am beginning to fear I might have made a shopping faux pas.

    I was wondering if you could please check this image and tell me if you think I can wear the this in SA? (I ordered it in black):

    http://modestycatalog.com/product_info.php?cPath=63_67&products_id=196

    I feel badly about asking this but fear I will arrive in SA and end up, literally, having nothing to wear!

    Thanks for your input!

    In peace,

    Susan
    New Mexico

  20. @Susan – Welcome!

    I’m sorry but when I select the link you gave me it comes up “product not found.”

    As long as you arrive dressing modestly, even if it is long loose slacks and a long blouse or shirt that also works for arrival. And once arrived, abayas are plentiful and in many styles!

    Best Regards, Carol

  21. It seems fine to me, and as Carol said, you can buy more when you get there.

  22. My friend was just in Saudi this past few days to give condolences over a recent family death. Among all the grief and tears were some comments from Saudi ladies as to why she wasnt wearing niqab. She replied that she doesnt wear niqab and they know that already. Their replies…but your among Saudi women that do and at a condolence so as respect to us…you should.

    Respect to YOU? and I thought niqab was all about God? :(

  23. I have just started reading some of your blogs and came across your comments on the wearing of the abaya. When I first came to Jeddah in the early 1980s, none of the expat women (especially married expat women) wore abayas. We were just advised to “dress modestly”. It was only after the 1991 Gulf War that masses of matawas were released into the Jeddah shopping areas, harassing women horribly, that they began to wear abayas. As more and more ladies of the era of “not wearing abayas” left Jeddah, there are now literally only one of two of us left. Once the matawas calmed down, I reverted to the old ways of dressing modestly and not wearing an abaya, and there are only two or three of us in Jeddah who do this. The abaya is such an alien garment to me, and I feel so uncomfortable wearing one, that I feel much better without it. No one really seems to notice that I am not wearing one, and if they do, it does not attract unpleasant comments or looks. Not long ago, I was very surprised to see two Arab ladies not wearing Abayas in Danube supermarket – and it looked so normal!

  24. Welcome Benga Girl and I’m really happy to have you at American Bedu!

    Your comment is quite interesting and does shed a lot of light on why “cultural dress rules” changed.

    What kind of clothing do you wear when you do go out sans abaya? Is it a long skirt and long sleeve shirt? What colors do you wear?

  25. My husband has accepted a job in Riyadh. I am in my 50’s, with no children at home. I have traveled often, but have never lived abroad, but spent my life in the US. I am not afraid of living abroad, but the rules about women are very intimidating. Can I walk to the store or restaurant by myself? Can I walk around the block for some exercise? I am also a quilter. Are there fabric stores there, and can I use my US made sewing machine there? So many questions! Thanks.

  26. Dear Sue,

    Welcome to American Bedu blog. Congratulations on your husband’s assignment.

    What I would suggest is read as much as you can of various posts on my blog. Use the key word search feature for expat and expatriate and women which will give you many insights.

    If you and your husband will be living on a Western compound I’ve no doubt you’d find it very comfortable and familiar since most Western compounds resemble a country club style of life with many amenities and activities such as eateries, walking and more. If you live in an apartment or in a regular neighborhood (non-compound) it would depend on where you live as far as ease to walk by yourself and ability to meet and make friends.

    There are a number of expatriate activities and I’ve no doubt you’ll meet up with fellow quilters. I’d suggest stocking up on supplies to take with you as they can be difficult to find.

    Using your US sewing machine depends on where you live. My home for example had both 110 and 220 outlets. If your home does not, you may have to use a convertor.

    Anytime you are out in public you would be expected to wear the long black abaya. The exceptions are within compounds and the Diplomatic Quarter.

    Please do not hesitate to ask any additional questions you may have.

    Best Regards, Carol

  27. Hello Just wanted to know if you know anything about mens dress code. we have moved here from the US just recently. I got matching saudi outfits for my son and husband thouck, scarf and the ring. My husband mentioned it to a friend who said “legally only saudis can wear the saudi out fit scarf & ring” is this true? if so its sad the shop keeper didn’t tell us when selling us 800 sr worth of cloths.
    Thanks

  28. @Jo – there is no problem at all with your son and husband wearing the Saudi dress! I do not understand why someone would have said to your husband that “legally” only Saudis can wear the dress. The thobe, smaugh and ghutra are widespread across the Arab world and worn by men of many nationalities.

  29. Hello
    I just wanted to know about dress code in saudi for women.Is it ok in wearing a full covered Indian style dress. Or is it strict that we have to wear black abaya always when we go out.
    Thanks

  30. hello

  31. Hi Bedu,

    Have been returning here and there to your blog for a little while now. Hubby and I are planning a move to KSA. I seem to be fine with getting an abaya. Actually it seems more freeing to me. I can wear whatever I want underneath with no stress about what Im wearing as I will have an abaya over the top! My question is, do teachers wear an abaya?? Looking at moving there in an ESL capacity and haven’t really found anything about clothing for teachers. Professional and business sure. Also, will my husband be ok wearing short sleeved business shirts with kids or in a business class??? He doesn’t do too well in the heat :) Keep writing!!! Its helping us panicking foreigners learn!!!

  32. Hello
    After doing some research I am finding wearing an abaya is a cultural dress code which is fine. My husband has got a job in Riyadh and I can not seem to find any information on the niqaab. Is that also something that must be worn along with the abaya? He is under the impression a woman must wear a veil when out in public in Riyadh.

    Thank you

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