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.