The Feel of Freedom Outside of Saudi Arabia

Freedom can have many definitions but overall to me it is a sense of being able to make choices for oneself and not be dictated in regards to what one can say or how they can dress.  Freedom allows one to not fear repercussions for following their beliefs, values and being true to their ethics and morals.

This is a short posting as I am presently out of the Kingdom where I am enjoying a respite of freedom.  I did not even realize I had missed some freedoms until my husband actually noticed and remarked on my subconscious actions.

The first thing I did after exiting Saudi customs was to immediately remove my abaya and toss it in the backseat of the car.  My husband was sure I was going to toss it out the window instead and politely and laughingly reminded me I would need it again for our return to the Kingdom.

This unconscious action resulted in a candid discussion between my spouse and myself on the topic of freedom and ability to “feel free.”  When one is in the Kingdom the feeling of claustrophobia and “closedness” is not as apparent but once outside of the Kingdom it is much more obvious.

This is not meant to knock or speak against the Kingdom and its culture but rather to illustrate the differences and distinctions some of us feel while in the Kingdom and then once when outside after having been in the Kingdom for an extended time.

I think my spouse summed it up well by remarking the one time when he consistently sees many Saudis with a big smile on their faces (which are usually reserved and non-smiling) is when they have passed through Saudi customs and arrived at their next destination outside.

So I am enjoying this brief respite….where again I am having the opportunity to drive, to go out and about uncovered, to walk along the sea in my shorts hand-in-hand with my husband and not have to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing for fear the muttawa may choose to intercede.  I know it will be over all too soon and we’ll again return to the Kingdom of black coated abayas, muttawas and conservatism and I will be resigned to our return for I have married a Saudi and the Kingdom is our home now.  And I will return remembering this respite with smile and pleasure but also with a positive attitude that in spite of what I may not agree with in the Kingdom, realizing that there are aspects of it I cannot change and therefore will continue to adapt in the best manner possible.

Saudi Arabia and The Benefits of Cultural Exchanges

As I have mentioned in previous postings among my various projects and undertakings I also am engaged as a media consultant to Saudi Television Channel 2 which is the English language channel. The other night I participated on the air on a program discussing the Crown Prince visit to Moscow. The program focused on the goals and agenda of the visit as well as delving into the history of Saudi-Russian relations.

Crown Prince in Moscow

One aspect of Saudi-Russian relations is cultural exchanges. In fact, cultural exchanges are a component in general with any country and its bilateral relations. Cultural exchanges are an excellent venue to introduce ones country, traditions, culture, history and customs. And in my view especially beneficial if one has an interest in a specific country but has not had the opportunity to go to that country.

Is Saudi Arabia as a country doing enough to promote the Kingdom through cultural exchanges? Is it promoting the right image of the Kingdom? I seek the comments and perspectives of you who are following and reading this blog from both within and outside the Kingdom. What is your awareness of the Kingdom through cultural programs in your area? Each Saudi embassy abroad has either a cultural officer or someone who is responsible for promoting cultural programs. I know when I was in the Washington, DC area that the Kuwaiti embassy for example had a very active and wide-spread cultural program with ongoing events and activities not only in the nation’s capital but spread throughout the United States to promote cultural awareness of Kuwait. The Saudi embassy in WDC had some programs but in my view not nearly enough and not always well advertised and marketed.

What do you expect to see and find in a cultural program? On a scale of 1 – 10 with 10 being the best, how would you rate the benefits of cultural programs to promote and inform about a country? What aspects of Saudi culture are most important to promote?

Within the Kingdom the largest cultural program is the Al Janadriyah festival which is an annual event. However the past two years the government has placed severe limitations on the abilities of Saudi families to go as a family and enjoy this event. The women must go on the times scheduled for women (and children) and the men go at the other times. Personally I think this shortchanges the Saudis from fully experiencing and learning about their history, heritage and culture. And even the expats in the Kingdom have to watch the program carefully in regards to the timings in which they can participate. For my husband and myself, we go during the timings for expats; otherwise as a man and woman it would be difficult for us to attend and share this event together where he can further explain to me and share each others views and perspectives together during the program.

It’s funny, when I first began this posting I intended to go into more details on Saudi cultural exchanges and what one should expect to see and learn but somehow the post took a life of its own. My thoughts straying to the Al Janadriyah festival and what I believe it is lacking preventing the residents of the Kingdom (Saudis and expats alike) from being able to fully enjoy all aspects of the program.

Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom of Humanity: Qatif Rape Case

So much has been said in the media (print and broadcast) as well as in the blogosphere about the Qatif Rape Case. I’ve been silent as I am actually still digesting the ongoing events of the incident and its implications. I believe it is a major step backward for the Kingdom in regards to human rights. The fact that a woman was gang-raped should be punishment enough for her. That is a sordid memory she will have to live with and hopefully heal from for the rest of her life. But to have more salt poured upon the wound to add 200 lashes and six months imprisonment as a punishment just galls me and leaves me pretty speechless. With this kind of ruling I cannot comprehend Shariah law as well as how the Kingdom can also refer to itself as the “Kingdom of Humanity.” Seems to me the verdict and sentencing of the “Qatif Girl” falls under the category of inhumane instead.

Now someone did try to explain to me about the sentencing itself. While this person in fact did not agree with the sentencing I was advised that it was not as dire as it sounded. The Qatif Girl would not be forced to actually undergo 200 consecutive lashes with a whip which would cause her skin to break open and result in permanent scarring. I was told that the lashes would be done in segments and would likely be more like “taps” on the back. Lashing a woman with a whip and causing pain and damage is not Islamic. Okay; that’s good to know….I guess. But the fact still remains that a series of judges (this ruling was not made and handed down by one judge alone) believes that the Qatif Girl must also receive punishment for her crime.

Which crime are they referring to? The fact that she was meeting (in a public shopping mall) with a man to whom she was not related? Or the fact that while meeting this man they were both abducted by knife point and both raped, her repeatedly? Or is this punishment further impacted because this case has reached the international media?

As you can tell, I still have so many unanswered questions as I continue my own struggle to understand this case and its ruling. The fact that there is such an internal and domestic outcry also illustrate that this ruling does not make sense to many. But how can the judiciary system in the Kingdom be changed and revamped? As I understand all rulings are based on Islamic law. Noone in the Kingdom is going to challenge or rule to change what is in the Quran. So are these rulings based on a matter of individual Islamic interpretation? Can only the King change the ruling? And would he be willing to intervene in this issue?

New Road Rules in Saudi Arabia: Can They Be Enforced?

Finally the Kingdom is clamping down and enforcing new rules of the road! These new rules and regulations may seem and feel like extreme measures to the residents of the Kingdom but given the track record where an individual dies each hour in the Kingdom due to a traffic incident it was time to try different tactics towards enforcing the laws of the road.

It is now prohibited to drive and talk on the mobile phone or send text messages while driving. First time offenders will be stopped and levied a 500 SAR fine. This is likely one of the most difficult habits to break and perhaps to enforce as well. The culture in the region and not just in Saudi Arabia is for the mobile to be glued to ones ear. If a mobile phone is not turned off it cannot go unanswered.

If anyone is caught speeding instead of just receiving a traffic violation and levied a fine, the offender will be taken directly to jail where he must spend the night. Compassion will likely be shown if an offender has female family members with him because if he is taken away to jail, then how do the females reach their destinations without an approved/authorized mahrem. Even Prince Salman, Governor of Riyadh, was heard to remark how this new rule must be enforced even if an offender is a member of the Royal Family.

Children 6 years of age and under can not ride in the laps of someone else while in a moving vehicle. It is quite common to see several children standing or in the lap of another passenger or even that of the driver. It is also not unusual to see 10 or more individuals in a vehicle given the size of Saudi families and the tradition to also travel with ones housemaid. Many times on the roadway one will see the housemaid sitting stooped and cramped in the back of a Yukon or Explorer or other SUV among the luggage while the rest of the family is equally cramped in the seats.

These are all good rules but part of the key towards success will be whether they can be enforced. While one hears Prince Salman saying no exceptions to be made at the same time would YOU wish to be the traffic policeman sending a Royal to jail for the night? Additionally while residents of all nationalities are offenders again the traffic police will need to demonstrate that the laws are applicable and applying to everyone. The people need to see that Saudis will also be duly processed if in violation of the new rules. So many times it is the third country nationals whom one hears about being processed. Although I can say I know personally of some Saudis who were caught violating the new road rules and processed accordingly.

I sincerely hope these new road rules are successful and ultimately cut down on the number of violations and traffic fatalities. I guess ultimately time will tell.

I’m Saudi and Going to the USA – What do I need to Know?

Just like Americans feel a degree of culture shock when traveling to Saudi Arabia for the first time, the same applies to Saudis who are coming to the States.  For most Saudis who have not been to the US before, their preconceived perceptions on what to expect and what it will be like is based on tv.  Now remember, the popular US shows that are aired over here are Oprah, Dr. Phil, Desparate Housewives…well, you get the picture… these are not bad shows but may not be the best representation of life in the USA!


Most Saudis are taken aback and surprised by the openness.  Compared to Saudis, we Americans can be viewed as quite chatty and almost nosey by comparison.  In Saudi Arabia the culture is to be reserved which is viewed also as showing respect.  However Americans on learning someone is not from the States are not shy at all in coming up to the individual and piling a deluge of questions upon them to include ‘are you married, is your family with you, where do you work, how did you learn your english’ all questions which would be viewed as very forward in the Kingdom.


Saudis should also be prepared for the American woman.  It is typical of American culture to greet individuals with a welcoming smile while looking to their eyes and offering to shake hands.  This is rarely done in the Kingdom between men and women.  As a result, while it is natural in the American culture, in the Saudi culture such a gesture can be misperceived.  Remember, depending where a Saudi may be traveling to in the US, the American may have not had any exposure or knowledge of Saudi Arabia and its customs.


The vibrant lush greenery and in some locations of the states, the proliferation of lakes and rivers are new scenes for Saudis.  They will enjoy looking up at the differing shapes and styles of clouds (Saudi Arabia has many many days with nary a cloud in the sky).  They will also enjoy just taking in all the greenery and the varieties of flowers, trees and shrubs.


Saudis should expect to see many “pet crazy, pet friendly” Americans.  Americans routinely walk or jog with their dogs in the States.   A Saudi will see Americans with their dogs along the streets, sidewalks and parks just about anywhere in the USA.  Although there are leash laws in the States, sometimes some dog owners will allow their dogs to roam freely.  The American will tell you that there is nothing to fear from their dog and if the dog attempts to jump up on you the dog is only showing you how friendly it is.  This is something that is very unlikely to happen in Saudi Arabia.


There is little to no segregation in the States.  If you need a haircut, regardless of whether male or female, most of the salons, hair cutteries and barbers in the States are unisex.  And it is also common for a male to do a woman’s hair and a woman to do a man’s hair.  Also with shops, the sales clerks and shop personnel will be both male and female.  It is pretty normal for high school age teens 16 years and older to take jobs at various shops, restaurants, gas stations, etc.


If you are coming to the US for a longer term stay and will be renting or buying a place be prepared for plenty of paperwork and legalities.  It is very difficult to conduct any kind of business or transaction in the States without a credit card and/or a social security card.  If you need to rent an apartment or house or buy a car and do not have a social security number and a credit history you may run into difficulties.  This is something to think about and research before you depart the Kingdom.


There will be greater choices in the grocery stores, particularly for pre-packaged food.  Because most American families do not have live in domestic help and also have more busy active lifestyles, there is a greater selection of ready-made.  Pre-made, pre-packaged salads are common as are extensive salad bars where all the salad fixin’s are already chopped and one creates their own salad at the store.  The deli section will be much more extensive as well with various cuts of meats, pastas and vegetable dishes.  Alcohol is commonly sold in the grocery stores and prominently displayed (although there are a few states such as Pennsylvania where the sale of alcohol in a regular store remains prohibited).  And one should not be shocked to see pork and pork products sold in the grocery stores as well.  Many muslims prefer to go to halal or kosher grocery stores to purchase their meats.  It may also be more difficult to find varieties and cuts of lamb as it is not as popular in the USA as it is in the Kingdom.  A good grocery store which carries a variety of selections from around the world is Wegman’s.  It is a nationwide chain and locations can be identified via its web site at


It is unlikely to hear the adhan (call for prayer) in the States although most cities and towns will have a mosque or Islamic center where one can go to pray as well as interact with the Muslim community.  Because the adhan is not called many muslim families in the USA have chosen to install a program on their computer which will advise them of the times to pray.  And be sure and read the previous post “Where Should He Pray” as there are differing views and perspectives on when and how a muslim should pray in the USA.


Just like the Kingdom, depending on where one is going to in the States one will come away with different views and perceptions.  Each region, each state has its own personality, culture, customs and traditions.  My home state is Pennsylvania and if you wish to have a soft drink or soda in Pennsylvania, you would ask for “pop.”  Whereas if you are in the New England States you would ask for a soda.  If you ask for a soda in Pennsylvania you would receive club soda and not a coke or 7-up.  Some Americans may say “turn off the lights” and others will “cut the lights” when they wish to have a light switch or lamp turned off.


While in the Kingdom one is commonly greeted with Salam Alaikum, in America the greeting can vary depending on location and the age of the person greeting you.  These greetings can include “how are you,” “good day,” “hi,” “how’s it going,” “what’s up,” “hey,” or “how do you do.”  The advise here is to be flexible and smile.  American culture is big on smiles as they indicate happiness, friendliness and peace.


One will see many kinds of dress codes in the States from very formal to very casual.  It is not unusual for women or young girls to walk around in nice weather and have bare skin showing.  In some schools it is okay for the young men and women to wear shorts, t-shirts and sleeveless shirts to school with sandals.  If one is attending University and choosing to live at the University dormitory, in many cases these may be co-ed.  By co-ed I mean that one dorm room will house girls and then the next room in the hallway may house guys. 


As in any culture there may always be a few “bad apples” who can make one discomfited or uncomfortable by rude actions, gestures or remarks.  But overall I believe that the American culture is a friendly, open and receptive culture.  Just like Americans who come to the Kingdom for the first time, Saudis coming to America for the first time will have varying degrees of culture shock.  I would stress that in an uncertain situation on what to do or what to say, don’t be shy and ask for help or advise.  The majority of Americans will want to help as well as be well-thought of as nice and kind to visitors to their country. 


English is essential.  While more Americans are taking an interest in things Arabic these days, fewer Americans know or speak Arabic compared to the number of Saudis in the Kingdom who know English.  And unlike the major cities in the Kingdom, signs in America will be in English.

  In closing I know that this post only touched the tip of the iceberg for a Saudi coming to the USA for the first time but I hope that these pointers are helpful and informative.

A Saudi in the USA: Where Should He Pray?

I want to thank Marianne for a comment she recently posted under the posting about the Saudi bisht. She mentioned the culture shock experienced on first arriving to the Middle East region in spite of having done her homework. This comment got me thinking about the reverse culture shock that Saudis (and others) may experience when they first travel to the United States. As Marianne remarked, she did her homework so she knew what to expect yet still had a transition period. American television and movies are very popular here in the Kingdom so perhaps a Saudi who is getting ready to travel to the USA for the first time may use what is viewed on tv as an example of what to expect in regards to life in the USA. I think that is useful but not particularly realistic as when it comes to media and entertainment I tend to think the USA leans towards sensationalism, and especially so with a lot of the Reality TV shows which are aired.

My eyes were opened to traditions of the Kingdom and how natural traditions of the Kingdom can be viewed quite differently from within the United States. For example, in Saudi Arabia especially, islam is an integral part of day-to-day life. All Saudis are born muslim and diligently practice the muslim faith. They will do the five time daily prayers and even if one is not near a mosque it is acceptable and a common practice for families to stop a vehicle by the side of the road and pray when it is prayer time. Noone here gives this a second thought.

I remember when we had Saudi family members visiting us while we were still in the USA. It was their first time to the States and naturally we wanted to show them the best and positive of the USA. Towards giving them a greater and broader picture of “Americana” we rented an RV (recreational vehicle) and traveled cross-country to Orlando, Florida. Yes; Disney is among the top destinations of Saudis visiting America for the first time. Because we were in an RV we did not have to stop and look for a restaurant when we became hungry. We chose to fix our meal ourselves within the small kitchen of the RV. Usually we would pull off the interstate and park in a rest area. One time we had parked in a busy rest area where just about all the parking places were taken. We managed to find a spot which fit the RV and I started to prepare our lunch. A young man in our group went outside to walk around and he realized it was time for the mid-afternoon prayer. He knew which way was East (towards Mecca) and sauntered over to a shady area where he made himself ready to pray.

Muslim at Prayer

At this time we were in Southern Georgia where it seemed most passer bys were not familiar with the sight of a young (unbearded) muslim man performing his prayers openly. More and more people slowed down to watch, to point and to chat amongst themselves. The young man to his credit (and he was also focused on his prayers) paid them no mind. When he finished his prayers he politely wished the onlookers a ‘good afternoon’ and returned inside the RV. People continued to stare and point at the RV. They also looked discomfited when they saw me (a typical blond hair, blue eyed American woman) step out of the RV. Most placed a nervous smile on their face and walked away.

The incident prompted me to encourage the young man in the future to say his prayers from within the RV. While it saddened me I felt I needed to explain to him that while the United States is open with many more freedoms than Saudi Arabia, in other ways the society could also be very closed and fearful of what was unknown or unfamiliar. The young man understood and had no issue with the request.

Now my question is for those following this blog because you are interested in Saudi, may be living in Saudi Arabia, are a Saudi citizen, are an American in the USA who has or has not been exposed to the custom and culture of Islam, what is your view? Do you think it was most appropriate to request that he pray inside in private? Do you feel that in general because of the unknowns and unfamiliarity with Islam, the majority of Americans are discomforted to see a muslim openly praying in the USA?

This posting is not meant to start any kind of attacks or finger pointing about Islam or muslims. I will state upfront if anyone tries to post a comment that I believe is inappropriate to the context of the message, I will delete it. This posting is however to promote dialogue and exchange of views in an informative and positive manner.

Lazy Friday Afternoon in Saudi Arabia: Antique Souq, Al Baatha

Due to the official launching of the OPEC summit on Saturday, 17 November, Friday was a slow and lazy day in Riyadh. In fact, in many respects, Riyadh appears like a ghost town. Most individuals who were able to benefit from the unexpected windfall of a long weekend decided to escape from the capital city. In fact, I will digress for a brief period from the focus of today’s posting to share a joke that is being SMS’d around the Kingdom right now.

Residents of the Kingdom and particularly those in Damman are finding themselves the recipient of an SMS message as follows: “Warning, this is an official announcement from the Governor of Damman. We are in a state of declared emergency. We have been invaded by the residents of Riyadh until the OPEC summit has concluded. The roads are congested. The hotels are fully booked. Stock is running low at the grocery stores. Stay calm and remain in your homes until after the summit has concluded and this catastrophe is over and the Riyadh people return back to their homes.”

My spouse and I ultimately chose to remain in Riyadh for the 4 day weekend and catch up on various things around the house that we had been postponing from doing. However yesterday, Friday, we decided to take a break and go for a drive. Not wanting to go to the same old places or see the same usual sites, my spouse took me on a trip into Old Riyadh where we visited one of the oldest souqs (traditional shopping malls) in the city. We went to the Antique Souq.

The antique souq is located in Old Riyadh in the same vicinity as the Headquarters of the Muttawa. Fortunately we did not see any muttawa wandering about but it did appear that others had the same idea as ourselves. There were many many expats walking around, enjoying the balmy weather and awed by all the wares on display.

One can come across many different kind of items in the antique souq ranging from the very old and traditional dishes, musical instruments and daggers to shops where you can observe old men making the Saudi bisht carefully sewing the gold stitches by hand. And of course there are also vendors selling oud (the preferred incense burned by Saudis), carpet shops, handicraft shops, jewelry shops and row upon row of shops which sell and make customized prayer beads.

Prayer beads Saudi daggers

Naturally at this type of souq none of the prices are fixed prices. Bargaining is the name of the game. The vendors and shopkeepers will be a mix of individuals from Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen and other nationalities. Most of the shops are located in open air areas. The souq itself is somewhat of a maze with narrow passageways that have no obvious sense of direction. One might think it is possible to wander around the souq and if one continually goes right you would not lose your way. WRONG! There are no set patterns in the manner in which the passageways go or the shops are located.

I found that most shopkeepers spoke English and this souq is accustomed to foreign visitors. While one should always be naturally watchful in a small dimly lit area overall I felt quite safe and comfortable. I chose to not only wear my abaya (as if I had a choice in that regard…) but also donned a headscarf simply because the souq is located in a more conservative area of the city. That being said, there were a few women in the minority who chose to visit the souq without covering their head. However with being married to a Saudi and accompanied by my Saudi husband it is more appropriate and respectful for me to cover under those circumstances.

After the antique souq, we decided to drive by the Al Baatha area. Drive by of Al Baatha Al Baatha is the oldest area of Riyadh and a favorite location for expats from the sub-continent in particular. This is a highly congested area with thousands upon thousands of small shops crammed in alleyways and tiniest of passageways. Vehicular traffic through the primary areas of Al Baatha is impossible and it is foot traffic only. Several weeks ago there was a terrible fire in Al Baatha and more than 400 shops were destroyed. Driving by Al Baatha we were able to see the destruction caused by the fire. But in spite of the tragedy that did not deter the crowds from continuing to patronize the thousands of shops which remained open. My husband and I observed thousands of expats out for the afternoon shopping at Al Baatha. The crowd was so thick you wondered how people were able to move around. My husband advised me that Friday afternoon is the heaviest shopping day in general at Al Baatha since most of the expats are off and take advantage of the opportunity to search for bargains.

Al Baatha has the cheapest prices of any goods in Riyadh. And when I say any goods, I mean anything ranging from electronics, appliances, computers, clothes and whatever else one might be looking for. However if shopping in Al Baatha one has to be very careful. Items will come packaged in name brand boxes or with name brand labels but usually the items are knock offs. I have heard of many women who chose to go to Al Baatha to purchase their favorite perfumes to only discover when they got them home they had watered down versions even though the “sampler” in the shop was genuine.

After Al Baatha we made our way over to drive past the Riyadh Air Base. It is always nice to view this area right before a major event as the area will have the representative flags flowing of incoming foreign visitors, white lights will be installed and alight in the date trees as well as special flower arrangements on the sidewalks and mediums of the streets. The city of Riyadh knows what to do to make a good impression when there is a special event taking place.

However now (Saturday) the city is shut down allowing delegations clear access to go to and from meetings. And it is an excellent time for my husband and I to stay at home and shorten that long list of “honey do’s.”      Honey Do List


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