I safely made it to Saudi Arabia and thought I’d take some time to talk about Saudi Arabian geography, culture, and a little about what its like to live here as a westerner. Some of you may know a bit about Saudi Arabia and some of you may have no idea where Saudi Arabia is located on a map (this is for you Cousin Amber!) Saudi is located on the Arabian Peninsula and is bordered by a bunch of countries including Yemen, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, and Jordan. Most of the country is covered by desert, but the Red Sea is super popular with scuba divers, and there are reportedly mountains in the southwest although I haven’t yet seen them with my own eyes. Its hot most of the year. By hot I mean melt your mascara to your face kinda hot through the summer months. Temperatures into the 50C/120F are not uncommon. Its now starting to cool down and in December and January it can get quite chilly at night. By chilly I mean long sleeves or a light jacket.
Saudi Arabia officially became a country in 1932. It has grown quite rapidly in the last 80 years, mostly from the discovery of oil in the 1930’s. Prior to that many people in this area lived a nomadic life in the desert. It is a Muslim country and as such doesn’t recognize any other religions. For westerners having a religion (apart from being Jewish) is allowed, but it isn’t recommended that you bring religious materials into the country, and you won’t find any types of churches or places of worship here apart from mosques. Saudi Arabia is where the prophet Muhammad was born and holds for Muslims the two holiest cities Medina and Mecca. Non-Muslims are not allowed to visit these places.
Religion governs most aspects of people’s lives in Saudi. People pray 5 times a day and shops and restaurants close during prayer times. These prayer times change throughout the year. As a westerner it is important to plan your outings according to when prayer times are, because if you arrive at your location during prayer time you’ll be waiting outside until the workers come back. If by chance you happen to be in a restaurant or a grocery store you’ll get locked inside and be allowed to eat your meal or continue shopping but you can’t leave until prayer time is over.
Loads of things we take for granted are illegal here. No alcohol, pork, movie theatres or dance clubs to name a few. You could be arrested for not covering your hair when told to or being in the company of a male who is not your relative. Homosexuality is illegal. Women can’t drive, but to be honest the driving here is so crazy and dangerous I doubt my reflexes would be fast enough. The sexes are segregated to avoid single men and women mixing. When you go to a coffee shop, bank, or restaurant for instance there is a single men side and a family side where women can eat. Often the family sections of restaurants have privacy curtains surrounding the tables where women can comfortably eat without the watchful eye of leering men.
People dress very traditionally in Saudi Arabia. Men where the white thobe with a head covering that is either white or checkered red and white known as the ghutra. Women are required to wear an abaya at all times. This applies to ex-pats as well and anytime I’m off the hospital compound I am also required to wear an abaya (otherwise known as a LBD- little black dress.) While on the hospital compound I can freely roam in my scrubs or loose fitting appropriate western clothing. In addition to the abaya you must carry a head scarf (Hijab) in the event you have a run in with the religious police. Many Saudi women wear a niqab to cover their entire face, and some even wear a draped veil over their heads and gloves so that no part of their body is showing. Being out in public in Saudi Arabia is like being in a sea of black and white.
Most westerners live in a secured compound. My housing is provided as a condition of my contract and I live on the hospital compound. The hospital compound is huge. There are numerous housing complexes, most are for single women. I live in a large building in a 2 bedroom apartment with my American roommate. There is a gym in the building and a pool out back. It has the feel of an 80’s all women adult camp. Sometimes I feel like I’m in rehab- and I guess in a way it sort of is since alcohol is illegal!
I hope this helps to paint a bit of a picture of what Saudi Arabia is like for a westerner.