Last week I wrote about the many things that have changed since my first contract in Saudi, and after giving it some more thought and spending more time out and about in Riyadh I wanted to add a few more things to the list. In Saudi Arabia the only recognized religion is Islam. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s ok for westerners to be any other religion (except Jewish or Atheist) as long as they are not publicly practicing said religion while in Saudi. While Christmas is not recognized as a holiday here, many ex-pats still celebrate it in one form or another. Personally, I love everything about Christmas- the music, the decorations, the food, and in 2010 I spent a miserable Christmas in Saudi. It was my first Christmas away from my family and home and I was really lonely and miserably homesick. This year to combat my past Christmas blues I packed some Christmas decorations, music and movies with me, and have really been wanting to decorate my apartment. I had heard thru the ex-pat grapevine that one of the local stores was selling holiday decorations (on the down-low) and was determined to find some. In my head I was preparing for a back alley drug deal type of scenario. I expected myself and my kiwi mate to enter this un-named store and give a guy a wink and then he would escort us out back of the store where the illegal merchandise was and we would come to some type of monetary understanding. Unfortunately, the actual event was much less exciting. We walked into the store and out of the corner of my eye I caught some flickering lights and some shiny material resembling tinsel. The lights and shiny material turned out to be…… guessed it, Christmas lights and tinsel. And then out in the open right next to them were colourful ornaments, a wreath, and some tiny versions of trees. So we bought Christmas decorations and the only people surprised about how easy it was were myself and my kiwi sidekick. I guess Saudi has become more tolerant on ex-pat holiday celebrations.

Another major change that I have noticed in my 3 years away from Saudi is that you can now try on clothes in many local department stores. Now you’re probably asking what the heck we used to do when buying clothes in Saudi. Well typically women were only allowed to try on clothes in stores where women worked, and since until quite recent times women did not work in retail sales the only place I remember being able to try on clothing was at Kingdom Mall on the ladies only floor. So now I have tried on clothes in many other locations which is so much more convenient than buying something and trying it on in the mall bathroom, or having to take it home to try it on and then hire a driver to take you back to the store if your purchases didn’t fit.

In Saudi culture men are very affectionate with men and women quite affectionate with women. It is very common to see men kissing each other on the cheeks, hugging, holding hands while walking down the street and spraying one another with cologne, and equally as common seeing women being affectionate with one another. Affections between a man and a woman (his wife/wives) are considered to be of a private nature, and typically take place without an audience. On several occasions I have been surprised to witness Saudi couples holding hands while walking in the mall. It’s shocking enough that every time I’ve seen it either myself or whomever I’m with will comment on it in a hushed voice…”look at that couple holding hands.” I would never bat an eye at this at home, and here it always catches me be surprise. I think I would be completely stunned to see a couple kiss in public here.

I guess that the most encouraging part of all the changes I’ve noticed here is that things are relaxing in Saudi. If three years ago someone had told me that I could buy Christmas decorations out in the open, then try on jeans in a regular department store, AND see a couple holding hands in public I would have thought you were cray cray. Oh Saudi….how far you have come!!!