In the three years since I first left Saudi I’ve noticed several changes upon my return. First, the Abayas are a little more bedazzled and modern looking, and on rare occasions I’ve even seen women wearing Abayas that were grey or brown (my oh my!!) That being said, being back in Saudi feels largely void of colour. Pretty much everything is a sea of black and white- you see traces of accented colour, but mostly just the staple traditional clothing of white for men, and black for the ladies. In 2010-2011 the only places women worked in retail was pretty much Kingdom Tower on the ladies floor, but now it’s quite common to see female workers in many stores that cater to women and at the family checkout lanes at the grocery store. Even though I’m saying it’s more common, I’m still a little dumb founded to be approached by a female store clerk. This is a positive new development and personally, I’d much rather buy my panties from a woman, as opposed to a man who speaks next to no English and stares wide mouthed at my blond locks (which has been my past experiences underwear shopping here!)
There is a much more visible presence of Saudi police on the road- it seems you can hardly be driven a km down the freeway without seeing a police car pulled over on the side of the road. Sadly, this has done little to increase the safety on Saudi roads. Saudi’s are still terrible drivers. Seriously. Driving here makes Indian roads look sensible and I should know having driven an auto rickshaw 3000km across India earlier this year. Drivers in Saudi drive the wrong way down the road, turn left from the outer right lane of a 4 laned road, follow no speed limits and have taken tailing to a heart-stopping level. So just to reinforce- increased police presence on the highway does not mean safer roads!!
I remember on many occasions being chased thru the mall or grocery store by the religious police and being instructed to cover my blond locks STAT. In fact the phrase “Seestah, seestah, cover your hair” is engrained in my brain and is permanently tied to my past memories of my time in Saudi. I’ve been back for 3 weeks and have yet to have a religious police encounter- and oddly I’ve seen them quite a bit. And yes, my blond locks have been out on display. I’m assuming this is related to a recent incident in August where the Muttawa were filmed attacking a British man and his Saudi wife while they used the family checkout lanes at a grocery store in Riyadh. This event made international news (rightly so, but sadly many such incidents never get reported or receive media attention involving ex-pats from non-western countries.)
There are several changes I’ve noticed at the hospital I work at also. First- Starbucks finally got seasonal flavours from home. Yep- I’ve had several Pumpkin Spice Lattes, but I’m not holding out hope that they’ll be getting Christmas flavours in. So, no Eggnog Latte for me this year. Wifi is readily available throughout the hospital- this has made keeping in touch so much easier, and has helped to pass the time in several boring computer orientation classes. “You call this funny hand-held thingy a mouse Sir?!” Also, they’ve got security personnel at the main entrances directing traffic. Seems like this should’ve been a no brainer right?! Well I can remember cars driving into the one-way drop off drive way and stopping to park to run in and use the ATM, all the while blocking traffic behind them while they got cash. Yes- I witnessed that happen several times.
Even though there are many changes since I left there are still no bars or nightclubs, no alcohol or bacon, no movie theatres, women still are not allowed to drive, although many believe this will be changing soon (the driving, not the other things people!) I find these changes encouraging and look forward to what else Saudi has in store…..