It was a lovely, leisurely lunch on Tuesday with my good friend, Judy, that got me thinking about the topic for this post. Judy and I met in 2009 in London’s Heathrow airport, at the start of our epic journey to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
I often get asked what made me move to Saudi Arabia at the age of 22. The answer is quite simple. Good money and no tax! 🙂
On a more serious note, I had left Poland and was at a bit of a loose end. I was working in a clothes shop while I considered my options when I got a phone call from a lady called Margarita who worked for a recruitment company. She told me she had seen my CV online and that I would be a perfect fit for a job available in Riyadh. I kindly refused her offer, thanked her for her call and thought nothing more about it. When I told my mum I had been offered the job, she told me to go for it. I thought she was actually mental. My dad came home from work and my mum told him about my job offer. My dad is a serious, sensible kind of person so I was quite sure he would agree with me rejecting the post. However, to my utter surprise, he said, “What else are you doing with your life? Wasting your degree working in a clothes shop?” That gave me food for thought and I read the information pack Margarita had sent me after the call.
We all think we know what happens in Saudi- we’ve all seen the ladies who are completely covered from head-to-toe, the men who wear white robes, and we know it’s a strict country. But no-one knows what it’s really like until they’ve lived there.
The following day, Margarita phoned me again and spent the best part of 2 hours trying to convince me to accept the job. Eventually, I crumbled and agreed. That was the Wednesday and on the Friday, I flew down to London’s Harley Street to have my pre-visa medical done. It was my first ever medical and it was intense. Some of the questions seemed bizarre, until I got to Saudi and understood why. My passport was sent away for the visa along with all of the samples taken during the medical.
A matter of weeks later, I was packing to leave for Riyadh. My flights had been booked for me, and I knew that several of the other women who were going to work for the same company, including Judy, would be on the same flights as me. We agreed to meet up in Heathrow, where we would catch our flight to Frankfurt and connect there for the final flight to Riyadh. It was surreal to see a group of Western women, all excited to be flying to the Middle East. During the Lufthansa flight, the air stewardess asked me if I would like an alcoholic drink. I was shocked, given that Saudi has a super strict policy of no alcohol in the whole country. I meekly asked if I was allowed to drink… She looked at me with surprise written all over her face, and said, “Are you over 18?” She then explained that I would be fine as long as I didn’t end up drunk. I have never forgotten her telling me the golden rule of flying- one drink in the air is the same as two on the ground. 🙂
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Land of the Two Holy Mosques.
As we came into land at King Khalid International airport, I had to complete my first ever landing card. The first thing that you see on the card is the Saudi emblem of the swords with a phrase similar to, “Drug traffickers will be executed”…
Now, having travelled a bit throughout Asia in recent years, I realise that this is nothing special. Most countries who have strict drug laws have similar phrases on their landing cards. 22-year-old me nearly had a heart attack! Having reassured the air stewardess that I most certainly was not carrying drugs- she seemed a little suspicious of my rather extreme reaction- I completed the card, gathered my belongings and headed out to see what this kingdom was all about.
It’s hard to describe Riyadh. It’s like a neat grid of streets, filled with mansion-style houses and shopping malls. And everything is a sandy-yellow colour. The country is a desert, and that becomes more and more clear as soon as you leave the built-up city centre. Sand dunes and the occasional petrol station are all that can be found. The difference in wealth amongst the local people is both fascinating and soul-destroying. The rich are frighteningly rich, the poor begging in the streets moving from car window to car window at traffic lights, looking for any money that they can get.
Gender segregation was the first thing I spotted when out and about on my adventures around Riyadh. There are two queues everywhere you go- one for single men, the other for women and families. In restaurants, eating in a booth behind a curtain is normal for single women. I found it quite nice to have the privacy, but I can understand why Western women might get frustrated.
The next major thing I noticed was the Muttawa. They are the religious police who patrol shopping malls and public spaces, and whose slogan is “For the protection of virtue and prevention of vice”. I’m pretty sure that every foreign woman in Saudi Arabia has had, or knows someone who has had, an issue with these men. Their methods are often ones that are intended to bring shame upon the woman in question. One particular incident sticks in my mind. I was in the Tamimi supermarket with my friend Becca when she nipped off to get something she needed, leaving me to decide which shampoo to choose. I could hear a very angry man shouting in Arabic, but thought nothing more of it… Until the shouting got closer and closer, and ended up right next to me! I turned to find a very angry Muttawa, alternately shouting at me in Arabic and English that I had to cover my hair with my headscarf, that I had no shame, that I was bringing shame upon myself…. I stood, watching his very red face get redder and redder, looking at the people around us, until I could take no more. I clearly stated that I would not cover my hair, that I was neither legally nor morally obliged to do so as a non-Muslim woman and eventually he walked off, calling me every name under the sun. I have heard of women having these scary ecounters over the length of their abaya (the black gown worn by every woman in Saudi, regardless of religion and nationality), their use of eye make-up and for speaking to security guards in a shopping mall.
I could write for years about everything I saw and did in Riyadh- from my first amber alert lockdown on a housing compound due to bomb threats, to my roadtrip to Bahrain when our driver informed us he could not stop to let us pee in case Al-Qaeda kidnapped us.
Let me know if you’d like me to post again on this topic. 🙂 Until then, ramadan mubarak everyone!