Hello, thanks for stopping by! My husband and I exchanged our life in Belfast for a desert adventure in Saudi Arabia in 2018. We were here for two years, had a break, and now we're back for Part 2!! This blog is to share the highlights from 'Our Big Arabian Adventure' – I hope you enjoy! #BelfasttoRiyadh
Hello from Belfast where it is unseasonably cold! The new location is a clue that this is sadly the last OurBigArabianAdventure blog…
“Success is loving life and daring to live it.”
We have had a fantastic (although at times challenging!) time for three and a half years living and working in Riyadh and getting to know a country and a region very far removed from our hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland.
I started the blog back in 2018 to share my experiences of settling into and living in Saudi Arabia and documenting all the adventures we had along the way – and this is unbelievably the 46th blog post!!
To mark the end of ‘Our Big Arabian Adventure’ I have edited a video montage of highlights which I hope you will enjoy :0)
My husband and I threw ourselves into our adventure and tried to experience as much as we could – and I hope the blog has reflected that. I really feel we can honestly say we did it all!
Thank you to everyone who has read, or shared the blog and to the many of you who have contacted me over the years with comments, thoughts or questions.
But now its time to climb aboard the magic carpet once again and see where it takes us for the next adventure!
Until next time,
PS – You can always stay up-to-date with what I’m up to on Insta: @anne.mcgrath248
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun! We’ve had some dust storms recently which signifies the seasons are changing and temperatures are starting to rise again.
Another indication that the cooler days are being replaced by warmer ones is the annual blooming of wild irises in the desert.
I recently went on a trip with Haya Tours (Insta: @hayatour) to see these delicate but hardy little flowers in a valley north of Riyadh near the town of Tumayr. They bloom in specific locations for a couple of weeks in February every year.
If there has been a lot of rainfall over the winter months they will much more plentiful, but this year as there has been hardly any rain there wasn’t exactly a lush green and purple carpet, but once you started looking they were there, a flash of vibrant color standing out heroically against the barren desert landscape.
I went with my good friend Ingrid and the trip was led by Salwa, the Saudi lady who owns and runs Haya Tours – and we had lot of fun:
After our walk admiring the irises we were treated to a Saudi picnic lunch with tea (chai), coffee (qahwa), chicken shawarma and falafel sandwiches, dates, Saudi biscuits, nuts and fruits:
And surprised by the arrival of a herd of camels:
On the way to the iris valley we passed through the town of Tumayr which had some interesting art installations on the approach… first we were greeted by an impressive representation of the crossed Saudi swords, then four huge fruit bowls on plinths surrounding one larger plinth holding the platter of a headless camel – apparently representing hospitality we were told – and finally an enormous statue of a rifle, which our guide told us was there to represent safety for all who live or visit the town…
And then it was time to wave goodbye to the iris fields of Tumayr and a day of contrasts, from tiny purple flowers to giant art representations of swords, guns and a headless camel (!)…Saudi is always full of surprises!
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun, albeit with much cooler temperatures – it recently fell to zero degrees overnight which is practically unheard of in the city. There was also snow in the north of the country, and social media was flooded with pictures of camels walking through a desert scene covered in snow…
Anyway, I realized I had some photos from a couple of different outings I went on in December which I hadn’t yet shared, so I thought I would compile them into a bonus mini-blog!
First up, I took a trip to a farmer’s market which was held weekly in an area known as the DQ (Diplomatic Quarter) every Saturday during November and December. The Farmer’s Market was first introduced in 2019 and this was its first time back since the pandemic. It was more than double the size it had been two years’ ago with a whole range of stalls including a Christmas stall (unthinkable even two years ago) and a stall selling organic Turkeys (including turkey eggs!), together with lots of food stalls, stalls selling dates and pickles, organic beauty, children’s clothes, designer abayas, plants etc… And it proved very popular drawing big crowds every weekend:
There is also a burgeoning art scene in Riyadh and I was invited along by a friend to Misk Art Week to view an exhibition entitled ‘Under Construction’ with a large range of inspiring interpretations and installations from both local and international artists:
Misk Art Institute is a non-profit cultural organization established to support local artists and provide them with the opportunity to showcase their work alongside other international artists. One of my favorite pieces was by Kuwaiti architect Mishari AlNajjar (Insta: @mjalnajjar) who recreated a representation of the traditional textile quarter in Kuwait City using materials bought in the local shops:
And keeping on the art theme, my husband and I visited the Diriyah Biennale Foundation in Jax, a newly formed art and cultural district in Diriyah, housed in converted warehouses to support local artists. As well a vast exhibition space there are also cafes, restaurants, a gift shop and a cinema as well as an ongoing program of workshops and talks. The exhibition of international artists is open daily until March and entry is free:
And finally, a Saudi friend of mine hosted a small lunch party at her house where she provided traditional Arabic foods including kabsa, jareesh and kanfeh:
It was a really enjoyable afternoon with a lovely mix of ladies and it was extra special to enjoy Arabic foods as a guest in a Saudi house.
And that brings us to the end of this (perhaps not-so-mini) mini-blog!
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing some of the (free) events that have been going on around Riyadh.
A few weeks ago my husband and I went out for something to eat to a plaza in Riyadh called River Walk which is in an area I don’t know that well.
River Walk is a two story glass and metal, very modern, gleaming complex with a landscaped water feature running down the middle of it (hence the river reference). Most of the units are coffee shops and it’s a pleasant place to go and walk around in the cooler evenings and enjoy a coffee and a snack.
The strange thing about River Walk is that it’s built in-between two enormous piles of excavated earth – probably 30 meters high, both stretching over a kilometer in length and half a kilometer wide. They are huge mounds of dense compact earth and rubble, surrounded by sheer sides. You can get an idea of the size from the photos!
My husband and I initially thought it was a hill they had carved around to build the nearby residential area, but actually on closer inspection we think it is a HUGE pile of excavated earth dug up during the construction of the buildings around. The layers we saw included builder’s rubble, with bits of old concrete blocks, scraps of metal etc, so it’s definitely not a natural feature.
It is such a weird thing – and I can’t overstate the size of it on both sides of the newly built River Walk which makes the plaza look like a space ship that has landed on the moon! They’ve made a feature out of one of the enormous dirt piles by building a huge wide footpath around it, and another path through the middle of it all lit with pretty street lights…Definitely not something that would be an attraction or that would meet health and safety regulations elsewhere, but there were quite a few people out walking, and there were food trucks dotted around which leads me to think it is something of a go-to destination..
Looking it up on Google Maps the area doesn’t have a name – it’s just called ‘Off Road Area’. We did see a man offloading bikes from the back of his pick up which looked like they might be for hire, but I think they’re for riding around, rather than over the top!!
From reading the reviews on Google Maps people seem to like to go walking there, the reviews include: ‘Nice area to walk’, ‘A perfect place for walking and exercise’, ‘The walkway is very beautiful, spacious and elegant’… (not sure that’s quite how I would describe it!) so it is attracting people to go walking which is a positive!
I’m not really sure what to make of it, raises questions to me about public safety (would this be allowed anywhere else??) and it doesn’t seem like the natural setting for a glamorous, futuristic coffee plaza, but it’s interesting they’ve tried to make a feature out of it and to be fair, people seem to like it!
King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD)
A purpose-built financial district in Riyadh, rising high above the desert is nearing completion…It’s a huge area (1.6million square meters) with 59 purpose-built skyscrapers of different heights and designs which its intended will incorporate a mix of office, retail, dining options, residential, conference centers, theaters, a multiscreen cinema, a monorail, an elevated walkway and a central ground level landscaped walkway, all with fast access to the airport and the city centre by road and (soon-to-be) metro.
KAFD was announced in 2008 and phase one was scheduled to open in 2017 – however, it is such an ambitious project that even the first phase is still quite far from completion, as we discovered when we went for a walk around it recently.
A limited area of the urban wadi (a landscaped area that will link the entire site) is open to stroll around, and there was one cafe where we could grab a coffee, I know some offices are already open, and there are plans for others to move in very soon with fit-outs almost complete for offices from Saudi’s mega-projects and government departments. There are also almost daily announcements of international companies signaling their intent to headquarter in Riyadh, and there appears to be a push on to complete a range of cafe and dining options which will appeal to the soon-to-be office workers.
KAFD is a huge project that dominates the skyline in the north of the city – the size of some of the sky scrapers cannot be underestimated and they have all been designed to be architecturally striking.
The first phase is very nearly there, but I imagine it is still going to take some time before the whole area is the thriving, pulsating heartbeat it is planned to be… it’s a case of, watch this space!
And that’s it for this blog – short and sweet.
Hopefully some more adventuring in the next few weeks!
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun! Temperatures have cooled since mid September so it is much more pleasant :0).
I have been out and about a bit over the past while, so i thought I would just share some photos from those trips and make this blog more about the photos than text!
First up we went to Bahrain for a long weekend. We really enjoyed it – we flew, but many choose to drive as it’s just five hours from Riyadh and you cross the King Fahd causeway which is 15 miles long. We had to do Covid tests on arrival (because we flew in, not required for entry by the causeway) and for departure (at their stunning new airport), but that all proved easy enough.
First we stayed at the Sofitel Bahrain along the coast for a beachy time (the seafood platter at their tapas restaurant was amazing!) and then we transferred to the central Merchant House Hotel in Manama. We visited the Bab Al Bahrain souq and the Bahrain National Museum, which was v interesting giving the social and economic history of Bahrain from the Dilmun period (2000 BC) to the present day. We also had a browse around ultra-modern, The Avenues Mall.
There are lots of great hotels and restaurants to choose from in Manama, one we didn’t get to but was highly recommended is Clay (Japanese/Peruvian fusion) #nexttime!!
We really liked the vibe in Bahrain, it was easy going, very clean and the roads had marked lanes which traffic seemed to respect – which is a novelty coming from Riyadh lolz!
I also went with a friend to a Mexican/Saudi Arabian traditional dress exhibition at the Ahlam Studio Gallery in Riyadh which was sponsored by the Mexican Embassy as part of its National Day Celebrations in September (Saudi National Day is also in September). There are similarities between the traditional dress of the two countries, which are basically wide tunics decorated with intricate embroidery.
Art galleries are still very new in Saudi but they are popping up as the Kingdom opens itself up to the arts, and there is definitely a growing interest in a new wave of contemporary young artists. Gallery owner Ahlam Alshedoukhy trained as a doctor and is also a self-taught artist, she supports emerging artists and hosts regular exhibitions (Insta: ahlam_studio_gallery)
And finally, we took a day trip by train to Al Hasa (also known as Al Hofuf) which is in the Al- Ahsa Oasis in the Eastern Province (largest oasis in the world + LOTS of date palms). The train took about 2.5 hours from Riyadh and it was super fast and efficient. We visited the Al Qara caves which are a UNESCO world heritage site. They are a warren of passages and openings worn through huge limestone mountains. The visitor center is called The Land of Civilization and it has an unexpected (and slightly confusing!) exhibition on civilizations from around the world. We also had some lovely and enthusiastic local guides who welcomed us and gave us some background to the geography and history of the area (pictured above).
During the trip we also visited Al Amiriya School in the center of Al Hofuf which is one of the oldest public schools in Saudi Arabia dating back to the 1920s, and was visited by Saudi Arabia’s founder King Abdulaziz in 1931. Built in the traditional Islamic style it is no longer a school but has been preserved as a historical building.
Also in the center of the town, but not open to the public is Ibrahim Palace, an ancient mud built fort. It was built as a defence because Al Hofuf was strategically important in the spice trade.
And finally, we rounded the day off with a visit to Qaisarriah Souq i Hofuf- a warren of tiny streets filled with shops selling all kinds of things including spices, abayas, perfumes and loofahs (it is afterall only an hour from the Arabian Gulf).
As we toured the tiny streets one shopkeeper spied my friend and I and bustled us into her perfume shop where she enthusiastically suggested we take part in a promotional video. We obliged of course and she directed and filmed us sampling her products and giving a five star review. As payment Lamya presented us with mini jars of scented oud and took a selfie with us!
We also met a Souq local character who was dressed up ahead of Saudi National Day and who was only too happy to have his photo taken with us!
And that rounds off our Big Arabian Adventures over the past month – hopefully more to follow soon!
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun!
I’ve been back in Riyadh for just over a month and have been reflecting on how much has changed in the Kingdom since I left 10 months ago, and in the bigger picture, what has changed since we first arrived in the country way back in 2018!
I thought the changes might make an interesting couple of blogs, as the Kingdom has been, and continues to undergo, huge transformation both socially and economically.
The country has followed a conservative brand of Islam since 1979 and its constitution is based on Islamic law, but the Kingdom aims to transform itself into a dynamic, diversified nation over the next decade under a plan known as Saudi Vision 2030.
The tentacles of transformation reach into every aspect of life and the speed of change is almost dizzying…
(As a side note, this is not an official or definitive list – it’s just a compilation of my own observations and lived experience. It is also not a critique of what has changed or still needs to be changed – that is for others, this blog is just a light touch reflection of my personal experience of living in Saudi Arabia.)
So, with all that in mind I have compiled a list of the top 10 changes (in no particular order) which have I have noticed the most since I arrived in the Kingdom in 2018. The first five are listed below with another five to follow in the next blog!:
1. End of shop closures during prayer time
Just a few weeks ago, at the beginning of July it was announced that shops, restaurants banks etc no longer have to close during prayers. Until this announcement all commercial enterprises had to shut five times a day for 20 minutes during each prayer (although many closed for up to half an hour).
On a practical level it meant I always had to check my Al-Moazin app to see what time prayer was that day if I was planning on going to the supermarket or the mall – because arriving just as prayer was beginning would mean hanging around outside, or in the mall concourse until the shops reopened. And prayer times also change (marginally) on a daily basis, so that’s why you need to check and not rely on memory – but of course there were times when you forget which is very annoying, especially if you’re in a rush!!
The change is still new, and while some shops are now opening the majority are still closing – but luckily the bigger supermarkets have been quick to adopt it (to be fair they mostly allowed shoppers in during prayer time they just closed the tills – so you could always go in and fill up your trolley to be ready to pay as soon as they reopened).
It will probably take time for the majority of outlets to stay open – but it certainly makes life easier!
I once got chatting to a young Saudi woman I was sitting beside in a mall while we waited for the shops to reopen, and she pointed to all the Saudi families ambling around trying to entertain the kids until they could carry on with their shopping and said, ‘look at all these people, no one is going to pray, everyone just wants the shops to stay open,’ – so I imagine she is pleased the change has been introduced!
2. Music in restaurants/cafes/shops
For a long time in Saudi Arabia music was ‘haram’ ie forbidden as being anti-Islamic. Many things were, and still are ‘haram’ including, alcohol, pork, gambling, public displays of religious beliefs other than Islam etc.
When you’re used to a constant soundtrack of music in shops, cafes, restaurants etc the silence when there is none feels oppressive and the atmosphere sterile. The silence is very alien and takes some getting used to.
However, over recent years music has been creeping in. The more upmarket restaurants started playing it first (although it still gets turned off during prayer time) and now many fashion shops have introduced background music and even some of the malls.
Some people don’t miss it of course, I have one friend here (non Saudi) who celebrates the fact that one of the big local supermarkets doesn’t play a continuous loop of pop music, she says, ‘I think it’s great, I can think what I need to buy instead of being annoyed by loud, pumping music that is distracting and unnecessary!’
3. End of Singles and Family Sections
Ok so the photo to this one looks a bit weird – but it illustrates the last place where you will see the sign ‘Families Only’. This sign is above the entrance to a Victoria’s Secrets lingerie shop in a mall and what it actually means is, ‘no single men’.
Until December 2019 every restaurant/cafe had two sections – one for single men, or groups of single men and another for family groups, groups of single women. For decades it was the norm that men and women had to use separate entrances or sit behind partitions so that women were not visible to single men. As for smaller restaurants or cafes with no space for segregation, women were not allowed in.
I experienced this once when my husband and I went to a small restaurant one evening – there was only one room for dining and when we went to order we were told they would not serve me, but we could have the order as takeaway – we sat down to wait for the food to be prepared when a Saudi man came in, he started to talking to us and asked why we were not dining – we explained we had been told it was not a families section and I could not eat there, he was surprised and remonstrated with the guy behind the till, who obviously explained it was against the law, and then in a completely unexpected turn of events the Saudi guy insisted on paying for our food!
A friend once commented to me that the single men’s section was one of the bleakest places of all to sit…
Thankfully Family Sections is now practically obsolete and seating areas in most restaurants and cafes are mixed.
However, across Saudi Arabia Government-run schools and most public universities remain segregated, as are most Saudi weddings and workplaces have women-only offices.
4. Dialling down the call to prayer
On June 1 this year the Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister announced new restrictions on the volume of loudspeakers used at mosques – while this might not seem like that big of a deal there are eight mosques within a 10/15 minute walk from our compound (maybe more, but those are the ones I’ve counted) and six times a day, starting at around 4.00am the call to prayer is relayed by loudspeaker from each mosque – and it can be VERY LOUD!!
When we lived in our previous apartment we could hear it in triplicate as each imam has his own style and delivery and at times it felt like they were really competing with each other. Sometimes it would also be much louder than others, but since we have moved to our new place which is more central within the compound, we rarely hear it anyway – but when we do it is notably with less volume.
The reason given to restrict the volume and only allow loudspeakers to be used up to a third of their maximum volume, as well as limiting the broadcast to the call to prayer rather than the full sermon, was that it could be so loud it was disturbing babies, children and the elderly, and as the authorities pointed out, the call to prayer should not cause harm…
5. Ending of the guardianship system
Much has been written and continues to be debated about the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia which gave husbands, fathers and other male relatives the authority to make critical decisions about women, and severely limited what people in other countries generally accept as their civil liberties and human rights.
The first move towards dismantling the guardianship system began in 2018 when a ban on women driving was lifted.
This was followed in August 2019 when a royal decree was issued stating that women over 21 in the Kingdom no longer needed permission from their male guardian to apply for a passport or to travel – this was a huge step forward. Since then many more of the guardianship restrictions have been removed, most recently last month women were legally allowed to live alone and choose where they wanted to live.
However, elements of the guardianship system still exist, women still need permission to marry or divorce, and there are also many cultural ad social restrictions on women which can limit their options in making their own life choices. But the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia is on a march. There is a huge push from the government to bring Saudi women into the work place and to promote them, enhanced by laws outlawing workplace discrimination based on gender.
And with new opportunities open to them, Saudi women are excelling in every field, from finance to science and sport, and entrepreneurship, to the arts and academia.
Two excellent films I would highly recommend which portray women in Saudi Arabia are Wadjda (2012) and The Perfect Candidate (2019) both by Saudi’s first female film-maker Haiffa al Mansour – events may have outdated them but they are beautifully filmed and show women in Saudi Arabia through a different lense.
And that’s all for this blog – part two of changes in KSA will follow soon!
I hope you found it interesting, for me it’s fascinating to live in a country going through such huge transition.
Hello, and greetings from Belfast where it is (unexpectedly) another day of sun!! We are basking in an Indian summer and making the most of the late summer sunshine.
So, as you can probably surmise we have left Riyadh for a while. We recently flew out on a repatriation flight and I thought I would document our experience. There are still repatriation flights going, even though commercial flights are (hopefully!) due to start opening up again soon over Saudi airspace.
For those who don’t know, a repatriation flight is a one way flight out of a country to your home country. Saudi stopped all domestic and international flights on March 22 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the only way for people to get home has been on a series of repatriation flights. They are flown by a reduced number of airlines and are announced a couple of weeks in advance. Initially you had to register and book through your embassy, but now there are so many flights going you just book directly with the operator.
We didn’t have to take a Covid-19 test before we travelled, but we did have to fill in an exit form for Saudi and a passenger locator form for track and trace in the UK before flying.
Riyadh International airport was very quiet when we arrived and we were surprised that our temperature wasn’t taken even though every mall, supermarket and restaurant now checks your temperature as a matter of course …
The only flights were repatriation ones:
There were only a couple of flights going so thankfully there was basically no queuing for check-in, and after passing through security we got ourselves a coffee while we waited.
To pass the time I also had a browse around Duty Free – which has dramatically increased its range of goods and which was also having a huge sale – maybe trying to sell leftover stock from when the commercial flights were suspended, before it goes out of date!
Camel milk chocolate anyone?
We travelled on a Saudia flight – and there was no shortage of planes to choose from…
Boarding was by row. The flight was seven hours to Heathrow and we wore our masks throughout the journey. On arrival on the plane we were each given a comfort pack which included a disposable mask, a pack of tissues and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. There wasn’t the usual on-board meal service, instead we were given a paper bag snack pack with a sandwich, a bottle of OJ and a bottle of water. More water and extra sandwiches were also on offer. (The sandwiches were not the best!! Top tip, bring your own snacks!!)
On arrival at Heathrow we disembarked again by row which was much more organised and dignified than the usual mad scramble! The airport was busy, but not nearly as busy as it usually is. About half the shops and restaurants in Terminal 2 were closed and of course everyone was wearing their masks.
No one asked for our passenger locator form although the website had said we had to show either a printed version or a completed version on our phone to gain entry. Again, we didn’t have our temperatures taken and there were no announcements or information about the need to quarantine. No one even asked us where we had come from…
We grabbed a quick bite to eat in a terminal restaurant. It had socially distanced procedures, the staff were all wearing masks, the menu was online, there was sanitiser available and we were time-limited in our seats. It was our first experience of the impact of Covid-19 in the UK – but it was good to be back!
Then it was time to board the next flight to Belfast:
Again we wore our masks throughout and there was no service. The evening plane was full which was a surprise, but again it was boarding and disembarking by row which helped with social distancing.
And then, before we knew it. we were seeing the lights around Belfast Lough, landing at George Best, Belfast City Airport and off to start our 14 days of quarantine!
So, we made it back. It was a very different travel experience from before the outbreak of Covid-19. The new measures offer some reassurance but overall the journey was something to be endured. It was good when it was over.
The lack of checking or advice on entering the UK was surprising, but we’re just glad to be home in Belfast for a while.
So while we’re here the blog will take a little break, but we hope to resume Our Big Arabian Adventure in the New Year and then the blog will resume!
Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun, currently the thermometer is nudging 41 degrees and it’s due to get warmer later in the week with the daytime temperatures due to hit 49. However, we did have a surprise shower of rain last week. There were a couple of dust storms followed by a sudden downpour. It was very unexpected, but very welcome as it dampened the swirls of dust hanging in the air.
Anyway, for this blog I am going to feature birthdays! I recently celebrated my birthday in Riyadh, which got me to thinking about birthdays in general and how they are celebrated (or not) in different parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia.
Birthdays are generally regarded as a time to celebrate another year of your life with family and friends, incorporating the traditions of presents, cards, a birthday cake with candles and a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
The earliest mention of a birthday was around 3,000 BCE in reference to a Pharaoh’s birthday in Egypt (not on their actual birth, but their birth as a God). The Greeks adopted the practice, celebrating their gods with tributes, including moon-shaped cakes for the lunar goddess Artemis, which they adorned with lit candles to recreate the glow of the moon. Blowing out the candles and making a wish was another way of sending a message to the gods.
The tradition was passed on to the ancient Romans who adapted the practice from celebrating the gods’ birthdays to also celebrating the common man’s birthday. But only men’s birthdays were celebrated – women had to wait until the 12th century before they got their birthday cake!
German bakers introduced birthday cakes as we know them today in the 1800s and two sisters who were school teachers in Kentucky U.S. wrote the original happy birthday tune in 1893 (it was then called the ‘Good Morning Song’) and in 1924 the Happy Birthday lyrics were added.
Today birthdays are big business, but they generally all follow the same format: a birthday cake, balloons, presents and cards. Parties can be wildly extravagant (think celebrities) or low-key and intimate.
However, birthdays and parties have not, until very recently, been a feature of everyday life in Saudi Arabia. In 2008 a cleric denounced birthday parties as an unwanted influence – they were ‘haram’, the Arabic word for banned. Celebrating birthdays with singing and parties was regarded as un-Islamic and an unwanted Western influence.
In 2015 the Saudi Ministry of Health instructed all public hospitals not to allow birthday celebrations after some nurses were reported to have celebrated Christmas in their hospital accommodations.
And as recently as 2017 a leading Saudi cleric said on TV that celebrating birthdays was forbidden because it led to squandering money on parties which is frowned upon under Islam.
The Saudi ban on birthdays was in line with the strict interpretation of Islam, although elsewhere in the Muslim world birthdays have been, and are, routinely celebrated.
In recent years however there has been an easing of the ban, although it is still almost impossible to find birthday cards (there is a very limited selection in some Virgin Megastores and some flower shops have some small cards). You can find cake candles in some of the supermarkets, but again the range is very limited.
Meanwhile, cakes are easily available. Saudis love cakes and sweet treats and there are a huge number of cake shops throughout Riyadh. For my birthday I ordered a delicious red velvet cake covered in white chocolate frosting from ‘Munch’ via the HungerStation app and it was delivered within 30 minutes – result!! You can also order balloon arrangements online and have them delivered to your door – everything and anything can be delivered.
While most Saudis who celebrate their birthdays probably do so at home, there is a growing trend to go out to cafes and restaurants for a birthday meal. I have twice seen a Saudi birthday celebration in a restaurant – a cake with candles is brought out and the staff gather round to sing happy birthday, but instead of joining in and clapping, with the person whose birthday it is looking slightly embarrassed, the Saudis all tend to sit impassively and it is impossible to tell who at the table is actually celebrating their birthday – I am not sure they really know what to do, and they are still not that comfortable with public displays of exuberance!
Another time we were at a quite fancy restaurant in Riyadh when the staff came over with a dessert and a candle. They duly sang happy birthday as we all looked on bemused because none of us were celebrating a birthday. Everyone was confused, the staff said it was definitely for our table. When they set the plate down we saw it actually said (in chocolate piping) ‘Happy Brexit’!! The Irish manager of the restaurant had been chatting to us earlier in the evening and had sent it over as a joke :0)
I had not intended to celebrate my birthday in Riyadh, but of course the pandemic hit and everyone’s plans for 2020 changed. As it happened, I had a really lovely time! I had a delicious birthday cake delivered which was a novelty, a beautician come to my home and gave me a manicure and pedicure and I went out for a birthday lunch to a downtown restaurant called Okku (Japanese) which was fabulous!
I also had two surprise Zoom calls with friends and my best friend from Monaghan somehow managed to have a HUGGEEE bunch of flowers delivered to me :
So I couldn’t feel any luckier and I really appreciated all the birthday love. Birthdays in Riyadh are not so bad it turns out and it is certainly a birthday I will never forget!
Wishing you all a happy birthday, whenever and wherever you might be celebrating!
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun!! It’s hot, hot, hot!!
So as we swelter in the heat of a desert summer Saudi Arabia is emerging from its strict Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. Over the past 15 weeks we’ve had a range of curfews including, overnight, 3pm – 6am and 24 hours. Schools were closed, working from home became the norm, all shops and services were closed except supermarkets, pharmacies, laundries and banks. All flights (domestic and international) were suspended, travel within the Kingdom was banned and the borders closed.
Now, like elsewhere, things are beginning to open up. The curfews have been lifted, people can travel within the country, shops and services including hairdressers, beauty salons and gyms have reopened. People are beginning to return to the workplace (slowly), however WFH looks set to be a feature for the foreseeable future. Borders and international flights however remain closed/suspended until further notice. Face masks and gloves are mandatory everywhere.
So, while we’ve been locked down, like everyone else I’ve been indulging in a bit more TV viewing than usual. I have a list of programs/series I’ve watched, am currently watching and two old favorites I have re-watched which I thought I would share.
The list includes comedies, thrillers, dramas, documentaries and one guilty pleasure – I think you will be able to spot that one! ;0)).
I have two film recommendations for the mix, both 2019 British releases and recently available on digital: Days of the Bagnold Summer and the Personal Life of David Copperfield. Days of Bagnold Summer is a sweet, gentle film, while the Personal Life of David Copperfield has a huge ensemble cast, and a storyline which bounces along like an enthusiastic Labrador puppy!
Days of Bagnold Summer
A subtle English coming-of-age comedy set in suburbia and follows the relationship between a single librarian Mum and her teenage metalhead son over the course of a summer. Poignant and beautifully observed it captures the changing dynamics of the mother/son relationship.
The Personal Life of David Copperfield
A modern take on Charles Dickens’ masterpiece. It’s brimming with gloriously eccentric characters and Dev Patel is the embodiment of David Copperfield. It’s a really wonderful adaptation by Armando Iannucci – pure escapist enjoyment.
TV series I’ve watched:
Below is a quick recap of the TV series I’ve indulged in. I’ve only posted short one line reviews as you’ll either already be familiar with them, or a quick Google search will reveal all you need to know:
I am currently working my way through The Morning Show, Series 2 of Ozark and have recently become addicted to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills starting from Series 1 back in 2010… and on the recommendation of a friend, and because I really enjoyed the Oscar winning film Parasite, I am also going to continue with My Mister, a Korean language drama exploring an unlikely friendship between a young woman and an older man who are work colleagues:
The Night Manager (BBC)
My all time favorite series over the past couple of years has been The Night Manager (2016), a six part BBC series based on the the spy novel by John Le Carré starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman – I must be on my 5th watch by now. It’s about a small MI5 unit trying to bring down an international arms smuggling ring. Tom Hiddleston is the embedded agent who oozes charm. It’s stylish, glamorous, tense and clever. The casting is amazing and the locations are breathtaking. It’s absolute perfection! I might even have convinced myself to give it a sixth go…
Cold Feet (ITV)
Finally, I am working my way through the box set of Cold Feet, a UK comedy drama which follows the lives and loves of three couples in Manchester. It originally aired from 1997 – 2003 when it was more comedy than drama, but it came back 13 years later and just as the cast ( and viewers!) have matured so too has the series which is now more tilted towards drama than comedy, and it’s even more enjoyable.
(Fun fact(s): I have met Fay Ripley the actress who plays Jenny and she doesn’t have a Mancunian accent!! She is also married in real life to the actor Daniel Lapaine who was the South African swimmer in Muriel’s Wedding.)
And that’s it for my lockdown TV and film viewing. I hope I might have suggested something new for you to try.
I’ve gotta dash – I’ve got a date with The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills to keep ;0) !!
Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun. It’s been a while since my last post in March, just days after everything changed for us all.
We are currently in week 11 of lockdown in Saudi Arabia, although the strict conditions are due to begin easing from next week. I am planning to write a post about our experience so I won’t go into detail now, other than to say I am glad things are beginning to open up a little!
I thought for this post I would avoid the whole topic of coronavirus and instead list the top 10 things I have found essential for living in the desert – something I have been compiling in my head for a while. This is just my list, other people might list other things and it is definitely not sponsored lol!
The weather in Riyadh is hot and very, very dry. Currently it is 42 degrees with a low of 27 overnight – and it’s only due to get hotter as we head into June and July. Other well known places in the region eg Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jeddah and Muscat are hot and humid (unbearably so, up to 100% humidity at times), but in Riyadh, as we are in the middle of the Arabian peninsular, the air is arid dry which although it is easier to live in, plays havoc with your skin and hair. The constant search for moisture is real, which brings me to Number 1 on my Top Ten list:
Moisturizer is an absolute necessity. Skin becomes snake-like in texture without vast quantities of moisturizer. The air is so dry it sucks all the moisture out but there are lots of good body moisturizers out there – this one is good because it is non-greasy and glides on easily. I would also include eye drops here because even eyes dry out in heat. And the desert dust also irritates the eyes, some are more susceptible than others, it makes mine stream, so I always have some soothing eye drops to hand.
2. Lip balm
Lip balm is really a subsection of moisturizer – lips dry out really easily and then they get chapped and crack so a ready supply of lip balm is essential. I have tried all kinds of and these two are my favorite – I keep a tube close to hand at all times!!
3. Hair care
Hair dries out the same as skin, especially if it has been colored – taming a dry frizz is a daily battle! The water is also desalinated and seems to strip the hair of its natural oils. It’s worth investing in products which protect against sun and chlorine damage with a built in UV defense. I also get a deep moisturizing treatment from my hairdresser when I am back in Belfast (big shout out to Linden at Keith Kane Hair and Beauty!!)
4. Playing footsie!
Dry feet – everyone suffers from it. Never a problem I had before! Feet and especially the heels are prone to becoming very dry so moisturizing and filing is a must. (Elbows also get very dry).
5. Waterproof mascara
Waterproof mascara is the only way to go and for me, this Lancome ‘Monsieur Big’ is the best. If you don’t use a waterproof mascara it tends melt in the heat and smudge under eye – this one stays put, and you can wear it in the pool without it streaming down your face and scaring the children!
6. Facial spritz
Ooo the delight of spraying a cool fine mist on your face – I never realized the benefits of a facial spritz before living in the heat of the desert. Good ones have a really fine mist which don’t leave your face dripping wet. They are so refreshing and light, also good to use on planes to perk up tired, jet lagged skin and can be used to set makeup – so a really good versatile investment! (Another good brand I would highly recommend is Omorovicza).
7. Re-usable water bottles
Hydration, hydration, hydration! The climate might sap all the moisture out of the body, but the one sure way to keep it replenished is to stay hydrated with a constant supply of H2O – and of course in these environmentally aware times we all have our re-usable water bottles. Never leave home without one!
This was something new to me – there being no real need for humidifiers in Ireland! But they are really great to have in the bedroom to keep some moisture in the air and I think they help you sleep better too.
9. Water dispenser
Another piece of household equipment which is not so common in Ireland (unless there is one built-in to your fridge) – the stand alone water dispenser. It works out much more economical and environmentally friendly to have one of these than buying packets of plastic bottles of water. All the water in KSA is desalinated so you can’t drink what comes out of the tap – and we don’t use it for the kettle or cooking food with either. One of these 5 gallon bottles (if you get it refilled) costs less than €2.
We also have a bottom loader model which means we don’t have to wrestle a 5 gallon bottle on top of the dispenser, and ours also has the option of chilled or hot water as well as just regular temperature – very handy!!
Finally, the one thing no one can live without – and the cause of friction between nearly every couple we know (!) – A.C. or air conditioning. A.C. is non-negotiable. I don’t know how people lived in the desert in temperatures of up to 50 degrees + without it!!
The constant battle is finding the sweet spot which keeps the temperature at a happy medium – and of course that is different for everyone, which leads to friction – he wants it colder, you want it warmer, and vice versa! Personally I think a medium temperature of around 24 degrees is just about perfect… ;0)
And that brings this list of top 10 essentials for living in the desert to an end. I hope if you are thinking about moving to live in hotter climes it has given you some tips on what will help make life more comfortable and bearable. Please let me know if there is anything you think I should have included!!
Apart from that, stay cool, stay well and stay hydrated – until next time!