Featured

Out and about in Bahrain and beyond..

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)

Al Qara Caves tour guides

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!

Perfume shop owner Lamya

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!

Stay cool and take care,

Anne :0)

(Insta: anne.mcgrath248)

Featured

What’s new in KSA (Part 3)

Tourism and movies

This is Part 3 of the What’s New in KSA blog series charting the top ten changes introduced in the Kingdom since we arrived in the country (way) back in 2018!

Hot on the heels of abaya wearing, this post is focusing on the growth of tourism in the traditionally conservative Kingdom and the re-emergence of cinemas after being banned for 35 years.

Tourist Visas

Until 2019 it was impossible to come as a tourist to Saudi Arabia. Anyone from another country was either working here, or was related to someone working here. There was some internal tourism but it was limited too, Saudis mostly travelled out of the country for their breaks and holidays.

Then in September 2019 it was announced that tourist visas were being made available and people started to come! You can do a search on You Tube to see how many travel You Tubers all desperate to tick Saudi off their list immediately headed to Riyadh!

Official figures reveal over 350,000 tourist visas were issued in the last quarter of 2019. It has the attraction of being a largely unexplored country and intrepid travelers were keen to be one of the first to make their way here.

At the same time Saudi started to invest in areas such as AlUla, a UNESCO world heritage site with pre-Islamic carved tombs and a huge newly opened mirrored concert hall, Taif in the north also known as The City of Roses and Asir in the south with its unique culture and cooler climate. A beautifully shot film showing the diversity of the Kingdom was also released as part of a pro-active campaign to promote Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination and show off its splendors.

In tangent a series of ‘Seasons’ were also introduced in cities and regions across KSA to promote internal tourism and attract visitors from across the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) region.

The Seasons focused on celebrating local culture, introducing new experiences and bringing international events to the Kingdom. They included a huge three night dance music festival MDLBEAST held in the desert just outside Riyadh featuring the world’s biggest house and techno DJs, sporting events including Formula-E, the World Boxing Heavyweight Championship, an equestrian festival and international tennis exhibition. Purpose-built villages of pop-up restaurants and theme parks appeared as if by magic overnight. (Hyde Park Winter Wonderland was recreated in central Riyadh in a matter of weeks).

There were art exhibitions, a season of Cirque du Soleil, light shows and firework displays – everywhere you looked something was happening!

The ‘Seasons’ were enthusiastically received. There had never been anything like it before, festivals and events on this scale had not happened. At the concerts young men and women were able to mix freely and dance in the open air – a massive societal change.

(Due to the pandemic The Seasons were cancelled in 2020, but they are due back with a bang in a few months’ time!)

The tourist industry is still in its infancy in Saudi Arabia, and the tourism infrastructure is very limited, but there are huge plans to attract millions of visitors every year with mega luxury projects currently under construction along the Red Sea, a huge sporting/entertainment/theme park project on the door-step of Riyadh, and there’s further investment going into jewel-in-the-crown AlUla to establish it as the go-to destination for those wanting a unique cultural and historical experience.

The age of tourism in KSA has only just begun…#VisitSaudi

A warm welcome back to cinemas

There were cinemas across Saudi Arabia until the early 1980s when they were closed after being regarded as un-Islamic. The first cinema re-opened in Riyadh after restrictions were lifted in April 2018 and movie theaters quickly became a booming business with international chains keen to get established. The aim is to have 350 cinemas across the country by 2030.

The new cinemas are of course state-of-the-art, offering the latest in the luxury movie theater experience, from surround sound, to super-sized recliners – and why not snack on a lobster roll served to your seat?(All at a luxury price of course!)

Saudis love the cinema as much as anywhere else, and before they reopened Saudi film buffs used to regularly drive to Bahrain or travel to the UAE to catch the latest releases, so it’s still a thrill for them to be able to watch the latest blockbuster in their own country.

The range of films on release here are censored and are largely limited to action movies, kids cartoons or Disney films.

We’ve only managed to get to the cinema once so far. We saw the Oscar winning film Parasite back in February 2020 – which we saw literally five days before all the cinemas were closed because of the pandemic (they’ve since reopened).

When we arrived to watch the movie (which was at 10am on a Saturday morning) there were only limited seats left so we chose two seats at the end of a row – I sat in the seat next to the aisle and my husband sat beside me with two empty seats next to him. A Saudi woman on her own came in just as the film was beginning and she very politely asked me to swap seats with my husband so she didn’t have to sit next to him… just a little reminder that although a lot of things are changing in Saudi some cultures and practices remain deeply ingrained.

And that brings us to the end of What’s New in KSA (Part 3) – the fourth and final in the series will follow next time!

Until then, stay cool!

Anne :0)

Insta: anne.mcgrath248

Featured

What’s new in KSA? (Part 1)

The times they are a-changing

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!

The changing Riyadh skyline

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).

When you turn up to buy a freshly baked baguette but it’s closed for prayers… :0(

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.

Coffee Cherries – local independent coffee shop in Riyadh

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’.

The message appears a bit confusing – certainly not what we would consider a families only destination to be!

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!!

Al Ghat open air mosque with traditional eco-friendly loudspeaker posts!

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.

Women in Taiba Souq, Riyadh

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.

Until next time, stay cool!

Anne :0)

Insta: anne.mcgrath248

Hello, it’s been a while!

Hello and greetings from Riyadh – it’s good to be back in KSA and dusting off the blog after its unexpected and lengthy hiatus! It’s been a journey to get back since my husband and I left on a repatriation flight in September 2020, all because of the global pandemic and different restrictions etc. But now I’ve swapped an Irish summer for the intense heat of the Arabian desert and am very happy to be back reunited with my husband and starting Our Big Arabian Adventure, Part 2!!

It’s been interesting to experience a pandemic in two countries and I might write a longer blog post about the differences, but by far the most notable difference and the one with the biggest impact has been border closures. Saudi closed its borders back in March 2020. It began reopening last autumn, but started closing them again in January 2021.

It temporarily suspended flights from 22 countries in February including the UK and Ireland. Those flights were reinstated in May, which meant as soon as I had my second vaccination and all the relevant paperwork I was able to travel!

Travelling was much smoother than I expected. The airports were very quiet and both flights were at about 50% capacity. Walking through the endless rows of empty departure gates was a little eerie at Heathrow, but overall it felt very calm.

Flying back into Riyadh at around midnight I was able to pick out landmarks familiar to me as we circled overhead before landing – our local area, the nearest mall – which is something you can really only do when you’ve lived somewhere and it gave me a real feeling of homecoming.

Riyadh airport was also very quiet when we landed and the queues were short. I had to show my negative PCR test result and then on through passport control and baggage reclaim. The only stumbling block was when they asked to see my boarding pass at passport control (they always ask for it here which I had forgotten) and I had a moment of furiously rummaging around in my bag to find it wondering had I left it on the plane, but luckily I found it and all was good!

It was still a relief to get through arrivals and emerge into the stifling heat of a Saudi night and be reunited with my husband after almost 6 months.

So here I am, back in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and looking forward to whatever ‘Our Big Arabian Adventure Part 2’ brings!!

Until next time,

Stay cool!

A :0)

Insta: @anne.mcgrath248

Goodbye Saudi Arabia (for now)

A repatriation flight home…

King Kahlid International Airport Riyadh

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!

Fancy a date??

Camel milk chocolate anyone?

We travelled on a Saudia flight – and there was no shortage of planes to choose from…

Saudia Airline planes parked up…

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:

Hello Aer Lingus!

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!

The green, green grass of home! George Best, Belfast City Airport.

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!

Until then, stay well, stay safe!!

Anne :0)

Instagram: anne.mcgrath248

Goodbye KSA (for a little while!)

Birthdays Saudi style!

‘From our birthday until we die, is but the winking of an eye’

W.B. Yeats

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 secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.’

Lucille Ball

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!

Anne :0)

Follow me on Instagram: anne.mcgrath248

My favorite TV and film viewing during lockdown…

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)).

Films

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:

Netflix – uncomfortable viewing but proves truth is stranger than fiction.
Netflix – Michelle Obama wowing everyone on her book tour.
Netflix – Series 2, poignant, affecting, gentle comedy.

Currently watching:

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:

Rewatching:

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) !!

Happy viewing!

Anne :0)

Top 10 essentials for desert living

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:

1. Moisturizer

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!

8. Humidifier

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!!

10. A.C.

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!

Anne :0)

Covid-19 lockdown in KSA

I am starting off this blog post on a positive note by sharing some happy rainbows drawn by the children in our compound #magicrainbows:

Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun – albeit a completely changed world. We are in the grips of a Covid-19 pandemic, and self isolation and social distancing have become established parts of our daily lives, wherever we are in the world, including Saudi Arabia.

We have been watching the news like everyone else and following Covid-19 as it has spread across the globe with its horrifying daily statistics. However we’re OK and I hope you are too.

I thought I would suspend the blog while we all deal with this new reality, but then I thought it might be worth sharing how Saudi Arabia is coping with the pandemic and what it’s like to be here during these unprecedented times, this is not a blog I was expecting to write…

Currently we are in effective lockdown. Saudi Arabia took decisive action early on and suspended all international air travel. Since then all domestic flights have also been grounded and the borders sealed.

The schools are now in week 3 of shutdown and working from home (WFH) is in week 2. All restaurants, cafes, cinemas, malls, etc were ordered to close over a week ago. The most recent development was the introduction of an overnight curfew, which, as I am typing has just been extended to begin at 3pm and remains in force overnight until 6am the next morning. All movement in and out of the cities of Riyadh, Medina and Mecca has also been suspended. This is expected to last for a minimum of 3 weeks.

Our apartment overlooks a busy-ish road and it is so eerie when it falls silent when the curfew starts each day. Usually we hear cars all through the night. The roads around us are notorious for drifting, ie crazy high speed driving, weaving from side to side, hand brake turns etc (even though it is illegal), so we are used to being lulled to sleep by the sound of squealing tyres … so we are not missing that.

I think the Saudi authorities acted so quickly to enforce a lockdown, even before they had 100 confirmed cases, because they have experience of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), a type of coronavirus which came from camels and was first diagnosed here in 2012. MERS is also a respiratory virus and has an extremely high fatality rate, so they understand the need to act with speed.

Saudi government advice includes: #StayHome, #AllOurResponsibility, #YourhomeYourgym and #AloneTogether which are also trending on social media.

So what are we doing to keep ourselves safe, positive and healthy while effectively locked in and locked down in Saudi Arabia?

Besides working from home and getting to grips with Microsoft Teams like everyone else, the children on the compound have been busy drawing rainbows to spread a little happiness. It definitely brought us a lot of joy when we received ours left outside our front door as a surprise gift and we have it proudly on display in one of our apartment windows.

I am also doing a daily yoga session #DownwardDog and am enjoying Rufus Wainwright’s #Quarantunes #RobeRecitals #SongADay on Instagram – check it out for a musical treat!

Global Citizen in partnership with WHO has all kinds of musicians taking part in their #TogetherAtHome performance series including John Legend, Niall Horan, Hozier, One Republic, Common etc, as well as WHO info on Covid-19. Follow them on insta: GlblCtzn

And I join Holly from The Freedom Method (Belfast based personal trainer on Insta) for her Magic Movement series and a daily injection of cardio.

I am also really enjoying daily cooking sessions with @lisafaulknercooks and @johntorodecooks for some cooking inspo, and tonight we’re making their no yeast pizzas #yum. I also see that Queens Film Theatre has lots of films to rent so I will definitely be doing that and maybe joining one of their watching parties!!

We also take early morning walks around the Wadi (park area in our compound) while the weather is cool and I’ve been busy baking – muffins and fifteens at the moment – (reason for all the walks lolz!), reading – thank goodness for my Kindle and definitely on target for the ’20 in 2020 Goodreads Challenge’, indulging in Netflix and of course lots of noodling around on the internet.

And that brings this installment of Our Big Arabian Adventure and life in KSA under Covid-19 to its conclusion, I hope it has painted a picture of life in the Kingdom during these unprecedented times,

So until next time, stay safe, stay home, stay healthy and stay positive,

Anne :0) x

Saudi houses, traditional shopping and Gift Week!

Family home in central Riyadh under the auspices of Kingdom Tower.

Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun, although the nights are much cooler at the moment – tomorrow night it is expected to drop to one degree (don’t tell himself but I am planning to put the heating on again ;0) !!).

I thought for this blog I would focus on Saudi houses. It’s always interesting to know how other people live! We live in a compound in a large residential area in the north of Riyadh called Quortuba. It has been built up rapidly over the past couple of years as Riyadh has expanded over land that only a few years ago was just desert on the way to the airport. In general Saudi houses are VERY BIG compared to the red brick terrace houses in Belfast. They are also surrounded by high walls so that you can only see the upper stories from the road. The windows are small – probably, I think, to keep to the heat out in the summer when the windows are like radiators and to keep the heat in, in the winter. Small windows also work because Saudis are very private and it’s very much part of their culture to be very reserved with life taking place discreetly behind high walls and closed doors.

Typical new-build Saudi houses in Riyadh.

The houses are big because they will have two reception rooms – one for men and one for women. Only immediate family members will mix – if uncles, male cousins or male friends come to visit they will only meet the men of the house in the mens’ only reception room – the same for females. Until recently Saudi families were also big (they are smaller now) and most households also have staff which can include: a housemaid, nanny, cook and a driver – in any combination or multiples of!

It is also common for extended families to live in compounds or groups of houses built beside each other. However, all Saudis do not live like this – many live in apartments and the government also provides housing for those who need it.

Street life.

I haven’t been inside many Saudi homes but the ones I have are similar. Reception rooms are large with tiled floors covered in rugs and sofas around the edges of the room. The furniture is ornate and there is generally no art on the walls but elaborate swagged curtains decorate the windows:

Another aspect which (to me) seems particularly Saudi, is that they don’t seem to mind what the state of the area is like outside their house – take the house below as an example. It looks like a miniature palace. It is huge, gleaming white stone with ornate pillars and domes and is obviously very expensive…

But this is the view directly in front of it:

The area is covered in building rubble – there might even be laborers living in the tent and it is like this in so many parts of the city. The outside aesthetic does not appear to trouble the householders whereas at home this would definitely not be acceptable. Generally at home the more affluent the houses the leafier and more manicured their surroundings. I think in Saudi they are more focused on the internal and the external is largely irrelevant…

More neighborhood street views.

So, apart from walking around our area taking photos of houses I also managed to squeeze some shopping in. We went with a Saudi friend who helped us buy some traditional, handmade leather Saudi sandals and a shisha pipe:

Traditional Saudi sandal shop. These used to be in every neighborhood, but demand has dropped as people favor plastic sandals and now the traditional shops are few and far between which is such a shame.
So much choice!…

And finally, it is Valentine’s Day on Friday. Until two year’s ago anything to do with St Valentine’s Day was effectively banned in practice, if not in law, in Saudi (St Valentine is a Christian saint). The flower shops had to close for the day and gift shops removed any red products in the days leading up to Feb 14. However, in recent years there have been small moves towards marking the day. While not overt and definitely with no mention of St Valentine, displays of artificial red roses appeared in some of the supermarkets last year along with red teddy bears. This year a local date company has already promoted a healthy present alternative for ‘Gift Week’ as it is being called and one shop has already put on this amazing display!

So happy gift week to you all! I hope you have enjoyed this edition of the blog,

Until next time – stay cool!

Anne :0)