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 is another day of sun! We’ve had some very dusty days recently and one BIG sandstorm which engulfed Riyadh and lasted a whole day. The dust had the effect of a sepia filter, giving everywhere an orange tone and covering everywhere in a layer of dust and grime, and it smells, it’s horrible to think what we must have breathed in…
Anyway, part from the ‘excitement’ of the recent sandstorm I took part in the first ever Riyadh Marathon (not the full marathon but the 4K fun run) held on Saturday 5 March.
It was a big event attracting both local and international competitors. A group of women from our compound (the Wadi Runners) took up the challenge and began training from December for the 10K. (Unfortunately I suffered an ankle injury so had to revise my plans down to the 4k).
We went to the Marathon Village the day before to register and pick up our race packs. There was a great atmosphere with lots of stalls and challenges – (and mascots to have our photos taken with!) It definitely got us enthused and excited for the big event the following day.
The marathon placed a big emphasis on being inclusive for all ages, abilities etc and it attracted a large number of Saudi women to take part – a pretty big deal because until recently women were told exercise was un-modest, there was no P.E. even in schools and there were no public sporting events – and certainly no mixed public sporting events.
The dress code on the day was varied, some women wore abayas, some wore jogging abayas (a bit like a penguin onesie), and some wore long-sleeved lycra tops and leggings with baggy shorts and a baggy T-shirt over the top. With no official dress code our Wadi runners team chose to wear leggings and our own designed Wadi Runners pink and blue T-shirts which attracted a lot of attention – We were photographed, interviewed and filmed for TV and social media because we stood out in our brightly colored Ts!
There were some distinct Saudi touches to the event, Saudis aren’t given to public displays of emotion so the cheering crowds were little more subdued than usual, and when we crossed the finish line, along with water and bananas, there were dates, and date sweets on offer. There was also a stand giving competitors free plants which was a nice touch!
It was a really fun first Riyadh Marathon and hopefully the start of many more. I was delighted to take part in it, be a little bit part of the changing face of Saudi society.
I will certainly cherish my souvenir medal, certificate and T shirt! #Runderful #RiyadhMarathon
World Sights Park
My husband and I also recently visited a very quirky and little-known visitor attraction called the World Sights Park in Riyadh. I had never heard of it or seen any promotion about it, I just happened to catch sight of it one day as I drove past with my driver, so I looked it up on Google maps and discovered it was an actual bone fide visitor attraction, sited unobtrusively on the side of the major Eastern Ring Road.
It must have opened around 2010, but has the feel of a 1970s park forgotten in time! It can be found just south of Granada Mall. There is a small entrance fee (but as we were leaving it appeared the payment booth was closed and families were just walking).
It is open daily from 4pm and is definitely worth a visit for the novelty factor. It has model size recreations of some of the world’s most iconic buildings including the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Sydney Opera House, the Treasury at Petra, two Dutch windmills, eight of the world’s most famous mosques, landmark buildings of Riyadh (including the airport), the pyramids and the top of Mount Everest…
The models have, over time lost their former lustre and need a bit of maintenance. They are a bit crumbly and their paintwork needs touched up. Each one has an information board with descriptions in Arabic and English – some of the English translations are very funny and provide their own entertainment – and certainly haven’t been updated since it was opened.
Overall the park has something of a charm from a time gone by.The gardens are nicely landscaped, and with the inclusion of so many Riyadh historic buildings, plus the mosques, it has a distinctly Saudi flavor. There is also a coffee shop, so you could easily put in an hour, or bring a picnic – and there’s lots of opportunity for comedy photos!
We visited just after it opened at 4.30pm so it was still light, but it might be worth visiting when it’s dark and the models are illuminated (their state of their disrepair might not be so obvious!).
There were some families walking around and taking it all in when we visited and I imagine when it opened it was probably quite a popular attraction especially given the context of Saudi Arabia back then, but today it feels a bit like a relic from the past, and given all the new developments and the emphasis on family entertainment with the big shiny Riyadh Season these days, I would strongly suggest going to see it before the developers move in and this little gem is ‘redeveloped’ like the former Al Hokair Land theme park across the road which is no more…
And that’s it for this blog – I hope you enjoyed the quick whirl around the World Sights Park and the insight from the Riyadh Marathon
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! So this month, as it is the month to celebrate love I thought I would take a look at matters of the heart in Saudi Arabia.
It’s difficult to know exactly what the local dating scene is like. Officially there is no ‘dating scene’ marriages are arranged and there are very limited opportunities for unrelated boys and girls to meet, never mind go on a date or be alone.
While the religious police were still in force (until 2016) only a married couple could go out in each other’s company – if they were unrelated they risked at the very least being publicly berated, struck with a stick, or at worst jailed. One Saudi guy told me he was lashed after he was seen waving at a girl he knew in a mall when he was a teenager. The religious police asked him how he knew the girl and he said she was his cousin, they asked her the same and she said he was her brother – so they deduced they were being lied to and used their canes…
Until recently there was also nowhere for potential or unmarried couples to meet because life was completely segregated, from school, to the workplace, to family parties, weddings etc there was no inter-mingling of the sexes, and until 2017 there were no cinemas, no concerts, women largely didn’t work (or if they did they were in separate offices and still in many places are), and cafes and restaurants had segregated seating areas (and of course there are no nightclubs or bars!).
I do know that with things easing young Saudis do meet at mixed parties or through the workplace. One Saudi girl told me she had a boyfriend who she’d met at a party with friends and they would go out for meals or to the races, so things are changing…
Like everywhere else dating apps are very popular, Tinder, Bumble etc. It’s a safe way for Saudi girls and boys to talk to each other, even if it doesn’t lead to meeting up. A single friend I had here (expat) joined Tinder when he first arrived. He said he was quite nervous at first because he didn’t know what the social norms were. What he found was that Saudi women generally didn’t have a profile photo but were curious to chat, but after initial contact, or when he suggested meeting up, they would just simply melt away/ghost him. He said the few Saudi women he did end up meeting for a coffee had some experience of living and traveling abroad and were more confident/daring about meeting an expat guy. He also said Muslim women of other nationalities (although living in Riyadh) were more likely to meet up or keep chatting longer than Saudi women.
He said being single in KSA there is a thriving ex-pat dating scene with plenty of opportunity to meet people at parties on compounds which happen almost every weekend, once you tap into those networks. And some expats have even found lasting love – with one expat couple who met by chance on an internal flight when they were both single and started dating eventually getting married and even chose to stay on in Riyadh to raise their young family.
Meanwhile, for Saudis, apart from traditionally arranged marriages, (and marriage ceremonies are also separate for men and women – usually even separate venues, but that’s for another blog!), polygamous marriages are also legally recognized in Saudi. In accordance with Sharia law a man can marry up to four wives provided he treats them all equally and shares his wealth equally. (It’s the ‘equally’ part that can put people off! ;0) ).
There is also something called a misyar marriage which has been legal since 1996. This is essentially a time-limited marriage lasting between 14-60 days with no dowry paid and no financial obligations. Misyar marriages are usually done in secret and are seen as a hybrid between marriage and single-hood. They are used by people who want a ‘no-strings attached’ marriage, men who want another relationship aside from their wife but don’t want to have the responsibilities of a full-blown polygamous relationship, or have a wife opposed to being in a polygamous marriage, men who enter into a short-term arrangement while they are abroad, women who want to avoid traditional marriages, women who don’t want an ex-husband to know they are in a new relationship or unmarried couples seeking religious cover for sexual relationships forbidden outside wedlock.
So, while it might appear at first that finding love could be a tricky path to negotiate in KSA, like everywhere else in the world, love always finds a way ;0)
And that’s a quick look at romance in Saudi Arabia, 2022!
Hello, happy New Year and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun! I hope everyone had a good Christmas (if you were celebrating). We spent the holidays in Abu Dhabi where it was very chill and the weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cold, but cool enough for a cardy/jacket in the evenings!
I thought for the first blog of 2022 I would share some photos from our trip and recommendations on where we stayed, ate, visited etc…
First of all a quick introduction to the city – Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – not Dubai! It is the home of the UAE government and the UAE President. Built on a series of islands along the Persian Gulf it relied on fishing and pearling until oil reserves were discovered in 1959. It is now the sixth biggest producer of oil in the world and has the world’s fifth largest sovereign wealth fund. It has grown at dizzying speed. In 1971, the year the UAE was created, Abu Dhabi had a population of 71,000, today it is home to 1.5 million people. It’s oldest building is the Qasr Al Hosn Fort which was built as a watchtower to control the coastal areas in 1761.
Today Abu Dhabi is a thriving modern city with gleaming skyscrapers and five lane motorways. It is also one of the safest cities in the world. It is best known for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its two theme parks – Ferrari World and Warner Bros World.
We have been to Abu Dhabi a couple of times before so we didn’t do all the touristy things this time – it was more about relaxing and chilling out.
However, we did visit the Emirates Palace Hotel – a five star luxury hotel built at a cost of $3billion and opened in 2005. We visited it before, so we forewent the eyewatering $15 camel-cino coffee (!) – this time we went to see the Christmas tree which was pretty impressive!
The building is a mix of Islamic architecture and the color was inspired by the different shades of sand found in the Arabian desert.
We also went to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque which is the eighth biggest mosque in the world. It has 82 domes, 1000 columns and 24 carat gold gilded chandeliers.
The entrance is designed like the Louvre in Paris, where upon arrival tourists descend below ground on an escalator under a large glass dome. Downstairs is a mini-mall with coffee shops, a pharmacy, gift shops etc… There is also a long line of tourists being checked to ensure they are dressed appropriately ie trousers for men, no bare arms, legs or hair for women. If you are not deemed modestly dressed enough you can purchase either sleeves for your arms (like single tights you roll up each arm) or a complete covering (in nasty nylon) which comes with a handy hood to keep your hair covered. You are then linked to the mosque by an underground walkway. Tours are free.
Having visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi a number of times before (and highly recommend!) we visited the smaller Etihad Modern Art Gallery this time. It’s a small quirky gallery showing modern art by local and international artists, plus a creative cafe and gift shop which has a Thai beach bar vibe. We were lucky because when we visited the artist Noura Ali-Ramahi who is currently exhibiting a solo exhibition entitled ‘Nostalgia, a pandemic and finally losing my mind’ was giving a guided tour to some of her friends and invited us to join.
The art gallery is a very different to the big glitz and glamour of the rest of Abu Dhabi, but this little gem is worth seeking out for an alternative and perhaps more authentic experience.
Another highlight was cycling the Corniche. It’s a large, landscaped promenade along the sweeping bay and makes for a fun couple of hours if you stop off for a cool drink and a Coldstone ice cream along the way!
And to wrap up our stay we welcomed in the New Year with an amazing firework display over the Emirates Palace Hotel (Photo credit: Stephen McGrath).
We really enjoyed our Christmas and New Year in Abu Dhabi. It was very chill. Everyone we met was very friendly and helpful and the weather at that time of year is perfect – I would definitely recommend it as an alternative to Dubai if you are thinking of visiting the Middle East.
Happy New Year everyone- Stay safe out there!
Until next time, Abu Dhabi-doooo!!
We stayed at: The Edition, Al Bateen Marina and the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Corniche.
We ate at: The Eclipse Bar, Four Seasons Hotel (sushi and cocktails) – perfect for a sundowner LPM at the Galleria Mall (French/Mediterranean) Buddah Beach Bar, St Regis, Saadiyat Island for a Japanese themed Christmas Day brunch Alba at The Edition is excellent for casual dining and has a daily happy hour 5-8pm Beirut Villa in Marina Mall does excellent Lebanese food at very reasonable prices (I recommend the falafel wrap and beetroot hummus!)
I would also suggest a visit to Marsa Al Bateen Marina for a stroll with a wide selection of cafes and restaurants to choose from – the Coffee Club does a delicious iced raspberry and coffee drink – and of course you could pop into the Alba at The Edition for a shared charcutiere board and a drink if it’s during Happy Hour!
Travel info: In these pandemic times there are lots of Covid procedure requirements (like everywhere else) Our experience of traveling to Abu Dhabi included: a pre-travel PCR test, an on-arrival PCR test (queueing can take a long time, followed by even longer queues for border control). We also had to do a day 6 test and a pre-departure test for re-entry into Saudi and download the Al Hosn app.
Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun – although the mornings are much fresher and the evenings cooler, with daytime temperatures only reaching 22 degrees…#literallyfreezing lolz!
This will be the last blog of 2021 and it’s a bumper photo edition from a recent camping trip and a day spent with some supermodel camels at the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival.
Our camping trip was to an area called Sa’ad about two hours east of Riyadh in some beautiful red sand dunes. We had a fabulous time, saw the sunset and the full moon rise – and it even rained a little bit overnight. It was quite something to be woken up by raindrops hitting the canvas in the desert.
Many thanks to the Riyadh Rovers and our friends Freddie and Stephen for bringing us a along and sharing their adventure with us :0)
I also recently spent a day at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival – the world’s largest camel festival! Camels are big business here with prizes worth $40million. They are judged on their looks ie their proportions, markings, size of the hump, condition of their coat etc. There has been some well publicized controversy this year about camels being disqualified for receiving botox to make their lips bigger – but there was no mention of that the day we went.
The festival runs for a month and a half every year a couple of hours north of Riyadh, covering an area of 32sq Kms. 33,000 camels take part in the annual cultural, economic, sports and entertainment festival where they are judged on their looks in different categories. There are some race days, just not on the day we were there.
The main area has a show ground with stands and a VIP area. Adjacent is a pop up village offering a laundry, bank, butchers, grocery store, hardware shop etc providing services for all the people who are part of the festival and camp there along with the camels for the duration. There’s also a large area offering desert tents for rent by visitors, and of course spread out are the camel camps, with herds who travelled from all over the Middle East to take part.
The day we went was competition day for herds of black camels. A herd is up to 80 camels, all female + calves and one male. They are judged on how they look as a herd and they are paraded up and down in front of a panel of judges headed by one white camel who is ornately adorned. There were 10 herds, so 800 black camels in total, on show – and they were amazing to see. The camels really are like supermodels and they are treated as VIPs with crowds in the stands singing to welcome them.
The Saudis running the event were incredibly welcoming. They really wanted us to have a good time and nothing was too much to help us get our photos and make sure we had a good day. We were hosted in the VIP area and offered qahwa and dates on arrival. We were also given special access to the camels who take part in the opening and closing caravan parade:
Then we spent some time wandering along the Al_Dahna Street Souk where Bedouins have a roadside camp selling food, qahwa (Arabic coffee), chai (tea), freshly made bread and anything and everything you could need for your camel or camping…
It was a really fabulous day. I went with Haya Tours (you can find them on Instagram) run by the indefatigable Salwa – a one woman powerhouse. People at the festival were so friendly and helpful and other Saudi visitors couldn’t believe this group of tourists in their midst – they were very keen to photograph and film us with car loads slowing down so they could shout ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia’. The Saudi women weren’t keen to be photographed, but they also wanted to wave and say hello.
And that brings us to the end for another year of Our Big Arabian Adventure. It’s been eventful!
Festive greetings to you all and wishes for a healthy, safe and better 2022, and I’ll see you back here in January,
Hello and welcome to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun! Riyadh is a city built in the middle of the Arabian desert, it is dusty, beige and HOT (especially in the summer!) But, undeterred by the harsh conditions, the authorities have decided to turn it into a living, breathing, blooming beautiful garden – and greenery is sprouting everywhere!
The Green Riyadh Project has been launched with the aim of making it one of the world’s top 100 most livable cities.
Not somewhere to do things by halves the project will see 75 million trees planted, the creation of 43 major parks with the biggest larger than Central Park, together with 3,300 smaller parks and gardens dotted around the city.
Massive landscaping is already being carried out with date palms are being planted along all major routes, and legislation has been introduced requiring all new buildings, including mosques, schools, public facilities, airports etc to incorporate planting schemes.
It is the largest afforestation project in the world, and will use treated wastewater for the new green spaces. It’s projected to reduce the temperature in the city by 1.5 to 2 degrees in the summer, making it more live-able and encouraging people outside to enjoy the new spaces and take exercise (part of another initiative to get Saudi’s active!).
There’s a huge road intersection not far from where we live, it’s a vast area, maybe the size of four football pitches. Until recently it was a real eyesore, piles of rubble strewn with empty plastic bags and bottles. There were some small stumpy trees but their branches were tangled with plastic bags, but it has been cleared and a huge earthmoving project is underway with stone walls and terraces being built ahead of new planting and lighting – and maybe even a water feature? Who knows, anything is possible!
Everywhere you go in Riyadh there are new metro lines being built overground and underground. Snaking all over the city the new metro system is planned to introduce a new connected public transport system.
Currently the car is king – Riyadh is built on an American grid system which favors the car, which together with low oil prices and an oppressive heat making being outside uncomfortable for any length of time for at least five months of the year, means people want door-to-door travel in an air conditioned car – so until recent times, public transport has not been a priority.
However, with a rapidly rising population, increasing traffic congestion and concerns around air pollution a new metro and interlinked bus network has been taking shape.
Work started on the Riyadh Metro in 2014. It will cover 176km, with 6 city-wide lines, 85 stations, plus a 1,900km interlinking bus network with 3,000 stops – and it’s all being constructed at the same time!!
Estimated to cost $24.4billion, it was due to open last year (2020), but has faced a number of delays including the pandemic. It’s getting closer though, and it’s now commonplace to see the odd little metro train trundling along the line nearest to us on a test run.
The extensive nature of the network and the fact it’s being built all at once has meant years of road diversions and closures across Riyadh. Generally there’s no prior warning when a road will be closed, which can lead to huge tailbacks and some very frustrated drivers and passengers – I watched once from our office window as cars backed up at a major road junction when one of the roads was closed without warning. A cacophony of horns erupted until one driver got out of his car and took it upon himself to start directing the traffic – (which he did really well!) Thankfully most of the road disruption is over now that the main infrastructure is in place.
It’s hoped the metro will cut down on some of the 10 million car journeys taken every day in Riyadh and reduce the 7-9,000 annual death toll…
And that’s a wrap for this short series of ‘What’s New in KSA’ blogs. They’ve been fun to write and reflect on how much things have changed in the three years since we arrived here.
It’s a rapidly changing city and nation – who knows how much it will have changed again in another three years’ time?
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!
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.
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!
This was going to be the second of a two-part blog series on changes in KSA over the past 3 years – but then I realized some of the topics were really worthy of a blog in their own right, so this is one is devoted to the traditional, long, loose fitting robe, otherwise known as the abaya.
To wear an abaya or not to wear an abaya? That is the question!
Abaya wearing is a HOT topic in KSA – to wear an abaya or not is one of the big water cooler topics.
Women have always worn abayas as a cultural garment in this part of the world. In the 1960s and 70s some started adopting western dress, but in the late 1970s a new law made it mandatory for women to wear an abaya in public places. From then the black abaya (robe), the niqab (face veil) and the hijab (hair covering), became commonplace and it is still what you will see the majority of Saudi women wearing when they are out and about.
The first big change that began to impact abaya wearing was a reduction in the powers in 2016 of the Mutawa, or the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also known as the religious police.
Founded in 1976 the Mutawa ensured strict adherence to Islamic Law and had powers to make arrests if they thought morality or public decency were not being adhered to. They could shout at women publicly, or even flick them with their canes, if they thought their hair was not covered completely or their abaya was too short.
Then in 2019 in a landmark TV interview, the Crown Prince said women could choose whether they wore black robes or face coverings. Also in 2019, along with the introduction of tourist visas, a decency law was introduced which said female tourists were no longer required to wear abayas so long as they were dressed modestly.
Over the past year there has been a noticeable shift in the number of women, and especially younger women opting to wear colored abayas which they wear in the open style – blue, green and maroon are popular, but white, pink and yellow are also making an appearance. They are also ditching the niqab and sometimes even the hijab.
Modest dress however is still required when not wearing an abaya ie – high necklines and arms, legs (and backside!) should be covered – but it does mean you can wear jeans, a top and a long jacket to go to the mall or a midi dress with long sleeves for dinner.
When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia I mostly wore black abayas, one had some blue embroidery. Then I bought a light blue linen one and a navy one with a pink and white edging for work. Now I sometimes wear an abaya and sometimes I don’t … I recently bought two new ones – a green one with a bright blue lining and a navy one with puffy white sleeves and a patterned back (see photos above). I don’t mind wearing them because I think they look quite stylish and I love the colors – they’re also easy to throw on over basic leggings and a Tee and make me look a bit more put together when I’m running round the supermarket!
It’s not just women who have to follow a dress code, it’s less strict for men but their legs and shoulders should be covered – sometimes men can wear shorts (so long as their knees are covered) but sometimes an over zealous security guard at a mall will refuse entry if they think there is too much knee on show! ;0)
Saudi men can wear western clothes, but most, and certainly always at work they wear the standard thobe (long white shirt) and shamag (red and white headdress).
And that’s a quick summary of my experience of wearing an abaya in Saudi Arabia in 2021! There’s been a definite shift and as a consequence it feels more relaxed when you go out and about.
That’s all for now – another blog will follow soon looking at tourism and the rebirth of movie-going in the Kingdom!