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!
I thought the changes might make an interesting couple of blogs, as the Kingdom has been, and continues to undergo, huge transformation both socially and economically.
The country has followed a conservative brand of Islam since 1979 and its constitution is based on Islamic law, but the Kingdom aims to transform itself into a dynamic, diversified nation over the next decade under a plan known as Saudi Vision 2030.
The tentacles of transformation reach into every aspect of life and the speed of change is almost dizzying…
(As a side note, this is not an official or definitive list – it’s just a compilation of my own observations and lived experience. It is also not a critique of what has changed or still needs to be changed – that is for others, this blog is just a light touch reflection of my personal experience of living in Saudi Arabia.)
So, with all that in mind I have compiled a list of the top 10 changes (in no particular order) which have I have noticed the most since I arrived in the Kingdom in 2018. The first five are listed below with another five to follow in the next blog!:
1. End of shop closures during prayer time
Just a few weeks ago, at the beginning of July it was announced that shops, restaurants banks etc no longer have to close during prayers. Until this announcement all commercial enterprises had to shut five times a day for 20 minutes during each prayer (although many closed for up to half an hour).
On a practical level it meant I always had to check my Al-Moazin app to see what time prayer was that day if I was planning on going to the supermarket or the mall – because arriving just as prayer was beginning would mean hanging around outside, or in the mall concourse until the shops reopened. And prayer times also change (marginally) on a daily basis, so that’s why you need to check and not rely on memory – but of course there were times when you forget which is very annoying, especially if you’re in a rush!!
The change is still new, and while some shops are now opening the majority are still closing – but luckily the bigger supermarkets have been quick to adopt it (to be fair they mostly allowed shoppers in during prayer time they just closed the tills – so you could always go in and fill up your trolley to be ready to pay as soon as they reopened).
It will probably take time for the majority of outlets to stay open – but it certainly makes life easier!
I once got chatting to a young Saudi woman I was sitting beside in a mall while we waited for the shops to reopen, and she pointed to all the Saudi families ambling around trying to entertain the kids until they could carry on with their shopping and said, ‘look at all these people, no one is going to pray, everyone just wants the shops to stay open,’ – so I imagine she is pleased the change has been introduced!
2. Music in restaurants/cafes/shops
For a long time in Saudi Arabia music was ‘haram’ ie forbidden as being anti-Islamic. Many things were, and still are ‘haram’ including, alcohol, pork, gambling, public displays of religious beliefs other than Islam etc.
When you’re used to a constant soundtrack of music in shops, cafes, restaurants etc the silence when there is none feels oppressive and the atmosphere sterile. The silence is very alien and takes some getting used to.
However, over recent years music has been creeping in. The more upmarket restaurants started playing it first (although it still gets turned off during prayer time) and now many fashion shops have introduced background music and even some of the malls.
Some people don’t miss it of course, I have one friend here (non Saudi) who celebrates the fact that one of the big local supermarkets doesn’t play a continuous loop of pop music, she says, ‘I think it’s great, I can think what I need to buy instead of being annoyed by loud, pumping music that is distracting and unnecessary!’
3. End of Singles and Family Sections
Ok so the photo to this one looks a bit weird – but it illustrates the last place where you will see the sign ‘Families Only’. This sign is above the entrance to a Victoria’s Secrets lingerie shop in a mall and what it actually means is, ‘no single men’.
Until December 2019 every restaurant/cafe had two sections – one for single men, or groups of single men and another for family groups, groups of single women. For decades it was the norm that men and women had to use separate entrances or sit behind partitions so that women were not visible to single men. As for smaller restaurants or cafes with no space for segregation, women were not allowed in.
I experienced this once when my husband and I went to a small restaurant one evening – there was only one room for dining and when we went to order we were told they would not serve me, but we could have the order as takeaway – we sat down to wait for the food to be prepared when a Saudi man came in, he started to talking to us and asked why we were not dining – we explained we had been told it was not a families section and I could not eat there, he was surprised and remonstrated with the guy behind the till, who obviously explained it was against the law, and then in a completely unexpected turn of events the Saudi guy insisted on paying for our food!
A friend once commented to me that the single men’s section was one of the bleakest places of all to sit…
Thankfully Family Sections is now practically obsolete and seating areas in most restaurants and cafes are mixed.
However, across Saudi Arabia Government-run schools and most public universities remain segregated, as are most Saudi weddings and workplaces have women-only offices.
4. Dialling down the call to prayer
On June 1 this year the Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister announced new restrictions on the volume of loudspeakers used at mosques – while this might not seem like that big of a deal there are eight mosques within a 10/15 minute walk from our compound (maybe more, but those are the ones I’ve counted) and six times a day, starting at around 4.00am the call to prayer is relayed by loudspeaker from each mosque – and it can be VERY LOUD!!
When we lived in our previous apartment we could hear it in triplicate as each imam has his own style and delivery and at times it felt like they were really competing with each other. Sometimes it would also be much louder than others, but since we have moved to our new place which is more central within the compound, we rarely hear it anyway – but when we do it is notably with less volume.
The reason given to restrict the volume and only allow loudspeakers to be used up to a third of their maximum volume, as well as limiting the broadcast to the call to prayer rather than the full sermon, was that it could be so loud it was disturbing babies, children and the elderly, and as the authorities pointed out, the call to prayer should not cause harm…
5. Ending of the guardianship system
Much has been written and continues to be debated about the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia which gave husbands, fathers and other male relatives the authority to make critical decisions about women, and severely limited what people in other countries generally accept as their civil liberties and human rights.
The first move towards dismantling the guardianship system began in 2018 when a ban on women driving was lifted.
This was followed in August 2019 when a royal decree was issued stating that women over 21 in the Kingdom no longer needed permission from their male guardian to apply for a passport or to travel – this was a huge step forward. Since then many more of the guardianship restrictions have been removed, most recently last month women were legally allowed to live alone and choose where they wanted to live.
However, elements of the guardianship system still exist, women still need permission to marry or divorce, and there are also many cultural ad social restrictions on women which can limit their options in making their own life choices. But the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia is on a march. There is a huge push from the government to bring Saudi women into the work place and to promote them, enhanced by laws outlawing workplace discrimination based on gender.
And with new opportunities open to them, Saudi women are excelling in every field, from finance to science and sport, and entrepreneurship, to the arts and academia.
Two excellent films I would highly recommend which portray women in Saudi Arabia are Wadjda (2012) and The Perfect Candidate (2019) both by Saudi’s first female film-maker Haiffa al Mansour – events may have outdated them but they are beautifully filmed and show women in Saudi Arabia through a different lense.
And that’s all for this blog – part two of changes in KSA will follow soon!
I hope you found it interesting, for me it’s fascinating to live in a country going through such huge transition.
Until next time, stay cool!