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What’s changed in KSA (Part 2)

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.

Back in 2019 – see blog post Adventuring!

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).

Street life, farmers market Feb 2020 Riyadh – almost everyone still wearing traditional clothing.
Saudi dress shop called Dublin so I obviously couldn’t resist taking a photo! These are the style of clothes Saudi women wear for family parties.

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!

Until then, stay cool!

Anne :0)

Insta: anne.mcgrath248

Desert dunes at sunset…

Traversing the dunes, off-road somewhere between Riyadh and Dammam…

Hello and welcome to another day of sun in Riyadh!

Following on with the theme of getting out and about again post the lockdown restrictions, I recently joined some friends to watch the sunset over the desert.

So far, during our time in the Kingdom I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the desert’s iconic red sand dunes – those mystical, other-worldly landscapes which have inspired many tales of Arabian derring-do and romantic heroes.

Prior to our outing the only desert I had seen was rough and stony, dotted with scraggy bushes and stumpy trees, not the sweeping red mounds of majestic sand Lawrence of Arabia would have travelled over by camel!!

Jackson Bentley: What is it Major Lawrence that attracts you personally to the desert?

T.E. Lawrence: It’s clean.

Lawrence of Arabia

My friends and I set off late afternoon and drove around two hours due east of Riyadh towards the city of Dammam. It’s a very busy road with bumper to bumper trucks traveling both ways transporting goods between Riyadh and the Gulf city port. Two hours is about half way to Dammam and it’s also around here that the red sand dunes begin. The road was built through them and they had to be flatten the dunes on either side to prevent them creeping back and reclaiming the highway. I would imagine after a sandstorm parts of the road would probably still completely disappear under sand.

Anyway, after about two hours of driving we doubled back and pulled in off the highway. Driving over sand dunes is a skill. The car tyres have to be deflated, as reduced pressure provides more traction and disperses the weight of the vehicle preventing sinking.

The golden rules for driving over sand dunes are: drive straight up or down, keep momentum going and don’t stop on an incline.

Thankfully we had an experienced driver and I wasn’t in the hot seat!!

We drove just a couple of kilometres in from the highway and arrived just ahead of the sunset. The golden light illuminated the dunes, making the red sand glow with warmth, while in contrast the side away from the sun cast long dark shadows.

The view was stunning. The sand is powder soft and the dunes are molded by the shifting winds. There is nothing but sand, no other form of life to be seen, serene in their stillness and beauty.

We had a picnic as we enjoyed the view then grabbed some photos and packed up as the last lingering light was fading – we didn’t want to have to make our way back to the highway across the dunes in the dark!

We pulled out of the dunes to the side of the road just as the sun, in a blazing firey ball dipped below the horizon. We increased the tyre pressure and pulled back out into the crazy traffic racing back to Riyadh on Saturday night. First, but hopefully not last, visit to the desert done!

Until next time,

Stay safe,

Anne :0)

Sunset over
the road to Riyadh