17 September 2016

How to be an Expat in Saudi Arabia: All About Abayas and Other Clothes

One of the biggest worries many expats have before arriving for their first time in Saudi Arabia is the issue of clothing.  A lot of people assume that women have to cover up completely and that men can wear what the want.  This is not quite true.  The clothing rules are not quite as restrictive for women as many people think.

All women have to wear an abaya, this is close to a non negotiable. I have seen some women out and about in a long salwaar kameez but the only time I remove my abaya in public is when I get through passport control at the airport where the dress restrictions are more relaxed, even then I ensure that I am very covered.  

I bought some cheap abayas before leaving Malaysia and they have been honourably retired having done their job of getting me from the plane to the house and out to the abaya shop.  Made of cheap polyester they are hot beyond belief.  They were sold to me by a very fashionable young Malay lady who spent most of the time trying to persuade me to buy the neon pink and bright purple offerings instead of a black one and a navy blue one.  I resisted but I need not have been so conservative.  While hot pink might be pushing it a little the women here in KSA do not always wear black (at least in the costal cities, in Riyadh and other more conservative places black is, I understand, still the norm). 
Not only in black 

When you go to the abaya shop you will be faced with a bewildering array of options to choose from.  Here in Jeddah white and cream abayas are popular as are shades of blue and purples, many are decorated with floral or geometric patterns.  There are a huge range of different styles to choose from, open front, wrap, butterfly, cape, umbrella, the list is endless.    During the summer  light cottons, linens and georgettes are more popular than the heavier fabrics.  You can buy an abaya for no more than about $20-30 but the quality of the cheaper ones is poor and they tend to be made from very very hot material.  Designer offerings in silk are astronomically expensive but a good variety of mid-range stuff is available in cool fabrics and pretty designs.  Abayas are sized by length in inches from your shoulder to your ankle (or the floor).  Most shops stock 58 as standard but will order in a shorter one for you (or have it altered to your specification).  Being short I take a 53 so I tend to have to get them altered, this is generally done at no extra cost.

You can pick one up in a market shop for a reasonable price
but prepare to boil
Most of mine are ‘open front’ that close with popper buttons and a belt.  They look a little like a cross between the academic gown I wore at university and my dressing gown which is a strange thing to wander about in in public! Open abayas work well for malls and air conditioned places and seem to be the most popular with our local friends, that said I tend to prefer dresses to trousers so I have to make certain that Mini EE does not indulge in her favourite hobby of popper button opening when we are out and about. I have invested in a large volume of  replacement poppers as the dratted things come off  and roll away if you so much as look at them.   I have also bought some long dress like cotton abayas that I can wear on their own or with just light cotton trousers when walking out and about. 
Abayas are a way to showcase your sense of fashion when out and about
(NB the shops are shut for evening prayers hence the shutters)
A quick look at Saudi women shows that the extent to which they wear what westerners would perceive as a ‘traditional’ abaya varies quite a lot.  The colour issue aside some women’s abayas are not much more than a long, light coat in an array of colours and left completely open while others are completely covered in black from head to foot, even wearing gloves.  Many expat women dislike the abaya.  I don’t resent wearing it as such, (it means I am not going to get sunburn) but I do resent the fact that I have no say in the matter  (though I would probably wear an abaya or other similarly modest clothing as a matter of courtesy even if not required to).  That said everyone who comes to KSA knows the rules and accepts them when they arrive.  Even Saudi women have a love/hate relationship with their abayas, embracing what is good about the garment while struggling with the problems it can create (tripping over, catching in escalators, trailing sleeves, overheating etc). 

As soon as you are through a door and into a private space it is perfectly acceptable to remove your abaya as long as invited to do so by your hosts (be guided by them).  Most women here will choose to do so although some will prefer to retain their headcovering and/or their abaya, it is all a matter of personal preference.  

Men also tend to dress conservatively and traditionally.
Head coverings are not obligatory for expats (Muslim or otherwise) unless approached to cover by the muttawa (religious police), I try to remember to always carry a scarf in my handbag so that I can cover up in the event that I am asked but I have never yet been approached to do so.  I know one long term expat whose husband was approached and told to get her to cover her head, once in the many years she has been here.  As soon as the people who approached her had gone some local women approached her, apologised and invited her to remove it if she so wished.  Saudi women wear a head covering, ranging from the full niqab to a light scarf pushed back on the head. 


Young children are not subject to any clothing restrictions and wear pretty much what they want.  Like women men are also required to dress ‘modestly’ but the interpretation of ‘modest’ is much more fluid.  The majority of Saudi men wear the traditional long white thobes together with headdresses (thrown up on the head or behind the neck when indoors and used to protect the face when out in the sun.  On special occasions the ensemble is topped with a light cloak known as a bisht with sumptuous gold embroidery along the edges.  Some Saudi men prefer to wear western clothes, particularly at the weekends and t shirts are not uncommon.  Expat men are fine to wear normal suits or typical leisure clothing.  Western style shorts are not considered acceptable, you do see the odd western expat (and, very rarely, a Saudi man) wearing them out of the house or compound but it is very much the exception.  

For more posts on life in Saudi Arabia please click on the picture below.


Ersatz Expat

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