27 April 2016

Settling In To Expat Life In Saudi - Things Are Different, Very Different!

This week we will have been in KSA for 4 whole weeks.  The time has flown and while we are still in the inevitable ‘honeymoon’ period we are all enjoying our new life.  Inspired by posts I have seen other newly posted expats write,  I thought I would write a post on the things that surprised me about life here.  This is probably best done while we still retain that early posting amazement (‘oh my goodness we are in SAUDI!’) and before the whole experience becomes humdrum (‘oh yeah Saudi, home, ho hum’).

Firstly I will say that life here is really not what we expected.  I am not sure what I thought it would be like but not being allowed out of the house and being swathed head to toe in black were a big part of it together with a lack of leisure activities leading to a lifestyle devoid of entertainment.  

Here in Jeddah I can’t drive but I can leave the compound.  When I am out and about I can get more in the shop, both grocery and clothing here with greater variety than our last posting and with greater ease than I would be able to in the UK as it does not involve a trip to the capital but I have to plan around the availability of transport.  Nevertheless life in a new country is full of surprises and here are just some of the things that surprised me in the last few weeks.  N.B. I understand that Jeddah is far more cosmopolitan than other parts of the country (that we have not yet visited) so what I mention here might not apply elsewhere. 

Segregated Life

Saudi law requires that there is strict segregation of the sexes outside of the family home.  While the rules are observed it is not as strict as I thought it would be.  Every café and restaurant has a separate section for bachelors and for families.  Women must eat in the family section and men are only allowed in there if they are with their wives or children.  Some shops are also restricted to women and families only, no single men allowed. 

Before the children and I arrived in Jeddah Mr EE was confined to the bachelor sections when he went out.  He found them quite dull and felt that he was being kept away from ordinary life.  I must admit that I have never felt this when I have been out and about on my own as the family sections are very welcoming.  The male sections do look rather lonely.  Of course there are some places that will only serve men and I am unable to visit them, we were turned away from a juice bar a few weeks ago as only the men’s section was open, the family section was upstairs but closed and I would be lying if I did not admit to being frustrated and annoyed at the time and it is an experience that would get old and tired very quickly.  We are still trying to work out where Mr EE should go when he is on his own with the children.  We have seen some men with daughters in prams in the bachelor section.  Local friends have said that the restaurants will probably advise on a case by case basis depending on which children he has with him.  

This families only sign made me laugh
Public Displays Of Affection

We were initially worried that I would not be able to hold Master EE’s hand and that Mr EE would not be able to hold Miss EE’s.  A quick glance at any local family shows that we did not have to be worried about this in the slightest.  By the time that it would start to become questionable the children will probably have grown out of it in any event.

One of the things I do find difficult, however, is not being able to hold Mr EEs hand or give him a kiss when we go our different ways to run errands in separate shops.  We do see the odd Saudi couple holding hands but it is not common by any means and a kiss is completely beyond the pale.  In 19 years together we have never left each other even for a moment without a kiss and an ‘I love you’ (I am talking only about a kiss on the cheek by the way, no inappropriate PDAs).  As a result we find that we have to make a concerted effort not to do this when we part and it still feels very, very weird!

Opening Times And Prayers

Shops are open in the morning and then close for midday prayers.  While some of the malls open in the early afternoon many shops stay closed until about 4 or 5 and then open again until late (very late).  I understand that during Ramadan the hours shift to much later in the evening and night.  At all times of the year everything closes down for prayers.

There are five prayer times during the day but the ones with the biggest impact on our day to day life are Dhuhr, ‘Aser, Magrhib and Isha  which take place at mid-day, mid-afternoon, sunset and night.  During these times the shops shut for about half an hour to enable people to complete their devotions.  Public places such as malls, hospitals and airports etc will have separate prayer rooms available for men and women.  While some people pray during these times many more do not. 

Some of the larger shops such as supermarkets allow those inside during prayers to continue to browse and fill their carts and people who have been served food, either in a restaurant or fast food outlet in a food court are permitted to continue to eat.   The malls remain open for people to walk around even though the shops themselves are closed.  We try to time our trips to the supermarket to coincide with prayer time as much as possible, by getting in just before we can shop in relative calm and then check out when the shop is open again.  We try and do the same if we want a coffee or a snack, timing it for just before prayers means we have something to do in the half hour when we would otherwise be waiting aimlessly. 

I had heard from some expats that prayer time was a massive inconvenience but we find that with a little planning it can be fine.  It is, however, frustrating if you are caught out and we try to keep a track of closures by using a ‘phone app that tells us what times prayers are every day so that we can plan around them. 


I did not expect to be plagued by mosquitos in Saudi Arabia.  These little pests are something that I associate with marshy, swampy or tropical areas.  About 10 years ago or so Mr EE and I were diving in Marsa Alam in Egypt which is just the other side of the Red Sea from here and there were no mosquitos there.  Jeddah, however, is full of the little blighters and we have sacrificed an inordinate number of our plug sockets to anti mosquito plug ins that seem to have very little impact.  Luckily the area is not malarial and dengue is not an issue here but I had hoped to get a break from bites on this posting at least. 

Even children wear expensive clothing....

Conspicuous Consumption

To be honest I was not sure what to think about this before arriving in Jeddah.  The Middle East, Dubai in particular, is well known for its very conspicuous consumption and people flashing the cash.  Saudis abroad also have this reputation (the press reports of the person bringing gold cars to London earlier this year is a case in point) but one wonders how much of that is a show.  Turns out not much really; conspicuous consumption is a normal and accepted way of life here.  From gold cars (yes we have seen a few) to designer clothing (to be worn at home and female only gatherings), expensive handbags and designer shoes not to mention home décor that can be a little ‘bling’ for our tastes (gold effect wardrobes anyone?) flashing the cash is socially acceptable here.  One need not worry about inadvertently embarrassing someone by giving a gift that is too expensive. 

Given the economy is in a down turn, suffering from the effects of the low oil prices I can only imagine what life is like here when things are going well!  Not everyone is wealthy though and  this is even more true when looking at the income ranges of expatriates.  While we are able to lead a very comfortable life many expatriates here to work as drivers and maids exist on a pittance and some are treated very badly.  It must be very difficult on a number of levels to see this world from the inside and yet not be a part of it.  

This mall has high end high street alongside designers such as Missoni,
Alberta Feretti, D&G and many more


While men can wear whatever they want from traditional thobes to t.shirts (shorts are not acceptable outside the compound) women who venture out of the home must wear an abaya.  This does not have to be black and many women sport highly decorated and embroidered examples.  Most Saudi women wear a head covering of some sort, ranging from a simple scarf to a full niqab.  The head covering is not, however, compulsory, and very few expat women cover although all carry a scarf in case they are asked to. 

Children, including pre-teen girls, can wear what they like.

For more posts on life in Saudi click on the picture below

Ersatz Expat


  1. Wow! That's a lot of major things to get used to. This is a fantastic post, and thank you so much for sharing this for #ExpatTuesday!

    This post makes me think of what's waiting for me in Russia.

    1. Good luck with Russia. I hope you enjoy your new posting.