From glittering malls to camel trails, some tips for living in this sometimes frustrating but always fascinating city.
Sprawling on a high escarpment in the middle of the Najd desert, Riyadh is the very heart of Saudi Arabia - historically, geographically, and politically. Merely a village of mud huts huddled around a desert fort, barely a hundred years ago, it is now a modern sprawling city of 5 million, gobbling up the surrounding sand with new housing schemes and economic developments. The home of the Saudi Arabia's ruling family, the Al Sauds (and yes, the country is named after them), it is the most conservative and traditional of the Kingdom's major cities.
Riyadh is `hard core' Gulf , with none of the Dubai glitz or genteel charm of Qatar and Bahrain to ease the shock. Expat culture and life exist at the fringes of Saudi society, usually only mixing at the level of very progressive or diplomatic circles. Most Saudis share a strong collective identity shaped from tribal customs and the adherence to a strict Islamic code. Their social life centers on their extended family, and while being welcoming and gracious, they in no way embrace or ape western lifestyles beyond the superficial realm of luxury goods.
Viewed as temporary guests in the Kingdom, expatriates are expected to respect local rules and customs. Here is the top ten list, which would do any overprotective dad of a teenage girl proud:
Women may not drive
Alcohol and pork products are banned
Women may not be alone in public with an unrelated man (except, paradoxically, their driver)
Women must wear an abayah (long back cloak) while in public
No drinking or eating in public during the holy month of ramadan
All shops must shut during prayer times (five times daily)
Young single men are often barred from malls unless accompanied by their families
No movie theatres
No music in public
Daunting and forbidding to be sure, but despite this, life in Riyadh can be a rich and highly enjoyable experience. A sense of humor and adventure is a must, as is patience and flexibility. A posting here gives one a chance to get an insider knowledge view of a country that is rarely visited or understood by the outside world. In a world increasingly homogenized, Saudi is proudly and at times frustratingly different.
From having the luxury of a driver (and who wouldn't want that for the UK school run) and dressing (way) down under the billowing abayahs, there are hidden joys behind the restrictions. Riyadh is surrounded by beautiful deserts, with camping, quad biking and some of the best star gazing in the world, and is a short flight away most Middle East destinations.
Compound life can at times feel like an extended stay at a Club Med, with the children looked after by inexpensive help, and pools and everyday amenities close to hand. Particularly for young families, Riyadh can offer a less frenetic and easier lifestyle than home, with all the creature comforts laid on.
Despite the profound and innate conservatism, the country has seen enormous changes and progress over the last decade, particularly in the the fields of education, business and real estate development. But changes, particularly social, come at a glacial pace by western standards, `Shway, Shway' (Slowly,Slowly) is the Saudi mantra.
Saudis run world class bureaucracies, so your first days in Riyadh will probably involve filling in forms and repeating the very same blood tests you would have had a week earlier before leaving England. Be armed with passport photos, zillions of them, for all the forms. Most companies escort you through the process, and assign a `fixer' who shepherds the paper work through the very byzantine system. Every expat needs to carry an iqama (resident permit), and visas need to be sorted out. An iqama is essential if you want to buy a car, and to sign up for a mobile phone contract.
For women, buying an abayah (a black cloak) will be a first priority.These are easily bought in the Kuwaiti Souk or a hyper market for 15-20 quid, or if you prefer something more stylish and substantial, head to the malls, where abayahs can cost anywhere from 800 to 3000 riyals and up. Do not worry about having an abayah when you first arrive - not wearing one at the airport is perfectly acceptable.
When purchasing a car, suppress if you can your green tendencies and go big, both for practical and safety reasons. The testosterone-only roads are filled with aggressive (read: completely insane) drivers of large vehicles, and a big car is the best defense for you and your family. In addition, a four wheel drive is essential for trips to the desert, a favorite Riyadh past-time. The cost of going large is minimal. In this oil rich country, petrol is laughably cheap, with a litre going for less than 50 pence. Most cars sold, are white or light shades, better to reflect the heat and hide the ubiquitous dust.
Saudi Arabia suffered its own version of 7/7 with the shocking compound bombings of 2003, (dramatized in the film The Kingdom) in which 18 people were killed. Previously in denial about terrorism being fomented within its borders, the government put a vigorous and ruthless anti- terrorism campaign into action, which sees periodic mass arrests of terror cells.
Security in Riyadh is omnipresent, with all compounds and government buildings heavily fortified and guarded. There was a terrorist attack at the Riyadh Seasonal Festival in 2019 and Daesh claimed responsibility for another attack in 2020. Ramadan and religious festivals always require being extra-careful but Westerners can move freely throughout the city and the Kingdom. However, if you travel to smaller cities with little or no Western presence, you are likely to pick up a security detail, who will not so discreetly trail you to insure your safety.
The currency in Saudi Arabia is the riyal, which is pegged to the U.S dollar, with 3.75 riyals, currently, equalling 1 dollar. Most things are paid for in cash, although credit and debit cards are gaining some traction. Cash machines are ubiquitous, and dispense money in 500, 100, and 50 riyal notes (roughly 130, 26, 13 dollars).
All money is paper: halala (`pence') are rarely used, and bills are rounded up or down at the till, with the occasional packet of gum thrown in for good measure. Be aware that you will draw an irritated groan or two from the queue behind you if you draw out a credit card, because processing can be painfully slow. This is considered particularly bad form when the prayer time rush is on.
Mobile phones are easy to get and universally used, largely supplanting home numbers. Mobily, Zain and STC are the main carriers. You cannot get a contract mobile until you have an iqama (residency permit).
Internet is easy to get, but while STC and the like tout up to 20mb broadband, in actuality the service can be very uneven and streaming can be problematic.
Satellite TV is the norm, and with a little creativity, you can get pretty much anything you might want to see. Orbit and Showtime are the market leaders and offer reliable, if expensive, service. NileSat, ArabSat, and Starworld out of India can also be accessed inexpensively by having a local dish installed. Compounds will almost always offer a shared service that is quite comprehensive.
The one service that is not up to snuff is the post office. DO NOT ever intrust important mail to the Saudi Post, either coming or going. Censors do go through the post (I have had magazines arrive with decolletage carefully colored in, but usually entire pages are ripped out) and Amazon boxes arrive empty or not at all, if their contents is deemed haram (sinful).
Religion and prayers
Life is lived very much within the parameters of Islam. All shops close for prayer time, and all women must wear the abayah when out and about. Fortunately, the notorious religious police (mutawaa), who toured the malls and shopping areas looking for religious and moral infractions have (since 2016) stopped patrolling with the official uniformed police.
Life in Riyadh is very much governed by the prayer time schedule*. Five times a day, all shops close for prayer, and woe betide the unlucky shopper who has not carefully planned the day. Super market trips can be reduced to mad dashes through the aisles, in order to beat the sun setting and the fate of being stranded at the till. Many supermarkets do allow you to wander the aisles during prayer time, which can be a strategic plus. Beware, however, some actually lock you in, so be prepared to wait until after prayer time to make your escape.
The shops are staffed primarily by people from other countries. Therefore, one does actually not need Arabic to get around, as it is rarely the first language of the person behind the counter. Conversely, this makes it very difficult to learn and practice Arabic, as one would in other countries.
Saudi Dress Code
In Riyadh, considered one the most conservative of Saudi cities, almost all Saudi women wear both the hijab (head scarf) and the niquab (face veil). Young princesses swan about in kimono style abayahs left daringly open, with a loose veil, while glamourous types affect an Emirati style, with kohl lined eyes and elaborate veiled hairdos creating lollypop silhouettes, their abayahs incrusted with crystals and embroidery.
Meanwhile, married and more conservative women sport the ladylike head abayah, which falls straight from the crown of the head, and reveals no hint of the body underneath. Social conventions hold real sway in the Kingdom, so do not make the common Western assumption that all women are dressed this way against their will. Although some women would prefer not to veil and might feel compelled to do so, for most it is a natural thing. One Saudi friend compared bearing her face in public to going topless in the Riviera: perhaps a perfectly normal and healthy thing to do, but way out of her comfort zone!
Men wear the traditional thobe and gutra (headdress) much of the time, particularly for work and social occasions, and will 'dress down' in Western clothes on weekends. Given the dust and heat, the always pristine thobes sported about town are a marvel of modern Riyadh. Western men are free to dress anyway they like, although shorts are frowned upon and might get you barred at the mall entrance.
Western women are expected to wear abayahs whenever in public. Although odd at first, it has the advantage of hiding all matter of sins, from the ripped sweatpants on a jaunt to Harvey Nicks, or the odd extra pound. Just make sure you will not be in the position where you will need to take it off in polite company - nothing more unnerving then being caught at a fancy luncheon in a stained t shirt.
Riyadh is grocery store heaven, ranging from the hyper market style Carrefour and Danube, to the smaller American Safeway, aka Tamimi, and all have multiple branches throughout the city. If Nigella or Delia ever stumped you with an impossible-to-find ingredient, now is your moment. Due to the large expat population from the subcontinent and Southeast Asia, you can find almost any spice, noodle or exotic vegetable imaginable. Even more homely treats can be found; Waitrose products are featured prominently in the gourmet section of the local Danube markets.
French supermarkets feature beautiful cheeses and breads, while others feature American fare, including cereals and frozen meals.One tip: If you are after a box of a favorite American cereal, look for the packages with English text - the locally packaged Arab versions can be quite different in taste and appearance.
Part of the fun is finding things that have managed to slip into this very conservative country- Christmas candy, egg nog, even the occasional festive tree makes it through the fearsome customs and onto the shelves. Even though you are in the middle of the desert, fresh fish from the Red Sea is plentiful, from the more familiar salmon and sea bass to brightly coloured exotic fish which could double as extras in `Finding Nemo'.
For household items, there are the hypermarkets and Saco World, the Saudi version of Home Depot, or better yet, have your driver head down to the teaming area of old city, Batha, where the expats from the subcontinent and Afghanistan congregate. Here you can buy anything from tires and remotes, to light bulbs, scrub brushes and custom suits at knockdown prices.
Souks can be found all over Riyadh in various guises, although they lack the picturesqueness of those found in Morocco or Tunisia. Congregated around the Masmak fort is the Dierah souk, where one finds carpets, gold, worry beads and `antiques' of the real and `made in India' variety, and the Clock Tower souk, featuring all things manly: desert coats, dashing robes and gutras, antique guns and piles of aromatic woods and perfumes.
Abayahs, kitchen ware and inexpensive galibiyah (caftans) can be found at the Kuwaiti and Owais souks off Olaya street, while the really adventurous head out of town to the second hand souk near the cement factory. Here piles of old cookers and dishwashers vie with tent furnishings, bikes and the famed Princess souk, where 3 pounds will buy you a jewel incrusted evening dress that would do a Paris couturier proud.
In modern day Riyadh, with searing heat five months of the year and no sidewalks to speak of, the mall has become central to Saudi life, the favorite pass time of Saudis and non Saudis alike. Teenagers prowl in giggling packs (single sex, of course), congregate en masse in food courts and cafes, and flirt virtually via bluetooth messaging. Large families careen from shop to shop. Boys often have a hard time getting into the malls, as the ever vigilant mall guards and mutaween do their best to keep them out and away from the gaggles of girls within.
Store clerks are all male; even lingerie is sold by men, much to the consternation of Saudi women. The exceptions to this are the 'women only' malls which are staffed entirely by women, where women are encouraged to take off their face veils and shop away from the prying eyes of men. The Kingdom Mall has turned its second floor into `Ladies Kingdom', a good place to experience this phenomenon.
Another quirk in Riyadh is that changing rooms in stores are banned, so all stores have a liberal exchange policy, allowing one to try on clothes at home. Some of the more progressive malls have dressing rooms adjoining the public loos (ladies marked by a decorous veiled head, men by a natty gutra wearing profile). Harvey Nichols in the Faisaliah Mall does one better, and offers glamourous `personal shopping' suites, where the dressing rooms have their very own living room in which to lounge in privacy.
Getting around Riyadh
With virtually no public transportation, Riyadh is all about the car, and is criss-crossed with jammed highways night and day. The worst times for traffic are the school run hours (6-8 am, 2-3 pm) and during prayer times, which everyone takes as a signal to rush off to the next mall. After final prayer (usually around 8 pm) the streets fill with cars heading to the malls and restaurants. Saudis lead far more nocturnal lives then their western counterparts.
If you can possibly afford it, having a personal family driver is ideal. Not only do they whisk you to the shops and engagements, they often do double duty as handymen and errand runners. A good driver will be able to navigate the ever-changing streets and the labyrinthine traffic patterns-switchbacks and slip roads are rife, and constant upgrades often make major thoroughfares difficult to negotiate.
There are many reliable limousine services in Riyadh which you can hire on contract or just for single trips, and compounds usually have their own fleet of drivers and cars for residents to use. Local taxis, which are white, are not recommended; the drivers rarely speak English, the meters are always `broken', and the fares can be exorbitant. Many of the larger compounds also have daily shuttle buses to malls and grocery stores.
This is also a city with no street addresses to speak of. Many streets will have multiple names or none at all, house numbers are random, and street signs are primarily in Arabic. Houses are pinpointed by their proximity to landmarks and key thoroughfares, and invitations are always accompanied by elaborate maps and directions and an all important mobile number so the guest can be guided in if need be.
Household help is inexpensive by Western European standards, and plentiful. Most maids and housekeepers come from the subcontinent or Southeast Asia, and and have often left families behind in order to support their extended families back home. Given the large transient population of expats, there are always good nannies, drivers and housekeepers to be found.
It is not uncommon to inherit drivers and maids with a house or a job, and compounds often have a ready list of people looking for positions. Domestic staff need to be sponsored by either you or an outside sponsor. When hiring full time staff, do not be tempted to hire them without the proper documents. If caught, the employee will be deported after a spell in jail, and you as the employer will be liable for hefty fines.
If you have ever fancied living at a Club Med, then Riyadh is the place for you. The vast majority of westerners live on compounds, with the largest ones boasting restaurants, corner shops, gyms, pools, tennis courts and even movie theatres. The compounds can vary dramatically in ambience and amenities; it is well worth a visit ahead of time to check them out.
Some are affiliated with particular companies: for example, the Salwa Compound, located about 40 minutes form central RIyadh, is exclusively for employees of BAE. For those wanting to send their children to the British International School, the adjoining compound Al Hamra is the best choice, or the nearby Fal, Arizona or Cordoba compounds. Those wishing to send their children to the American International School Riyadh (AIS-R) head to Al Bustan Village in northern part of the city.
The better compounds are chockablock, with lengthy wait lists, and it is often difficult to find accommodation. As a rule of thumb, two and three bedrooms are the most difficult to find, while single apartments and larger `VIP' villas of four and five bedrooms are usually available, but at a steep price. Security is taken very seriously, with multiple gates and check points, and National Guardsmen at the gates.
People on compounds and the DQ wear western dress - indeed, many compounds actively discourage any form of muslim dress, and forbid people wearing abayahs and gutras on their premises, something to be aware of when your Saudi friends come to visit.
Some people opt to live in the Diplomatic Quarter (`DQ' or Al Safarat), which sits to the southwest of town. With beautifully planted boulevards and embassies all constructed in a harmonious Najdi style, the DQ is an oasis of calm and a mecca for runners on the nearly deserted paths and walkways.
As the security situation improves, Westerners are increasingly looking to living in apartment buildings or villas outside the confines of compounds or the DQ. This is almost always a less expensive option.
Drive 20 minutes out of Riyadh in any direction, and you find yourself in the desert, sometimes rocky and flat, other times sandy, with high dunes of gold or red, or camel trails winding up the high escarpment. From November through April, expats and locals head out for picnics and overnight camping, some venturing as far as the Empty Quarter (1,200 kms of unbroken sand).
Closer to home, much of a typical expat's social life revolves around the compound. Barbecues, bridge groups, tennis lessons, children's activities and play schools. On weekends, people head out to the desert, going on 'hash' hikes or quad biking through the dunes. Visits to the camel and falcon markets are also popular activities. Golf is available in town at the Intercontinental, which has a charming nine hole course (all par three) or about 45 minutes out of town at the Dirhab Country Club, which boasts a verdant 18 hole course, stables and ladies only polo! You can also ride horses at Dirhab, hacking through the desert.
Cultural life mostly revolves around the embassies, which hold regular concerts, exhibitions and lectures. Getting on an embassy list is a high priority, not just for culture, but for liquid pleasures as well. The British embassy is quite active, from a village fete and Christmas Carols under the stars, to regular 'Wadi Club' social evenings.
Although very livable day to day, everyone needs a break from the rigours of Riyadh, and luckily, the city is a great base to take off to other countries. A four hour dash to Bahrain can find you sipping a mai tai at Trader Vics on the beach, and a weekend skiing jaunt to Lebanon is less then two hours away by plane. Bahrain and Doha are drivable, while Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and the UAE are but short flights away.
The segregation and strict social customs that govern most aspects of life in Saudi Arabia apply to restaurants as well. Thus, every restaurant will have two doors: single (men only) which will usually be the main entrance and family (groups of women, or mixed families), usually behind frosted glass, or tucked around the corner for discretion's sake. The male sections often have long communal tables.
In the family section, most tables will sport a curtain for extra privacy, allowing veiled women to take off their niquabs to eat. With no music, no wine, and usually no views of other tables, the ambience can be a bit, well, dour. Chain restaurants of the Chili's, Appleby's, Tony Roma variety abound and are enormously popular, although there are more and more restaurants entering the scene with gourmet pretensions.
Needless to say, many of the best restaurants in town are are Lebanese, with Abdul Wahab, Bourj Al Hammam and Baalbek leading the pack. The best sushi in town can be found at Tokyo (although the ambience is frankly grim '50s tenement style) and Yoshi, and the SAS Radisson has a fun Japanese restaurant featuring flashing knives and large grills. Italian restaurants can be quite good, and the more trendy ones even have tables out in the open. The best are found on Tahliah Street, and include Pizza Amore and Vapiano.
Expats and Saudis alike flock to the kitschy Assayara, known colloquially as the Turkish Restaurant, on Thalateen Street. Akin to a diner, the friendly waiters bring out the food in a nanosecond, uniformly delicious and almost laughably cheap. A family of four can feast on doner, dolmades, salads and hommous for under 15 pounds, all washed down with fresh juices. Try the butter hommous and Turkish bread - legendary!
For fine dining, most westerners will turn to the hotels, which do not segregate their dining rooms, and offer fairly sophisticated fare. The more upscale hotels, offer superb friday brunches, laying on lobster, fois gras and `mocktails', with special children's areas with face painting, chips and gummi bears keeping the little ones happy. It makes for great people watching as Saudi families while away the afternoon. The brunches at the Four Seasons, Al Faisaliah and Al Khozama are particularly good.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are some excellent takeaway restaurants in Riyadh. Mama Noura's, which has many branches around town, has excellent shwarma, falafel and fresh squeezed fruit juices by the glass or litre, while trendy Manoosh serves up fresh lebanese pizzas at its outlets.
Meeting the Locals
It can be extremely difficult for westerners to meet Saudis; Saudi social life tends to revolve around the family, and because of segregation, socializing between couples rarely happens. As most expats go to international schools and live in western compounds, it is entirely possible to live for years in the Kingdom, and never make a Saudi friend. Western expats are actually far more likely to mingle and befriend expats from European and other Arab countries. Compounds usually have large concentrations of Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians and Egyptians, who prefer the more relaxed environment.