Touring Saudi Arabia: Advice for the Ladies
One of my first conversations in Saudi Arabia was how irritated my female colleague and I were at the conflicting info we found online about touring Saudi Arabia. I’m going to write the post I couldn’t find about touring in Saudi Arabia as a female.
* Everything in this post applies to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It is the least conservative city in Saudi Arabia. Please be aware that if you are going to any of the other cities, there may be stricter restrictions.
If the men on your tour may say things like, “oh boy, I didn’t think they were going to let me wear shorts, but I can totally wear shorts,” you may want to punch them in the face. Try not to. They probably just didn’t like the idea of someone telling them what they could and couldn’t wear and were happy to find it doesn’t really apply to them.
…there are not enough eye roll emojis in the world…
Let’s start with abayas. Get yourself one. If you’ll be here more than a few days, get yourself two because you will sweat and they will smell.
The vast majority of Saudi Arabian women seem to wear plain black abayas. The cheapest one I found and bought that was properly labeled an abaya was on Amazon for $26 and it has gold trim.
I also bought this dress off Amazon and it was totally fine as my second abaya. I actually preferred this one because it was a lighter material and it had pockets. It quickly became my primary abaya because it was way more comfortable.
I effing hated every second of wearing that thing, but I digress. Be prepared for own mixed emotions about being forced to wear this thing. When I managed to adopt the silver lining side, I took the mentality of at least it’s like Catholic school and I don’t have to worry much about what I’m wearing everyday.
On that note, it’s also hot as aljahim in Saudi Arabia too, so that makes the black coverings even nicer.
Now, you could pick an alternative color and as long as you’re still covered from the neck to wrists to ankles, you’d be OK, but you would stick out. Some Saudi women do go out in colorful abayas, but not many, and you are also going to stick out as a Western woman.
This brings me to…
If you go to some general tourist/mall/restaurant places alone, you will probably be pretty safe, using the same common sense you use to travel elsewhere in the world, but let me also share this story:
We went to Jeddah and stayed a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the mall with the grocery store. I walked it the first day with a male co-worker. No issues. The next day, I needed to go get some groceries, so in the middle of the afternoon, broad daylight, fully dressed in my proper Saudi-friendly clothing. And I was honked no less than 30 times on that 10 minute walk and occasionally hollered at out of car windows. It was seriously like a bad 1990s sexual harassment video. So, while I did still feel safe, that was irritating as… aljahim.
I also experienced a general feeling of unease around the men here, which might be a little unfair, as every one I had to speak with was polite and helpful and generally kind, but there is such a strong feeling of keeping separate from each other. On my first day at the hotel, I hesitated to get in the elevator with a man I didn’t know. Was it OK? Should I just wait for the next one?
And I feel like that questioning feeling was how I felt the entire time. As a matter of fact, I only really felt comfortable about the other women in our group. I even felt a strong separation from the men on our tour in a way I’ve never felt out on the road before. Ugh, sigh. Moving on.
When trying to be invisible in Saudi Arabia, wear a hijab – but learn how to style it better than I did. Hijabs are scarves to cover your head. The nice thing is that you don’t have to wear one. If you’re just going from the airport to the hotel to the malls to work, you won’t need a hijab in Jeddah.
If you plan to sightsee at a mosque or anywhere else that’s in a more conservative area, it doesn’t hurt to have one with you. Also, if you find yourself walking to the mall or outside in general in broad daylight and men are hollering and honking at you, a hijab will make you slightly less blatantly Western and can reduce the amount of attention you get.
When to Change En Route
Personally, I didn’t want to fly from New Jersey through Germany in my Saudi-proper clothing. This left me wondering when I should get changed and so I totally winged it and figured I’d duck into a bathroom as soon as I got off the plane and swap out my sweatshirt for my abaya.
As it so happened, at the airport in Jeddah, we went right from the plane into the customs line, and there was no bathroom in between, while military men barked at us in Arabic about which line to go into. So there might be a bathroom over by the connecting flights wing, but the way they were hollering discouraged me from wandering away and checking it out.
So, in super form fitting leggings, I stood in line for immigration for 45 minutes. Toward the very front of the lines were like three women who were already in abayas and hijabs. I felt like I was standing there forever in a sea of men and felt uncomfortably exposed. On the plus side, that was just me. No one complained or said anything. I did get several looks, which only added to my discomfort, but I wasn’t actually doing anything wrong.
I would say, that if I ever fly into Saudi Arabia again, when they announce we’ll be descending soon, I will put my abaya on. While flying in, I had it in my head that I need to like slip into a bathroom to do this, but after a few weeks of wearing that thing, I started to think of it more like a coat and now I would just shimmy into it on the plane before deplaning.
If you don’t care, you can get changed in the restroom that is right by the baggage claim, after exiting the customs and immigration line. No one will say anything to you about being dressed however you are dressed. I did not see a single woman still in Western clothes after picking up my bag and while waiting for a taxi outside.
As a side note, one of the other women in the crew did put on her abaya in Germany and mentioned that as soon as she put it on there, the local people started treating her rudely. So… maybe wait on your abaya if you’re flying through there.
What to Wear Under Your Abaya
It is freaking hot in Saudi Arabia. It drops to a balmy like 95 in the middle of the night when the sun is down in July. It can go up to like 115 during the day. And it’s humid. You can wear whatever you want under your abaya. There is no point in time that I took that thing off in public. I heard stories that there are female only places where it can happen, but I didn’t go to any. One of the other stage managers on tour did go get a manicure at a salon and they made her take off her abaya when she went in there. She was wearing short shorts and a tank top and no one cared at all.
We did rehearsals in a small theater there and the other stage manager and I would both take off our abayas while we worked in there. It was entirely our cast and crew and occasionally the two guys who seemed to work at the place would pop in and out but no one complained that we were in our own clothes.
I wore leggings and t-shirts or a tank top under my abaya most of the time when I was out in public. If we were exploring the city, I always went with a tank top because of how hot it was. Most of the time, I just wore my pajamas under my abaya when I would go down to the hotel lobby for breakfast. It was not uncommon for us ladies to go out in the middle of the afternoon with nothing but our underwear under our abayas when it was ridiculously hot and we were just running a quick errand.
While we were in the tent running our show, I wore my regular show blacks and left my abaya in our little office/dressing room there. I was able to move freely through the tent in show blacks and go to the green room outside the tent. I also had to do several cues visible to the audience from front of house and just wore my show blacks and no one said anything to me.
The evening of load out, despite having several male locals who did not approve, the three of us ladies stayed in our show blacks and did the load out like that, even though we sometimes had to go out to the street to the trucks. Nothing bad happened. That being said, through the show run, we were in the Jeddah Season compound and if I left the tent, but stayed in the compound, I put my abaya back on to go grab coffee or a burger or anything.
What to Bring
You may want to pack some entertainment (seriously though). There’s not a lot to do other than go to malls here. A bunch of the tourist websites recommend taking pictures of the cool doors. The doors are cool. Sure, go take pictures. But there’s a reason they all seem to point out these doors. BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING TO DO.
Good gracious. Ladies, you can’t really go to most beaches unless you buy a burkini or just go in the water in your abaya and even then, you still can’t swim at most beaches. I brought three books, which felt like overkill and it wasn’t enough. I crocheted half a scarf. I worked a lot on my blog and was happy I was taking an online college class.
What I wish I had brought was a board game or two. I think the entire group would’ve appreciated it. The only places I really felt comfortable were in my room or anyone else on the show’s room, in my regular old clothes, without wearing that stupid abaya. So if you want to plan to host a bunch of game nights, it’s a good idea. Do not bring poker chips with you into Saudi Arabia though – gambling is illegal.
What to Do
So, I know I just said there is nothing to do, but when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right? Here are a few things that I thought were cool:
- Al Balad Marketplace – try to go at sunset because during the day it is crazy hot and half the shops are closed. Everything is cheaper there and it’s kind of cool. It reminded me of Aladdin and felt like a cool cultural experience. Three of us girls went together alone and we felt safe enough. We actually had to go mid afternoon because of work, but it was still neat to check out.
- The Mall of Arabia – so being from New Jersey, their malls just seem like a regular old mall to me, but here’s the crazy thing, they’re open till like 4 am. The food court is hopping at midnight, with families and children. It’s wild to see once.
- Giant Camel Statue – we drove past two giant camel statues on the way to work every day and I thought it was pretty cool.
Also, if you like coffee, you are in luck. There are tons of coffee shops.
If you’re careful, Saudi Arabia is pretty safe but you have to let go of the idea that you have freedoms and rights – you pretty much don’t. Just keep your head down, follow their rules, and get through your tour stop here. On the plus side, I saved a ton of money because there was nothing to do and I didn’t like leaving the hotel. The hotel had an included breakfast and our venue had catered dinner between shows for us.
One other little note, if you use Verizon’s travel pass for $10 a day, I still had trouble with data and usually couldn’t connect. I could receive calls and text messages but since we did pretty much everything through WhatsApp on our tour, that $10 a day was useless. You might want to save your money. It was so hot I barely wanted to eat, so I never really ate lunch. I seriously went home with like 75% of my per diem still intact.
And, as a pleasant side note, I’m more excited to be an American than I have been in the last few years, so that’s certainly nice.
Published in Collaboration with brokeGIRLrich