My husband, Tristan, and I recently spent two months helping run a startup accelerator program in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Before committing to going there, we tried to do as much research as we could online (we didn’t have any friends who had been before so it was difficult to ask around). As a woman, I wanted to feel comfortable traveling to a place that has a notorious reputation for its lack of women’s rights — I had no idea what to expect and had so many questions that I wished someone could have answered truthfully for me.
After spending time there, I wanted to pass along my learnings for anyone else considering a visit to this country where tourist visas have recently been granted:
Q: Can I walk around without my hair/face covered?
A: Yes! Although the older generation is usually covered from head to toe (sometimes just their eyes showing, and sometimes nothing at all), the younger generation often walks around with their hair and faces showing. There is nothing unusual about this anymore.
Q: Do I have to wear a black abaya (long robe) everywhere?
A: Well, first off — it doesn’t have to be black. More and more women are wearing abayas with colors and patterns. Many of the younger women are wearing a version that’s more like an open robe, and you can see their outfits underneath (jeans and T-shirts). Just don’t show skin. But there are a few places that I know of in Riyadh where the abaya isn’t required: a western compound (where many expats stay if they are living in Saudi long-term), when you go ‘camping’ in the desert, the Diplomatic Quarter (nicknamed the DQ) and the top of the Globe Lounge for afternoon tea.
Q: Can I walk around in public by myself/without my husband?
A: Of course. How do you think the women spend so much time at the malls? ;) This sounds stereotypical, but seriously, it’s like the main thing to do there and is primarily a sea of women. I went out by myself a few times and didn’t have any issues or face any harassment.
Q: What about PDA? Is any sort of touching strictly prohibited?
A: We heard mixed reviews on this depending on who we asked, so we just avoided any touching at all. But many of the younger people we were around thought that holding hands was generally OK. Hugging between friends was acceptable, too — be mindful of Muslim women who may not want to shake hands with or hug any men, though.
Q: I heard alcohol is illegal. Even for foreigners?
A: Alcohol is only available within select western compounds and a few embassy headquarters. Otherwise, you may face a hefty fine/prison time if you have it outside of there. But, we heard this may be changing soon!
Q: Why are there two entrances to restaurants? How do we know which one to use?
A: It took us a minute to catch on, but here’s the scoop. Women will always use the Family entrance, no matter who they are with. Men will only use the Family entrance if there’s a woman in their group. If a man is alone or with a group of other men, he will use the Singles entrance. Some places only have one entrance for everyone, but just pay attention to the signage at the door.
Q: I read that I need my husband’s permission to leave the country?!?!?
A: Nope, no one checked anything special when I left the country. I do have an American passport, so sometimes that helps expedite customs/immigration processes, but it seemed pretty straightforward. This may not be the case for everyone, but I can only speak to my experience.
Q: What happens during prayer time?
A: Everything closes for about 30 minutes. All the shops, restaurants, gas stations…everything! If you are inside a store, the lights will go off and the gate will start to come down, giving you a few minutes to pay and exit. Restaurants will typically not serve you during this time, but you are welcome to stay at your table and continue eating. As a non-Muslim, you are not forced to pray, but you should be respectful of that time by not playing any music.
Q: Can I drive?
A: Yup. It’s still catching on, but we saw a few women driving themselves and no one seemed to be paying any attention.
The main thing we learned from the local Saudi friends that we made was not to believe everything you read online. They laughed at some of the things we thought were true (like that dancing would get you thrown in jail). It’s hard as an outsider to know what’s factual and what’s sensationalized, and we feel fortunate to have been able to visit a place with such a foreign culture to us and find out for ourselves.
Have you ever been to KSA? Leave any other tips or questions below!