Myths & Untruths Uncovered

The morning before we started our trip out here to Riyadh, my parent company conducted a cultural orientation on what we should expect during our visit to the KSA. Kind of a “do’s and don’t's” of doing business in the Saudi Arabia. The orientation scared the pants off of my colleague and I. Perhaps that was the intent: make us fear making any missteps so we were certain to behave ourselves. So, on we went to the plane with visions of legs being spray painted, laptops being confiscated, and heads being chopped off. Couldn’t have been further from the truth. Here are some things that I have since discovered to either be complete bunk or be due to an unusually permissive experience in the KSA:

  • All laptops, phones and other media-storing devices will be thoroughly inspected and may well be confiscated should they have any pictures of less-than-fully-covered women: perhaps it was the fact our host got us whisked through immigration, but I saw no evidence of any staff at the airport dedicated to reviewing the contents of one’s bags.
  • Pain killers, antidepressants, sleep meds, and the like are banned and cannot be brought into the country without a notarized copy of your prescriptions: This sent me into a panic the morning before my flight out, but was an unwarranted fear. As with the laptop – no one took a peek at my belongings.
  • The Mutawa will get ya! Granted, I’ve been in business meetings or in the hotel most of the time, but even during my rides to and from meetings, I’ve not seen any roving packs of religious police.
  • You will get the constant stink eye if you show even a hint of ankle below the hem of your abaya. While there are many, many fully-vieled women about, very few seem at all concerned about the length of their abayas and I’ve not gotten scandalous looks from men when I’ve worn my “shorter” one (the one that ends about at my ankle bones).
  • As a woman, you can’t ride in a car with a man other than your driver, nor can you go out in public with male colleagues: my doctor buddy & I have shared the back seat of the car a good dozen times so far without incident.
  • The city grinds to a screeching halt during prayer times. This has been the most surprising to me. Yes, shops & restaurants close up in many places during prayer times (which my host tells me are 30 minutes here in the KSA, but 10 minutes in every other Muslim country), but every moment of my business day has continued uninterrupted and I’ve not seen one person take leave for prayer. 

Things that have certainly been true:

  • No liquor, anywhere: this is the one thing they did screen for in the airport. I enjoyed a particularly tasty Shirley Temple at dinner last night.
  • Abayas at all times: yep. And, while I’ve been told it’s okay for Western women, the head scarf is also nearly universally common. While a few Western women at the hotel don’t wear the scarf, I feel very out of place without one.
  • Restaurants have men-only lines/sections and a “ladies” or “family” section: yes, but I’m told only in Riyadh.
  • There’s nothing to do other than shop in Riyadh: oh yes, that is so true. Well, one also has a variety of mostly American chain restaurants to choose from.
  • It rains only seven days a year here: Yes, and those seven days happen to be during my trip. Not that I’m complaining – keeps the temperature very, very tolerable!