As a country that is perceived to have more restrictions than others, it is understandable a traveler may pay more attention when visiting Saudi Arabia.
But while perception is reality, there are a few exceptions that one can only experience once he or she arrives in Saudi Arabia to experience it.
Saudi people are often friendlier than you think
Soon newcomers will realize that Saudi citizens, notably the younger generation and those who have traveled to other countries (and learned other cultures) tend to be more open minded and show respect to others of different cultural or religious backgrounds. This behavior is especially true as long as their beliefs and values are also respected.
Covering up is not entirely mandatory
Wearing an abaya is mandatory (although a Saudi crown prince says it’s not). But for foreigners, covering hair and face is not absolutely required. You, however, are required to cover your hair and face during prayer times and when a hai’a member (someone from the religious police, also known as Mutaween) is around. If locals abide by it, there’s little or no argument a foreigner should not follow.
Wearing thobe and abaya means not worrying what to wear underneath
Saudis wear traditional garments — thobe (also known as thawb) for men and abaya for women. For us who don’t wear them, it may take a while to dig into our closet to find a suitable dress to wear. But for those who have thobe and abaya, there are more important things to do than worry about what to wear; wearing house clothes underneath are not uncommon.
Present Iqama for every transaction
When dealing with any government or business transaction, presenting your iqama or residence card is often required. This may not be a shock to us who also use national cards to validate identity. Use of iqama is often necessary as it contains important personal information such as name, religion, nationality, sponsor or if visa is valid or expired.
Religious police exists to check if Muslim laws are obeyed
You may observe men in thobe accompanied by uniformed officials walking around. They are Saudi Arabia’s religious police and they are out there to make sure Muslims abide by their laws. For example, during prayer times every Muslim attends group prayers or shops are closed and unrelated males and females do not mingle. You’ll notice they’re more likely to accost Muslims rather than foreigners for violations of such laws. However, it helps to err in the side of caution.
Arabs themselves also experience shock
Citizens from other Arab countries, even those within the Gulf Cooperation Council of which Saudi Arabia is a member, may find themselves in a new environment not experienced at home. Perhaps not much on culture, but the mere fact that certain cities like Riyadh hold so much space. Also, every law should be obeyed. Otherwise, offenders are likely fined or even sent to prison for petty infractions such as crossing on a red light or throwing rubbish out of a car window.
Not all Saudi people eat with bare hands
One of the most common misconception about Saudis is that they only eat with their bare hands. Noting that this is also practiced by other cultures, it’s a wrong notion that every single Saudi individual don’t need a utensil to eat on the table. In their culture, it is mandatory to wash hands before and after meals. So unless you also practice the same hygienic routine, their hands may probably be cleaner than yours once they consume their food.
Men have restricted time to enter shopping malls
Anticipating that boys will hit or eyeing on someone of opposite sex at malls or similar public areas, they are only allowed to enter at specific times (usually after 7pm). Should they wish to enter a mall, males need to be accompanied by their family members who watch over them in case they get into trouble. Some of them even have to bribe others to gain entry on malls that normally don’t allow them in. Family members accompanying boys will also be on hand to resolve issues once a member of the religious police catches them attempting to engage with girls.
Family members spend private time with friends in a khaimah
Saudi people value the presence of a khaimah, a tent that allows private gathering in someone’s house. For example, when a woman invites her friends over, they stay at the tent as it’s more private than the family’s living room where the rest of the family members are staying.
Everything is standstill during prayer time
Muslims pray five times during the day — dusk, noon, afternoon, sunset and night — times vary daily and schedules are commonly found in newspapers. However, during a designated prayer time, which lasts about 30 minutes (noon prayers are longer), everything shuts down: restaurants, shopping malls, shops and so on. This is because those manning these establishments also participate in the prayer. Activities resume only after this special time of prayer.
Saudi is a country of extreme weather conditions
It is well known that Saudi Arabia’s summers are dry and extremely (and dangerously) hot. So don’t take chances; be generous when applying sunblock and always have water handy. During winter season, weather can also be pretty cold out there. In fact there are places in Saudi Arabia that experience snowfalls. Therefore it is also necessary to prepare cold weather clothing for winter.
Saudi Arabia can easily be stereotyped based on what we hear in the news. But the reality is often experienced by visitors who come over. Soon as you are in the country, some of the typical perception may be inaccurate.