It’s unusual to be invited to work in Saudi Arabia when you’re a woman. Here’s a post about my recent experience doing just that: my observations, the surprises, and a picture of me in my abaya and veil.
The Run Up: Why I Was There and Getting the Visa
You have to be invited to Saudi to get a visa, and even then, it’s not straightforward. I was invited by a consultancy firm I work with, to run training courses for a big client. It took six months from start to finish, I tried and failed in Bangkok, and in the end I had to apply from the UK. I was in the UK for a new passport (yes, I’ve filled my 10-year passport in 3 years), and I couldn’t apply for the Saudi visa until I had that.
Getting the visa is by no means a sure thing, even with an invite. The Saudi officials check you have enough experience to actually (in their opinion) do the job you are coming for – I had to supply a CV, MSc certificate, proof of being a chartered psychologist, and many other documents. And even then, my client told me that one of the things that probably helped was that I was an ‘older’ woman. Just to be clear, I’m 37.
I finally got the passport back – with visa – the night before I was due to leave the country again, which kept my adrenaline levels high!
What’s it Like to Wear an Abaya and Veil as a Non-Muslim?
Visa in hand, I set off for Saudi. I was very glad to be going with a (male) colleague from Dubai, Khaled, who’s worked there many times before. We were flying business from Dubai – nice – and I didn’t have to wear my abaya and veil until it was time to get off the plane and we were in Saudi territory.
It was a strange feeling putting on the outfit. I felt both anxious and uncomfortable. On the one hand, it felt almost sacrilegious, because it’s not my culture. I also felt everyone would be looking at me – despite the invisibility of the outfit, my face was visible so it was obvious I wasn’t a Saudi. And that doesn’t even touch on the issue of being made to wear them in order to enter the country because of my gender.
The airport felt like a different country immediately. In many of the Middle Eastern countries I go to I see locals in national dress (for men, the white dishdasha and head dress, for women, variations on the abaya and veil), but here, the great majority of the men wore national dress, and almost all of the women wore the black abaya and veil.
I looked around at the other non-arabic women, still trying to decide if I was doing the right thing by wearing the clothes, and found some Asian and Indian woman (obviously I only know ethnicity here, not nationality as I didn’t talk to them) dressed just in modest clothes, so covered, but not necessarily in an abaya, and some weren’t wearing a head covering. The few Western women I saw were dressed in the same way as me.
I’d asked my company (who bought me the abaya and veil in Dubai) what I should do, and they told me to wear it in the airport until I got to the compound, so that’s what I stuck with.
Immigration and a Different Type of Queuing System
Immigration took a very long time, and also felt quite different from the ‘international’ airports which are all much of a muchness (from London to Singapore, Bangkok to Hong Kong, there’s a similarity to many airports). Did you know that Dammam is the world’s largest airport in terms of area? (No, I hadn’t heard of it before either.)
We queued for nearly two hours, barely moving, despite the fact there were only 10 people in our queue when we started. My colleague had already been in on his visa, so we should rightfully have separated into two different queues, but we’d agreed at this stage he wouldn’t leave me (OK…I’d pleaded not to be left alone…).
At one point, immigration officials pulled out all the women with children, and put them to the front of the queue, so I ended up being one of the few women left in my queue (I’m not sure we saw any other women on their own). When the ‘first time visa’ queue had still barely moved after two hours, and the other immigration booths were empty, Khaled jumped out of the queue and went to talk to an official. And because he’s cheeky, he asked if I could come with him into the ‘no queue’ queue he should have been in in the first place, and the official said yes. We were then through immigration in 5 minutes. One unusual difference was than when I was having my fingerprints taken, and I wasn’t pressing my fingers down hard enough, the immigration official pressed them down more firmly – but he put a piece of card between our hands so he didn’t touch me.
Getting into the Compound
We arrived at night, so there wasn’t much to see. The compound is almost a country within a country, and has high security. Despite it being Saturday night (the week starts on Sunday there, so it was the equivalent of Sunday night in the west), the poor client had to come and meet us to get us through the gates.
We exited the car to a sand storm, which whipped my veil around my head. But the veil was then quite handy to put over my nose and mouth to keep the sand out. But as soon as I got into my room I took the abaya and veil off, and I didn’t put them on again until the end of the week when I was leaving.
Accommodation and the Compound’s Facilities
Our accommodation was deep in the heart of the compound, and felt quite like a student dorm. I had men and women on my corridor, and it had the usual facilities of any hotel room (apart from a kettle). As most hotels in the Middle East do, it had a sign on the ceiling which pointed out the direction of Mecca.
There are hotels just outside the compound, but as a woman I would have had to wear my abaya and veil everywhere apart from in my bedroom if we stayed there, so it was better we were put up in the ‘long-stay’ accommodation inside.
There really is plenty for the 11,000 residents to do on site – I was invited to a (hard!) Vinyassa flow yoga class with a fun British woman who works there, and one evening I had supper in the cafe near to the riding stables (!). There’s also a bowling alley, cinema, male and female gyms (separate), lots of restaurants and many other facilities. It feels like life in a bubble, but a nice bubble nonetheless. And a very secure one, which is both reassuring and unnerving at the same time.
The Work and my Delegates
The actual work was straightforward enough, running a single course three times across the week. English is the business language, and I trained both Saudis and expats. It’s a mixed gender work environment, although there was only one woman on the three courses I ran. Everyone was polite to me, and I didn’t encounter any especially difficult delegates (at least, no more than in any other country I go to where sometimes older males can be a challenge 😉 ). Women work on the compound, and this includes Saudi women as part of the Saudization policy of the country to get more Saudis working there.
I found everyone to be very hospitable, and my client in particular was lovely, very smart and on the ball, and a real pleasure to work with (and I don’t say that lightly 😉 ).
The working hours are 7.30am until 4pm, which does mean you have a pleasantly long evening. People seem to stop work at 4pm – it’s not a long hours culture. The lunchtime was a bit strange in that everyone has the same lunch hour, 11.30-12.30 – which means that all the restaurants and dining halls at that time are jammed. It also meant that we had to stop before 11.30 or have delegates just head out of the door!
Scenery-wise, it reminded me of Kuwait – it’s a very sandy country. I don’t see so much of the desert when I work in Dubai, as the city itself it quite built up, so it felt like a change in that sense.
You’ll see from some of the photos we took from the car the sand dunes at the side of the road, and the flatness of the land stretching out to the horizon. Everywhere you go there are little dusty pale yellow piles of sand which build up as the wind moves the sand around. And it’s very hot, though it cools down at night (we were there in early May and it was in the late 30s).
Was it Actually Saudi Arabia?
Good question. I would say I got barely a taste of what it’s like to live in Saudi Arabia itself, as the compound I visited has its own rules within the country. Either way, it felt like a privilege to be invited into the country (really), and a fascinating experience.
I did feel uncomfortable when I met women who had their faces covered. It is very strange to talk to someone when you can only see their eyes. One interesting cultural difference is the amount of make up and perfume many of the Arabic women I meet wear. But when you only have your face and eyes to show your individuality, that definitely makes more sense.
For those that asked, yes, I’m going back. I have a three month visa, so I’m going back for another engagement in a few weeks. After that, who knows…