Author Archives: Laura

Hello there! I'm Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I've visited 70 countries and I'm always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

Our family recently took a quick trip to Istanbul and I wanted to share some photos I took of this magical city. We had just under a week there which I found was not enough to explore everything Istanbul has to offer. Incredible, irresistible, inspirational, intriguing, sometimes irritatingly crowded Istanbul made a huge impression on me and I will definitely return there one day with better time on my hands.

Turkey is a popular holiday destination among Saudis and we saw many of them in Istanbul. The city is easily reachable from Saudi and visas can be purchased on arrival. The beautiful mosques, shopping, great food and Islamic history attracts large numbers of Saudi tourists here.

Turks love love flowers! This is from a flower market at Taksim square.instanbul flower lady

 

We took an evening cruise on the Bosphorus it was beautiful despite the cloudy day. And also very romantic of course!
Cruising between the two continents.
Taksim Square, this lady was selling bird seeds for tourists to feed the pigeons.
Topkapi Palace splendor. The Sultan had over 500 concubines in his palace! It was so huge we didn’t have time to even see a third of it, but enough to get a general impression of the ridiculously lavish life style of the time.
Mouth-watering Turkish foods. These men were breaking the clay pot dish with the spoon and they made it into a spectacular show on the street where people sat watching on the restaurant terraces.
The Sultan’s harem at Topkapi palace. This place was freakin huuuuge! There was separate quarters for the favorite concubines and mothers to sons and then a less fancy motel like part where I guess the less popular lovers were kept. What a sad life that must have been (for the women)
Check out the Sultans modest bedroom furnace!

Inside the Harem a view to the sky. I wonder how many women looked through these holes and thought of escaping their miserable life as basically sex slaves to the Sultan..

The “flower passage” is lined with restaurants and cafe’s.

Turkish baba enjoying some traditional Turkish ice cream.
Inside Aya Sofia the original place of the Virgin Mary is almost identical to the direction of the Qibla, is it coincidence? How amazing I thought!
The entrance to the Aya Sofia which was originally a church then turned into a mosque.The images of Jesus and Mary were covered and then revealed again after it was turned into a museum in 1930’s. I saw only a few Muslim tourists at Aya Sofia. Comparing to the neighbor Blue Mosque where the crowd was mixed of non-muslims and muslims alike. I thought it was sad and showed how religious tolerance among Muslims is non existent. Why would they not want to visit Aya Sofia as much?
Cat at the Blue Mosque.
Sultanahmet mosque courtyard
Inside Blue Mosque
Alladdins lamps and a thousand other things for sale at the Grand Bazaar’s 4000 shops
I love these lamps!
Most delightful Turkish delights.
Just another of the thousands of Istanbul’s mosques
A sheesha cafe in Sultanahmet.
A poet and his kitten at an ancient cemetery.
Aya Sofia by night.
A lazy well fed and groomed street cat.
Maghrib prayer.
Crowded Istilkal Caddesi
I love the cats of Istanbul they are treated so well they look like house cats
Roasted chestnuts sold by street vendors
The Turks are obsessed with the evil eye!

My daughter had many admirers people would come up to her all the time to squeeze her cheeks and say mashallah.Here a police officer stopped us to give her a ticket for being too cute!

Which picture do you like the most? My favorite is the Turkish Baba :)

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

Ice-skating in the desert? Well yes, in a shopping mall that is. Actually there are quite a few places in Riyadh and around the country where they have small ice-skating rinks inside the children’s entertainment areas.
The problem is (if you’re a Finnish woman craving to do some figure-skating moves) they don’t allow women to skate. UPDATE 2017: Royal mall ice skating rink allows women and the Snow City in Othaim Mall allows women in.
We Finns have always been an Ice-loving nation. Be it figure skating, curling or ice-hockey, we have mastered it. This year Finland won the Ice hockey WORLD Championships. We beat countries like RUSSIA, U.S.A and CANADA. And we are only 5 million people. But the sweetest victory was winning against SWEDEN in the final. I just HAD to say that. Oh and did I mention it was 6-1.
One of my Finnish friends here has the same “calling” to find a place to go ice-skating. She managed to find a rink where they allowed her to skate in an abaya but that was in the more relaxed Jeddah. That’s one more reason I will add to my long “why we should move to Jeddah”-list.
So you can imagine the EXCITEMENT when I randomly found this NHL-sized (well almost) ice-skating rink in Riyadh and best yet it allows women:

No need for abayas!

Wait how can this be even possible? Wouldn’t the infamous religious police have a say to uncovered women twirling around making obviously flirty movements?
Well the answer is of course, the rink can be closed off from view. That means you have to rent the whole place out for yourself, if you happen to be a woman that is.

So for any crazies out there who would share the passion of ice-skating in the desert, this place is in the upper floor of the ChinaMart next to the Carrefour. It costs 700 SAR per hour to rent including the skate rental. I think I will be there soon practicing my “Camel Spins” and “Mohawk Turns”.

 

P.S: Royal Mall has an ice skating rink and they allow women as well.

 

If you hear of other rinks that allow women to skate please let us know!

 

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

King Abdullah has announced in his speech something monumental in regards to women’s rights in the Kingdom.  This is a historical moment for Saudi women and Saudi Arabia as a country. King Abdullah has announced that women will be allowed to vote and participate as members in the appointed Shoura council.

I was so happy that upon hearing this I just wanted to go give King Abdullah a big bear hug!

Ok maybe that wouldn’t be the greatest idea.. But you get the idea of how excited I am. This is big news. Saudi women are soon going to participate in decision making in Saudi Arabia. This also gives hope for the future for more decrees like this from the King. (ahem women driving..) Not only the Saudi women but the whole country will benefit from this change.

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud

In my opinion, the King is doing a great job considering the circumstances he has to work under. Just thinking about all the current issues and problems in Saudi Arabia that would need change/improvement gives me a headache! So taking into account where he had to start off with (post 9/11 Saudi Arabia and appalling state of women’s rights just as example) when he began his rule, coming to this point really does become monumental and turning the tide for Saudi women’s rights.

It must not be easy having to deal with strong opposition to decisions (like the one permitting women to Shoura), coming from the religious conservative leaders, and on the other hand the more liberal part of society which strongly opposes some other decisions.

King Abdullah has to deal with the heavy pressure from the religious clerics to stick with their own religious views and interpretations but also the opposing public opinions, he has to listen to his many brothers in high governmental positions, manage other family members pushing their opinions and demands on him..then there’s the king’s advisors and some relatives with their own agendas, people doing a lot of things behind his back.. and of course most importantly he has to deal with his conscious, to be the just ruler that is ultimately responsible only to Allah.

It looks like most of the time his ultimate choice has been listening to his heart, and that’s undoubtedly what makes him so loved by the Saudi people, who call him the ‘King of Hearts’.

The King, estimated to be around 90 years old, said in his speech:
Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Shariah, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulema and others to involve women in the Shoura Council as members, starting from the next term”

I think this is great news and indicates that the country is ready to move forward to this century. Some others have been more skeptical. People are saying this is not really going to mean anything concrete will happen for improvement of women’s rights.

Critics are saying women are not actually going to have any power in the Shoura, but will only be like puppets and all this was done solely for statistics and looks. The Shoura council and municipal election themselves are said to have little or no actual influence on how the country is ruled.

Western media has perhaps deliberately left unsaid that before 2005 Saudis, regardless of gender were in fact not allowed to vote at all. Or in other words, there was nothing to vote for. When they held the municipal elections for the first time it was most likely due to the resource problems (gender segregation) that women weren’t included. For the next round in 2015 women will be able to vote as well as run as candidates. That will be very interesting to see.

The King also said in his speech:
“Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice”

King Abdullah then gave examples from the times of Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. During the era of the Prophet some women acted as lawyers and people would go to them with complex legal issues, there were female scholars and in general women participated in the society as equals.

What do you think readers? Are the Kings rulings just a way of getting the focus OFF women driving or a prerequisite TO women driving?

As the eternal optimist, I say it’s the latter.

 

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

This humorous cultural guide to Saudi coffee (gahwa) drinking ceremony is directed at the traditional Finnish man, but could be useful for any western men when navigating though the Arab coffee drinking culture.

For Saudis visiting Finland for the first time it’s recommend to read the Saudi Dude’s Guide to Finnish Coffee Drinking Ceremony. These two nationalities are highlighted in the guides because the author of this blog is a Finnish woman married to a Saudi man.

 

Gahwa Drinking Guide For Finnish Men

So you are Finnish dude and have arrived in Saudi-Arabia. Like the typical Finnish dude, you are not very familiar with the Arab culture. You think Saudis are hairy men wearing big skirts that live in the desert in tents eating camels and fighting other Arabs. Your perception of Saudi Arabia is that it’s full of sand and rocks. For this problem, I recommend you go here: Images of Saudi
Luckily you find yourself invited to a Saudi house for some Arabic coffee to change your perceptions to more realistic ones.
What to expect?
What should you do, and most importantly, NOT do?
The Saudis, like the Finns have specific rules to their coffee drinking ceremonies. This guide will help you not only to enjoy the evening, but to avoid getting deported.
When you arrive at the house you will be greeted by the Saudi man. He will start kissing and hugging you. Note that this is completely normal. He is not trying to make a move. Try your best not to stand there like frozen popsicle. It is polite to say something also, try Marhaba.
Note that the Saudi man will likely ask you how you are and then ask the same about your family members one by one. You might feel this is obtrusive but do not worry, he’s not trying to find out your family secrets, just being polite. You can reveal how your relatives are doing however if one of your uncles is in rehab or jail it’s best not to mention that. The point is to pretend everyone is fine and keep it short. Saudis won’t like to listen to the story about your grandmothers medical report starting from year 1902.
At this point you might start to wonder where the women are. They are in the other side of the house. If you see something that looks like this:

That is a woman, not a ninja. Do not make any attempts to kiss her. If you happen to see her you are supposed to look away and not say a word, that is seen as being polite. Don’t worry if you accidentally mumble something. The black figure will not attack you.

You will be escorted into a room with no couches or tables. Mattresses, carpets and pillows will be spread out on the floor. Don’t panic. This is not their bedroom. It’s their living room called a Majilis.

Remove your shoes and sit on the floor with your legs crossed. You can keep your white tennis socks on. Don’t attempt to lie down or spread your legs.

Next the Saudi coffee drinking will begin. You will hear them say “kawa” or “gahwa”. This doesn’t have anything to do with the “kava-ceremonies” you saw in Fiji.
The coffee pot and cups will be brought into the room. They will likely look something like this:

Don’t get your hopes up. Those are NOT shot glasses. The tiny coffee cups are called “finja” and the coffee pot is called a “dallah“.
 

Next the youngest of the Saudi’s sons will pour the coffee. He will hold the coffee pot in his left hand while pouring the coffee from a high distance to the small cup like you saw many times in the night club. Please do not cheer him on though. The coffee cup will not be filled to the top but always 1/3 full. The Saudis are not being cheap, they just like to keep filling your cup to show hospitality.

Don’t worry if the color of the coffee is very yellow. The hosts are not serving you camel pee. The color of the Arabic coffee beans is golden and they might have added some saffron to it. Accept the coffee cup with your right hand. Don’t blow on the coffee like you are used to, it is seen as bad manners.

Don’t ask for sugar, cream or milk with a cinnamon roll. There are none. The coffee is drunken straight. That does not mean you should throw the coffee in your mouth with one big gulp and burp afterwards. You should sip on it slowly holding the cup in your right hand with two fingers. It will taste delicious with aromas of cardamon.

Next you will be offered something that looks like these:

No need to get concerned, they are not dried cockroaches. They are in fact dates that taste very good despite the suspicious appearance. Be polite and taste at least one with your right hand. Note that there will be a seed inside. Do not spit in on the floor but discretely place it in a napkin handed to you.
Be warned that you might be served something that resembles rotten grapes but they are actually half ripe dates and you should eat both sides.
You will be served more and more coffee by the son who circulates the room with the coffee pot. Be polite and have at least three rounds. If your hands are starting to get shaky and you feel sudden light-headedness your coffee has not been spiked by your hosts. You most likely had enough of the strong coffee.
To stop the son from pouring more coffee into your cup, place your left hand on top of the cup or shake it. The cup that is.
Saudis love small talk, which for Finnish men can be a very difficult language to speak. Some suggested topics: sports, weather, and they will surely ask you what you think of their country. Topics to avoid: Politics, religion, asking about the women of the family.
Remember to profusely thank your Saudi hosts. They will be genuinely glad to have had you as their guest.  Congratulations you have survived the Saudi gahwa ceremony!
What if you’re Saudi dude visiting Finland for the first time? If you thought the Saudis have weird coffee drinking habits, then you aint’ seen nothing yet! proceed to the Saudi Dudes Survival Guide to Finnish Coffee Drinking Ceremony. 
 

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

“My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out.” – King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, c. 1930

Not exactly the most welcoming words, coming from the founder of a country said to be home to one of the most hospitable people in the world, Saudi Arabia. Perhaps these words of the late King have been taken too literally when it comes to accommodating for international visitors to Saudi-Arabia.

Currently most of the tourism to Saudi-Arabia is religious based or business related. International tourists are kept away from Saudi by imposing numerous restrictions on travelers and offering very limited ways to enter the country.

Saudi-Arabia has great potential for the international tourism market however the industry still remains predominantly under-developed.

Why does Saudi-Arabia need international tourists? There would be many benefits of having more international tourists visiting the Kingdom.

BENEFITS OF OPENING FOREIGN TOURISM INTO SAUDI ARABIA:

  • Creating new jobs for Saudis all over the country
  • Helping Saudis reconnect with their roots and increase national pride
  • Giving the Kingdom a more open and accommodating image worldwide.
  • Increasing environmental awareness and nature conservation
  • Spreading cultural awareness among Saudis
  • Boosting economy
  • Improving service quality and infrastructure
  • Helping to establish a more efficient public transportation system

Discrimination, Restrictions, Surveillance

So what keeps international tourists from coming to the Kingdom? The biggest obstacle for tourists interested in travelling to the Kingdom is the difficulty to obtain an entry visa.

A Saudi sponsor is required to start the visa application process. Specific criteria applies to who can apply. In other words lots of paperwork, time, hassle and money is required. Visas are mostly issued for business travel, family visits and religious tourism such as Umrah and Hajj visas.

Currently ( in 2010) there are only five companies licensed to sponsor tourism visas. They are issued to certain nationalities only and tourists must arrive in groups of a minimum of four persons. Women must be over 30 or be accompanied by a male relative.

Upon arrival the tourists have to be picked up by the tour company representative and they must make sure all the tourists leave the country too. While in the country the tourists are supposed to stay on guided tours and the tour company is responsible for their supervision. Any “lost” tourists must be reported immediately to police.

The Surprising Sand-pit

Another obstacle the tourism industry faces is Saudi-Arabia’s bleak image of being a mere “sand-pit”. Travelers are simply not aware of the rich cultural heritage the Kingdom could offer. Saudi-Arabia boasts incredibly diverse scenery, colorful culture and pristine nature. There are places of interest that match many international destinations but the ones in Saudi are not ruined by mass tourism. Some sites can still be explored without disturbance from a single other tourist group. See what the Kingdom has to offer tourists on this page: Explore Arabia

Female Tourists

Many women feel intimidated by the rules and restrictions that apply to them in the Kingdom. They might feel they are not welcome and expect the experience of being a woman in Saudi-Arabia will be mostly negative. Female travelers are usually anxious about what to wear and stress about having to keep the abaya on at all times. The western media paints a very negative, one sided image of the treatment of women in the Kingdom which can be off-putting for both the female and male traveler.saudi female tourists soukIn the Future

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, SCTA (founded in 2000) aims to establish a thriving tourism industry within a time frame of 20 years. SCTA states that its mission is to promote the Kingdom as a tourism destination.

The mission according to their website: “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as the land of Islam, seeks for variable and distinguished tourism development, with social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits in the framework of its Islamic values and genuine traditional hospitality“.

The Commission has launched many ongoing projects aiming to improve the tourism industry. Time will tell if they reach their goals, but with the majority of the potential foreign travelers warded off by unattractive images, strict regulations and discouraging rules, perhaps the Commission should concentrate on getting the visitor into the country in the first place. At the time of writing  (2010) most of the tourism sites remain accessible to foreigners of the expat community exclusively.

SCTA has began launching some videos promoting tourism in the Kingdom and becoming more active on their social media channels. However the language used is mostly Arabic, which alienates the foreign tourists and at the same time prevents them from knowing what is going on.

Ten amazing places to visit in Saudi ArabiaPotential of Saudi tourism 
Gizan Province in the Southern part of the country, also the port to the Farasan Islands, one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite diving destinations. A place so beautiful yet untouched by mass tourism is hard to find elsewhere in the world.
The Medinah region is perhaps the most versatile and offers plenty of historical sites including Madain Saleh, The Hijaz railway, Al-Ula. and Al Khuraiba. Khaybar  and ancient tombs and mysterious lines in the desert. The region has absolutely stunning scenery from the Red Sea Coast of Yanbu , to the lava fields and volcano craters.

The late King might be surprised that if given the chance to visit the Kingdom, the foreigner would in fact leave with a smile on his face. The amazing experiences he had and the great hospitality shown to him would spread warm stories of the Saudis and Muslims around the world. His Kingdom and its people would be enriched by the experience and would not only survive, but also thrive.

Why are foreigners not shown the genuine traditional hospitality as mentioned by the Saudi Commission for Tourism, by welcoming them with open arms and doors? The answer might be found in the deeply rooted tribal attitudes of the desert Kingdom.”

Laura Alho is a Saudi travel consultant, travel writer and photographer based in Riyadh. She has a vast experience of travel and tourism around the Kingdom for over a decade.

 

EDIT: As of March 2010 Saudi-Arabia has discontinued issuing tourist visas until further notice. Expected to open again in 2012.

UPDATE: MARCH 2014

Saudi suspends tourist visa scheme

“Prince Sultan bin Salman, secretary-general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), told the press during the Jeddah Economic Forum that the programme, called “Discover! Saudi Arabia”, had been temporarily put on hold to allow the government to focus on developing the tourism infrastructure in the kingdom and make it more attractive to the locals before considering to welcome foreign visitors.” http://www.arabianbusiness.com/saudi-suspends-tourist-visa-scheme-543331.html

UPDATE 2017: Saudi Arabia announces tourist visas will be soon opening again

UPDATE 2019: Sharek site is issuing tourist visas for specific sports events around Saudi Arabia, in a soft opening phase of tourist visas.

Text and Images copyright:Laura Alho

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

Dearest Riyadh,

I hope this letter finds you in good health and inshallah the dust is not covering you too much. How have you been doing otherwise? How is your great grandfather Old Diriyah doing? I have been wanting to visit him for a long time but it has been too hot! I heard he has done some serious gardening in Wadi Hanifa.

Is the traffic still overwhelming you and are the fumes making your lungs hurt? As a nurse I worry for your health! Perhaps you should get some more greenery and parks to ease the pain. I bet your inhabitants would enjoy having serene places like that too.

Certainly they would prefer a park for their picnics instead of the dirty and dark parking lots or construction areas they use now. I honestly never understood why you allow those rich folk to keep perfectly good land as empty wastelands in your best areas. At least demand them to plant some trees in those ugly eyesores! Imagine how beautiful you could become! Like your name implies, “Gardens”.

riyadh industrial city sunset

Speaking of construction, have you ever counted how many cranes you have? You must hold the world record! Or perhaps your Uncle-Dubai wins that title.
Have you ever considered obtaining some of the qualities your Uncle has? Don’t get me wrong, I am not implying you should become just like him. I know he has his faults. But everyone should always try harder and strive to become better cities don’t you think?

Maybe a cinema would be just the thing to would cheer you up?
You could implement it with your own Saudi twist! Have a separate hall for women and men and put guards at the doors. That way you could keep the religious police from ruining it!

That reminds me, do you still have the annoying problem with cockroaches? They seem to get their tentacles into everything don’t they! How will you ever get rid of them? I guess it’s impossible to totally eliminate pests like that. It becomes especially difficult when lots of people are harbouring them and the government is not helping you fight them off. I feel for you.

Do you think the street cats deserve the bad treatment they get from most people here? After all they are God’s creation and we must look after them, not try to kill them! I try to feed them every once in a while I hope you don’t mind.

I wanted to ask you, have you seen any Saudi women driving on your streets? If you do, please be mindful and fix those potholes, make clear road signs and set up street lighting. But the biggest problem of your streets will always be the road hooligans, don’t you think?

Lastly I wanted to thank you for all the amazing experiences you have given me!

Riyadh, you are like a box of dates from Salehia. One never knows what’s inside the somewhat ugly exterior unless they give it a taste first. Many people assume there’s always just a hard seed inside, not even bothering to bite into the date.  Little do they know that it can also be filled with nuts, cookies or even chocolates. It’s just waiting to be found.

dear riyadh it

Hope to hear from you soon!
Yours,

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

Something I learned the hard way in Saudi-Arabia was the importance of saying mashallah, maashallah, mashallaah, or mash’Allah. When I had just started working as a nurse I was full of excitement and I was very talkative with my patients. I wouldn’t give second thought to complimenting on a Saudi woman’s beauty, admiring her pretty dress or beautiful children. Then one day when I was returning to work and was anticipating on having the same patients assigned to me I was in for a surprise.

 

The family had thought I had been “too friendly” and had complained to the head nurse about me. They had mentioned how I didn’t say mashallah when I praised their kids, despite them requesting it. They had instructed me in Arabic to “say mashallah” and I hadn’t understood so they had gotten suspicious and requested another nurse. I was devastated, but I took it as a lesson. I was also another push for me to start learning Arabic. The hospital didn’t allow nurses who had been working under one year to take the Arabic lessons, so my only choice at the time was to learn it on my own. I started writing down and learning new words everyday at work. Read here about expats working in Saudi Arabia and learning Arabic.

 

So what does mash’Allah mean? The literal English translation is “as God has willed it”. It’s used for whenever someone or something is being praised or admired. It’s supposed to be a reminder that all good things come from God and are blessings from Him. Saudis and other Arabs also strongly believe that saying it prevents the “evil eye”. Sometimes Saudis might say mashallah when just looking at something nice.

 

When lots of children are present and people are talking about them, every other word seems to be mashallah! It can be quite frustrating to always remember to say it, but for Saudis it comes naturally and they expect westerners to know to say it too. The family at the hospital obviously was afraid that I had given them the evil eye. It might sound superstitious to some, but it’s dead serious business here.


So be warned, if you’re coming to Saudi-Arabia and see a cute baby (they are everywhere) don’t forget to say mashallah!

What a cute baby MASHALLAH!

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

Ramadan is here and Muslims all over the world will be fasting this month. Saudi-Arabia turns into a much more accommodating place for fasting people to live during the holy month. There are many exceptions in everyday life that enable easier days of fasting, especially for Saudis it seems.

Other fasting Muslims on the other hand and the millions of non-Muslims working in Saudi-Arabia might not live this month as smoothly as the Saudis do. Ramadan in Saudi is certainly a very different experience for a Saudi, a Muslim and a non-Muslim.

I wrote some previous posts about Ramadan in the Kingdom here and one on hospitals and Ramadan here.

Less work, more spending
There are millions of non-Muslims living and working in Saudi-Arabia that are greatly affected by the holy month.
Almost all opening hours of business will change, stores will open only from late afternoon up until 2 am. This of course means heavy traffic in the evenings and not much to do during the day for the people who aren’t fasting. Schools start later for Muslims and there are less working hours for Muslim employees. Researches have found that the productivity in Muslim countries decreases almost by 50- 80% during Ramadan but on the other hand markets grow due to increased spending and giving charity.

Who does the work during Ramadan?
At the workplace the non-Muslim employees are discriminated against in many ways. Starting with working hours, non-Muslims work like in any other month while the Muslims work less total days and have shorter hours. This discrimination sometimes brings discord to the workplaces.
Muslims might take more breaks during the day, arrive late or leave early. This is generally not frowned upon as long as they are Saudis. Other nationalities even if fasting, will be expected to abide strictly to the working hours.
In the hospital where I worked only the Saudi employees were allowed to leave the workplace during prayer times. Sometimes an employee might have been absent for an hour during prayer time. Especially the male employees seemed to do this because they would go out to the hospital mosque unlike the female employees who prayed in empty rooms.

The untouchables
All this might add up to the Saudi employee spending almost half less time at the workplace than the other employees during Ramadan.

Or at least that is how it seems to those left behind at the workplace to do the job while the Saudis are gone.

The non-Muslim employees might feel they are forced to do most of the work because the fasting colleagues are resting or absent. The fasting workers are exempt from the physically heaviest chores.
No one dares to complain about a Saudi colleague, they have a sort of untouchable status at the workplace.

Forbidden Eating
Another phenomenon that might make Ramadan a less pleasant experience for those not fasting is the expectation that all non-Muslims must eat and drink in secrecy during the daylight hours. At the hospital for example even keeping water bottles visible was viewed as almost criminal activity. I think it’s strange that kind of culture exists that everyone else must change their normal daily routines so that the fasting Muslims won’t get offended by the sight of food, when all over the rest of the world and other Muslim countries Muslims fast successfully while the world continues at the same pace. There are also many Muslims who are not fasting because they are exempt, the pregnant women, elderly, children, people with illnesses and breastfeeding women.

I have witnessed how this behavior made some people feel humiliated, discriminated against and it doesn’t exactly indicate religious tolerance either. Thankfully I witnessed that many of the fasting Muslims themselves, especially those from Western origins, thought the “rule” of hiding food was unnecessary, even ridiculous and had no effect on their fast or self-discipline anyways.  Many of these Muslims told me it’s another cultural “Saudi rule”, not a religion based one. saudi hospital entrance riyadh

The toughest Ramadan?
What about the housemaids and drivers? Their month must be the toughest of all especially if they happen to be fasting. Sadly the maids are often the ones having to take care and feed the children during the daytime while the fasting mothers are sleeping through the day. In the afternoons the maids are preparing the food for the family and likely guests too. Evenings and nights they cater to and clean up after the iftar parties. Some families even send their maids to their relatives houses for extra work. When do they have the chance to sleep?

The drivers don’t have it mush easier. Their working hours become longer and they might be forced to skip their night sleep because of family members needing rides to shopping malls or friends houses in the middle of the night.
Naturally there are also Saudi families like my husbands that give their maids extra money or gifts and more free-time during this month, but in general there is a lot more work during Ramadan for the housemaids.

In any case Ramadan is an exceptional month and an ordeal for everyone living in the Kingdom. For some, like the overworked maids, it may be like a nightmare while to others an enjoyable nightly party.

 

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

This post is not to be taken too seriously and YES it contains sweeping generalisations of both cultures. This is a humorous comparison of the typical Saudi man and his Finnish counterpart as husbands..

The Saudi man is very romantic, sweet talk is what he knows.
The Finnish man doesn’t talk or kiss as the saying goes.

When the light bulbs need changing the Saudi man calls the Pakistani electrician to the rescue.
The Finnish man thinks, I might as well change them all to new.Saudi vs Finnish husband

If the wife is in a bad mood the Saudi man sends her to her mother’s house for pampering,
while the Finnish man is stuck with the wife and her constant rambling.

When the Saudi man comes home he expects a hot meal.
The Finnish man only can only dream of such a great deal.

When the wife is not home the Saudi man orders home delivered shwarma because he doesn’t know how to cook.
The Finnish man creates a nice dinner by looking in the cooking book.

If the Saudi´s favorite football team looses he heads for the sheesha place to unwind.
The Finnish man is already in the bar watching ice hockey and getting drunk out of his mind.

If the team wins the Saudi man calls his friends to celebrate.
The Finnish man will stay in the bar until very late.

When the car needs the oils changed the Saudi man sends the driver to get it fixed.
The Finnish man asks his wife to do it and not to forget the beer and chips.

When their child is born the Saudi man goes to the souq to get his wife gold and diamonds.
The Finnish man heads to the bar to get drunk with his friends.

The Saudi husband leaves a trail of thobes and ghutras for the wife to launder,
while his Finnish counterpart wears the same socks for a week then throws them on the floor for the wife to pick up and murmur.

As soon as he comes home the Saudi man sits on the couch to watch football and wants his wife to bring tea,
while the Finnish man sits watching ice hockey and asks for a beer or three.

If the pipes need plumbing the Saudi man calls an Indian plumber to do the job,
while the Finnish man pours some vodka down the drain to flush out the clog.

The Saudi husband shows his love by giving his wife chocolate and a foot massage,
The Finnish husband thinks it´s enough he took out the garbage.

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!

Janadriyah Cultural Heritage festival of Saudi Arabia is held annually on the outskirts of Riyadh at the Janadriyah Village. This post depicts images from the festival in 2011.
For more information about the folk festival itself, the timings and dates of Al Janadriya, check out Blue Abaya guides to the festival: 
 
 
 
 
kids janadriya

It’s time for the annual cultural heritage festival of Saudi-Arabia, Janadriyah. The festival has been held for 26 years in the Janadriya village outside Riyadh. It’s about an hour drive from city center towards Thumamah. The area covers 1.5 sq km and has replicas of buildings representing all the different regions of the country such as Jizan, Farasan, Abha, Mecca, Medinah, Qassim, Najran and many others. Visitors can buy handicrafts made by carpenters, blacksmiths, cobblers and weavers or they can try the different foods available from around the Kingdom. The festival boasts Saudi culture at its best and is a must see for all expats at least once!

Visitors can taste all the different delicious Saudi traditional foods from the various regions.

Although the buildings are the same every year it still always makes for an interesting visit again and again, especially because of the Saudi people. Saudi women are very friendly and will try and make contact with western women at the festival. I often notice them secretly taking video or pictures of my western friends with their mobile phones. Like in this photo:

Some even come up and ask if they can be photographed with us. Sometimes I feel like a western woman at Janadriya is more of an attraction than the festival itself! I haven’t figured the exact reason for why we seem to be such a peculiar sight.. But it’s fun and interesting anyways!

During the course of four years I’ve attended the festival there has been some changes I’ve noted, some for the better some for worse.
Some improvements include they finally made maps of the area available and some info points. I noticed a lot more trash cans and staff for cleaning the area. They had put up more benches and toilets and in general the area looks much nicer this year.

This year the family days are for the majority of the festival unlike before when they were very limited and there used to be a female only day. I see this as an improvement because the festival is best visited with the family as a whole. There’s lots of things for kids to do, they have a farm complete with all farm animals and the kids can go on camel and donkey rides.

The best improvement this year was the scarcity of the muttawa! I only saw a few at the gates and some patrolling the area. I heard this year they have cut down their numbers. Three years ago there were so many of them it was really annoying. I saw the muttawa scolding some young boys for their clothing choices. I guess they were not thrilled with the pink pants.

This year there was much more traditional music and dance performances, poetry recitals and all sorts of performing arts. Perhaps this is related to fewer members of CPVPV present?

A change for the worse were the appearance of way too many fastfood stalls.
I guess they are part of the modern day Saudi culture and therefore have a place at the festival..The only traditional aspect of this Herfys is the gender segregated sides for ordering!

During all these the 26 years the organizers still didn’t think about organizing the parking. Now if 2 million people visit the place annually, you might think they would have a decent parking space for all those cars..But no. The parking area is utter chaos. There are no signs where the entrance or exit are. There’s no one controlling the parking and worst of all they actually “forgot” to put in the white lines for parking spaces. So basically you can park anywhere, anyhow you feel like. How you suppose Saudis do with that :)
Recommended to arrive early! Check my Events section for details and timings.

The reason I love going to the festival is you never know what you’re going to find there. This year it was a Saudi “Santa” handing out candies to children :)

 

Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010.  Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!