Category Archives: shopping in riyadh

Guest Post:24hrs in Riyadh- Female Solo Travel in Saudi Arabia

Yes, you read it correctly. I did actually put the words Saudi Arabia, female and solo travel next to each other and I am just as excited about that possibility to occur as some of my readers may be confused. 🙂

For a blogger or a writer of any sorts, there is nothinng better than getting in touch with his or her readers. Since I started this blog, I have received many  E- Mails from Saudis and internationals, journalists and PhD students, filled with praise for my work or questions regarding my experiences in Saudi and of course some occasional, inevitable criticism.

If any of you are reading this right now: Thank you very much for your time, you are what keeps my work going. I love you all, even my critics!

A couple of months ago, just as I was pacing in front of the lecture hall before my first exam of the semester, I received an E-Mail from Kiera, a lady living in Dhahran who asked me what I would recommend for a short trip to Riyadh. I stood still for a second. Traveling alone in Saudi? As a woman? ALONE?? That was definitely interesting! Women traveling in KSA was nothing new but the ones I knew of did so in groups of at least three in the company of their personal driver.

I immediately forgot about my exam stress as my head started filling with questions. My trip to Jeddah at the end of my stay in the Kingdom ended up not happening so I didn’t really know what to tell her. I admired her decision to take a trip to Riyadh by herself. I wished I would have had the time and the courage to do the same so I did the best I could and told her about things I had done in Riyadh and some of the things I wished I had done, had there been more time and more opportunities.

Today, I am beyond happy to share her story with you! To give you a taste of what awaits you, here’s my favorite quote so far: “People in Riyadh are open-minded but the laws are strict somewhat”.


On Prom Dresses and Strange Opening Hours

My grandfather, whom I unfortunately never got to meet personally, always said that you can have several wedding dresses, as you can get married several times, but you will only have one single prom in your life.

With that in mind, and because I really needed a reason to leave the house, I found myself at one of Riyadh’s shopping malls, which I usually visit like museums because pretty much everything sold there is out of my price range, to look for an evening dress.

One thing that you may notice about malls here, is that they are full of women. It is the women who do all the spending while men are, for the most part, responsible for making the money, driving their wives to the malls and carrying their shopping bags.

Men are the people who usually take a seat somewhere in the corner while their wives are searching for a new dress to spend the money on and in a lot of cases the man can come in handy because let’s be honest: Who else would hold up that poor, little dress in the perfect position so that the woman can take a picture of it?

Absolutely no offense here. Just describing what I’m seeing. Honestly.

Even though Riyadh may have some interesting shopping opportunities, there is one problem with it for the average Western person: Most shops don’t open until circa 4 p.m. Once they open however, you may enjoy being the consumer of goods and services until midnight or even later than that.

For the most part, Riyadh has all of the stores you can find in the United States or other Western countries. The catchiest thing for me though, given the special occasion, were the dresses and not only the normal, but the traditional Saudi dresses, too.

Abayas may be plain black but the other traditional dresses, the ones that are worn on special occasions like weddings or other gatherings are, in my opinion, absolutely breathtaking. According to my research, chances are that these are just female thobes (Dear Saudi readers, you are most welcome to correct me here). They are long, wide and have long sleeves but they have so many different colors and patterns on them, I would have worn one of those to prom if that wouldn’t be totally ridiculous and if our theme would already not have been set to The Great Gatsby. I mean it.

The “normal” dresses are just like the ones you can buy in Turkey and here they cost somewhere between € 200 and € 500 (original price in Saudi Riyal). All of those shops, one next to the other, reminded me of the Albanian bazaar in Skopje, that sold jewelery and wedding dresses.

Instead of revealing all the details about how I couldn’t find anything, let me just tell you about some things to keep in mind when shopping or doing groceries. Many stores are labeled as “for families only”. That means, that if you’re a man, you won’t get in there without your wife or other female relative. The same thing applies to some cash desks and cafés.

Then, there are also the prayer times. If you happen to be inside a grocery store when the call to pray goes off, you may stay inside the grocery store and keep shopping. In fact, you don’t have any other choice than that if you don’t leave before the prayer starts. In other, smaller shops you will be asked to leave.

What most people who don’t pray do is go and get something to eat or to drink. There are some remarkable food courts in the malls here, so you probably won’t get bored. Chances are I will cover my demand on Cinnabon rolls for the next couple of years within the next few months I have left here.

There are extra rooms that are meant for prayers but don’t be surprised if you see people pray in front of shops or just somewhere in the hallways. Pass by, don’t walk in front of people while they pray, as that is considered disrespectful and don’t laugh.

And with that said…enjoy spending your money! 🙂


The Story of How the Watch Got Diabetes

One morning in Saudi Arabia, I woke up and decided that it is time for a new watch. To be more specific that was today.

So, I got on the compound bus with several other ladies that have nothing to do all day, except for household stuff and for whom the highlight of the day, as far as for activities, is a trip to one of Riyadh’s shopping malls that make German malls look like a McDonald’s in Macedonia.

I am not trying to say that the people who live here are so limited themselves, it is just that in Saudi Arabia this is what many people do all day to distract themselves,  Shopping and going out to eat if they are not at the gym.

Even though I am someone who enjoys the traditional bazaars more than the malls, I must say that sometimes there are interesting things about these places, too or at least when you are new here.

You will for example find that even in malls and serious shops, you can still bargain over the price of an object you may also notice that sometimes, customers get very special treatments while trying on a watch.

So I spotted this nice and expensive looking shop that sells watches. Assuming that the things that are sold there are actually real Swiss or Askania watches or whatever, I started to have a close look at the display cases.

Immediately there was a Saudi shop assistant at the counter, showing me all the newest arrivals, trying to direct my attention to the diamond watches, just as the guy in the previous shop did.

There seems to be something about Saudis and diamonds. Maybe some women are really foolish enough to believe that diamonds are a girl’s best friend?

I eventually found some exemplars that appealed nice to me. And here is where I learned that female customer’s are the most favorite customers and that some people really suffer under all the social interaction rules in this country.

The shop assistant was all into helping me chosing the right watch. I have never seen anyone being so enthusiastic about selling something to a woman. Especially in this society.  At least I made a very nice purchase and managed to get the price from  SR 1100 down to SR 600 (from 220 euros to 120 euros). My bargaining skills are improving! 🙂


After I FINALLY got out of the shop, I again made the experience that not everything in this place is as bad as people think it is.

When you come to Saudi Arabia and decide to leave the house, you may eventually run into people called mutawa. Sometimes they are also refered to as the religious police. So basically what they do is walk up and down streets or shopping malls, making sure that everyone behaves the way he or she is supposed to do in this society.

If you are an expat woman, you will most likely be asked to cover your hair. When that happens, DON’T argue, DON’T protest or show discontent. Just cover your hair and keep walking.

And this is what happened to me today, as I was just walking around the place. After the mutawa addressed me,  I went in front of the window of a shop, put on my hijab as well as I could without the pins and believe it or not, but the guy actually said: “Thank you.”, when I was done and ready to keep walking.

That’s some nice improvement to see! The last thing that I expected when moving here, was for the religious police to be grateful for me following their orders. I guess such a polite response from these men does not happen often but apparently I was lucky this morning.

So what do you do when you had a successful day out? In my case, you treat yourself to something sweet! As I was in a hurry to get back to my bus, I didn’t find the Arabic sweets that I love so much. Instead I tried something called cinnamon rolls, which my American readers are probably familiar with.

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That thing is so sweet, my blood sugar started to rise from just looking at it. I mean the chocolate literally runs down the whole thing when you try to eat it. Well, but trying once is okay, right? 😉

Shopping in Riyadh is Not For the Weak

In Riyadh, there are shopping malls every few meters. Not only do those have all kinds of (expensive) things but the buildings themselves are tremendously large. If I would take the Alexa shopping center in Berlin, for example, then I would (and I actually did) immediately realize that the mall in Riyadh is five times as big as that one.

If you live on a compound and do not have an own vehicle, you can use the bus that departs at specific times to specific malls on specific days.

So this is pretty much what I have done today. After visiting the Jarir Bookstore, which is a mixture of a bookstore with books in English and Arabic (mostly by John Grisham, Danielle Steel etc) and a stationary shop, I took the bus from my compound to the Granada Center.

Based on the ammount of visitors, I assume that one of the main things that the locals like to do during their free time is to go shopping and go to restaurants. And this last sentence reminds me of my restaurant experience from this morning, which I want to share before I get to the shopping part.

Here in Riyadh, you can’t just go to a café or restaurant and expect to get a seat immediately. Here things are different. In cafés and restaurants there is always a singles and a family section. Sometimes there even are singles sections only. The singles section is for the men, while when a man decides to come to a place with his wife, he is sent to the family section, since men and women that are not related to each other, are not allowed to mix in public places. I am not 100 % sure, but I assume that even if a group of women comes to a restaurant, they are also sent to the family section, which is hidden from the singles section.

However, the waiting line for the family section is very long. My family and some acquaintances of ours wanted to have breakfast in a café. but no matter where we went, there were already dozens of people who had the same idea.

When we finally found a place in a shopping mall, we were given a number and had to wait until a seat was free and we were called upon. A short time after we ordered, we already got our receipt, while our food and drinks were still being prepared. This way, the owner wanted to make sure that we eat and make space for the next visitors as fast as possible.

Then, a couple of minutes later, it was time to pray. Whenever it is time to pray, all the stores, business and whatever, close for thirty minutes. If it is a small shop, the visitors are asked to leave, while when you happen to be at IKEA when the call to pray goes off, you and the other customers will be left alone while the staff goes and prays. So we just sat there, ate our breakfast and watched as people were standing in front of the closed stores.

And here is where I get deeper into the shopping part.

People who come to the malls the most are women. If you are an expat woman, you are allowed to move around freely and without male company inside the malls. I went to an H&M store to get some clothes that are more suitable for the local weather. With me there were so many other women, covered from head to toe and some of them even had their faces behind a black piece of cloth, that I had a really hard time to move without running into one of them.

In this store there were no cabins where one could try on the clothes. So what people do is, they pick the clothes they like, buy them and try them on at home. If something doesn’t fit or you just don’t like it after trying it on, you go back to the store, return it and get a gift card.

Then lastly, there is the waiting line. I have the impression that here in Riyadh, people like to do things very slowly. I mean, why hurry, right? Well, I am glad that people here have such an easy view on time and life and all but if you have to be back at the bus at a specific time, these work ethics really get you.

And here a piece of advice for the end to all future Riyadh shoppers:

The most important thing while standing in a line in a Saudi store is to NOT leave any space between you and the person in front of you. This is because if there is the tinyest bit of spcae left, another person will just squeeze her (or maybe even him) self in front of you and you will end up standing there for hours. However, that does NOT mean that you have to be literally touching the other person. But you get my point here, right? Hope so.

So as you can see, shopping in Riyadh is really not for the weak.