What is it really like living in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia is the country I was born in and spent the majority of my life in (13 years in total). I'm going to talk about some experiences I've had that were unique to Saudi Arabia and give you a little insight of what it was really like to live in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Also, because I could go on forever, I'm going to limit myself to the five things that I think are uniquely Saudi.
Disclaimer: These are MY opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Saudi nationals or other foreigners who have lived in Saudi Arabia. Also, I lived in a particular place in Saudi Arabia, far away from both Jeddah and Riyadh, so while I could go on and on about Hungry Bunny, please don't leave any comments asking why I didn't mention Al-Baik or other things related to those regions, :D haha.
All women (ie. girls above the age of puberty) have to wear an abaya/burka while in public (and only public, ie you don't have to wear it at home, lol). In other words, as soon as you start developing breasts, you're basically expected to wear an abaya of some sort.
Furthermore, as far as I know wearing a niqab (the face covering) is not required by law. There are many niqabis (women who wear the niqab) in Saudi Arabia, though, and most of them are Saudi. It's more of a cultural thing for Saudi women to wear the niqab than anything enforced by the law. Also, while hijab (hair covering) is required by law, it's not always so strictly enforced. For example, in the more "liberal" cities, foreign women usually just wear an abaya without a hijab or niqaab. It looks just like a beautiful, long black dress. But if one goes to one of the more (obviously) conservative cities such as Mecca, hijab is strictly required (again, niqaab is not). For example, when I was younger, maybe in my early teen-years, my family and I visited Mecca. I didn't have my hijab tied properly, as I had never learned the proper way to wear one. The back of my neck was showing a tiny bit, and random women kept tugging at it and trying to fix it for me throughout the day. This never happened to me before, and I was kind of irritated that random women felt okay about tugging at me. Reflecting on that, I totally understand why they would do that (though I'd never do that to someone else, haha). It's literally the most holy city for Muslims, and one should be respectful of the full Islamic dresscode while in that region.
Personal feelings about all of this? I kind of love wearing an abaya, to be honest, haha. Abayas are BEAUTIFUL, and you can wear whatever you want under them (aka you can be in pajamas all day). There are so many different styles of abayas, and they range drastically in price too. Some are fitted, covered in swarovski crystals, have frills, batwing sleeves, etc, and others are literally just plain black. Honestly, they're beautiful and super comfortable!
2. Women can't drive.
Basically, it is completely illegal for a woman to get behind the wheels of a car. The punishment, if caught, is being whipped/getting lashes. Anyways, this law.... this law makes me laugh. It's ridiculous, but some Saudi women seem to really like it and completely agree with it while others slam it down. I don't know if they just don't like people talking bad about their country, and therefore act like they like this rule, or if they actually enjoy it. It's argued that women are treated like queens in Saudi Arabia, and while I don't deny this, it's important to make the distinction that SAUDI women (or women who look Saudi... ie. wearing a niqab, speaking Arabic) but others aren't always treated with so much respect.
The argument goes: would a queen drive? Or would a queen have someone to drive for her? The latter, of course. Therefore, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive because they deserve enough respect not to drive, if that makes sense. It's also pretty common to have cooks, maids, guards, nannies, etc (though this is not unique to Saudi Arabia, it's actually pretty common throughout the Middle East and South Asia), so if you look at it like that, it's not that "strange" or random that personal drivers are quite common in Saudi Arabia.
People have even gone as far as to say that driving affects ovaries and the pelvis of a woman, and therefore women cannot drive.
By the way, for anyone who is curious, this has NOTHING to do with Islam. Like, if anything, this goes against the teachings of Islam. In Islam, unrelated people of the opposite gender are not allowed to be alone together (unless they're married). Usually, the drivers that are hired are not related and therefore it's un-Islamic for the driver and the woman to be in the car together... Awkwaaaaaard. Check out this awesome song:
How do I personally feel about this? I find it pretty hilarious. And sad. But does it really matter how I feel? I'm not Saudi. This law isn't affecting me at all anymore, since I don't live there. It's up to Saudi women to dictate how they feel, and for us to support or respect their decision.
What was it like for me, when I was actually living there? It didn't matter too much to me. I was young. I didn't know how to drive and I was fine with my father driving us around. Also, I lived in a compound within Saudi Arabia (Aramco!) where women were allowed to drive. My Mom used to drive me around within the compound all the time. So, it didn't particularly affect me at all.
3. The desert
This was my favourite thing about growing up in Saudi Arabia. There are a bunch of cities everywhere, but the land between those cities is filled up with empty desert. It's beautiful. Wild camels. Caravans. Sand dunes. Gosh, it's absolutely beautiful, and I've never seen any landscape like this while driving around in any other country. While I'm sure you can see it elsewhere, I've personally only seen it in Saudi, and goodness it's absolutely stunning.
4. The weather
Hot hot hot hot hot. Cold cold cold cold cold. Hot hot hot hot hot. Repeat all day haha. Basically, it's BLAZING hot outside, and FREEZING cold inside because literally everywhere is AC'd Depending where you are in Saudi, you're looking at 50+ C over summer (about 120 F), and during winter, depending where you are, it can go below freezing. Extremely drastic weather, which is really cool to experience first hand. I bet it would be pretty easy to fry an egg outside in that heat!
When I was living in Saudi, sometimes I'd get too cold indoors from the AC, and I'd step outside for about 20 seconds. I'd get insanely hot, and then come back in and bask in the glory of air conditioning, haha.
Also, if you ever have a chance to visit Saudi Arabia, be on the lookout for shamaals (sand storms)! When it gets windy, sand goes flying everywhere and it becomes yellowy-orangey outside! Keep a look out for mirages too. You might have seen these in cartoons: an animated character gets stranded in the desert, sees a big oasis with beautiful dancing girls surrounding it (but it's all just a figment of his imagination). While our mirages aren't this extensive, when you're driving down the highway, you can catch a glimpse of "water" down the roads up ahead, but as you get closer, you realize that they aren't really there.
5. Being Muslim in Saudi Arabia
Mecca and Medina are two of the most holy cities for Muslims. One of the best things (as a Muslim) about living in Saudi Arabia is being able to visit Mecca and Medina with ease. Especially for the folks living in Jeddah, these cities are just a couple hours' drive away. I grew up pretty much on the opposite side of the country, but nevertheless I've been blessed to have done Umrah multiple times in my life. The earliest was when I was like 5-7ish, and the most recent was this past summer (2014). Most people only have the opportunity to go once, if even that, and I've been multiple times... One of the biggest blessings of living within the kingdom.
Also, another blessing of living within the kingdom (for Muslims) is that everything revolves around prayer times. You could be in the mall, or walking around, or at a restaurant: regardless of where you are, everything around you will close down for prayer during the five daily prayers. Basically, as soon as the Adhan (call to prayer) is heard from the local mosques, all the stores in the malls, all the small boutiques, and all the restaurants close. This is so that all the shopkeepers are able to easily observe prayer, and to remind all the Muslims to also go and pray. They have no "distraction" such as shopping, because literally all the shops are closed down. For non-Muslims, this can be very inconvenient, but for Muslims, it's quite a blessing.
I write this with a heavy heart: Saudi Arabia's king, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud passed away at the age of 90 this past Friday. He was hospitalized through the month of December, fighting pneumonia.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'oon (translation: to Allah we Belong and to Him we Return. - An Islamic saying which Muslims say when someone has passed away). May his soul rest in peace and in Jannat Al- Firdaus. Ameen.