Come with me where tourists are not allowed. How strange it is to be in a land where tourism is for Muslims and foreign business people and workers only. Because we were invited to Saudi Arabia by a prominent businessman, we received a business visa under our business name. It is difficult to describe the impact on us from the world of the Arabs.
All woman must cover their bodies when out of the home, none can drive, and never show their wrists or ankles outside of the home. So wearing the abaya is for everyone, plus face coverings are very common. Restaurants have family sections but separate entrances. Chauffeurs wait with their cars lining the streets at night.
During the day, if prayer time comes during shopping, the doors are closed, Muslims go to their knees and pray and shoppers wait to continue shopping. But my reaction was strange for the time we were there, just for the my clothing issue though As I did not cover my face or hair I enjoyed wearing a pretty abaya! It was lightweight, trimmed in colors, with no thought to what to wear before going out in our chauffeured car. Living this way all my life is a different thing!
There’s a certain understanding for Muslin women that comes from this experience. It’s one that makes the woman feel very cared for, very special in some reverse way. Many Muslim women in other countries do feel a certain identity by the wearing of their “costume,” even though it seems an anathema to independent women of the world.
In today’s Saudi Arabia women live under the guardianship rule, which says the man is in charge of her life. Be it father, husband or relative, all women must have the authority of a man for all her decisions. This archaic practice is being seriously contested by those women who understand that they are the equal to men, and can decide what they want for themselves.
There are so many rules to keep track of about women’s behavior, while the Mutawa, the dress code police switch women if parts of their body show that should not be seen.
One Saudi man with three wives and wishing no one to see them, built a huge hanger-like structure over his entire estate that shields those on each side of his property to be able to see in. This covers his main large palace and two other smaller palaces for his second and third wives, plus sumptuous gardens interspersed throughout his property.
Riyadh, the capital city, located in the center of the country is very strict with the women while Jeddah which is on the Red Sea tends to be looser with certain rules. The latter city has beautiful architecture that has clean symmetrical lines, brick and stone with plaster facing homes, well-maintained streets, especially the ones traveled by the King. His royal palace and grounds are humungous with a view of the world’s highest water fountain that he had built. The King is known to have many wives. The entire Royal family numbers in the thousands. When guests visit the King, they usually stay at ornate guest houses outside the palace grounds.
Foreign business executives live in compounds, walled, gated and guarded communities that provide many amenities for these impermanent residents. Gardens are everywhere, flowers, fruit and palm trees spring up out of the desert sand with the use of desalinated water from the sea. Gasoline at this time was $.15 a gallon! All the businesses there have at least a half ownership by a Saudi.
Western Saudi Arabia has well-preserved and beautiful ancient ruins, similar to Petra in Jordan. Saudi Arabia’s are unseen by most of the world because of the inability of tourists to come there. Those privileged to visit Mada’in Saleh, a sister to Petra, can get there by an hour’s flight and a two and a half hour drive. The extraordinary tombs were built by an ancient people called Nabataeans whose settlement flourished in the first century BC and remained strong until the latter half of the first century AD. On the way to the site, camels, sheep and donkeys dot the rocky desert landscape. It is thought that the carved tombs surrounded the tents of the residents. At present there are almost one hundred monumental tombs with decorated facades dug out of solid rock outcroppings.
Nearby Al-Ula is another historic oasis. There well- preserved houses still stand on an ancient trade route. It was at these places that civilizations grew and passed, trade flourished, then failed, and people lived, passed away and were buried in rock-cut tombs.
Jeddah is a city of 3 million residents with millions coming to do their ‘once during their life’ pilgrimage to close-by Mecca. Along the highway to this sacred city is a road sign, “Straight ahead for Muslims” and a turn-off for “Non-Muslims.” Modern-designed Bedouin tents cover acres next to the airport where foreign Muslim pilgrims register for their Hajj or pilgrimage, and even they are closely monitored and only go to and from this area to Mecca.
Conversely, most of the workers in Saudi Arabia are from other countries; Pakistan, India, Syria, Philippines, and other Arab countries, though it is now required for companies to have 30% of their employees be Saudis. Our business friend has become somewhat of a pioneer in hiring Saudi women, who are eager to work.
The roads day and night are filled with all types of cars, many very large. In the evening and especially at 10pm and after, the restaurants are filled with people. Any type of alcohol is forbidden; fruit juices are a popular drink. Women go out together, many covering their faces. Some remove their head scarves when seated at a table as there are separate and private areas for these women. At the beach, black abaya-covered women sit and visit, picnic with children and swim in the water, never removing their cumbersome and heavy coverings.
Visiting Saudi Arabia is like visiting another world, one with every luxury and modern convenience possible, yet with thinking as archaic as the ancient tombs of Mada’in Saleh.
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