We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Saudi Arabia
Visitors to Saudi Arabia are required to respect local conventions, in particular regarding culture. While first-timers in Saudi Arabia are often regaled with tales of beheadings, amputations and whippings, the full harshness of Saudi law is reserved for true criminals like drug smugglers. With a modicum of common sense you’ll be just fine, and should a visitor accidentally cause some minor offense, the reaction will generally be amusement rather than anger. But still be reserved.
Law and morality The really important rules to beware of are enshrined in written Saudi law, with criminals subject to the full strength of the infamous Saudi penal system. In addition to obvious crimes like murder (punishable by beheading) and theft (amputation of the hand for repeat offenders), acts considered serious crimes include mixing of unrelated people of the opposite sex, adultery, homosexual activity, and possession of alcohol or drugs. In practice, though, most visitors will be primarily concerned with the code of morality, involving things like women not covering up properly, and not accompanied by a male guardian, not observing prayer or (during Ramadan) fasting times, etc.
These rules are enforced by the infamous muttawa (pl. mutawain), the zealous volunteers of the religious police known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Confusingly, the exact rules and their enforcement vary greatly both with time and from region to region, with the Nejd region around Riyadh being the most strict, the Eastern Province being moderate, and the Hejaz around Jeddah being the least strict. Some of the time, encounters with the muttawa (especially for non-Muslims) simply results in harsh verbal warnings, but occasionally they may undertake public whipping.
The muttawa do have the power to detain those suspected of un-Islamic conduct, but in theory must hand them over to the police before interrogation, a law that is sometimes not followed. Reports of human rights abuses and even deaths in muttawa custody are still common. Areas Off-limits to the Mutawwas Certain areas are known to be “off-limits” to the mutawwas. These include the following: The Diplomatic Quarter (in Riyadh) The beach resort compounds north of Jeddah The premises of Saudi Aramco (in the eastern province) Sex segregation No women at the hotel gym Most areas of life in Saudi Arabia are segregated by sex to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of “mingling” (khulwa, a punishable crime).
Under the rules of segregation, all people are divided into three groups: Families. The basic unit of Saudi life, families consist of women accompanied by their mahrams (legal male guardians) father, brother, husband, uncle, nephew and children. Single men (bachelors). Men not accompanied by their families. Despite common use of the word “bachelor”, it is irrelevant whether the man is married or not; a husband will dine in the bachelor section at lunch when alone and in the family section at dinner when with his wife. It is against the law to be accompanied anywhere by a woman who is not your wife or a registered family member, and religious police pay particular attention to interracial couples. Single women. Women not accompanied by their male guardian. Most of the facilities for families in Jeddah (but not in Riyadh nor the rest of Saudi Arabia) will admit single women. It is against the law to be accompanied anywhere by a man who is not your registered male guardian. The punishment will be worse for the man than for the woman.
While the man is forced to sign a written oath not to repeat the offence and may be subject to lashing or imprisonment, women are generally “returned” to their families, with her male guardian having to go through the offence on her behalf. Typical examples of segregation include: Government Establishments Usually there is a women’s section. Banks Separate branches for men and women. Coffeeshops Mostly men only (in Riyadh), nearly all coffee shops in Jeddah have family sections. Restaurants Separate sections for families and men. The vast majority will allow single women into the family section (especially in Jeddah).
Men Locals almost universally wear a thobe (white robe with sleeves) with a ghutra (headdress), but the standard dress code for foreign men in Saudi Arabia is long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt although T-shirts are increasingly common. Shorts are an uncommon sight outside the gym or beach but in most cases it won’t get you in trouble nowadays. Contrary to rumours, men with long hair do not need to cut it before entering the kingdom. Shoulder-length locks are common and many men have long hair in Saudi Arabia. Beduins, which constitute the majority of the population, are well known culturally not to cut their hair, which is usually hidden under the headdress.
But some men might get verbal advice from the muttaween if the man’s hair is tied, and will usually ask him to untie it, as it is considered feminine to tie hair. Women Women, be they local or foreign, are all required to wear an abaya, a long and loose black robe. While a headscarf is optional for non-Saudi females (particularly in Jeddah), one should at least be brought along in order to avoid possible harassment from locals and the religious police or to be used as a means of deflecting attention from potentially aggravating men. Saudi law prohibits women from mingling with unrelated men. Some family restaurants will go further and will not allow a married couple to dine together with a single man. Women may not drive cars. Women may not even be driven by unrelated men (e.g. taxi drivers).
A woman may not travel alone. They may not stay alone in hotels, hotels will require the presence of a male guardian. While all this legally applies to foreign women as well, in practice foreign women are not restrained by their families in the way that Saudi women are, and can have considerable leeway if they choose to take it. For example, a foreign woman and her boyfriend (or even male coworker) can simply claim to be husband and wife, and thus mingle freely although, if caught doing so, they will be subject to a stay in jail. A single woman accosted by the police or the muttawa and requested to come with them does not have to (and, for their own safety, should not) go with them alone: you have the right to call your male guardian and have him arrive.
However, you may be required to surrender your ID, and you may not leave until the police/muttawa allows you to. Other Photography is probably the easiest way for a visitor to inadvertently get into trouble. Do NOT take pictures of any government-related building (ministries, airports, military facilities etc) or any building that could possibly be one, or you risk being hauled off to jail for espionage, or accused of terrorist plotting. Do not photograph any Saudi men without permission and do NOT even point your camera in the general direction of women, period. Even government publications avoid pictures of people and often resort to mosaicing out faces if there have to use one! Playing music in public is also prohibited. However, personal music players and listening to music in private is fine, and there are plenty of music shops in the country’s shopping malls if you don’t mind permanent marker over Britney’s hemline on the cover.
It is not uncommon to hear young Saudis blasting the latest hip-hop music in their vehicles, at least when the muttawa are not around. Religious items for religions other than Islam, including Bibles, crucifixes and any religious literature, are forbidden. Anything that hints of proselytism is treated very harshly, and the muttawa often bust illicit church assemblies and the like. Public observance of religions other than Islam is a crime in Saudi Arabia. The flag of Saudi Arabia bears the Islamic declaration of faith, and desecration or any other inappropriate use of the flag is considered a crime. Any criticism of the King, the royal family or Saudi Arabia’s government in general is not tolerated and risks indefinite imprisonment.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Saudi Arabia, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Saudi Arabia food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Saudi Arabia? Please comment below.