From my very arrival in the kingdom up until now, I have faced some situations, or what I would call cultural lessons, that taught me something about how to handle life here, especially as a non- Saudi.
For the future Saudi expats among my readers or those who are just generally interested, here is a list of things that you should keep in mind and things you may want to do once you have settled here.
1. When boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia, make sure you have a pen with you. Unless you are Saudi, you will be asked to fill in an entry card. Don’t expect any of the flight attendants to give you one. They most likely won’t.
2. Whenever you leave the house, make sure you have some sort of ID with you. You never know what may happen. I left the compound once without my ID and on my way back in, I immediately got in trouble with the security people.
3. Even though you are leaving the compound on a bus with tinted windows to get from compound A to compound B, given that you are a woman, put on your abaya or at least have it with you. The kids on the schoolbus look at me like I am an alien whenever I do this but last month our schoolbus broke down and we had to switch buses, meaning we had to go outside. Now this is where thinking in advance pays off. Imagine the same happens to you and some Saudi or a mutawa sees you without an abaya on. Even though this may sound absurd to any westners, being dressed unmodestly is actually a very heavy offense here, so don’t risk it in first place.
4. Be patient and considerate and don’t argue. Saudis do many things differently from westerners. Saudis for instance are not very punctual, which drives every single German here absolutely nuts. Many of them are also relatively lazy and take their time getting things done. If you ever happen to have a conversation with a Saudi, you may also notice that he or she won’t look you in the eyes when talking. Quite frankly, that last thing is something that I still have trouble dealing with but this is just the way it is. Generally speaking, direct eye contact is considered offensive. Bottom line is that there is no point in getting angry and lecturing Saudis on how what they do is wrong. It is always a matter of perspective and there is nothing you can do, or very little, in order to change that. Just take a deep breath and get through it.
5. ALWAYS count your change. If you go shopping and receive change from the cashier, make sure that the amount you get is the right one. I have been in many situations when I got too little change back but I noticed it too late. I don’t know if this happens because Saudis are trying to be tricky or because they simply don’t pay any attention but no matter what it is, this actually happens quite a lot here.
6. If you are a woman, carry a headscarf with you. Even though you are not a muslim, the mutawa may still ask you to cover your hair just because in this country this is considered modest. Again, don’t even think about arguing with these people. That won’t be any good for you. Just put the thing on and keep walking. If you do that without any protest, you express your respect for the culture and that makes the locals very happy after all. Besides, most religious police men are very polite when they ask for something so it would be only right to be as polite in return and do what they ask for.
7. Be especially careful while driving. Despite the fact that I, as a woman, am not allowed to drive here, from my seat in the back I have a very strong impression that the driving style here is very different from driving anywhere else. Many people can’t really drive straight or have never heard of that useful thing called blinking when driving around the corner. Many Saudis also don’t look to the left or to the right but only straight ahead of them. You will also see many teenage boys or even children behind the wheel, driving their mothers somewhere. Keep these things in mind and be tripple alert while driving. It may savee your life in the end.
8. When you enter the country with a new visa, you must make sure that you get a stamp and a number on it. That makes your entry valid and proofs that you have actually entered the kingdom legally. Don’t expect the person behind the desk to know it all. Lazy as they are, they often times forget it and if both of you do, you may have trouble leaving the country again.