living in saudi arabia living in Saudi Arabia Lost in Riyadh-Blog saudi arabia saudi arabia expat blog Uncategorized women in saudi arabia

Service Denied

I came across something on my Facebook feed today that sparked in me a new load of thoughts that may keep this blog going.

There was a video about how a Starbucks in Saudi Arabia had denied service to women and asked for their drivers to get the coffee instead.

Dear haters and critics, I don’t want to proclaim that Saudi Arabia is a paradise for women (not by comparison to other places, in my opinion).  I understand that finding yourself in a situation where you can’t even get a cup of coffee just because you are a woman sucks. No matter how minor the issue is, it’s just not a nice thing to experience.

The video I saw made the wrong impression that women are now generally banned from entering ANY Starbucks in the ENTIRE country. As someone who has spent some time in the field of journalism, seeing this twisting and omission of facts, makes me feel like just rolling my eyes is not enough. It is this way of portraying events that has motivated me to write down these words today.

My further reading on this ban revealed that the women have been banned from entering this one particular Starbucks because the wall that separated single men from single women or women with their husbands, collapsed and therefore women could not enter the place until the issue was resolved. That is something the makers of that video apparently chose to ignore. I have no idea how such a wall can collapse and why it would do so, and how the rest of the building is still standing then, but the absence of a separation medium as a reason to not allow women in sounded like a realistic explanation given the country we are talking about here.

The average Westerner may think that setting up physical barriers between men and women in 2016 is absurd and I agree with that. It is a matter of principle to be offended by the fact that someone is not allowed to do something based on gender.

Some may argue that if there was no separating wall in that Starbucks, then why not just leave the men outside and let women in?

Good idea! For the sake of a change of scenery in the media coverage on what happens in Saudi Arabia, let me say that while women are banned from only one particular section of a shop, men can sometimes not enter at all unless they have a woman who accompanies them. Not to mention whole floors in malls or entire shopping malls as a whole that are reserved for women only.

There are quite a number of shops in Riyadh that have “Family Only” written above their entrances. In that case, a man who is on his own, will not be allowed inside the shop no matter how much he wants to get in.

That might not sound like a big deal to you (but to be honest, being banned from one single Starbucks while there still thousands of others out there should neither, in retrospect), but sometimes it also becomes an inconvenience to Saudi and non-Saudi men alike.

I remember having a conversation with a young man from Uzbekistan who had come to Riyadh for work. He had a wife back home and because in Riyadh you can find all sorts of fancy stuff not available in some other countries, he decided to go to the mall and get some cosmetics or perfume for his wife. The place where he had seen a potential gift however, was a “Family Only” shop. So he had no choice but to think of something else to get her. Something that he could get at a place where men were allowed inside.

So you see, if you are a man and you want to get an item that is more oriented at women or if your wife sends you out to get that something for her, chances are you just won’t be able to get it, unless you find it in a shop that is open to everyone.

I expected to find a reverse situation when my friend and I found ourselves at a ZARA MEN store. I assumed that since this was a store that only sold items for men, my friend would not be allowed in to pick a shirt for her husband. On the contrary! No one said a word about our presence. The staff was even kind enough to ask whether we were looking for something specific and if they could be of any help.

From the posts of a fellow blogger in Riyadh, I gathered that when little children attended toddler play classes, there are cases when only the mothers are allowed to attend with their kids.

So, if you are rightfully going to pose the question of how come women are denied things just because they are women, then, for the sake of the bigger picture, you may also ask:

Why should a man not be able to buy his wife something he wants her to have just because he is a man and has no other woman to come along with him? How come a father can’t accompany his own kid to some pastime activity just because he is a man?

The fact that men are allowed so many other things put aside because inequality is a matter of principle, isn’t that all a bit unfair despite being a minor issue? Especially if you are a man in that situation? But I guess no one in mainstream media has ever thought about that aspect.

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  • Reply
    March 19, 2016 at 1:46 am

    I am a Saudi girl who study in the US. I was looking online for western people who’ve been to Saudi and have at least one good impression since people here think we live in the desert and ride camels and women are forbidden from work or school and cannot get out of there homes unless they were joined by husbands or fathers:( 
    I tried to change their thoughts about us by providing them with a western person who is fair enough to say the good about us. I wish that I found your blog earlier when you were in Riyadh I would have asked to meet you and invite you to one of our parties DGs or weddings to complete your experience.I hope I can meet you one day, maby when I visit Germany in the future;)

    • Reply
      March 21, 2016 at 6:47 pm

      Dear Lina,

      thank you so much for your nice comment. When I started this blog I was a bit concerned about what Saudis might think reading about a foreigner describing their country. So to me, a nice comment from locals is a real treasure. You are right, it’s a shame we didn’t find each other earlier. I have always been curious about Saudi weddings but I will surely be glad to welcome you in Germany. Just let me know if you ever come to Berlin. Reading about your experience in the States, I have a question for you: Did you ever feel that western people, because they have all these negative views on Saudi, did not see you as the person you are? Or did you ever feel like people didn’t feel like getting to know you because they thought that they”already knew” all those things about your country? I am curious. Feel free to E- Mail me if you feel like it.



  • Reply
    March 21, 2016 at 7:04 am

    There’s so much that is odd, and idiosyncratic about our lives in this country. I really like the way you highlight some of the inconsistencies.

    • Reply
      March 21, 2016 at 6:22 pm

      Thank you very much for the kind comment. I am glad you like it. 🙂

  • Reply
    April 18, 2016 at 9:53 am

    I have just posted about my service denial experience in Saudi during a short visit and was a bit confused because I was clearly missing some info but having read your post I understand better what happened. ‘There wasn’t a wall separating the sections of this particular venue’, that must have been why we couldn’t stay. Thanks for the info.

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