If you're moving to Saudi Arabia, here's some common prohibited things that to think about, including cinemas and fitting rooms
10 November 2016| Last updated on 6 September 2017
Saudi Arabia is known to be stricter in their laws and interpretation of Islamic decrees in comparison with their Gulf neighbours. There are many misconceptions about the Kingdom, including that women can't go out without a male guardian or that smartphones are illegal, and it's important not to simply believe whatever you read or hear. Saudi Arabia is full of happy expats, but like any other country, it might work for some and not for others. If you're considering moving there, here are some things that you should not expect to find or see in the country.
1. Pork and alcohol
If you enjoy eating a side of bacon with your eggs or pepperoni on your pizza, you will have to give it up once you’re in Saudi Arabia. All food entering the country has to be halal and all pork products are illegal in the Kingdom, regardless of your religion. Alcohol is also strictly prohibited anywhere in the country. Things are generally more liberal inside expat residential compounds, where authorities tend to turn a blind eye to certain things, including homebrewed beer and wine, but if caught, the penalties are severe.
2. Mixed gatherings
Aside from spouses or direct blood relatives, men and women aren’t allowed to mingle too much in public. Segregation is upheld in most places, so if you go to a restaurant, you will likely find two sections: a ‘Singles’ section, which is for men, and a ‘Family’ section, which is for women and families. In the workplace, women and men have separate entrances and separate areas to work. This doesn’t mean that men and women can’t interact at all, as you often hear. Some interaction is necessary if any workplace is to function efficiently and it's also normal for brief interactions to happen, such as speaking to a salesman in the mall or grocery store.
3. Female drivers
This is one of the most controversial issues in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed to drive, unless they do so in the desert or inside a private compound. Many families tend to hire drivers for this reason, which in itself is contradictory to the enforcement of segregation laws. While many think the ban is stemmed from religion, it is important to note that it is more of a cultural norm and there is no basis for it in the Holy Quran. Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country that doesn’t permit women to drive.
SEE ALSO: Myths vs realities of Saudi Arabia
If you love going to the movies, Saudi Arabia might not be the place to be. Movie theatres don’t exist around the country, with the exception of within private compounds, such as the Saudi Aramco compounds. Downloading movies from the internet is the alternative used by foreigners and Saudis alike.
5. Fitting rooms
If you go to a shopping mall in KSA as a woman, you won’t find any dressing rooms if you wish to try clothes on. Due to the fact that most sales clerks are male, women are not allowed to undress in the same vicinity, even if behind a curtain or door. You will have to first purchase the clothes you want, then if they don’t fit or you don’t like them, you will have to go back to exchange or return them. You can either try them on at home or you can do so at the mall in the women’s bathroom. Many malls now also have fitting rooms built near the women’s bathroom specifically for this reason. The exceptions are women-only malls or sections in malls, such as the Ladies Kingdom floor at the Riyadh’s Kingdom Centre Mall.
6. Valentine’s Day celebrations
Valentine’s Day is viewed as a Catholic holiday and celebrating or endorsing any religion other than Islam is illegal in KSA. Flower and gift shops aren’t supposed to be promoting the holiday by selling items meant for it, such as red roses and heart-shaped chocolate boxes. This ban is upheld by the Mutaween, better known as Saudi Arabia’s religious police. However, not everywhere in Saudi Arabia is the ban strictly enforced.
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7. Music in public places
While music in itself is legal in Saudi Arabia, playing music in public is forbidden. You won’t find music blasting through speakers in malls. Music classes are also not offered at public schools for Saudis either. While there are many musicians in Saudi Arabia, most of them tend to stay underground, away from the eyes of the religious police, as performing publically would be a risk.
8. Smoking in public areas
Smoking is strictly prohibited in many public areas, including religious, educational, health, social and cultural institutions, as well as in workplaces, government offices, factories, banks and public transportation. This includes the smoking of shishas. Smoking in a prohibited area will result in a SR200 fine or more and the money gathered is to be allocated to awareness campaigns and charities related to the cause.