Sand, dust and malls in Saudi Arabia

17:00, May 18 2013
Saudi
Fiercely conservative: The cultural constraints in Riyadh can be overbearing.

Annelyse Blatch lives in among contrasts and frustrations in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Why did you move to the city?

We moved from Auckland to Riyadh in 2009 because my husband gained employment with a large dairy company. It was an opportunity for us to get ahead with a young family.

What do you do there?

Until recently, I was teaching at the British School, but have resigned to spend more time with my three young children. I am just getting into photography.

What do you like or dislike about life in Riyadh?

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Saudi Arabia is fiercely conservative, but many people believe it to be like Dubai: very cosmopolitan and somewhat liberal. There is no comparison.

Riyadh is mainly single/double-level housing, mostly sand-coloured, and very dusty. The cultural constraints can be overbearing, such as women being unable to drive and having to wear an abaya when outside the compound - and just the frustrations of living in a foreign country in a community that is very transient.

We enjoy being able to travel. It is four hours' drive to Bahrain, where we can enjoy Western freedoms. We have had Christmas in Egypt, and holidays in France, Sri Lanka, England and Scotland. We are seeing a lot of the world we just couldn't do from New Zealand with young children. Saudi people are friendly and welcoming and are intrigued by our blond children. They find our accent difficult to understand.

How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand's?

We are in a unique position, as our housing, utilities and schooling are paid for. Locally grown produce and meat is low quality, so I buy New Zealand lamb and beef and a lot of imported vegetables and fruit. Petrol is 18 cents a litre and we drive enormous 4WD trucks, but that is more a safety issue than any other.

What do you do at weekends?

Weekends are usually taken up with shopping, as I rarely get out during the week, groceries and anything we need for the home. Maybe a barbecue with friends and golf for the husband on Fridays. Saudi weekends are Thursdays and Fridays.

What do you think of the food?

We are quite partial to Middle Eastern food. Hummus is regularly on our table. My husband is partial to om ali, a Middle Eastern dessert. We have all the fast-food chains and McDonald's delivers.

What's the best way to get around?

Driving, as fast as you can to keep away from the crazy drivers. Compounds supply free buses for ladies to go shopping, but most wait for the weekend when their husbands can take them. There is no public transport for Western expatriates and taxis are allegedly unsafe.

What's your favourite part of the city?

An hour outside Riyadh is what we call the Edge of the World. It used to be the coast, so you can see for miles and there are fossils to be found. The drive there is 4WD and bouncy. The city itself is very busy, housing 10 million people, but it is developing areas for families to gather.

What's the shopping like?

Shopping is a Saudi woman's main occupation. All the big boutique stores are there - Gucci, Louis Vuitton etc. Malls are up to five storeys high and include amusement parks for children's entertainment. You can catch a flume ride, rollercoaster and dodgems all right in the mall.

What's the nightlife like?

Nightlife doesn't really exist for expats. There are no cinemas, clubs or pubs. At various times of the year the embassies put on functions like balls or community nights, which is a great way to catch up with fellow Kiwis, get dressed up and have a laugh and a few lemonades.

What's the best time of year to visit?

October to early April are the cooler months. Outside of that it is hot. Parts of Saudi receive snow in winter.

What's your must-do thing for visitors?

With Saudi being so closed to the outside world, you cannot just turn up at the border and get a visa in. The only tourist visas are supplied for those performing umrah, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Otherwise, you can get employment or business visas. If you get into Saudi, Mada'in Saleh is the Saudi's version of Jordan's Petra. I have not seen it, but apparently it's better than Petra and relatively untouched.

What are your top tips for tourists?

Be tolerant, open-minded and patient.

How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand?

Coming back to New Zealand isn't hard, but it is a long way. From Dubai, we can fly direct to any east-coast Australian hub, then to Auckland. It is about 20 hours' flying time.

If you know an expat who wants to share the inside knowledge on their home away from home, email escape@star-times.co.nz with Expat in the subject line.

Sunday Star Times