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More On Saudi and Arab Names

In the Arab world one will frequently hear (or even read comments by viewers of this blog) who may have Abu or Umm placed in front of their name.  This is meant as a sign of respect and tradition.  For example if someone is addressed as Abu Abdullah or Umm Abdullah that means the individual is either the father or mother of a child named Abdullah.  (Abu is father in Arabic and umm is mother)  Once a married couple has a child, this allows the Abu or Umm and the childs name to be applied.  It is considered an honor as children are highly cherished.

In the working world, use of Abu and Umm continues to apply with those who have regular ongoing contact with one another.  Otherwise depending on where one works titles such as Doctor or Professor will apply.  If not eligible for one of these titles to be used, then one may be addressed instead as “Miss” Elizabeth or “Mr” Donald.


When being introduced to a Saudi who is a senior citizen, it is respectable to address them as Aunt or Uncle (Amah or Amm).


I have further observed that in regards to housemaids it is typical for many of them to address the couple for whom they work as “baba” or “mama” meaning “daddy/father and mother.”  Some may also address their employer using the Abu or Umm.  I do not know of any housemaid who addresses the employer by either a first name only or Mr. or Mrs.  As a westerner, I am typically addressed as “Madam” by domestic help.


Continuing on about names, I also wrote previously on understanding Arab names which explains why the Saudi husband and wife will have differing last names. See to read the full post.


In the West and elsewhere in the world some women may choose to retain their name instead of taking the husband’s family name.  This may be done for professional reasons as it can be difficult to get documents changed when one has had a professional history prior to marriage or a woman may choose to keep her family name for other reasons such as family tradition.  Alternatively there are a number of western women who have also chosen to hyphenate their name upon marriage.  For example, if a woman’s family name is Kendall and she marries a man whose family name is Rice she would refer to herself as Mary Kendall-Rice.


  As a result, for anyone coming to the Kingdom I believe it is fair to say that Saudis are easy-going about ones name. However you introduce yourself is how you will be referred to.  One closing point is to reassure a woman coming to the Kingdom who has a different last name than her husband.  This should not pose a problem as long as there are supporting legal documents documents identifying the couple as husband and wife.  Until they have received iqamas and are in the Kingdom on a visitor visa, have a copy of the marriage certificate handy.  One iqamas are issued the wife would be identified as such on the iqama in spite of having a different name than her husband.

What Exactly do Women in Saudi Arabia Wear Under the Abaya?

After writing the post on What do Men Wear Under Their Thobes

I received some queries in turn about what do the women wear under abayas.  Naturally according to Islam, the muslim woman at least should be dressed modestly at all times, even while wearing an abaya.  In Saudi Arabia it is expected for all women to wear an abaya whether a muslim or not.  However I have found in my own experience whether a woman is a muslim or not, a woman will pretty much wear whatever SHE prefers to wear under an abaya.


You might be surprised to learn that clothing under an abaya can run the whole gamut from conservative dress such as a women’s thobe or jalabiyah type garment to shorts and a tank top.  Because the abaya is long and opaque, in some cases a woman may even wear her pajamas underneath if she is tired and needs to run out for an errand.  After all, how would anyone know what is underneath?


You can easily spot the more conservative woman because while wearing the abaya she may be wearing gloves and socks.  You can safely assume this would not be a woman who would wear anything viewed as un-modest under the abaya.


At the same time, the woman who may be more liberal and open-minded (Saudi or non-Saudi) while she may choose to wear less under the abaya, chances are noone would really be aware of this fact.  Is it wrong if a woman is on her way to a gym and chooses to wear her workout clothes under an abaya?  Of course one could say this is wrong because what if there were an auto accident . . . or that in general she should be more compliant with the society and culture.


Only because I have one abaya that happens to have slits on either side for easier walking, I am careful of what I am wearing underneath when going out in that particular abaya.  For example I have the jeans that end either just below the knees or above the ankles.  I will not wear them with this particular abaya.

  Now IF I had the choice in the Kingdom on whether to wear an abaya or not, I probably would not wear one myself.  Naturally I would dress modestly due to the culture but I’d feel more comfortable without one for several reasons.  For myself, I have always walked briskly and with a long stride.  That can be prohibitive in an abaya.  But more importantly to me is during the hot summer months when the temperatures are in the mid-40’s to even 60 (Centigrade), if one has to go out the black abaya feels so smothering and naturally draws the heat.  I’m also of the mindset that a woman can continue to be an excellent muslim without having to wear an abaya.  And of course, that statement is further substantiated by how many muslim women from around the world have never worn an abaya.

Lack of Railways in Saudi Arabia

Train Station KSA

When an expat arrives in the Kingdom I always wonder how long it will take for him or her to realize they rarely if ever see any railroad tracks?  For example in the United States, travel by train whether for business, pleasure or to carry goods and supplies is a standard mode of transport.  Just about every small town and village to all the largest cities will have train tracks and railway stations.  However here in the Kingdom there is presently only one rail route and that is between Riyadh and Damman.  I’m not exactly sure why this is the chosen route.  Perhaps it has to do with Damman being a seaside border city and many goods and products are received there.  Given the number of muslims who wish to perform hajj and umrah from both inside and outside the Kingdom I would imagine that train routes to/from Mecca and Medina would be equally popular as well as removing some of the congestion from the busy roadways.

Numbers You Need to Know in Saudi Arabia


In the United States individuals are taught as children in the case of an emergency dial “911” as the universal number for help.  The Kingdom also has some of its own numbers:


999 – equivalent to 911.  This number can be used for a medical emergency, fire or any other situation requiring assistance.


998 – number to dial specifically for fire


997 – number to dial for assistance (primarily medical) from the Saudi Red Crescent.


These numbers can be dialed from both a landline and a mobile phone.


What prompted me to write particularly on this posting was due to a story aired recently on “Good Morning America.” (GMA)  GMA aired a 911 tape in which a woman dials 911 and although there is panic in her voice and she states she has an emergency, she is placed on hold.  25 excruciatingly long seconds pass before a 911 operator comes on to ask what is the problem.  It turned out that the woman was disabled, bedridden and she not only had a fire in the house but the flames had reached her bed.  Tragically she becomes a victim and fatality to the fire before help was able to arrive.  Can you imagine calling 911, the number which responds to emergencies, and being placed on hold?  A subsequent investigation in this particular case revealed gross misconduct and oversight.  While it did not indicate if anyone got fired due to this incident it was announced that up to 10 employees received severe reprimands.


What would be the outcome of a similar incident in the Kingdom?  I’m afraid it would not necessarily be more positive.  Many many times my spouse and I have seen firsthand fire, rescue or police vehicles trying to make their way on the roads in obvious response to an emergency call.  However due to the massive congestion of the Riyadh roadways, the emergency vehicle is stuck and stranded in the midst of the traffic with the siren blaring and horn beeping.  Even if drivers in vehicles wanted to move out of the way there is simply no place where they can go.  Emergency use only lanes are not here.


I am also aware of one particular instance where an individual was not feeling well and called for emergency service.  He waited in his home for 15 minutes but there was no response.  He called again and at that time was told that the ambulance was being washed and could not come get him; find another way to the hospital.  In spite of the intense pain he was feeling he managed to leave his home and go out to the street.  He successfully flagged down a small service truck driven by a Pakistani who in turn took him to the emergency room.  He was subsequently treated for a heart attack where he was also admitted for several days in the cardio intensive care unit of the hospital.  What makes this incident even more tragic is that the individual not only worked for one of the major hospital’s in Riyadh but lived on the housing compound of the hospital!

  My advise to one living in the Kingdom includes knowing in advance where the nearest hospitals or emergency medical centers are located in regards to your residence.  Have a backup plan in place in the event of an emergency before the emergency occurs.  Not only have a fire extinguisher in your home but know how to use it.  While services are available due to various circumstances they may not be available or able to arrive in a timely manner.  As a result, one needs to be able to take matters into their own hands and be able to respond in the event of an emergency.

Saudi Perspectives on the US Presidential Campaign


As the presidential campaigns in the United States continue to heat up and more of the original candidates have dropped out of the running, this becomes a greater topic of discussion in the Kingdom.  Fellow Americans, expats and Saudis enjoy discussing perspectives of the Presidential campaigns and sharing their views on who would be the best candidate and why.


I’ve had these conversations with colleagues, Saudi family members, expat friends as well as friends of my Saudi spouse.  Those who do watch the world news and events from the Kingdom watch closely and carefully.  They are well-versed on the issues, goals and aspirations (alledged?) of the candidates.


To begin with though I think that it is worth mentioning that first of all when asking Saudis who they believe has been the best US President in recent time, the most ready response without hesitation has been Bill Clinton.  Why, I asked?  I am told because he is charismatic, a good speaker, allowed to be seen as both a leader and a man.  But what about his track record and results?  That did not seem to be as much of a concern.


Although above being said, another theme that has been emerging in the various discussions is “America Break the Dynasty.”  What dynasty, you may ask?  Well, when you think about it, the Presidency has been rotated among Bush’s and Clinton’s for a decade now (taking into account with George Senior was VP before he become President.  Most Saudis have voiced more respect for Bush SR and his actions than that of George Jr.  I’ve yet to hear a single Saudi or expat in the Kingdom voice support for  either Hillary Clinton as President or a woman president in general.  The views of the Saudis with whom I have spoken is that the US will lose face in their eyes if a woman is elected as the Head of State.  It’s okay in other capacities but they believe that the leader of the free world must remain a man.  They are however, willing to accept a black man (Obama) as President.

  Now that brings this post to the heart of the discussion.  The perspective most voiced in the circles with whom I’ve spoken is that the race will come down between McCain and Obama.  With these two choices, if Saudis and expats here could vote, Obama would come out the victor.  The view is that Obama provides a fresh start, has youth on his side and is believable as an earnest and caring leader.  McCain on the other hand is seen as a “has been” with a controversial perspective on whether he has produced worthy results in his various capacities.

Penetrating the Men’s Branch of the Bank in Saudi Arabia


The other week I had to conduct a few transactions at my bank.  Given that the banking hours for women are from 0930 – 1600 hours and my working hours are much longer, I had to take time off from work in order to conduct my business.  Now this was a time sensitive matter and I had truly forgotten before making arrangements to go to the bank that I did not have an abaya with me.


 Since the weather remains cold in Riyadh I have been typically leaving my house in the morning wearing a traditional Saudi farwa.  (a farwa is an oversize Saudi beudion robe with fur lining)  Due to the bulk and size of the farwa coupled with the fact that I depart from my house and go directly to my office, I have chosen not to wear the abaya to and from work.


Now back to the banking story, I was driven to the nearest branch of my bank to my workplace.  To my surprise and dismay I learned that it did not have a ladies section.  So I gathered up my courage and wearing my farwa and minus any kind of a head cover, I tepidly entered the men’s branch and asked the first official I saw whether it would be possible to conduct a transaction.


Although I felt very conspicuous, to my relief I was treated with the greatest courtesy and welcomed right in.  I was escorted to the private banking section where I was given a seat in an area which sheltered me from the rest of the customers.  The manager himself assisted me with my business while offering me coffee, tea and biscuits.


While this is not an action I would wish to take every day I’m glad that it was happily resolved as it was.  I’m sure that there must have been some customers wondering what was going on seeing a blond haired, blue eyed American Bedu wearing a farwa being served in their bank!  Again, I am thankful and appreciative of the respect and courtesy I was shown by this particular branch.

  Given the recent incidents though of an American woman being apprehended by the muttawa while out with a male colleague in a coffee shop, I doubt that I would take any chance and repeat the incident of going into the men’s only branch of the bank.

Married to a Saudi? Be Flexible…

Saudi plastic barbie doll

If you are a foreigner (especially Western) and married to a Saudi, be flexible…very very flexible!  While you may think you have made many great sacrifices by leaving your family and your country to be with your spouse in the Kingdom, don’t expect him to fully appreciate the gesture.  Do not expect any special gratitude from his family either; they will consider that as your role and duty as his wife.


If you are a Western wife, you will be expected to be more tolerant on issues than that perhaps of a Saudi wife.  Also as a Western wife, you will be viewed as more capable and independent (whether true or not).  If you are working you are expected to contribute not only to your home and husband but to his extended family as well.  However do not maintain any illusions that the same would hold true if the situation were reversed.


You may learn unexpectedly with little to no notice that there may be visitors….lots and lots of visitors.  Do not make an absurd suggestion that they may be more comfortable in a furnished apartment or hotel regardless of how long the visit may be.  Family takes care of family and stays together.  Have no illusions that if you receive a significant number of guests which may exceed 25 in number that there would be a “joint kitty” to help defray associated expenses for extended guests for a long term visit.  In fact, the Saudi custom and culture prides itself strongly on hospitality and face.  No matter how much of a financial burden may be placed on a Saudi man for hosting a large number of extended guests (family) for a period he will never ask for monetary assistance.  If any were to be offered, it would be automatically refused as accepting would be viewed as a loss of face.  The Saudi husband and wife will simply have to “suck it up” and hopefully have planned in advance for such occasions.  (“yeah right” a wife told me speaking under condition her identity not be revealed)


The above was candidly shared with me by a western wife who gave her approval to share her experience.  When I asked her what advise she would suggest to other western wives if they were to find themselves in a similar situation and find it difficult to cope, what should they do?  She stressed emphatically that if it bothered a wife significantly then don’t be around to deal with the pressures.  Take advantage of the opportunity and arrange to have your own mini-vacation break somewhere. 


But what if you cannot get away?  How can you make the best of an unfamiliar situation?


Try suggesting some outings for the women. Presumably the family members will have children so suggest they go to amusement parks and the like. That may give one a break for a few hours. The trick here is not to make them feel like you are pushing them out, but that you been to those places and they should see them before leaving town.

– Organize the women a little on helping you. Again, tricks like telling one of them that you love her recipe for a dish may spur to take over making the meals for that day.


– If there are teenage girls recruit them as helpers. Young Saudi girls are fascinated by westerners, they may like getting closer to you.


Saudi Air Show

I recently had the opportunity to attend an air show just outside of Riyadh at the King Khalid Conservation Park.  Within the park among many things is an aviation club.  The air show was open to the public as well as free of charge towards promoting the aviation club.  In compliance with the cultural traditions of the Kingdom the air show had separate areas for single men and those with families.  Unfortunately the day of the air show was a windy day so some of the planned events such as sky divers and traditional Saudi dancers had to be scratched from the schedule.  However, overall the air show was an enjoyable afternoon of entertainment.


A naval pilot displayed his skill at operating a helicopter.  He flew it no less than 8 feet off of the desert ground as well as performing other heart-clenching maneuvers.  Two small aircraft flew but did not really perform any major kind of stunts which was also probably due to the high winds.  There were a group of Saudis who demonstrated their skill in flying a variety of different remote control model airplanes.  This was an enjoyable event to watch and I applaud the skills of the operators who put their remote control plans through dives, spins and dog fights.  One of the remote control model airplanes was simulated after a fighter jet.  It was much larger, about six to eight feet in length, and displayed the traditional khaki camouflage covers of the military aircrafts.


In addition to the air show, across the roadway there was a small souk (bizarre) with tents selling traditional goods, trinkets and freshly baked breads and cookies.  To my delight, one of the vendors had a wide selection of the Saudi farwas (traditional beudion style robes) on display and for sale.  Ironically due to the winds and cool weather I wore my own farwa that day to the outing.


This was an event that was well covered.  There were many Saudi families, mixed families and expats in full attendance.  Many, including ourselves, brought our own flasks of hot Arabic kawa to enjoy while watching the show.


Following are a few links I discovered which provide a little more information about the King Khalid Conservation Park and its amenities:


King Khalid Conservation Park,12,PS.html?imageNo=3


And if you are in Riyadh, I’ve also included a few other links of some favorite places to go and enjoy oneself on a weekend afternoon:


Equestrian Club of Riyadh


Al Amiriyah


Saudi Saber Rattling – Part II

Saber Rattling

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post about the recent aggression on the part of the Muttawa.  Today’s post provides some information on what to do if you are a woman and confronted by a muttawa.



Some of this information has been extracted from a reputable newsgroup and other data I have added based on experience here:

A  company’s Government Relations Officer advised about  woman’s rights when it came to the detention by the mutawwa and the police. Especially after reading
that incident of the woman in Riyadh it is important women (and others) in the Kingdom know what to do and what is or is not allowable.

1. A mutawwa or police officer is not supposed to take a woman into custody by herself. It is the right of every woman, Saudi or not, to call her husband or guardian (mahram) to the scene and he will than go with them, as will she, to settle the matter


NEVER GO ALONE NEVER GO ALONE just so we are clear. Definitely don’t hop in the taxi with one.  It should also be noted that an official muttawa would not be using a taxi for transport either.  He would be accompanied with a police officer and they would be in an official vehicle.

2. If your man (husband, father, brother, uncle) is not around, giving identification where you can be found or your guardian (mahram) can be found (or anyone in charge) so they can follow up is fine.  They are NOT TO TAKE you.

If you do not have ID, you can use your drivers if he is under your sponsorship and have one.

If not you ask for a police escort, in which they FOLLOW your vehicle or taxi to your residence. You than give them your ID or copy of your ID and any business card you may have of your man (husband, father, brother, uncle). (or guardian/mahram).  They are not supposed to detain you, take you or apprehend you in any way unless you have a male guardian or anyone appointed that is male and on your side.

You can’t just walk away from them, you have to wait for a resolution. So if you are having a cup of coffee and they want to take you, remain seated call your man (husband, father, uncle, brother) and wait. Even if he has to fly in.. do not move.

Do not go to their vehicle, do not step outside, remain where you are, and get comfy. If it takes forever, surrender ID and contact information and that should be enough. If not, and he is not to with a police officer have them call one, two, even a captain or someone higher up the chain and resolve it.

There have been cases where women have been dumped in the desert, stranded on the street, and even harmed when they have went alone with these men. So don’t go, this is our legal right.

And of course never ever ever ever sign a confession you can’t read. Or any legal document for that matter.  You have a right to have it translated by proper professionals into your language. The Arabic one will stand in the court, but it is your right to know what you are signing or confessing to.



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