Saudi Winter: Of Snuggies and Farwa’s

This is the time that the weather makes a distinctive transition in Riyadh going from a comfortable balmy fall to an arid and chilly winter.  The cold in Saudi is a piercing cold that is felt all the way to the bone.  During this time of wear Saudis modify their style of dress and prepare dishes which help maintain the heat and add warmth to the body.

A lot of villas and apartments in Riyadh may not be equipped with a furnace.  Some may have what is called a “split pack” wall unit which will double for either heat or air.  Many residents in the Kingdom during the winter time will rely upon portable heaters to extra and needed warmth.  The heaters can be a variety of electric, kerosene or propane heaters.  And of course some places will have wood burning fireplaces.  Even with use of a heater or a warm fire, some homes can remain cold or have a damp feeling.  Much is because of poor insulation, high ceilings and marbled floors.

As winter kicks in fast selling items in the souks include fleece sheets and pillow covers, mink blankets and farwa’s.  The fleece sheets and pillow covers are wonderful.  I’ve yet to see the kind that are sold in Saudi in the States but I’m happy to say that the sizes do conform well to American standard mattress sizes.  The mink blankets are the warmest and heaviest blanket and ideal for the Riyadh winter nights.

The farwa happens to be my favorite winter “attire.”  The farwa is a heavy and very warm overcoat made from thick sheep wool.  The farwa comes in differing colors and a variety of interesting traditional designs.  It is worn by both men and women and children too and covers from the shoulders to the ankles.  Most farwas are often made with two deep pockets in the sides which is quite convenient.  It is open down the front but due to its bulk when it is gathered and held in the front no one can tell that there is an opening.  I will substitute my farwa for my abaya during the coldest days.  I have never been challenged or questioned about being out while wearing the farwa instead of an abaya.

Ironically most Saudi women will continue to wear their abaya during the winter.  However due to the cold, usually an abaya by itself is not sufficient.  Therefore a lot of Saudi women will wear a coat….under the abaya.  Until my husband surprised me with my farwa I would wear my abaya and coat.  Although I would wear my coat outside of the abaya as it just felt more practical and comfortable to me.  The past several winters I did start to see more women wear the coat on the outside by they were still a minority.

The Saudi men will change from white thobes to dark colored thobes which are also made of heavier fabric.  And depending where they work, many will also add long undershirts and underwear so as not to get chilled during the day.  The one thing that Saudi men do not seem to change are the long loose white “sunni” pants.  When I asked my own husband why he preferred to keep wearing the long loose white pants with a black thobe and black wool socks instead of getting some long loose black pants which matched, he said the winter season was too short and therefore not practical to have loose white pants made in differing colors to match the thobes.  Additionally men will either wear a farwa or a heavy jacket over their thobe when out in the winter time.

Now all of the items I have described – the fleece sheets and pillow covers, mink blankets, heaters, farwas, abayas, thobes – are all widely available at Al Owais (also known as Kuwait Souk off of King Fahad Road), Deira or Batha Souks (located near Clocktower) and Haraj bin Qassim (2nd hand souk).  And for each location, be prepared to bargain.

The snuggie is ideal for the North American winters when one is inside a home with central gas or electric heat but nothing beats the chilling cold in Saudi Arabia better than a farwa.  Even former President G.W. Bush was the lucky recipient of a farwa from King Abdullah during his last official visit to Saudi Arabia.


28 Responses

  1. Carol – I loved this post. It was very informative and I am definitely getting a farwa if/when I’m in KSA 😉 I never even believed that it got that cold (despite M telling me over and over again) until seeing someone who classifies “cold” the same way I do (you!) write that it gets uncomfortable! Also, substituting the farwa for an abaya sounds very comfortable. After all, they both seem to cover in almost exactly the same way just in different fabrics.
    I should say too that I’ve really enjoyed your latest posts. They’re informative and dare I say vital for people going to KSA because really, you’re not going to find this sort of key information anywhere else. Guide books don’t tell you about a fraction of what you have written about so thank you for that!

  2. It is a revelation for me to know that even all houses in Riyadh are not centrally air-conditioned. I had just presumed that with their kind of wealth, central AC would be normal for every building in the Saudi capital at least. A central AC can be set to cooling or heating as the need arises and keeps the entire hall or building warm or cool as the case may be. But it’s expensive at least by Indian standards and hence not every building in Indian cities can afford a central AC. I didn’t know it was the same in Riyadh.

    I guess I am fortunate to be living in centrally air-conditioned buildings and there is no electric powercut, even though I am in an Indian city!

  3. @Ellen – Jeddah remains pretty nice and comfortable in the winter but the other key cities can get really cold to include Riyadh. Our home where we live does indeed have central heating (and a/c) but with the high ceilings and marble floors and lots of tall windows you can feel a chill during the short winter season where the farwah is ideal…and especially when going out. If you also are an expat from a country with cold winters, a farwah makes a lovely and unique gift too and can be worn inside as well as outside.

    @Daisy – most places in Saudi will have a/c even though in some it might be wall units and not necessarily central air but heating can be hit or miss depending on where and what type of structure.

  4. We’ve stopped at roadside stands between Khobar and Hasa to look at farwa’s and they’re really beautiful! But I cannot imagine wearing one here. Maybe for camping, if I didn’t have a tent or sleeping bag.. Maybe it’s colder in Riyadh, but in deepest darkest winter here I still wore scrubs and a white coat..just like when it was 800 million degrees in July. To me the weather right now is like a perfect spring in the mountains of New Mexico. It’s really funny to see the South Africans and Filipinos bundled up in down coats and heavy scarves and I’m just wishing I could go run around nekked in this fantastic rain.. hehe.

  5. Snuggie fans have started their own sub-culture here in Milwaukee. When I was at work the other day, I saw an advertisement for a Snuggie “Pub Crawl”. (That basically means walking from bar to bar with a group of people all dressed in their Snuggies! )


    People are crazy and the winter is long. You do the math.

    As for those mink blankets, I think those are the same kinds that they sell in the Mexican stores over here. I never understood why they were so popular until now. It’s the warmth factor.

  6. I wonder what the difference is between Saudi fleece sheets and my fleece sheet purchased at Kohl’s.

  7. Oh yes, it is very telling in Saudi where expats are from by the way they handle the winter chill! (smile)

    That is cute on doing crawls in Snuglis. My sister got me a cute one to take with me on the days I have chemo treatments and we even found a matching hat (leopard print). It is so comfy but I also miss my farwa.

    I’m not sure exactly on the difference Lynn. They are probably similar but I know that the ones I bought in Saudi seemed thicker than the flannel/fleece sheets that I had in the States.

  8. The farwa! When I first met my husband, I called it his “Moses coat” because it reminded me of the garment Charlton Heston wore while parting the Red Sea. Unfortanately it was taken/lost on a move to Saudi, and especially sad was that was the only item my husband had left that belonged to his father.

  9. What is the weather like in Khobar in February? Cold or…
    I’ve experienced quite cold weather in Bahrain in January and ditto Morocco. Marble floors, high ceilings, no heat makes it almost impossible to get warmed up.

  10. A local radio station (where I am ) dared its listeners yday morning to start wearing the snuggies outside which I thought would be hilarious to see. There’s forcaste of snow to come and to beat the chill they wanted people to post pics of themselves on their facebook page out and about with their snuggies on to see if they could “start a new trend” to use their own words. Lol.

    At least your advert showed a younger person wearing it than the ads on telly here lol.

  11. Hi! I remember my first winter slogging through campus (even though I had lived in the UK and France, NOTHING prepared me for NY). A down jacket over an abaya has to be the world’s worst fashion faux pas – and the uggs add the finishing touch. That’s why we tend to wear stuff under the abaya. Anyhow, not used to ice t’all, i ended up head over heels and abaya up around my tuches, books scattered everywhere, – so much for modesty and dignity. Men descended from everywhere to assist me, much to my horror.

    Now, the coldest night in Riyadh would not even make me flinch. I was so not prepared for how cold makes you clench all your stomach muscles ( i am only 123 pounds) – Now i dress appropriately in jeans, boots, sweaters and jackets, and I quite like it.

    Just thought you like to hear the opposite side of the story.

  12. I’m not sure about the winter temps in Khobar but being closer to the sea, I think much warmer than Riyadh at least!

    I’m so sorry Kristine to hear that your FIL’s farwa was lost and can understand the sadness your husband feels. It does seem that it is the simplest things that mean so much and so difficult to replace. I don’t know when we will be back in Saudi due to our situation right now and I miss not having my father’s world war II journal that he gave to me before he passed. I found it fascinating and comforting to read the words of my Dad when he was a young man, new father and found himself in combat as a pilot. I cherish his journal but it still remains with all of our stuff in Saudi…and at the right point, we’ll be back and I’ll get to read it again.

    Maryam – let me know how the trend goes! I think this was also what my sister in Pennsylvania was talking about too!

  13. Oh Miriam (Arbgrlusa), thanks for sharing! Actually i was wearing a down jacket over my abaya in Riyadh that first winter before I went to the farwa. Yeah…definitely not bling at all but at least warm. I can imagine the horror though of going head over heels…yikes!

    I’m sure the men were all wanting to be honorable gentleman and probably did not have a clue that would be considered haram in Saudi.

    Thanks for sharing!

  14. So thats what they r called! Farwas! Ive been seeing them everywhere here! Sofar it hasnt gotten nearly as cold in the EP as it has in Riyadh (I think)…sofar just nippy nights and mornings (mid-50’s, low 60’s) while the daytime is still pretty decent. Just a bit windy. I normally put a thin sweater on my son when we go out for a walk (he’s 3) and a long sleeved shirt under my abayaah.

    Personally I think the hoodie under abayaah look is pretty nice, I also do the thicker under shirt with abayaah with wool-blend wrap or poncho (CityMax has some nice ones!)…and sofar so good. We’ll see how it goes when it gets cooler.
    Ive noticed the men transitioning to darker colored thobes and heavier shmaghs or head wraps and ive seen winter-weight abayaat in the shops…I saw this wonderful velour one and one with thick faux fur cuffs and a peter pan collar! LOL

    The thick fleecy blankets are very warm, but honestly…I miss down-filled blackets myself (I know Ikea has them) as I feel like the fleecy blankets make you a bit too hot and then u wake up sweaty. LOL.

    Luv the blog!
    Umm Ibi from the EP…

  15. Oh man, I hate to be the fashion faux pas queen but back in the USA I always wore longer length down jackets over my abayaat. I found jilbabs not as great under coats in winter as a jilbab is shaped more like a coat and usually has shoulder pads…so u get the footballer look, but a regular abayaah since it’s shaped more like a dress over a longer length puffer coat actually looks quite nice. Ive seen some sisters wear waist length puffers with them and I think the style looks atrocious and it accentuates the butt. Of course I had 1-2 “winter” abayaat which were 56inchs long and so I didn’t trip in the snow. If it REALLY snowed I just wore a long tunic and heavy pants or a skirt over thermals. I also grew up in a snowy area…so maybe for me the jacket with abayaah didnt leave me falling everywhere. LOL…I was used to them in winter anyway. Another perk to an overgarment in winter is u can really layer and then strip down the layers when inside. I was in University and walked everywhere I musta left the house with like 2 shirts on, thermal pants, jeans, abayah then long puffer and get to campus and take off the thermal layer. LOL. I also know some women would wear a pashmina as their hijab then switch up on campus.

    ah…sigh…those were the days. im kinda missing snow…I know, I hated the long, cold, dreary winters in NW PA but I do sorta miss them right now.

  16. oops, I meant puffer OVER abayaah! I dont think any abayaah could fit OVER a puffer made for winter weather. LOL…sorry, my bad

  17. Umm Ibrahim,

    I enjoyed all your comments. What part of NW PA was home? I grew up between Erie and Pittsburgh and believe me, that area had SNOW and cold!

    One thing I am also observing while here in the US is how common it is now to wear flannel pants like the ones I enjoy sleeping in. It seems like it’s okay to go out now in “pajama wear.”

    But, guess I’m just a beudoin at heart…farwas rule! (smile)

  18. hah, Pittsburgh area as well although we moved around a bit and then I went back for University!!

  19. I have midnight brain freeze…I meant SW PA! LOL..,my bad. Erie gets it worse though…lake effect snow or something…right?

  20. Lake effect is as lethal as the worse Saudi sandstorm! You have complete white out as compared to the brown out of the sand.

  21. Carol
    What a treasure your father left you with his journal! God willing, you will make it home with your husband to read it again. 🙂

  22. I’m pretty determined Kristine! (smile)

  23. Big thanks again to Carol who brings up the interesting topics and I see the vivid picture of saudi winter unfolding in front of my eyes….. Mr. bush in the farwa looked far nicer than otherwise……….

  24. Thanks Jill! Glad you enjoyed! I also do encourage you as your time permits to do searches for earlier posts which also cover other aspects of Saudi winters.

    I’m sure many in Saudi can share their experience how the first Saudi winter ones skin dries out sooooo much!

  25. I surely will search for more, I grew up in north China where it’s about -25degrees with everything covered under snow through the whole winter, dry and cold, then I moved to the Netherlands where it pretty much rains the whole time through the winter, wet and humid…..
    somehow Saudi sounds like the combination of the two…..

  26. hmmm…having been to North China and Netherlands, I think that is a fair statement!

  27. […] was only a couple of days ago that Carol, at American Bedu blog, was writing about farwa, fleecy garments worn by many Saudis in wintertime. Farwa, sheepskin lined […]

  28. […] is the time of year for many residents of Saudi Arabia who live in Nej’d Province and including Riyadh, will find […]

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