Shopping, one of life’s great menaces. Whether it is for shoes, petrol, watches or for carrots it annoys me. Some take great pleasure in this
exercise but not me. When in Saudi Arabia though, this annoyance nearly drove me round the bend. I worked in Saudi Arabia in Jeddah and Jubail for a year and a half ending in 2012 and the country is, well, interesting! I won’t go into all the problems, oil and abuses that they have, for this post I’ll just stick with the simple task of shopping.
Living there takes a bit of getting used to and with shopping in particular you need to get used to the dreaded ‘Sala’. Firstly though I’ll give you an insight into the scene at shopping malls.
As I wasn’t living in a compound like many expats do and taking in their experiences and living in a herd I thought everybody was looking at me all the time. You think because you are white, because you wearing a tracksuit or jeans or you don’t have some sort of facial hair that they are all out to get you. In fact they couldn’t care less and nobody pays any bit of attention. With this in mind I had been in shopping malls several times before I was relaxed enough to actually look around and take in what was happening. Basically shopping malls are the playground of women. I don’t have any stats for you but I’m fairly sure that there are at least twice as many shopping malls in a Saudi city than in the western world. They are everywhere and are also very similar to what you are used to, fancy clothes shops, book shops, food, coffee, electronics etc etc. No real difference. Every shopping mall is packed with women and their children in the evening time. This is because women cannot work for the most part so the only excursion they get is to the mall. They look like moving black chess pawns and with a majority you can only see their eyes and their shoes. The same as the stereotype I It’s like a big game of one sided chess with little children in between. The face covering though is a personal choice by the woman so her face does not have to be covered by a niqab if she doesn’t want to despite what some media might tell you. Having said that after a few months of no women your imagination gets a lot more active! You see this covered woman who you think must be in her twenties by her eyes and the fancy way she has the make-up on (only around the eyes, God forbid you should see her face or arms)and then she has very fancy high heels on below this and you start to wonder if she is good looking or not. Let me tell you after a few months in Saudi Arabia you start to think that nearly every woman in the shopping mall is good looking!
The dreaded Sala
I digress, the most annoying part of every expats shopping experience is ‘Sala’. The dreaded Sala. Sala is the Arabic word for prayer and what the everybody calls prayer time. One of the 5 pillars of Islam is prayer and each Muslim should pray 5 times per day. These are spread out over the day but 3 are in the afternoon/evening time. Saudi though is different from other Islamic countries because shops close when Sala is on. As soon as you hear the wailing from the mosque to signal the start of prayer time, the doors are locked and people can’t get in or out. The Sala lasts around 25-30min which is a long time to be stuck in a shop. Other Islamic countries have the same prayer time but the shops stay open. You can go and pray if you want, no forcing involved.
In my experience, one thing a non-Muslim in Saudi Arabia should have is Muslim-Pro! An invaluable piece of kit. This is a smart phone app and tells you the prayer times each day. I have no association with the app and there must be a hundred other apps that do the same thing so if you want to keep your shopping short in Saudi then get one! Prayer time depends on the sun and so every day it changes slightly, so just when you think you know when it is, a week later its completely different. I’m sure it was meant for devout Muslims and that the makers didn’t think of it but it saved me eons of time!
Several times, before I got the app, I was doing my weekly shopping in a supermarket and would be the next person in the queue at the checkout and the clerk would just go off for a half hour pray. 20min of this was just talking with his friends in the coffee shop while I stand like a lemon waiting for him to return. It is infuriating when a 20minute excursion turns into an hour. On the street a lot of the normal shops close down their shutters and the Indians that are running them just sit outside for half an hour and chat until the wailing signals the end. Very bizarre at first glance but after a while it become second nature. Even writing about it now, what seemed normal then it still a bit strange.
Now you may think that this is intolerance on my part because I am not a Muslim but I wasn’t the only one frustrated. Plenty of locals after 20minutes start giving out to the clerks in the shops about why they don’t open, at petrol (gas) pumps people sitting in their cars start beeping continuously for minutes until the attendants come back. It is some racket. It is Sharia (Islamic) law that says they should close and religious police enforce this so if you are caught with your shop opening during Sala you could be shut down or a worse personal fate. And in Saudi you don’t want anything to do with the police of any kind.
So if you ever find yourself shopping in Saudi Arabia then beware!