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Saudi Arabia: Welcome to “abaya-land”

The perfect summer scenario for many: a place in the sun, sunglasses matching the black bikini, a cold lemonade in one hand and a book in another. This happens all year long in Jeddah. Despite the hard limitations and rules in Saudi Arabia, people find ways to live more freely. Only, they have to do it in private. Indeed, there are many places in the country where you forget about where you live.

Situated on the coastline, Jeddah is a place that hosts dozens of private beaches They are generally luxurious and beautiful places, with white sand and clear blue water. Conditions are perfect all year for snorkeling, swimming and relaxing. This is also where Saudi Arabia’s many expatriates meet and hang out. The beaches are like other beaches anywhere else, with the only difference that these are confined within very high walls, making it impossible for passers-by to get a glimpse of what is going on.

There are also guards at the entrance checking people’s IDs and meticulously searching their cars, all according to security measures due to threats of terrorist attacks. Once inside, unlike common ideas, women are free to wear bikinis or any sort of clothes they like, and they can swim and mingle with everyone else. These places are generally very exclusive: the members are chosen carefully and must be able to afford the pricey yearly subscriptions. And owners are not anybodies either: one of the most appreciated beaches belongs to one of Bin Laden’s stepbrothers. Quite a change from the lifestyle his brother chose in Afghanistan.

Mini-towns within the Saudi cities

Among the expatriates in Saudi Arabia, many prefer to live in compounds. These are like small towns with generally at least a swimming pool, a gym and green spaces scattered in between the houses. These compounds come in many sizes: from small ones with only some 10 houses, to very big ones with over one hundred villas. Some of these big ones have cafeterias and restaurants, supermarkets and shops, entertainment rooms, basketball and tennis courts, fully equipped spas, and so on. In many ways, the compounds are like small bubbles of freedom compared to the social restrictions outside. Couples feel that they can interact openly here, and teenagers that they can meet and hang out with their friends. The flip side of the coin however, is that the expatriates become completely disconnected from the Saudi society. They live in their own world, which seems artificially built according to a way of living that prevails in the West. These places are also expensive to live in, unless for those that get the rent paid by the company they work for.

Let the party begin!

Then, contrary to ideas of Saudi Arabia as a place where entertainment is non-existent, there are private parties organised. These take place on different locations. The compounds, of course, but also in private houses beaches, consulates and embassies. Dress codes here are like anywhere else, if not more extravagant. As with the beaches, exclusivity is a rule. Not anyone can access these small getaways from the restrictions in society. To do this, one must not only grasp the ways of circumscribing the rules, but also know the right people.

Alcohol, which is strictly forbidden and severely punished by law, can be found at those parties, just as in many households. The price of alcohol, which is being smuggled into Saudi from a number of different countries, is almost as high as that of cocaine! A bottle of whiskey can cost hundreds of dollars. Also, enjoying a drink can be very dangerous and risk one’s future stay in the country. Many have been jailed and/or expelled from the state for having been caught drinking alcohol.

Fake illusions

But after sunset, it is time to leave the beach. Women change their bikinis for clothes, and cover themselves from head to toe with the black abaya. Everyone looks the same now, and the tan accumulated during numerous sunbathing sessions at the pool, is hidden under black sleeves. Parties end too. The daring clothes are put back in the closets and the booze hidden. As the weekend comes to an end, the routine takes over.

People juggle with these two realities: the strict rules of Saudi society, and the life within walls that on the surface seems like life anywhere else. Only difference, this way of living is for a short amount of time, separated from the rest of the population, and hidden from unwelcoming critics. For many, it is like having two lives with different facets: the public one with restrains and the private one where restrains get put aside for a moment.

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