Like so many other places across the world, Saudi society is becoming increasingly consumerist and dedicated to shopping. There are hundreds of malls in the country and these are among the few public places in many Saudi cities. Shopping, a chore for some and an enjoyable pastime for others, can be both an interesting and sometimes annoying experience.
The Mall Culture
Malls can be found in almost every neighbourhood in big Saudi cities. For families, many choose to go there due to the open space they offer: a stark contrast to the confined areas of restaurants and coffee shops. Therefore, especially on weekends, malls are very crowded. Shops range from clothes, electronics, music instruments and book stores to travel agencies and pet stores, and famous international brands like Mango, Zara, Marks & Spencer and Victoria’s Secret offer similar collections to those found in countries elsewhere. Of course, there are also numerous restaurants, as well as supermarkets and playing areas for kids.
Women, shopping, and men
The fact that women wear abayas in public does not prevent them from wearing whatever they want in private. Saudi stores cater for all tastes and everything can be found in the malls: from long sleeved shirts, coats and head scarves to sexy tops, micro-shorts, bikinis — sometimes very revealing ones — and hot lingerie. As for abayas, these come in numerous different kinds styles, and not always the sober, all black ones. Shops specialised in more original abayas offer ones with colours, patterns, glitter and eccentric designs.
One thing that sets women’s shopping experience apart from that of men, is that fitting rooms for women are extremely rare. Women simply have to guess what size and style will fit without trying the clothes on. Therefore, there are refund and exchange policies in every place. It is not uncommon for people to buy several sizes of the same piece, try them out at home or in a public restroom, and then return the items that did not fit. Shopping, for women, turns out to be very much a matter of going back and forth to the same store in order to find things that fit. In other words, it is usually not a shopping addiction or frenzy that motivates women, but more this not-practical aspect which necessitates all round trips. However, some stores do not allow lingerie to be returned or refunded. This means that women must be able to predict what bra fits them best by just looking at it — something that any girl will agree is impossible!
In addition to that, all salespersons in shops and malls are men. For them, the challenge is giving advice to women dressed in loose and concealing abayas. Not only are they supposed to be able to measure the size of every individual customer, but also what kind of make-up to go with her skin or which high heels are most comfortable. Unsurprisingly, this leads to awkward and sometimes hilarious situations, in which the vendors have no idea what they are talking about. A salesperson once tried convincing me that a make-up product that actually was a concealer with five different skin tones, instead was a lipstick, a set of eye shadows and a concealer in one! Having argued with him for a while, he admitted he knew nothing about the item that he was selling.
Organising a shopping day
During the five daily prayers, all Saudi shops are compelled to close. The day is therefore divided accordingly, with shopping following these prayer times. Customers plan their trips to the mall, and every couple of hours wait for the shops to reopen again. Most stores open at 10 in the morning, then close around noon for the second prayer, open again for one more hour and then close again for the lunch break/afternoon rest/nap. The third round starts at five in the afternoon and lasts for more than one and a half hours before another prayer takes over. The shops open again until around eight, the last prayer of the day. After that, they stay open until midnight if not more. Of course, this arrangement gets messed up during the holy month of Ramadan when most activities take place at night, usually until very late.
So private it is?
At the same time, there are some private shops where women are both vendors and customers. These have fitting rooms and employees who know what they are talking about. Naturally, these are places reserved for women and men are not allowed to enter. Usually they are very exclusive and sell expensive branded items: not everyone can afford going to these stores.
Does tradition rhyme with contradiction?
Wandering the Saudi souks and malls, a huge variety of items can be found. The souks are a mix of different shops: from traditional tailors, spice markets, jewelers and traditional Saudi apparel like local shops that sell the traditional shibshib (a Saudi mix between flip flops and sandals), the thawb (the dress) and shmagh (the equivalent of the Levantine Kuffiyah), to old-fashioned oriental perfumeries from which delicate fragrances softly rise and lightly tickle the nostrils of passersby, as well as more ‘Western’ items.
When shopping for things like underwear, some shops cover their boxes with a big sticker that gives the buyer no possibility to see what the product looks like. A funny example is the box of stockings completely covered with a sticker with the only information available for the consumer saying “almost black” (to the despair of fetishists)! Or, the catalogues of some shops selling quite revealing clothes which are completely censored: every part of the skin of the models in the pictures is covered in black. All the while, the items from the catalogue are all sold in the shop!
Shopping in Saudi is a special exercise and in many cases anything but a relaxing hobby. One must be very patient to wait between prayers and to find the right sizes. And usually, the shopping session does not end with just one visit to a store, it usually implies going back to return or exchange items. At the same time, almost everything can be found in shops and souks: the difference from other countries lies in how to get them.