Life in the Middle East: Expat Women Speak Out
A lot of people accuse me of lying.
They think I lie about what life is like in the Middle East for a woman. They’re convinced that I am secretly being oppressed but somehow am covering it up for the sake of my blog. I read their messages and comments sometimes and I oscillate between laughing and being outraged 😀
In order to combat these accusations and spread some awareness, I rounded a few well-established bloggers in the Middle East- a diverse bunch of expat ladies from all corners of the globe- in order to find if their experiences are vastly different to mine.
I asked them questions about their lives since they moved to this region since each of them resides in a different Gulf country to find out about their lives here. If you’re a woman planning to move to the Middle East then look no further… All the answers to the questions you have are here answered by these beauties:
And now let’s read what they had to say:
What are some of the noticeable differences between where you live now and where you grew up?
Katie: Absolutely everything is different. I moved from a small rural farm town where my morning commute was past green fields filled with trees and cows. I now live in a city where my morning commute consists of tall buildings, vast amounts of sand, and a little bit of water. Living in a city was never something I thought I would like, I’ve always felt more at home in suburbs and rural areas, but after just under a year I have fallen in love with this city life.
Tina: I grew up in a rural area in the Philippines and being in the tropical area I enjoyed every green tree, grass and wild fruits that grew everywhere. I always looked forward to weekends because we would usually gather to hike up the mountains nearby and plunge into rivera along the way. A few years ago, I started working in the Middle East,- a place which is totally different fromback home. Right now, I’m in Muscat (Oman) in the middle of the desert surrounded by the mountains that is home to the few mighty plants which are resilient to extremely high temperatures. On the other hand, I consider this place a blessed one because they don’t experience natural calamities like earthquakes or tsunamis- unlike in the Philippines which usually has more than 25 typhoons to endure each year!
Marwa: Kuwait is a rich country so for an average citizen the living standards are different from Egypt, better if I may say. The country lacks infrastructure in some aspects making it a tad frustrating for us expats to get things done! Living here is kind of easy, there is always someone to help, with the shopping bags in malls and supermarkets for example. You can have almost everything ordered online and delivered to your door but don’t count on the mail services though! The service you get in shops and restaurants is really good and the fuel is indeed cheaper than water!
But with all the fancy buildings, malls, and cars, the absence of the liveliness I used to have in Egypt is what I noticed the most and miss all the time! I miss the soul of Cairo, the diverse nature we have in Egypt, and the fact that within a couple of hours of driving I can be either by the blue sea, in the desert and its oases, or surrounded by mountains.
I know I sound biased, pardon me for that, but I’m more of an outdoor person and that scene is one of the noticeable difference between Kuwait and Egypt.
What are some the misconceptions people have of Saudi Arabia?
Kristine:I think the biggest misconception that’s often portrayed by western media is that people in the Middle East hate westerners. I have found most people in Saudi Arabia to be warm, welcoming and very curious about where I’m from. The other major misconception is that in living in Saudi Arabia I must have to cover my hair and/or face. In actual fact I have never covered my face, and while I carry a scarf with me I never cover my golden locks.
How has your dressing changed since moving?
Jaina: For the most part it’s not changed. I am a bit more conscientious about wearing dresses or skirts that go below the knee, or not wearing sleeveless tops when I’m in certain areas. But that’s not to say you can’t. I make sure I dress respectfully to the culture I’m living in, a lot don’t. But that’s a personal choice.
There is one part of how I dress that has definitely changed since moving to Bahrain: I wear a lot more linen and floaty dresses than I did back in England! It’s just too hot and humid 😀 You don’t get much sun in England. Ha!
Kristine: It’s an unspoken rule that women must wear an abaya when out in public, however; in recent months this is thought to be changing and on occasion I see women out in public not wearing an abaya. I dress more conservatively in the Middle East. I tend to have a love/hate relationship with my abaya. It’s great when I’m feeling lazy and can’t be bothered with figuring out what to wear. I can pair yoga pants with high heels and my fancy abaya and be both fashionable and comfortable at the same time. I hate my abaya when it’s 45C outside and I’m sweating underneath it.
Katie: The perception is that women must be completely covered from head to toe but this is far from the truth. My personal dress has not changed much during my time here, if anything I dress nicer now. I wear more dresses and blouses now than I used too but I still wear my jeans, t-shirts and, shorts.
While we are not required to be covered some public places, like malls, ask that you are modest. For me, this means wearing nothing outside of my norm. If you are someone who wears super short dresses with no sleeves, then maybe you need to throw on a sweater.
I will say the UAE varies though, Dubai is much more relaxed in what they find acceptable wear than in Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi is more relaxed than some of the other emirates. Just be mindful and your normal clothes are probably fine. Except at religious sites, like a mosque, then you must of course abide by the religious rules and cover your hair and be covered from neck down.
What are you eating… and is there anything you miss from your current diet?
Marwa: The dining scene in Kuwait is impressive. You can hardly run into a restaurant that offers plain food. On top of that, there are different cuisines to try from Indian to authentic Ethiopian. And the supermarkets are filled with a big variety of products.
However, I always have the feeling that vegetables and fruits here are tasteless compared to Egypt where agriculture is better. I miss the Egyptian mangoes, the bread, and the burgers. Yes, you read that right, burgers. I still didn’t find a match to Butcher’s Burger here in Kuwait, not even in any of the American restaurants we have!
Jaina: I eat pretty much everything! The food in Bahrain is fantastic, and there’s such a huge variety. I love that it’s so easy (and cheap!) for me to get great Indian food—and all types of Indian food, from South Indian, Gujurati, Punjabi, everywhere! And all of the different types of Arabic food—you could say I’m in food heaven. The only thing I crave from my life back in London is a proper fish and chips!
Is it possible to have fun where you live?
Katie: Absolutely! I live in the capital city (Abu Dhabi) so that helps, but there is always something to do if you look. The city offers cultural experiences, nightlife, dining, movies, and outdoor activities. There is never a shortage of things to do. Since moving here I’ve gone on weekend getaways to the surrounding emirates where I’ve been able to enjoy the beach and the mountains, gone kayaking in the mangroves, seen thousands of flamingos at a wildlife reserve and experienced all the amazing food this country has to offer.
Kristine: Oddly yes. Surprisingly, I have a very packed social life here in Riyadh. There are embassy events almost every weekend. I have friends from a bunch of different nationalities. There are great restaurants here in Saudi Arabia. For me, it’s my social circle that get me through the day to day living of being here.
Do you feel that its impossible to date while living here and is it acceptable to be in the company of someone of the opposite gender?
Tina: It’s socially accepted here to be in public with opposite sex, most of the time I can see a couple having a date in the restaurant or in the mall. I don’t know if it is legal but I think as long as you’re not doing anything immoral in public its okay.
Jaina:I can’t really answer this as I’m married and I moved here to be with my husband 🙂 But pretty much all of my friends here are of the opposite gender. It’s never felt awkward or unacceptable to be out in public or social situations with them.
Are you able to travel out of the country freely? Where have you been?
Marwa: Oh yes and I’m making full advantage of that! Here in Kuwait, you get to have your own passport unlike some countries in the Gulf where your passport is kept in the custody of your sponsor. That advantage makes it a lot easier to fly in and out whenever there is a chance.
I have always loved to travel but I admit that moving to Kuwait offered me the opportunity to travel more and to meet new people from around the globe as I do so. This is one the things I’m mostly grateful for about living here.
So where have I been to? Let’s see, around the Middle East I travelled to Oman, UAE, and Jordan. Oman was a lovely surprise, it never crossed my mind as a country I would visit but I absolutely fell in love with it when I did. I was finally able to do some traveling in Asia since I’m closer now. I travelled to Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and the Philippines. My absolute favourite so far is Vietnam, the people, food and nature were beyond words. What else? Turkey, Italy, Greece, Austria, Croatia, United Kingdom (all four of them), and Iceland. Scotland and Iceland were dreams that came true and I honestly can’t wait for another road-trip around the Scottish Highlands.
Kristine: If you possess a valid exit/re-entry visa you can freely travel. I’ve travelled to 70 countries and about 45ish of them have been from my time living in Saudi Arabia. It’s a great base for travel and it’s very easy to get to Europe, Asia or Africa from Saudi Arabia. I’ve been fortunate to travel to most of the Middle East (well at least all the safe countries) and I find the region as a whole to be fascinating.
Is there anything you have had to completely give up since moving here?
Katie: I’ve have spent the most time thinking about my answer to this question. After much deliberation I have come to the conclusion that no, no I have not had to give up anything since moving to the UAE. Literally everything I did at home I can do here, all the food I used to eat I can eat here (and have it delivered to my doorstep, that’s a plus!), nothing is out of reach not even pork or alcohol.
Kristine: There are many things that are considered illegal living in Saudi Arabia. Alcohol, and pork and open dating are the main ones. Movie theatres used to be banned but this month a theatre opened in Riyadh with many more planned. It has been illegal for women to drive but this is supposed to change at the end of June when women will be able to get driving licences.
Do you feel that you are mistreated/oppressed as an expat woman living in your country?
Marwa: Now during my nearly 3 years of living in Kuwait, I can’t really allege that I ever felt oppressed or mishandled for being a woman or an expat. Yeah expats in general kind of go through some trouble here and there just for being outsiders but women specifically are treated a lot differently here. Distinctively even if I’m say. But yet, it sometimes depends on where you are coming from or what colour is your passport! That’s a sad truth all over the Gulf unfortunately.
To give you an idea about how distinctively women are treated here, let’s say for example a woman wants to renew her driving license and goes to the Traffic Department. That woman will be dealt with first even if she just waked in through the door. No queues, no turns, no waiting just like that! I was once offered to wait for my car license to get renewed in the manager’s air conditioned office so I won’t be sitting outside with the rest of the men! That sounds bizarre I know especially if you are coming from outside the Middle East but the urgency we get treated with sometimes makes it not too bad at all to be a woman in Kuwait. If you are not used to this in your country, you will gonna love it I assure you!
Tina: In general, women are more vulnerable than men; we are more susceptible to violence and harassment. This does not only apply to those who are working in the Gulf but all over the world. I previously worked in Saudi Arabia and I never experienced mistreatment, but we couldn’t avoid those teenagers along the road who would catcall and fool around. Before I came here to Oman I read blogs and the majority of them says that Omanis are the politest among GCC nationalities well- its true, they really are. In my opinion, if a lady behaves normally then nothing will happen.
Jaina: No. Probably almost the opposite. Expats are often treated with such reverence it can make me feel a little awkward, especially by those working in the service industry. The only occasions where I feel somewhat mistreated is when I get catcalled or honked at if I’m out walking on my own at night. It’s such a crass thing to do, and yet some men think it’s just something they have every right to do. I’ve got good at ignoring it.
Katie: This is honestly a comical question. The UAE definitely does not oppress women, it in fact embraces them. When you go to the mall you find pink areas of the parking garage specifically for ladies, government buildings offer ladies only queue’s and most offices have lady waiting areas. You are by no means required to sit or park in these places, but it is nice to have the option.
What’s the most outrageous thing someone has ever said to you about living in theMiddle East?
Tina:Why the Middle East? Are you not afraid of the terrorists? You might get harassed!
Oh well I survived! Being in a foreign land we just need to respect and abide by the rules.
Kristine: I always find it especially entertaining when people who have never been to Saudi Arabia tell me what it’s like to live there. “All women must cover their faces.” “Ummm, no.” I would say things like that and comments like “all Arabs are terrorists.” I’m pretty sure my 85 year old patient is not a terrorist, but if you say so……
Jaina: It’s not safe and is a terrible place for women to live. Now, I can understand this might be the case for some regions, it’s such a terrible generalisation. In fact, it’s the generalisations people often make about what it’s like living in the Middle East that get to me the most. Every country in the Middle East is different!
Katie: I get asked about my safety a lot when I go home. I always laugh when I am asked because I feel safer here than I did in my own country. I never worry about things being stolen, leaving my car unlocked is not a big deal, and going to bed at night without having to check the locks is quite refreshing. The media really skews the reality of the middle east and I hate that.
That’s it ladies, gentlemen & pandas… every answer you wanted to know about life as a woman in the Middle East. If you have any more questions, please leave them in the comments below AND to follow these ladies on their journeys, you can find their blogs here: