Once people find out that you're willing to go to Saudi for a fee, you find yourself spending more time in the Kingdom than is really necessary. The place is just as opaque and disorienting the second time as it was the first time.
There's lots of things we don't understand about Saudi, but one thing we were always certain of was the direction to Mecca. It's clearly marked in the hotel rooms and in most public spaces. In fact, all the TV screens in the Saudi Arabian Airlines 777 we flew from Jeddah to Riyadh (approximately one hour) displayed the direction to Mecca during the whole flight. The arrow rotated left or right like a compass as the plane banked. It can be reassuring to always know where you are in relation to something else. Too bad in this case, it's a black box in the middle of the desert.
Traveling on your own in Saudi is anxiety inducing but not because it's dangerous in any way. There are lots of boundaries and we still have no idea where they begin or end. Because we are never certain about what we can and cannot do, every mundane activity results in a stupid amount of stress.
We think there are two reasons for this: first, there are plenty of rules and but none of them are codified. Second, there are no good models to follow.
Here's an example from our recent visit: "Is it OK if we walk to the mall by ourself?"
A colleague explained that nothing is specifically banned by law. Instead, lots of things, like women driving, are simply not done because they are perceived to be unacceptable. This makes it even more difficult to navigate since if you ask, "is it OK if I walk to the mall by myself?" the most likely response will be a shrug. No one knows if it's OK or not. It's only going to be a problem if someone thinks it's a problem. So yah, go ahead. Walk to the mall and see what happens. This approach may, from time to time, result in unpleasant consequences. Or, it can be completely OK.
In the absence of any concrete instructions, we usually look around. When you don't speak the language and are confronted with a culture as foreign as Saudi Arabia's, you become highly attuned to non-verbal cues. We usually cope by closely watching and mimicking the behavior of others. In most places, "when in doubt, do what other people are doing" works pretty well in most situations. But if you're a foreign girl in Saudi, there are no models to follow. We need to run around with a foreign woman who lives there to truly learn the ropes. Sort of a guide dog for the blind.
Western housewives shopping in the Carrefour with half zipped black abayas and uncovered heads signaled to us that, in most contexts, abayas (we need one of those, badly. Not only is it ugly, our beige coat A la Turka made us stand out like cheerleader at a Goth convention) are more important than headscarves. These cues provided us with more guidance about how to behave than any other source during the whole visit. We saw a tall blond (obviously foreign) woman in the airport and felt drawn to her, simply because we had something in common and we could see her face.
The absolute absence of women in the public space is the most disorienting aspect of being in Saudi. Those that are present are shapeless, expressionless, noiseless figures usually accessorized with small children. Were there any other women walking to the mall or anywhere else? Of course there weren't, because there are no women visible anywhere in public (except, as it turns out, walking around inside the mall which, as far as we can tell, is their natural habitat). Does that mean we shouldn't? Probably.
We went ahead and walked to the mall anyway, for about 200 meters along one of the busy eight-lane boulevards that transect Riyadh. Nothing happened, but we felt as alien as if we had walked alone on Mars.
We felt stupid taking a taxi back to the hotel but much less exposed and vulnerable. But we felt no less stupid than we did sitting by the pool in Jeddah wearing a scarf because we were the only woman in the whole hotel and didn't know what else to do, or even if it was OK for us to sit next to the pool.
Suffice to say, the long-postponed Bikini Jihad was not launched. This time.