Last night I told Jose that I never want to go shopping in Saudi Arabia ever again! First, we are kind of in the middle of nowhere so it takes a 1.5 hour bus ride to get to Jeddah. Second, KAUST provides free buses to go into the city which is great except that we have to follow the bus schedule or risk getting left behind and paying a huge taxi fare back.
On Saturdays the bus going to the Mall of Arabia leaves KAUST at 4 pm and leaves from the mall at 9 pm. That means we get to the mall at 5:30 pm and get back home at 10:30 pm. At first I wondered why they didn’t have earlier times but then I realized that most stores are closed from 1:00-4:30 pm anyway.
So we arrive at the Mall of Arabia at 5:30 pm and I was feeling kind of carsick. Jose suggested that we sit in a cafe and drink something to make me feel better. So we sit in the cafe, get our orders and a few minutes later the waiters turn all the lights off. The stores in the entire mall close and shoppers just sit on benches or walk around. People in our cafe just go about their business eating and chatting in the dark.
Twenty or thirty minutes later they turn the lights on and the shops open again. I finally feel better and we walk around the mall. We check out the climbing wall (turns out it’s a huge climbing tower FOR KIDS–Jose was so disappointed because the only reason he wanted to go to the Mall of Arabia was to check out that wall). We go into a shop and Jose finds work pants he needs to buy. Of course there are no dressing rooms in the stores. What everybody does is buy the clothes, try them on in the toilet and return the items they don’t like. You know how some boyfriends/husbands need female fashion advice when buying clothes? Obviously that doesn’t happen here. So we head to the toilets and I wait outside. He decides that he wants to return one pair of pants so we head back to the store. The store is closed. It’s 7:55 pm and prayer time has started again! There is a religious police officer guarding the store, telling us in Arabic that we can’t go in.
I suggest that we go to the food court to eat dinner and wait it out. Oh but wait a second, we get there and all the restaurants are closed. Someone tells us that they will open at around 8:30. That means we have 30 minutes to eat, return the pants and get to the mall entrance for our bus.
By 8:20 I’m lining up in front of a restaurant while Jose sits at our table. While he waits the religious police tells him he can’t sit there because single men are not allowed to sit in the family area (the whole food court was a giant family area so I wonder where single men sit?) He shows his wedding ring and points to me and the religious police apologizes and leaves. We finish our food in 10 minutes, rush to return the pants where he’s made to fill out a form. On our way to the entrance I spot a Cinnabon and I really want to buy some cinnamon rolls but there is a line and 5 minutes left until 9 pm. Sadly, I head to the bus stop and we embark on the long journey home.
What I’ve learned after is that Jose and I are novice, level one shoppers. Clueless and unprepared. Those who have been here a while know that you don’t go to the mall without a strategy. Most people know which stores are in which particular malls. They know the prayer times (of which there are 5 in a day) because they’ve downloaded an app that tells them the exact times every day. They time their shopping so that they are either trying on clothes or eating during prayers. They leave shoe shopping for last because you are allowed to try on shoes in-store.
While most people in the malls just ignore prayer time, there are a handful of people who follow this religiously. When I went to the toilets I saw women kneeling on the floor facing the right side. Muslims always have to pray facing Mecca. I wonder how they always know which direction to face? There were advertisements on just that side of the wall so I’m guessing that’s a guide. Advertisers are so clever! Prayer time + strategically placed ads=guaranteed audience.
I guess I still have a lot of getting used to. I would say this is the biggest culture shock I’ve experienced so far–restricted shopping! If I ever go back to the malls again I’ll be more prepared. Or maybe I’ll just save my money and go shopping during rebajas season in Spain. It’s definitely a hassle to shop in Saudi!