As I write this, it’s a little after 6:30 pm on a Friday evening in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The first day of the weekend is winding down and the Isha’a prayer can be heard outside from local mosque loud speakers.
For the past thirteen months I’ve been living in the capitol city of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I work for a company contracted by the U.S. Army to work on the “Modernization of the Ministry of the National Guard” project. This project is only a small part of Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030”, in which the new government hopes to stand up several modernization projects across the country. I hope to talk about “Vision 2030” in more depth at a later date.
As I’m sure you can imagine, the cultural differences from the United States to Saudi Arabia are endless. To start, as you may have noticed at the beginning of this post, I referred to Friday as the first day of the weekend. Although you may start your weekend on Friday after work, the work week here is Sunday through Thursday. Friday is the Muslim holy day, and Saturday rounds out the weekend. This, coupled with a seven to eight hour time difference from your friends and family, really throws a kink in many aspects of life I consider normal.
The hardest thing for me to get used to, by far, are prayer times. Throughout the day you can hear the Muslim call to prayer ring out from the many mosques scattered across the city. Without fail, anywhere from ten to thirty minutes before prayer time, all businesses close. They open back up about ten minutes after the end of the prayer and this happens five times a day, seven days a week. It begins with Fajr, the dawn prayer, continues throughout the day with; Dhuhr, Asr and Maghrib, and ends with Isha’a, the night prayer I mentioned in the beginning. Other forms of salat (ritual Islamic prayers) occur as well, either weekly or for special occasions like Ramadan and Islamic festivals. You must plan all of your daily activities around these prayers. I’ve been caught many times, on my way to run errands or visit a restaurant, seeing stores dropping their blinds and locking their doors. You learn quickly to check prayer times before leaving home or work to prevent sitting in a parking lot for forty-five minutes. Unfortunately, due to many factors, sometimes you still end up browsing Instagram to kill the time until you can get your tacos.
Then there are differing religious laws, which are enforced by both police officers and religious authorities, that prohibit things that we as Americans can do freely every day. Like meeting your Tinder match (for you single folk) for a drink after work. Yeah, you just broke multiple laws doing that, if you were here. First off, alcohol of any sort is illegal here. My boss and I can’t even order isopropyl alcohol to use as a cleaning agent. Secondly, you aren’t allowed to be in the company of a female in public without being related to her or having a male member of her family being present. Both crimes are cause for being immediately arrested, which comes with prison time and/or harsh physical public punishment. Those punishments are comprised of; lashings, stoning, and extremity amputations including beheadings if it’s deemed a severe enough crime. All of those take place downtown in a spot us Westerners have nicknamed “Chop-chop Square,”. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly! Now these aren’t open to the general public, at least not anymore from what I’m told. Such events are by invitation only to Muslims of status in high political and religious standing, and those somehow linked to the criminal. Personally, I just stay away from that part of downtown no matter if it’s choppin’ day or not. Really puts being single in the USA into perspective, huh? Obviously both drinking and single men and women getting together still happens, and we may get into that when I’m a little surer that every keystroke isn’t being watched. Trust, me these guys will give the NSA a run for their money…. Oops!
All in all, I haven’t felt threatened while being here which is good. Mostly because I make sure to respect their customs and abide by the directives my company security division issues. At the end of this I have no doubt that I will return home to my wife with a great new-found appreciation of the basic freedoms that we Americans have. Until then, I will try to learn what I can about this different culture and find things to enrich my time here and share with all of you.
-Author: David Cannon Follow David on Twitter