Everybody knows Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country and we have all seen pictures of Saudi women, clothed from head in toes in black, their eyes the only visible part of their body. Jeddah is supposedly a ‘liberal’ city compared to the capital Riyadh, but I would take this with a major pinch of salt. Men and women, Muslims and non Muslims still need to adopt a conservative style while in the Kingdom. Nobody expects foreigners to dress like locals, still most expats in Saudi Arabia tend to ‘blend in’ clothe-wise. While officers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (known as the Hai’a) are much less intrusive in Jeddah than in Riyadh, it is still best to err on the side on conservatism.
Before we start here is a quick glossary, so you know what we are talking about throughout this article. A big thank you to Nancy Abaya for providing pictures of ladies’ outfits. Nancy Abaya is a well known shop in Jeddah so you can shop there (you can shop online too, they ship worldwide) without any worry, you’ll be spot on!
This is what men wear in Jeddah. I also recommend you check out this very interesting article on the traditional clothes of men in Saudi Arabia.
This is what women typically wear in Jeddah: A long black abaya (a loose over-dress), a hijab (head scarf) or shayla (a long gausy kind of headscarf) and a niqab (face veil) which is optional, even for Muslim women.
Now that you know what people wear in Jeddah, here are some tips on what YOU can wear in Jeddah:
Before you travel
You may need to shop before you arrive in Jeddah. If this is your first trip to Saudi Arabia, you will need to make sure you have some clothes that will be suitable to wear as soon as you leave the plane. You can always stock up once you’re settled but everyone is expected to dress appropriately as soon as they land in Jeddah. Ladies: make sure you buy a black abaya and keep it, along with a headscarf (any color) in your hand luggage. Before the plane lands, you will need to put on the abaya. Non Muslims are not expected to cover their heads but it’s best to have a headscarf at the ready anyway. Men are expected to wear clothes covering their shoulders and going down below the knees.
Dress code for women
If you plan to come to Jeddah (for work or to live here) you probably already know that women have to adopt a more Islamic style of clothes but don’t believe everything you read though. What applies to Riyadh doesn’t always apply to Jeddah. What applies to big cities doesn’t always apply in smaller towns, especially in the north of Saudi Arabia.
In Jeddah, all women are expected to wear a black abaya when they go out. Colors are not forbidden but you’ll soon catch up on the color scheme out there: black, dark grey, maybe dark blue… nothing flashy, nothing that stands out basically. Black abayas can be covered with patterns or have sparkly details (see examples below). Non Muslim women sometimes just slip on the abaya, without closing it properly all the way and that seems to be OK. With regards to head covering, non Muslims are not obligated to wear the hijab, and definitely not the niqab. Muslim women should wear a hijab and the niqab is optional. In terms of colors, anything goes with the headscarf (hijab) and you’ll see all sorts of colors out there, so feel free to splash some colors if you like.
Dress code for men
OK so men have it quite easy really. They can wear whatever they want as long as it doesn’t show too much flesh. Men should be careful to cover their shoulders, and wear long shorts/trousers that go below the knees. Apart from that, men can choose between Western style or Saudi style. If you wonder why some western expats are wearing the traditional white thobe and covering their heads with a piece of cloth instead of their blue jeans and shirt, wonder no more. It is HOT in Jeddah! When you live in a very hot country like Saudi Arabia, the thobe is probably the most comfortable outfit there is. Try it out one day and you’ll see.
Dress code for children
Young children (under the age of 10) are usually free to wear whatever they like. You will see children, boys and girls, at the mall dressed in all kinds of fashion but like in all big cities, people tend to dress up rather than down when going out. Little girls in particular, are quite often seen with “princess” outfits or dresses that would probably seem “too much” somewhere else.
Inside expat compounds
It is common knowledge among expats than the rules inside compounds are different and way more relaxed than in the outside world. If you choose to live in an expat compound, you’ll soon understand where the boundaries are. However, it is important to remember that despite the very Western feel of the compound, you are still in Saudi Arabia and while you can certainly do without the abaya and hijab, you may want to avoid sexy clothing or anything that reveals too much skin.
Don’t forget that you came to Saudi Arabia under the sponsorship of someone (person or business) who is Saudi and any unseeming behavior on your part reflects on them. Saudis are a very proud people and they would not take lightly that someone they are responsible for (who is under their sponsorship) behave in what they an deem inappropriate manner (and I’m not just talking about clothes). If your sponsor is your employer, in the worst case scenario, you could lose your job and consequently, your visa or residence permit would be taken away. Just be mindful of your surroundings, and if you’re unsure, ask another expat in your compound.
Expats or not, once you step out of compounds, you are expected to be fully dressed according to the Islamic code we discussed above.
What to wear at work
If you don’t have to wear a uniform, keep your attire smart, clean and neat at all times. Saudi people take great pride in how they dress and they would tend to trust someone who is equally well dressed while they may look down on someone whose clothes look sloppy. You don’t have to wear designer clothes if you can’t afford them, just make sure that whatever you wear looks new and spotless clean.
Dress to chill
To fight the heat and the humidity, stick to cotton. Any other fabric will be very uncomfortable and may even cause some serious rashes on your skin. Having said that, any place indoors will be fully air-conditioned so if you know you’ll be staying inside you can wear anything you want.
Dress to impress
If you ever get invited to someone’s home, you will need to make a real effort. While it may appear to outsiders that Saudi fashion is nonexistent, you’d be surprised to realise that Saudis actually love clothes. Both men and ladies love to shop for clothes, follow fashion from the Gulf and the West, go nuts for designer brands and even high fashion from Paris and New York. So don’t make a fool of yourself, dress to impress: look sharp, don’t be afraid to use vibrant colors, sparkles, high heels, jewelry… you name it. The norm around here is elegance. Women wear very feminine and classy outfits in private, and men also like to dress up.
As a general rule, men and women should dress conservatively while outside and follow the examples of others inside expat compounds. Finally, don’t feel like you have to dress like a Saudi to fit in. The city of Jeddah counts more expats than locals according to a recent survey so Jeddawis are totally used to be around foreigners. Just show respect for the traditions and culture of the city and you’ll be fine.