The lifestyle in Riyadh doesn't incorporate as many of the leisure-based activities most Western expats are used to. The Saudi capital is primarily a business destination, and it strictly adheres to Islamic social codes.
To mitigate this, Saudi Arabia seems to have turned to shopping, and Riyadh woos its residents with monstrous malls and sprawling souqs.
Shopping in Riyadh
Buying the latest fashions from high-end international boutiques and sifting through the city's indoor and outdoor markets (souqs) for local items such as Persian rugs, leather goods, handbags and local jewellery is a staple pastime for expat residents in Riyadh who have little scope to indulge in other ways. The Antique Souq (Souq Al-Thumairi) is the oldest of these and overflows with brassware, carpets, clothing, jewellery, sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh.
Expats will find almost anything their heart desires at one of the local malls, with the most popular being Al Faisaliah, Riyadh Gallery and Kingdom Centre Tower. Most shopping centres have some restrictions on visiting hours for men, women and families. Expats should familiarise themselves with any restrictions before planning their shopping spree.
Eating out in Riyadh
There’s no shortage of restaurants in Riyadh, and food prices are generally reasonable. The city hosts a large selection of Middle Eastern fare and a growing international cuisine scene. But one side-effect of being an Islamic country is that Saudi Arabia has different dining establishments for different demographics. ‘Singles only’ venues are exclusively for men, while ‘family sections’ are for married couples and groups of women.
Family sections are supposed to be partitioned to protect women, and in traditional restaurants, each table is completely closed off from the others, allowing women to remove their headscarves. Some have table buzzers so diners can contact their server.
Restaurants in Riyadh also don’t serve pork or alcohol – ‘cocktails’ are in fact juice mixes and ‘Saudi Champagne’ is like sangria with carbonated water or lemonade, but without wine.
Wherever they eat, expats should use their discretion, follow the cues of other diners and go with what seems appropriate for the establishment. Tahlia Street is known for its fine dining and cheap eateries alike, with even American chain restaurants appearing on either side of the avenue. For expats who want a five-star experience, many of Riyadh’s hotels have excellent options and some have done away with gender-segregated sections.
Expats who’d rather indulge in something that reminds them of home will have access to plenty of grocery stores and vegetable markets to gather ingredients.
Sports in Riyadh
Alternative ways to stay entertained include the King Fahd football stadium, camel racing tracks and several recreational parks.
Temperatures in Riyadh limit the time that one can spend exercising outdoors. However, many compounds come equipped with gyms and swimming pools which are great for those that enjoy staying fit.
Compound life in Riyadh
While locals may find these options sufficient for creating a good lifestyle, many expats become frustrated or concerned by what seems like a closed society with few outlets for enjoyment. There isn't much of a nightlife in Riyadh either. Alcohol is prohibited and women's rights are limited, with females needing an escort when they leave the house. As a result, many expats shape their lifestyles around what happens behind the high walls of their compounds.
The kind of lifestyle expats can expect in Riyadh often depends on the amenities in their compound and the rapport they have with their neighbours. Most expats negotiate sizeable salary packages, so there's usually no shortage of creature comforts. As long as expats can cope with a small social circle and the isolation that can accompany life in Riyadh, they can have a rich and satisfying experience.
►Read See and Do in Riyadh for more leisure activities in the Saudi capital.
Are you an expat living in Riyadh?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Riyadh. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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