Pages of the Oasis

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Markets in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

An alternative to shopping in  malls is shopping in the outdoor markets. These are large blocks with a labyrinth of kiosks and stores linked by pedestrian walkways, with no roadways for cars inside (parking is in big lots around the periphery).

When I was in Riyadh, markets were the best places to buy abayas, dresses, jewelry and housewares. There was a wider selection available in these small ‘mom and pop’ stores than in Mall stores, and you could barter to get lower prices than what was generally marked. This was also a great place to go for tailoring / alterations since a lot of clothing shops, especially abaya and dressmaking shops, had a sewing machine on the premises.

Some markets specialized in dresses made to order, and it was a  treat to walk along and window shop, admiring the dazzling cinderella-like ballgowns and daringly sexy dresses.  What a surprise in a place where the women are so completely cloaked in public.

Some markets like the Tai Bo had many jewelry stores. Jewelry junkies will love the bartering for custom made gold jewelry and gemstones. Jewelry is a big deal in Saudi Arabia, and so are perfumes. 

A market that was very popular with a lot of female teachers was the Princess market because there was such a large selection of second hand clothes, many of expensive brands that had only been worn once or twice. But I also heard numerous stories that you had to watch yourself because some had unfortunate encounters with men groping them and pick pockets on the loose. Well it's always good to be on your guard no matter where in the world you are shopping.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Mall Scene in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

THE Place to be is the Mall

Before going to Riyadh, I never would have expected that the social highlight of my week would be going to the mall! 

But that’s where the action is in Riyadh. This is the only public space, really, since there are no nightclubs or bars or other public venues. The cafes are filled with men, women behind curtains or in a walled off 'family area' and virtually invisible, or not allowed in at all. Some restaurants are more open in their seating plan, but if you really want to people watch, the mall is the place to go.

The malls really get hopping after 11 at night, and stay open late, until the wee hours of the mornings.

Mall Culture
The malls is where you really get to see a cross section of Saudi society out in full force: families, husbands and wives, and groups of young girls and young men ( not together in mixed company but roving in separate groups).

A few malls I went to on a Friday night had live pop music performances that had the kids going wild. 
Once I saw a very interesting thing: I was walking behind a giggling group of young girls who kept throwing glances back over their shoulders, as if looking for something or someone. 

Suddenly I saw a rain of small balls of paper landing on the floor beneath their feet as they walked. 

Then, out of nowhere, a couple of young men swooped in front me me and gathered up as many of the paper balls as possible in 5 seconds before turning tail and beating a fast retreat in the opposite direction.

So this is how the young women and men strike up cyber romances: the pieces of paper had phone numbers and online contact info.

Here are some malls I recommend:

Riyadh Gallery  - The mall has 3 department stores, which are handy for hard to find household items and less common personal items (Debenhams, Citymax and Centrepoint), some unique shoe stores,  as well as some boutique stores like Sephora. This was my favorite mall because of the massive water feature on the main floor and comfortable cafes with great coffee lining it. Felt like a bit of a natural retreat and the only place with humidity.

Kingdom Mall - This mall has a ladies floor (with security guards to keep men out) where women can walk around without an abaya on. Here you will see high end stores like Saks 5th Avenue and coffee shops with places to sit right out on the public corridor walkway, a nice change from being squirrelled away in a dark back corner in a ‘family section’.

Sahara Mall and Hayat Mall ( they are across the street from one another)
A huge mall with great shoe stores, and special stores worth the effort of getting there, like the ‘La Senza’ liquidation center, and Zara store.

Granada Mall - This mall is smaller, but has many useful stores, one of the few places with a decent selection of both men’s and women’s clothing and technology stores. This was the mall closest to my apartment-hotel and had all the basics needed for weekly and monthly living including a small but good supermarket grocery store.

(A quick note about supermarkets - people I know raved about the Lulu Supermarket as the best place to find ‘international’ foods and decent prices. I mention it here not because it is a mall, but because it is one of the largest supermarkets).

No Chance To Try Things On

When I was there, you had to be prepared to buy things to take home to try them on to see if they fit ( always check the return policy for the last possible return date, since there is often an expiry date for purchase returns ). I heard that in 2013  The Gap offered  change rooms for women ( which was a very big deal). I suspect other stores will follow suit.

It was a bit weird to be waited on my men in women’s clothing and makeup stores, but they seemed to have X ray vision and always managed to size me up instantly and accurately despite my bulky abaya. When I left in 2012, this was starting to change, with women being allowed to work in lingerie shops and shops like Sephora.

The best thing about shopping in Saudi Malls is that the prices are so much lower than in other parts of the world. This is due to a few reasons. Most importantly, there are no import taxes here, and no national tax to pay at the till. Also, when they have a sale, it’s usually a good one, with 70% off a common thing to expect.

Happy shopping!