Pages of the Oasis

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Taxi Tips

The best recommendation I have is to find a decent, honest, reliable taxi driver and use this person as your private personal chauffeur.  In fact, line up 2 or 3 in case driver #1 isn’t available when you need him.
Since there isn’t a central Taxi line you can call to have someone  pick you up, to find a taxi driver, you have to stand by the roadside and wave one down. Simply stand at the roadside and when you see a cab with its top light lit, hold your arm out straight, palm down. The driver will flick his lights to see if you want a ride and to confirm he's seen your hand signal. 

I found drivers from India easiest to deal with, since their English was often better than drivers from other countries, they were punctual, and they didn't try to change the cost of the fare upon arrival.
If a driver you encounter impresses you, be sure to ask for  their telephone number.

To find a really good taxi driver, you either have to stumble upon one by accident or ask around ( ask other foreigners and people who have lived there a long time).

I found it particularly hard to find a driver who know his way around the entire city well, so
always bring a map with you and also get descriptions of landmarks nearby, as well as the name or number of the nearest Exit ramp. Knowing this before you set off will likely save you hours of time wasted in transit.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Getting Around Riyadh

Taxis are plentiful and not very expensive, relatively speaking, in Riyadh. This is the best and easiest way to get around. (See my next post for details about using taxis in Riyadh.)

Women were allowed to take taxis without a male escort (well foreign women anyway).

There was often a language barrier since many cab drivers didn’t speak English. But almost all would nod and say they knew where a place was , usually without really having a clue where to go.  So, instead of asking ' do you know where X is?', ask them how to get there. Do thus  BEFORE you get inside the cab (and have an idea yourself before you leave home), and if they can’t answer satisfactorily, decline and wave them on.

I recommend getting very familiar with the city and its layout before or as soon as you arrive, since you will likely have to give taxi drivers specific directions about how to get where you want to go. I didn’t find Google maps very helpful, and websites were usually just in Arabic so looking things up online was problematic, so source out good maps  in English, and get a good GIS program or apps for your phone before you arrive in Saudi Arabia.

If you take a taxi, be careful where you sit.
In private vehicles, usually the women sit in the back, and only men can drive. The windows are often completely shaded (smoked glass) so it isn’t possible to see inside (and see the women inside). Sit in the back seat if you are a woman, since sometimes te cab drivers took it as a sign you wanted to get fresh with them if you sat within touching distance in the front seat.

Even for foreigners, it’s not acceptable for men and women to hang out together in public if not married, so take separate cabs.Some people I know would make plans for a group outing (to meet up at a mall or restaurant), but the men would go in one taxi and the women in another in order to get there, and once there would pair up as if married when sitting in a restaurant. 

If going in separate taxis, make sure you have the other driver’s number too, or contact  numbers for the other people in the second taxi in your party  and vice versa, to help you stay together and avoid one car getting lost and wasting hours trying to meet up again.

Occasionally I would take a taxi to a mall with a male friend, or eat in the ‘family section’ with one male friend, but I always chose someone that it looked like I could be conceivably married to. Some women brought fake wedding rings to wear to ward off unwanted attention and suspicion.  Even then it was a big risk. If the authorities had asked to see a marriage certificate and I couldn’t produce one, it was grounds for me to be imprisoned or exiled from the country, or both.

When taking company transportation (vans or mini buses), men and women were allowed to travel together in the same vehicle if the company has permission for this, but even then the foreigners would usually self-segregate. Only married couples would sit together as a matter of course.

There is a pubic bus system, apparently, but I never used it.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Visit the Diplomatic Quarter To Help You Settle into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

There is a small city of embassies tucked away in a corner of Riyadh that you need to know about called the ‘Diplomatic Quarter’. 

I would recommend that you visit as soon as you can once you arrive. Getting familiar with this area and the services and events offered by the embassies there can make a big difference to the quality of your life, especially for women, since you don’t have to wear your full abaya and hijab and niqaab while inside the Quarter and can enter all buildings freely.

In this sector you will find embassies for almost every country in the world, or so it seems. I would recommend visiting and asking your country’s embassy about upcoming events and to be put on any event emailing lists, and also visit others and get on their lists too, if you are allowed. Events at embassies are often open to all who want to attend.

I went to a wonderful international film festival with films in English or with English subtitles offered by a wide range of embassies that lasted for about a month. Often there was a little reception offered in conjunction with the film screening, and it was a great way to meet other foreigners and English speaking Saudis and enjoy food, drinks (including alcoholic beverages), and treats from home and other foreign places.

In the Diplomatic Quarter there are park-like green garden areas  with tranquil walkways. It’s one of the few places you can get outside and walk around (there aren’t really public parks like you are probably used to in your home country in Riyadh, in large part because green spaces are not a part of the culture, and because it’s often so hot people stay indoors if they can).

Some people go for runs along the small roads winding through the quarter, a much nicer alternative to the crowded roadways. Well, it really isn’t an option for women to go running outside except in this area since you are required to wear and abaya an hijab (except not inside the Quarter). However, I heard from some female friends that you still need to dress very conservatively to avoid unwanted attention from passing cars who are not used to the sight of women jogging.

There is a gym where women can go, one of the few gyms in Riyadh open to women, and it has a pool.

The Quarter also has a post office and at least one cafe.

Since there are no bars, no nightclubs, no dance clubs no cinemas, the Diplomatic Quarter can be one of the best ways to fulfill your social needs outside your house or building complex while ‘stationed’ in Riyadh.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Best Advice About Saudi Arabia: Get a Cell Phone!

Put getting a cell phone at the top of the list of things to do to help you get settled in.

Saudi Arabians use text messaging, and phone each other constantly. They use their smartphones and Blackberries all the time. You’ll soon discover it’s easiest if you do too.

In case you are wondering, Saudi Arabia does not have public phones  as you may be used to, or phone books and public directories as we know it, and wifi coverage is spotty.
I suggest that you start making a list of important numbers and personal contacts as soon as you arrive.  Better yet, look up a lot of phone numbers before you even arrive in  Saudi Arabia, so you have numbers to add to your contacts immediately and can start living rather than just planning for it.

  • the recruiting company`s phone number(s) / employer`s contact info
  • best hospitals for foreigners (check online forums before you arrive in Saudi Arabia)
  • travel agencies that work within Saudi Arabia (look online before you arrive)
  • airlines and charter companies (access to the internet is not easy or reliable)
  • your country`s embassy number (the local number)
  • international phone numbers for calling your people back home (on speed dial)
Note: Most phones come with pre-programmed emergency numbers ( fire, ambulance , police), but you need to speak Arabic to use these services.  Don`t expect the people to answer to speak English.

Also,don`t count on being able to use Skype when you want to.  Access to the Internet is not as reliable as in a lot of other countries, and Skype needs a lot of bandwidth, so calls often cut off half way through.  The situation is compounded for women since they are usually allowed to use cyber cafes, and it’s hard to find cyber cafes anyway. 

Expecting to be able to look up information online about stores is problematic for a few reasons in addition to unpredictable Internet connections. Many stores have websites only in Arabic, if they have a website at all, and they are not always organized out as 'westerners' are used to. As a result, you can spend a lot of time hunting online for the information you need on the English versions of websites. It`s usually better to phone to find out store hours, their location, and other details.

Travel guide books are a great source of useful phone numbers and location information. Check that they are still in service, though. 


To get a cell phone is not hard. Just go to the nearest mall. They all have kiosks that sell phones. So do the major supermarkets like Carrefour. Bring your passport with you as they will check your VISA stamp and ID. To get an internet data plan, you will an Iqaama, or someone with one to sign for you.

Ask around to find out the best local company with the best coverage to go with. There are some big differences in the quality of service between and among cell phone companies.

'Pay as you go' minute packages are a good way to start until you see what your usage is going to be on average per month and  are ready to get an internet data plan. Most supermarkets sell plastic 'credit cards' on the stands right by the check out counter(s). 

Pick a cell phone company that is well known, even if it is not the cheapest. I made the mistake of going with a less popular company because there was a special offer and a bit cheaper, and thereafter could rarely find places that sold the phone minute cards I needed, let alone in the denominations I wanted, and the service area coverage wasn`t as reliable or extensive as with other companies.

  • numbers of  punctual and trustworthy taxi drivers that speak English well (ask around; they are hard to find on your own, and can save you countless hours of driving around in circles trying to find places and explain where you want to go) 
  • number of your apartment's general manager or hotel reception( if they speak English)
  • hair dressers (usually they are located in compounds and malls)
  • numbers of other foreigners (get them in your  cell phone contacts list even if you don`t expect to become best buddies-- it's handy to have a wide range of contacts and people to phone and ask questions on any number of topics in this verbally based economy).
  • numbers of restaurants with delivery service that you expect to use often (handy when you are hot and tired and don't want to spend your energy looking hard for meal options)