Should I go to Saudi Arabia?

In April, my husband has the chance to get an all-expense paid trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in exchange for giving a talk about health care IT management.  He wants me to go too, mostly so we can spend some alone time together.

At first, I thought “Absolutely not!”  My overweening sense of responsibility balked.  After all, it would mean leaving 3 kids home alone (again after my jaunt to Paris in September) and either relying on friends to watch them, or letting them watch themselves.  I also have several major work commitments scheduled.  And despite how Scott pointed out that I’m the boss who scheduled those commitments and therefore have the power to reschedule them, it felt irresponsible.

But then I reconsidered—partly because my reluctance becomes a marital issue (“you change all sorts of things to accommodate other people but not me”), and partly because when in my life will I ever have the chance to visit Saudi Arabia again?

Saudi women in abaya, hijab and niqab (face covering)–I think

So I said yes and started getting excited.

Then the sponsors wrote back with caution—saying I needed to talk to a woman who’s travelled there several times.  I wrote her mentioning I assumed I’d need to dress modestly.

She wrote back.  Modesty was an understatement.  Women need to change into an abaya on the plane and wear it the entire time (other than in one’s hotel room).  Women must also wear a hijab (head covering) outside lest the religious police harass us.

I probably won’t be allowed on any outings planned for the men of the conference, if I venture outside I need to be accompanied by my husband or a local male.  Even in the hotel, I will only be able to sit with my husband in “family only” areas.  I’ll also need my husband’s permission to leave the country.

The last time she visited, she went straight from the airport to the hotel and back to the airport again, never venturing outside.


  • Should I go if I won’t see anything other than our hotel room?  Or is the experience of being in such a setting so instructive, plus stepping foot on that soil so unique, that it’s worth it?
  • Does the fact that my husband and I are different ethnicities so that we don’t look like traditional husband and wife mean his “covering” won’t be believed?  Or maybe no one will be able to see I’m Chinese in an abaya and hijab!
  • Is the adventure worth it given that Saudi Arabia’s on the travel warning list?

When the Christian season of Lent started last Wednesday, and I (as always) hadn’t decided on a fast, the contrast of Saudi Arabia and whatever deprivation I chose for the next 6 weeks was striking.

The 2 hardest things I’ve ever given up for Lent were listening to NPR while driving, and reading novels.  The 3rd hardest  was giving up  dessert.  Last year’s venture of giving up meat was a cakewalk compared to NPR and reading.

What privilege I enjoy!  I can choose to give up treats, delicacies, even animal protein.   I can listen to whatever radio station I want as I DRIVE in my mini-van WHEREVER I want, unaccompanied and free.  As a girl, I was educated in the best schools and can READ through business books, theology books, and multiethnicity books–all for my JOB–while walking in a sports bra and shorts on a treadmill at my women’s gym.

The ability to fast for Lent just reflects the privilege I enjoy every single day, the wealth of having choices, and the freedom to choose.

Will I go to Saudi Arabia?  Not sure.  Still waiting to see if I get a visa, or what the sponsors say.  As my husband points out, my identity won’t be damaged by limiting my freedom of movement and dress for a couple of days.  Although my heat intolerant body might on 95 degree days in an abaya and hijab.

What do you think I should do?

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  • Molly Wilkinson

    I am Molly Wilkinson, Malia Wilkinson Peterson’s mother. She remembers you from Punahou. I don’t since you were not born yet when I was there! My answer to your question is, go. You may be bored silly, but the experience of that much restriction will be invaluable. Maybe the conference will provide escorts for you “ladies” and you can actually go somewhere. Tough question, however.

  • grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    I’m not thinking I’m the one who should give advice about this one, but…. I wouldn’t go if I were you. Now, I will say that after I read the book “Princess” I vowed that S.A. was the one country on earth I would never go & would be deathly afraid to go to. So there’s my full disclosure right there. But also, it would be no fun to me to be on a sort of vacation and not get to lay out by the pool, etc. I’m such a downer here, when I’m usually like “yes!” take the risk! , etc. but this extroverted, ESFP is saying “stay home,” and wait for Paris! =)

  • Erin

    I would go, if for nothing else, the experience. Think how much your worldview will change from such an adventure. Plus doing something for your husband would mean something to him. Take some novels ;)

  • theophilus.dr

    A comment more to your husband than to you. All things being equal and unless there is more to the story — but, given the data presented — If I were a husband in this situation, I think I would save my “you reschedule for everyone else” points and apply them to something in the future that was more productive than having someone sit in a motel room for a couple of days. The twinge of guilt that this ‘poor me’ plea produces might be a one-time event. Sympathy is elusive. Choose wisely.

  • Jannie

    I would go in a minute! What a privilege just to experience another culture, esp one so different from what you know. The dress code is not ideal, I agree. But in many parts in the world, women to not dress the way we get to in America. It is for a short time and could help you appreciate the life we have here. As Erin said, take some good novels you never seem to have the time to read. Use that time to catch up on correspondence with people in your life you have not been able to write to (either with postcard or email). Take some of your favorite dvd’s to watch. Enjoy the opportunity to rest, sleep on, take long baths and do nothing!! And enjoy some alone time with your husband without there being anything thing you have to do or any place you need to go and no children to take care of. My husband travels almost monthly and I wish I could go along sometimes- just to be with him. Be grateful for the life, the family, the freedoms, the opportunities in your life in America!

  • Pam

    I say stay far far away from this country! Sounds to me like your husband might want to leave you there!

  • Alexandra

    I’m all for adventure, and all for trying to accommodate a husband, but Saudi? They are not our friends. To put it mildly. You will not be able to take along mainstream women’s magazines, non-Islamic religious books or jewelry, etc., etc. Go halfway around the world to sit in a hotel room? No.

    And for Dr. Theophilus: you’re a very wise person.

  • Maureen

    I have been invited many times by Saudi princesses (they are clients) to be their guests and visit with them in Saudi Arabia. I have declined every time for the same reasons you have stated, however I told them it was because of scheduling issues which is mostly true. I may reluctantly go at some point for the experience. I would like to write about the lives of Saudi women and maybe travel around to other Middle Eastern countries also to see how other women are forced or free to live. I understand your apprehension to fly such a long distance to sit in a hotel room. What kind of get-a-way would that be? If I were you I would probably say to your husband “I will meet you in London or Paris” Those 2 cities’ airports are connectors for the Middle East. You could have a few days of fun together in a city where you can go OUT and have some fun. Good luck with whatever your decision.

  • Suzanne Lubeck

    The whole predicament just so infuriates me, but I know that what makes me really mad, is worth looking at more closely. Two things come to mind. It would be interesting to be able to talk to some women there, assuming there is a way to meet them and talk. Could you set that up ahead? And afterward, I’d look forward to reading your next essay on “life inside a paperbag.” Secondly, ask your husband to dress up in the get-up as well… I know it’s not a joking matter. Good luck. Suzanne

  • Mary Moss Kniskern

    I’m not sure how I would choose if this were my choice to make. I’d love to go to SA, and the hijab wouldn’t be such a big deal in my book. I think I could probably take enough to read, and would love to meet with Saudi women. Don’t know about being restricted to our hotel room the entire time he’s at the conference. I do agree that this might not be the time to play the “you rearrange things for everyone else” card, but I’d also hear that my beloved needs to feel important to me somehow if not by accompanying him on this trip.
    If it’s any help, I have an acquaintance who is working over there in an inter-faith situation and finding it a tremendous experience. Of course, he’s male so he doesn’t have the same restrictions, and he’s there long enough to develop some real relationships. Here’s his blog:

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  • شريفة الراشدي

    OMG ! Your writing and the comments make me feel saudi is a kind of jail. I’m from there to be serious with you , I don’t drive this is the rule here , but I go out with a driver , who I don’t know him , to anywhere inside the city for visiting my friends , going to mall , going to hospital or Going to the park with my neighbours.
    Yes it is a strange culture according to you , but who live in Saudi as any people any people around the world , there is a good ppl instead of that there is an opposite. Saudi is an islamic country this is true , but we don’t apply every single rule to show that . To more info about saudi you can see on YOUTUBE
    This video about foreigners who come to Saudi whether for working or living there.