Saturday, March 31, 2012

An Expat's Tale From A Saudi Jail

It's my pleasure to introduce you to an expat nurse and friend of mine who worked in Riyadh for a few years. Her memories from Saudi are positive despite some negative incidents that occurred during her stay here such as a short jail sentence! Read on to find out more about her life in the Magic Kingdom!

First of all thank you for agreeing to this interview and for sharing your experience about life in Saudi-Arabia as a working western expat woman. You had some pretty out of the ordinary experiences while you were here! 
What got you interested in coming to Saudi-Arabia in the first place?
What was your very first impression about the Kingdom, and did it match what you had expected it to be?
You worked as a RN in a large government hospital. How would you describe the hospital compared to ones in Finland and what was the most difficult thing to adjust to in Saudi?

So how did I end up in Saudi-Arabia for work? It wasn't my plan... I just needed to get out of Finland during that time and do something extreme. One call to the agency, and next thing I noticed I was filling up the papers to Saudi! Nobody believed I was really going there, neither did I, but 6 months from that call I was packing my life to move to Saudi. 

I left with mixed feelings, didn't know what to expect, so I didn't expect anything. I only knew I will wear abaya for next one year and work like crazy! 
I landed in the scary Riyadh airport after midnight. Men all around and all looking at me! Where's my abaya?! Of course I didn't have one at the time..Only thing I knew I needed to get out of this airport as soon as possible, luckily after passport check there was a hospital sponsor waiting for me. 

It took me a short time to settle down around my hospital, I was open to everything! Seemed everyone were super friendly and helpful! I met loads of people, and started to make contact with the surroundings. Hospital was massive, things looked and sounded as if they were going smoothly there. But after working a while I started to notice many things that only sounded good but in reality they didn't actually work. As long as things were looking good to outsiders, people were satisfied with their work. That was hard for me, but then I realized it was impossible to come and change anything, only thing I could do is follow my nursing ethic and do my work, do my 12h shift and go home. 

What were your days off like, and your typical weekend like in Saudi?

Free time in Saudi surprised me in a positive way, there was loads of things to do on your days off. 

Many daily activities like dance lessons, pool days, tennis and gym kept us busy after work! On weekends we had dinners with friends, embassy events, desert walks and camping, snorkling in Jeddah! We did traveling around Middle East, around the world! I met awesome people in Saudi and shared these experiences that I could not have ever thought of experiencing back home! These experiences and possibilities kept me working there up to 2 years. 

I always admired your courage to walk long distances around the city, which is so uncommon in Saudi! There are no sidewalks and traffic is very unfriendly toward pedestrians. What sort of places would you usually walk to and how was your experience, did you get harassed a lot?

 We did walks around the city to the malls from the hospital compound even though it was a bit scary sometimes since the streets weren't made for walking! Many stares from men, but we kept walking! I missed the feeling back home where you could walk freely.

So now to the jail incident..
Tell us what was the situation before you were confronted by the Haia (muttawa)?
What were the factors that lead to your arrest?Were they accompanied with police officers?
How did the Haia treat you and others involved in the incident? Did you feel you were treated with respect? Did you understand what was happening at any point?

I had some incidents during my 2 years there with muttawa, but the scariest one was when I ended up in Saudi jail during Ramadhan. The worst nightmare I could ever think that could happen to me! I was asking my male Arab colleagues (western nationality) to pick me up after work for take away food. While we were waiting for the food to be ready, I decided to step out of the car and wait outside since it was crazy hot! In a few minutes there were muttawa and policemen around me asking questions! 

My friends were inside the restaurant picking up the food. Things started happening when they came out with the food, no questions were asked anymore, we were separated. I was put inside a different car and my friends were taken away in another. I sat in the back seat, doors were locked. I didn't know what was about to happen. I was scared, they took my phone and talked only in Arabic. I couldn't reach out to anyone! Worst case scenarios crossed my mind, horror stories that I had heard happening in Saudi to females - is it about to happen to me? 

After driving around quite along time, I was brought to a big building and saw Saudi females in their uniforms. I felt relief seeing females.. But when I was entering to the building I realized it was a Saudi female jail! I saw scary looking females banging the bars and screaming and crying! And in no time I found my self inside with them, I was so scared. I really thought they would hurt me. I was so shocked of the situation, I separated my self from everyone else, I was just sitting in a corner for hours.  

At the prison, who dealt with you, and how was their treatment toward you?
Did they search you and how was that done? Were you told what they were they jailing you for? Did you have a chance to inform your family or anyone from your employer?

 Female guards asked me to undress for 'inspection'...I was feeling a bit uncomfortable, because I was wearing a top and a short skirt under my abaya. Anyway had to do what they asked and so I removed my abaya. First thing I hear is laughter and words in Arabic, judging my outfit I assumed. I was asked to strip to my underwear and show that there was nothing inside my clothes. They kept looking and going around me, repeating the word mashallaah all the time. After having their fun, they were ready and I was put into the jail cell with my own clothes on. No one spoke in English nor even tried to explain what was the reason I was there at any point of my arrest or stay and no one told me how the process will continue later on. I tried asking many times can I make a phone call, or could somebody explain what will happen next.. but they just ignored.  

What was your prison cell like? 
Did you have other women sharing the same space? How did you spend your time there and how long were you in jail?
Did you get food, water and toilet facilities? What were your inmates like?

It was a big hall with many doorless rooms, in every room there was 6 bunk beds. There was maybe 40-50 prisoners in that area where I was. I saw females socializing with each other, they came to me offering food and water. I realized that these women were like me, jailed for similar cultural reasons like me. One had a newly born baby with her and quite many were with their kids there. 
In that big hall they had a washing room that included 5-6 toilets. Going to toilet, washing yourself, doing your dishes (people had their cups for food)all were done in that same space. Also the kids were washed there too. It wasn't too bad, but maybe too small for that amount of prisoners. 

Also there was a minimarket where you could do your shoppings, it was open certain hour a day. I didn't have any money so I couldn't buy anything, but some prisoners had some. I don't know how they had money since all my personal belongings were taken before they locked me in. In that shop they had snacks, toilet paper (yes you needed to buy your own toilet paper if you felt like you needed one) clothes, like pyjamas, hygiene stuff etc... 

As the night turned into morning, we were offered our first meal because it was Ramadhan also the prisoners had to fast. They threw a big tray on the floor for everyone to pick up their food from there. Next meal would be only later in the evening. I was starving between that time! My jailmates where friendly, and I had a few chats. But only thing in my mind was how to get out of here. They didn't allow me to call anyone, only asked few questions once a while.
I ended up spending two nights there because of the weekend.

What happened to the males involved in the incident?
Were you scared something serious would happen to you, or did you trust your sponsor to help you out?
How did you get out?

Afterwards I heard that my male friends were jailed also, but only for 1 night and were able to inform my family, friends, and the hospital about the situation. After the weekend was finished they called me out for an interview, I told the story as it was, signed some papers and then the officer said I was ready to leave. I couldnt believe it, the sponsor representative for these cases was there waiting for me to drive me back to hospital compound! I was so relieved I didn't care even if I was  going to be sent back home, I was only happy being safe! 

How did this whole incident make you feel? What are your thoughts afterwards?

I was lucky because my jailmates were super friendly to me, some of them gave me things to use. I remember one lady giving me a new pyjama to wear to feel a bit comfortable for sleeping. Most of the ladies in jail where from Asian countries like India, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh. Many of them maids. I think I got along so well with them because my origins are Asian too. I never actually told them my real western nationality, I felt being 'one of them' would make my stay there easier, and it did. There was only one white western lady there, but she came just before I left. I saw her crying most of the time and nobody in jail tried to approach her and offer their friendship like they did to me. But she looked she didn't want to be approached either, I think she was having the first after shock hours like me when I got there. 
Things ended up well for me, but I'm sure not everyone will be as lucky as me if they would end up in the same situation! 

You always have such a positive outlook on things, I think that helps in coping with the sometimes stressful life in Saudi.
What would you give as advice to women living in or planning on moving to Saudi? How to cope with the different culture and customs?

 Respect the cultural rules, don't cross the boarders if you don't need to. Breaking the rules has consequences. It's hard in Saudi to adapt the western life style, but you should be aware that you are living in Saudi... exceptions may be allowed, but don't trust that you will always get away with it! 

I would recommend Saudi Arabia to anyone who is open for cultural differences, to new perspectives in life and who are easy going. Don't come to change things, come to experience. You wouldn't want to experience the same things that you have already experienced back home? Wishing everyone unforgettable moments in Saudi! I surely did and I'm happy I exceeded myself, my life is so much richer, full of great memories after Saudi!

Thank you very much for the interview and best wishes to you and your family!


Anonymous said...

Wow, amazing story. Did your friend ever figure out why she was sent to jail? Was it because she was with men she wasn't related to?

I'm so sorry she had this experience but it does give an interesting view into something none of us will see.


Anonymous said...

absolutely amazing. There needs to be an Islamic reform in Saudi Arabia pronto. These things should not be happening.

Anonymous said...

My heart just fell for that white lady who cried alone in the cell. Someone maybe should have just sat with her. She was probably horrified. :(

Affinity for Modesty said...

That was so scary! The only good thing from the Hai'a side was the female prison guards repeating Mashallah while inspecting your friend, avoiding giving her the evil eye. I suspect the "crime" was being in close contact with non related male. However, your friend sounds just like you, positive character and open to new perspectives in life.

Robyn said...

Little bit confused...what did they say she was charged with? Is it illegal to be alone in a car to a male that is not your husband? Or was it becuase she showed she was wearing completly inappropriate clothing underneath her abaya. I take it your friend no longer lives in saudi.stories like this totally put you off saudi- but this isn't really a full story i'm afraid

Layla said...

She was accompanied by unrelated males.

Layla said...

There was nothing Islamic about what they did to her and what her "crime" was.

Layla said...

umm gamar-well since they were laughing at her and making fun, I dont think saying mashallah made it any better :/

Layla said...

Robyn-yes it's illegal.No one told her anyhting at any point as you can read from the interview.
This had nothing to do with what she was wearing, I don't see what you think as inappropriate in her clothing since it was under the abaya, it's her own business..

Funny how you missed the point that she really enjoyed her time in Saudi DESPITE this horrible thing happening to her. She has said she would even like to return some day, but now has a family and it's not possible.

What she wishes to tell us is here, as full as the story gets.

Anonymous said...

Awesome interview Laylah. So nice to hear such positivity and good experiences even though she had a terrible experience that she went through. The thought of those women being in jail with their children though, its just so sad. I didn't even think they'd have jails like this for females. Yet another great insight, thanks.

Sandra L. Keirsey said...

Thank you for sharing this! As a US woman about to move to AL Khobar for two years, it is good to hear about the small things one should not do. As your friend stated "...come to experience..." and I am excited to have this opportunity to do so. But I will have to remember the small things and how they are perceived.

Noor said...

Did she not know that men and women who are not related, etc are not allowed to mix in the country? It seems that those basic things should be told to men or women about to enter the country. I am not sure I would be willing to step into a country without knowing the laws. Mixing like that is a big sin in Islam and I am considered they were surprised.

I do feel bad for her not being Muslim and so on having to go through this but its really hard to understand why people come to a country as strict as Saudi in the first place and they act shocked when its what everyone says it is.

Affinity for Modesty said...

you're right Laylah, I totally forgot that part :)

Anonymous said...

This is Annie again.

Layla and Noor, people/saudis keep telling me it is okay for women to ride with male drivers even non professionals or non related. This information doesn't seem consistent with what I've heard about the country's laws. I've also heard that the morality police don't accost western women (as someone mentioned, "we westerners are all are going to H&^%$l anyway". From the story, it sounds like the woman looked Asian?

If it isn't leagal for a woman to ride with an unrelated/nonprofessional man, is it okay to catch a ride with a couple where there is another woman present?


Anonymous said...

It would not have happened to her if she looked white... or was American.....but if she had a European passport, I'm surprised they didn't contact her embassy first thing... Any sign of weakness worked against her. Perhaps if she was stiff in making sure she makes that one call to her sponsor or embassy, this would not have lasted that long.

Anonymous said...

Ooh and I love how she did lots of walking! Thats so cool cos I guess its rare for the majority of women there to get around like that by choice. Its really good I'd imagine myself walking heaps there too if I get the chance.

Tiffany Wacaser said...

I am impressed that your friend has maintained such a positive attitude, despite being arrested and staying in jail for 2 days. Wow!

nihal said...

wow what a story, she is a wonderfully positive person. these kind of stories makes me feel grateful that I am living in Turkey.

راوية said...

I really do not know what to say. Your friend's experience was so touching.
I think all officers and Policemen need language courses and translators in official buildings, especially since there are millions of non-Arabic speakers in Saudi.
I wish your friend all the best and I really respect her positive attitude.

Layla said...

Hope-You're right, because she looks Asian is why they got picked out by the muttawa in the first place (the ridiculous assumption that any asian woman in the company of arab males is a prostitute).
She has european passport. I guess because it was the weekend and ramadhan nothing happened despite her asking many times, they just ignored her.

Layla said...

swedemom-I'm impressed too :)

Layla said...

Hi Annie, well you see this is one of the things in Saudi that are totally illogical and you can see the double standards.

So it's ok for the woman to hop in a taxi with an unrelated male(potential freak show, pervert, rapist, killer, who knows what?)taxi driver and be driven around for hours. The taxi driver is free to look at her all this time, might try to chat her up, ask her number, touch her and ends up knowing where she lives.

BUT when she is being given a lift by her trustworthy friends or colleagues such as in this case, that makes HER a potential hooker in some peoples eyes and suddenly it becomes a sin. Which is of course ridiculous.

That is double standards for you.

Layla said...

Annie -Oh and yes the "problem" here was that she looks asian. So that would mean in the dirty minds of the muttawa that picked them out they assumed she is a street worker so to say, as is the case with the religious police, they always assume the WORST of people.

I'm almost certain if she looked western, they would have turned their heads the other way..Like you said, it's very uncommon for them to mess with westerners other than shout to cover hair. One of the reasons being they often have powerful sponsors behind them..

I know so many western women that are driven around by their male friends/bfs all the time and never had problems. BUT I can't recommend this to anyone! It's always a risk! It's against the rules and even if you have a powerful sponsor to help, you never know what might happen. That might cost you your job and you will be handed a return ticket home..
Now I've never heard any woman or man being deported because of riding in same car, but I did hear of deportation because of alcohol consumption or alcohol trading/manufacturing, driving under influence (all westerners).Those persons never got any other punishments.

So what could be concluded is, the white people are for some reason given more leeway in these things..

Felicia said...

Definitely not a story you hear every day. I think I would be having a fit if that happened to me, no translator, no charge, no right to make a phone call, I'd be scared outta my mind.

Robyn said...

well-it would have obviously been a very traumatic experience. But seems very strange that she was not given advice by her work/sponsor about these things when she first arrived in the surely her sponsor would also get in trouble. I lived and worked in the Middle East for 9 years and this is an awful story, don't get me wrong, but can't beleive that she wasn't informed about rules/laws/cultures which would have helped her, especially when she chose to live somewhere as restircted for women as Saudi.
Anyhow-the good thing about the story is, that is sounds like she was not in jail for long and that she was helped out the country.

Layla said...

Robyn-naturally she was informed by the hospital (the first day of orientation they give you the number to call if you land yourself in jail) and aware of everything.
She was not helped out of the country and stayed for a long time after the incident.

Anonymous said...

Omg. I can't believe that even after all the stories and sooo much negativity - you ladies are still advertising KSA as a great place to live...Unbelievable...

Anonymous said...

Dear BlueAbaya,
Could you answer 1 question for me please(since you live there and you probably know): are women in Dhahran allowed to drive within the Aramco boundaries ONLY? Or are they allowed to drive ANYWHERE in Dhahran? I have received many different answers, all inconsistent, from my Saudi friends here in the USA. I think if I put some of them below 1 roof, they will fight over this issue hahhahaaaaa...
Thank you,
Your faithful reader.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer Layla. The rules do seem illogical and inconsistent. Is it okay for a single woman to catch a ride with a couple?



Felicia said...

I live in one of the Aramco compounds and can tell you yes, women can drive within any of the Aramco compounds, and they are quite large. There are other compounds which allow women to drive, such as the KAUST compound in Jeddah and others as well.

Driving outside of any compound, excluding the desert is not allowed.

♥Soso♥ said...

Thanks for sharing this.. Your blog is always so interesting to read
keep posting:)
Soso xoxox

Lavender © said...

A women is ONLY allowed to drive on the compound. The compound itself is HUGE and is an American Town in Saudi. You can drive up as far as the Aramco gate, and will then have to have a man drive from that point on (in Dhahran, Khobar, Dammam) or wherever. Once you leave Aramco... you are once again back to Saudi rules. I know Leyla was supposed to answer.. but I have been to Aramco many times.. and have my mothers (Saudi) family all employed there... and yes driven there :)

Anonymous said...

Are there plans for implementing a public transport? This would greatly help all citizens not to mention the high mortality rate. I live currently in Southern California and here no one cares about making the roads safer :(( I love your blog, I want to be a Nurse and inshallah work with agency in Saudi Arabia :) Keep blogging!! Oh and to be certain, was this Nurse worker able to return to her hospital job after the arrest?

Otto Brekner said...

Layla, interesting, horriffic, but fascinating story. when did this happen?

Anonymous said...



Layla said...

I'm glad Om Lujain and others replied, thanks girls! I can also attest to what they are saying is true! Sorry I wasn't able to respond I've been going through moving hell this last week!

Layla said...

Otto Brekner- thanks for the comment, this was few years ago so quite recently.

Layla said...

There have been plans and public transport such as building a metro and having separate women only buses make headlines every now and then, but nothing happens.
Yes she returned to her work and was given some sick leave to recover from her experience!

Layla said...

Proud Muslimah-Exactly. There are more important issues out there like domestic violence, kidnapping/raping children, SELLING children and their organs that the muttawa could look into instead of terrorizing ppl on the streets for nothing at all.
But that would be too much to ask!

Anonymous said...


Karen King said...

I love you, your blog, your interesting life, your writings, you family, and your SISU! If I visited KSA, I would totally adopt the attitude that you experience it as the culture dictates without deviation. I would never want to end up in jail, especially not knowing how to speak Arabic. I suspect, as a vacationer or visitor, I would be successful in KSA. Living there, however, would require a real commitment because deviation is not an option. I respect the SISU of your subject! Thanks for sharing. BTW, great title to the piece! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Layla,

Sorry, I'm not sure where to direct this, but I have a question for you. I remember you went to Europe a few months ago and I was wondering if you think it's worth it to take a travel system (car seat + stroller).

I'm soon going to be making a trip and won't be buying my baby a seat. I plan on taking my sling and a small stroller, but if necessary, I will take the travel system.

Any other advice you can give about the trip will be appreciated!!

Layla said...

Hi there! Which country are you going to? I found Istanbul extremely difficult to maneuver with a stroller, especially when I was by myself. The streets are crowded and sidewalks and shop entrances were not designed baby strollers in mind. Taxis are small, difficult to fit the stroller into. But then again, my baby loves her stroller and often takes naps in it so also it was a life saver.
Am not sure how you will manage on the plane with the car seat, if there's no free seat next to you it's difficult!I take the stroller t Finland and have them put it through to the connecting city so I get it off the plane and use it during the lay over in the airport, is very handy! But I dont take anything inside the plane, it's such a hassle ot carry everything. If there's two of you then maybe its doable.

Layla said...

Karen-thank you! She definitely showed some real SISU in the jail :)

Basil Brush said...

This is indeed a troubling story but we all need to face up to a new and emerging reality here in Saudi. Take a look at the link I've pasted next to my name (I hope it works; here it is again in case it doesn't:

The truth is that deep down (sometimes not even that deep down!) non-Muslim Westerners are hated by a lot of Saudis. And now, a lot of them have come to realize that there is a breed of Westerner who is Muslim, born and brought up in Western countries and educated in Western institutes. It's two for the price of one! An employee with the technical knowledge and expertise they crave plus a common bond of religion and culture. I've seen this at my workplace and around Saudi. What do they need inferior "kaffirs" for?

I'm sure not all Saudis share these views but I have to say what I've seen with my own eyes and this story above supports the same - when Saudis see these young men and women from Western countries with their perfect English or American accents and their Western qualifications and experience,(plus they use all the right language, littering their speech with Arabic words and religious phrases), it's as if they are mesmerized by these superior humans! I have seen Saudis afford privileges and favours to Muslims from Western countries which they deny others almost blatantly and without shame. I also agree with the person who started the thread on Britishexpats that they distinguish between those who are "originally" from Asia or Africa and those who were born and raised in Europe or America. They are lower on the scale for sure!

This might explain why we keep hearing about Westerners being harrassed or jailed even yet I see Muslims from Europe, Canada, etc. who are my colleagues being chummy with Saudis and even Mutawa - that's unheard of if your a non-Muslim from the UK or US or other Western country. I've never once heard that these guys get the same hassle for not being properly covered or sitting in a car with the wrong person and all that. I don't want to say this but as soon as they clock the blonde hair or blue eyes, you're already being looked down upon as an inferior version of your Muslim countrymen. I have met Western men and women here who converted to Muslim or of Asian parentage and they often dress like Saudis and some even speak Arabic - the Saudis love these guys and, no doubt, a lot of these people look down on Westerners who don't share their religion. That is the new reality on the ground here and, in my mind, it explains a lot of things going on.

Anonymous said...

Women with kids in jail??? Seriously?! Where else in the word it's possible?Even if they've done something wrong that I'm sure they didn't as there was no Saudis, Quran says that kids are not responsible for sins of parents! How can they put baby in jail?