Wrapped in Tradition: Navigating Saudi Clothing as an Expat

Couple sitting by Antara pool

Clothing is one of the primary ways we learn to express our personalities from a very young age. From a T-shirt with the logo of that band we love, to a dapper suit that makes us feel confident, clothing is how we show the outside world how we feel and who we are by sight alone.

In Saudi Arabia, you will have the chance to explore and embrace the local culture and express yourself with clothing not typically found elsewhere. And while respecting the local clothing guidelines is a must, it doesn’t necessarily mean you must follow them, but you are more than welcome to, should you want to. So set aside any apprehension you may have about being seen as appropriating the culture, as following the local mindset and integrating traditional clothing in your everyday life is seen by the Saudi people as a sign of respect.

Adapting Wardrobes

For men, this can be done by following a business or otherwise appropriate attire at work (which of course depends on your workplace), or adopting the thobe look (in the traditional classic white look or in a more modern or colorful design). Even by blending traditional and modern elements to create a look unique to you, to respectfully express yourself in the traditional framework of living in Saudi Arabia. For example, how about a blue thobe with dress shoes, a designer watch and sunglasses? Or perhaps, a bespoke suit with a tastefully and respectfully combined ghutra?  Just make sure to keep it tasteful and respectful!

The same goes for women, albeit with more options and a slightly more prevalent focus on modesty, by opting for a business look or a casual, modest approach when outside, and being able to seamlessly combine it with a flowing abaya or a hijab in many different patterns, colors and designs. While not required to, you can integrate traditional styles into your wardrobe, and coupled with accessories both modern and traditional, you can create many signature looks that are unique to your personality as you live and express yourself in Saudi Arabia.

Dress Code Tips

Clothing is perhaps more culturally impactful in Saudi Arabia than it is in Europe or the US, largely to how linked it is with religion. For this reason, make sure to respect the cultural and religious subtext and undertones of Saudi fashion. This means not wearing offensive or provoking logos and legends in public, and treating traditional clothing articles with due respect, rather than just fashion statements.

This also means avoiding the exposure of skin, bare feet or cleavage unless you are at a clearly designated swimwear area. Men and women must otherwise avoid tank tops, low necklines, shorts and the likes in public. But not to worry! While our western instincts dictate that we remove layers of clothing from ourselves the hotter the temperatures get, Saudis and other peoples living in hotter climates know that multiple flowing, lightweight layers of fabric are a lot more effective in cooling you down. Not to mention that in this way you also get to avoid nasty sunburns!

Whether you decide to embrace the culture’s attire, adapt it or sidestep it, getting dressed in Saudi Arabia offers a wealth of stylistic possibilities to express, or even discover yourself.