Sex and Shopping in Saudi Arabia
Stylists to the Saudis
One rainy winter’s day, out of the blue, my half-sister Lois and I received online offers to sign up to a two year contract as stylists at a well-known women’s-access-only boutique in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We had both worked previously as personal shoppers at a high-end store in Cannes, France, while struggling to write our first novels. Much of the clientele had been wealthy Saudi women, who would spend up to $40,000 in a single visit. We had been sent on an Arabic course by our boss, who referred to these women as his ‘whales’, so we presumed the job offer from Riyadh had come through some of our satisfied Saudi customers.
Driving ban lifted
At this time, conditions for women in the Kingdom appeared to be improving. There was talk of greater political enfranchisement. The driving ban was to be lifted, women no longer classed legally as minors, and permitted to travel without male consent. Thousands of western women were working in the Kingdom, legally or semi-legally, mainly as teachers, nannies and IT consultants. It seemed a propitious time to learn more about this most singular country.
Male protector guaranteed
The job offer included a tax free salary more than double our previous level. The contract also included riders guaranteeing accommodation in one of the expat compounds, deductible taxi costs, and a ‘male protector’ in the form of a retired Arab-American Aramco engineer called Bill — originally from Iowa. Bill was the owner of the villa on the compound we would be staying at, and would attend to any practical needs we had.
Trying it on was forbidden
What could possibly go wrong? The boutique was popular with wives of Riyadh’s super-rich business elite. Under Saudi law, in a store with all female staff it was legal for women to use the changing rooms. In other boutiques, with a mixed sex staff presence, trying on an outfit was forbidden. Female customers had to jump through the hoops of buying an…