The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, known to many as KSA, is an extremely conservative country with a strict dress code despite recent changes to the law. If you plan to visit or move there with your family, it is absolutely crucial that you understand how to appropriately dress.
What do local women in Saudi Arabia wear?
The way that women dress in Saudi Arabia is changing. This change is occurring more rapidly in some cities like Jeddah and Damman than others, such as Riyadh. This is largely due to branch of Islam that is predominant in different areas, some such as Wahhabism being more conservative than others.
Until very recently all women, whether they were visitors, residents or citizens, were required to cover their head and wear an abaya (a long loose-fitting robe) when out in public and this was enforced by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Some local women have now abandoned the abaya but most still wear it.
Some Saudi women wear a full face veil, such as a niqab (eyes are visible) or a burqa (even the eyes are covered), others opt for a chador (the full face is visible but the hair is tightly covered) or hijab (a looser headscarf).
Even before the abaya women wore long black dresses, embroidered with multi-coloured emblems and decorated with coins. Women and girls might wear elaborate golden headdresses as well as beautiful necklaces and earrings.
What do local men wear in Saudi Arabia?
Whilst some men have adopted western fashions, most men still tend to wear traditional Saudi Arabian dress on a daily basis. This compromises of a long flowing robe, which is often white and a ghutra, a white or red and white checked headdress held in place by a double black cord known as an iqal. Underneath the ghutra men wear a tagiyah, a small white cap which prevents the ghutra from slipping.
On special occasions, men might wear a bisht or mislah, a long cloak trimmed in gold, over their thobe.
Some men opt to wear a thobe and ghutra in a darker colour such as beige or grey in winter.
Why do the people of Saudi Arabia dress like this?
What the people of Saudi Arabia wear has been shaped not only by religion but by the practicalities of living in such a hot and sandy country. Head scarves and face coverings were primarily to protect the head and face from the hot desert sun and sandstorms and the long gowns protected their bodies when walking or riding outdoors.
Saudi Arabia is a big country and the climate whilst predominantly desert does vary. You can expect to be warm to hot throughout the year, although snow has been known to fall on some of Kingdom’s higher peaks in winter. To find out more about the climate in KSA click here.
What should female tourists wear in Saudi Arabia?
In 2019, in line with the introduction of new tourist visas, new public decency laws were unveiled which allowed more western style clothing to be worn by visitors to the Kingdom; this does not mean that you should wear what you think you can get away with. Most people are not accustomed to seeing any flesh in public and it is prudent to cover as much skin as possible to avoid gaining unwanted attention and offending local sensibilities.
It is no longer compulsory for female tourists to wear an abaya (except when visiting religious sites) or a headscarf, although we would still recommend that you do always take a pashmina with you everywhere (laws and attitudes on this topis still don’t always align).
Skirts below the knee are technically allowed for tourists, but we would still suggest wearing a long skirt or loose-fitting trousers. Blouses and tops should also be loose-fitting, with longer sleeves and high necklines. No underwear should be visible. All clothes should be made from opaque materials; anything that you can see light through will show the silhouette of your body which may get you into trouble.
You can wear jeans but you should ensure that whatever you are wearing on your top half is long enough to cover your bum. This is why, in many ways, it is just easier to wear an abaya or long kaftan over your clothes when out in public. If you cannot purchase an abaya before you travel, you can find them in any mall and even at the airport in KSA.
It does, of course, get very hot in Saudi Arabia and you do need to dress for the weather. It’s best to go for cotton, linen and other natural fibres as these help to keep you cool.
Cotton maxi dresses with sleeves and a high neckline are an ideal choice, teamed up with a scarf that can be used to cover cleavage or your hair if needs be. As it does get sticky and humid at times, amzn_assoc_placement = "adunit0"; amzn_assoc_search_bar = "true"; amzn_assoc_tracking_id = "babyglob-20"; amzn_assoc_ad_mode = "manual"; amzn_assoc_ad_type = "smart"; amzn_assoc_marketplace = "amazon"; amzn_assoc_region = "US"; amzn_assoc_title = "Sensible women's clothing choices in Saudi Arabia"; amzn_assoc_linkid = "655d2c767a7475bb7c6323a6c7acaf23"; amzn_assoc_asins = "B07Q7B9519,B08D7JZ374,B017JKYPSQ,B07FNCZ3TS";
Women can wear make-up, but it should be modest. Avoid using bright colours.
Can I wear a bikini in Saudi Arabia?
If you happen to be staying in a villa with its own private pool you can wear a bikini. Some private resorts on the Red Sea do allow women to wear bikinis on the beach but when you’re not in the water, you are expected to cover up.
Regardless of whether it’s legal or not, we would still recommend wearing a one-piece swimming costume and perhaps a rash vest or a burkini anywhere outside of your own private home and that includes trips to pools in western compounds.
What should visiting men wear in Saudi Arabia?
The dress code for men is less strict but when in public men should make sure that their legs and shoulders are completely covered. A long-sleeved shirt is advisable but shorter-sleeved shirts, polo shirts and a t-shirts are allowed. Shorts and vests are a no-no outside of the pool areas of resort hotels and western compounds. Wearing skinny jeans might also get you some funny looks so it’s best to go for some loose chinos.
What should children wear in Saudi Arabia?
The rules about what and what not to wear in Saudi Arabia are not so strict for children. Boys can wear shorts and girls can wear sundresses. From puberty, girls are expected to dress in the same way as women and you will see much younger girls wearing a headscarf and abaya.
We would suggest that girls wear cycling shorts under their dresses to help protect their legs from chaffing in the heat and to prevent any pant-flashing incidents. A light-weight cardigan is also useful to cover shoulders and to keep little girls warm in the sometimes-arctic temperatures of the air-conditioned malls.
More frequently asked questions about clothing in Saudi Arabia
What sort of footwear you need will depend on the activities that you plan to undertake; if you are trekking in the desert or visiting any of the country’s beautiful archaeological sites, we would recommend cotton socks and sturdy close-toed walking shoes.
If you are visiting religious sites, you will need shoes that are easy to remove but are still comfortable and supportive. Strappy sandals, court shoes and heels might be appropriate for ladies attending weddings, formal gatherings or going on shopping sprees and flip-flops are always handy.
What is important to remember is that footwear is always worn upon entry to any commercial premises.
If you are travelling between April and November it is highly unlikely that you will need any sort of jacket. You may like to carry a light-weight fleece or cardigan as sometimes malls and restaurants overcompensate with air conditioning and indoor temperatures can therefore be quite chilly.
It is highly unlikely that you will need an umbrella between April and November, however, we would always recommend carrying a small telescopic umbrella in your suitcase; they don’t take up much space, can be used as a parasol and could save you a lot of time and expense should there be an unexpected downpour.
Men should avoid wearing too much jewellery. A wedding ring and a watch is fine, but anything more than this is considered immodest.
Women can wear jewellery but both men and women should avoid wearing jewellery that contains any religious symbols from any faith other than Islam. If you do feel that you need to wear a symbol of your faith keep it tucked away out of sight.
Other important things to remember dressing for Saudi Arabia:
- The whole family should avoid wearing t-shirts or sweaters or carrying bags and wallets with any political or religious slogans.
- Scarves are very useful in protecting you from the sun, but sun hats are also useful for the whole family.
- Whatever you do, do not forget to bring sunglasses!
Whilst times are changing, it’s still best as a visitor to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whether male or female, to cover as much skin as possible. You should wear modest opaque loose-fitting clothing at all times and have a headscarf and abaya at hand if you (are female and) plan to visit any religious buildings.
Saudi Arabia is an extremely exciting destination with breath taking scenery, interesting archaeological sites and a fascinating culture. We will sure that you will have an amazing trip!
Further resources for planning a trip to Saudi Arabia
Planning a trip to Saudi? Check out our complete guide to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia here and further information here on how the new tourism visa works, along with top attractions that are ready to take visitors NOW!
Packing for the Middle East
We also have further dress code guides if you are continuing your journey to other parts of the Middle East region:
- What to wear in Abu Dhabi & the UAE
- What to wear in Doha, Qatar
- What to wear in Oman
- What to wear in Bahrain
- What to wear in Jordan
- Dresscode for visitors to Kuwait
And don’t forget powerpoints and voltage vary across the Middle East if you are packing electronics!