Living in the Middle East / Saudi Arabia

Gender Relations

Date Posted: February 16, 2016      

Gender segregation is practiced throughout the country. Unrelated males and females do not interact in individual or group settings. Gender segregation in local schools, universities, charitable organizations, hospitals, restaurants, government offices and other public spaces is one of the defining features of Saudi Arabia.

In some public situations, gender segregation may be more apparent than in others. Segregation is particularly strict in restaurants, since eating requires removal of a woman’s veil. Most restaurants have ‘family’ and ‘bachelor’ sections, the latter for unmarried men or men without a family to accompany. Women or men with their families sit in the family section. In the families’ section, diners are usually seated in separate rooms or behind screens and curtains. A married couple with their children can sit together in the family section. Conversely, in the public areas of many larger shopping malls, this is not a strict requirement, but unrelated men and women will not mix through behavioral convention.

Any displays of public affection are not advised, even between married couples.

It is normal and acceptable for two men to shake hands when meeting. However, this is not acceptable for a man and woman. Therefore, expatriate women should not extend their hand in greeting when meeting an Arab man in Saudi Arabia and men should never attempt to shake hands with an Arabic woman, even in a business context.

It is relatively common to see men holding hands and kissing each other’s cheeks in Saudi Arabia – this traditional greeting is part of normal Arab culture. However, touching an unrelated member of the opposite sex in Saudi Arabia risks attracting the attention and therefore should be avoided outside of the residential compounds. Men and women must not embrace or kiss in public. In extreme cases, such behavior risks arrest and penalties being imposed by the authorities.