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Retail Therapy - Saudi Style

For a ‘closed’ country, Saudi is surprisingly westernised when it comes to shopping opportunities. Many of the well-known international brands are represented here, and in malls across the country you can find department stores. Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and Centerpoint seem to dominate as the ‘anchor’ stores, and there are others too including brands that are extinct in the UK, such as C&A.

Many European supermarkets are found here too, Carrefour has a big presence, and Tesco is represented as ‘Tamimi’, and Waitrose as ‘Danube’. Another major supermarket brand is ‘Lulu’ which although (please correct me if I’m wrong) it doesn’t exist in Europe, it is huge in western and southern Asia, and is (I think) Philippines based. Lulu seems to have the widest range of imported world food and is a favourite of the ladies I know. However, having a wide range of products does not guarantee supply, it all depends on what came off the boat, plane or was made locally under licence. Some products seem to be perennially available (bananas, KitKats, Kelloggs’ corn flakes, some personal hygiene brands etc), and others are spotted on rare occasions and in that instance, it is a good move to buy a stock of them if it is something you need or like.22jpg
Seasonal stock – wood. At seven pounds a bundle, there's an export opportunity for somebody!

Some Scottish brands make brief, even cameo appearances. Tunnocks’ products are occasionally seen, and as I write we have a good supply of Caramel Wafers in a cupboard. Some home dishes I have never seen in my time here, and this includes most British cakes such as gingerbread, Bakewell tart, sponges, fruit loaves and perhaps surprisingly, liquorice products. Obviously, pork and alcohol products or ingredients are not allowed. There are niche products offering Scottish produce to the Arabs, and I came across one of these recently, Walker’s Shortbread Camels. Yes, proper shortbread but baked in the shape of the local animals. So tickled was I with this that I bought some and took it home on a recent visit and presented some to my friends. From their reactions it was worth every halala. 

That reminds me of another export, albeit an unintentional one… last year I returned to KSA from English international curling duty and when unpacking discovered a 5cl miniature of Beefeater’s at the bottom of my bag (these things are exchanged as tokens of friendship prior to matches). Horrified, I took it out and disposed of it responsibly. The repercussions could have been dire, as all luggage is x-rayed on entry into the country, however fortunately, it hadn’t been spotted. Last week I returned to Scotland to participate in another curling competition, and on arriving in Dumfries unpacked the same bag, and found yet another miniature bottle of Beefeater lurking in the lining. I was surprised, but at least it was put to good use this time. When I recounted this tale, a colleague remarked that I was the first person he’d ever heard of exporting this sort of product out of Saudi Arabia!

Western clothing is widely on sale, particularly ladies’ fashion and everyday wear. For a nation that obliges its womenfolk to wear the universal abaya when they step foot out of the home, they have a great range of stuff to wear in private. Whilst the choice isn’t as great as Elaine would have were she browsing the British High Street or shopping centre, there is still plenty to choose from. Fashion shops abound in Saudi malls, with big brands such as ‘Zara’, ‘River Island’, ‘H&M’, etc selling merchandise they reckon will move here. All these shops are marked as ‘Family Only’ to deter any solo male trying to buy his beloved something special. The same applies to accessory shops such as ‘Claires’, ‘Accessorise’ and ‘Victoria’s Secret’. I am informed by she who knows these things that there are no fitting rooms in the shops, and she has to buy, take home and try, and if necessary take back and get a refund (within 3 days) or exchange (within 1 month). She has to rely on her eye as a guide as sometimes the labels give no clue as to whether the sizes are UK, USA, European or something else.
Mall 'rules'. I usually comply with the last four!

Trips out to the souks are an altogether different experience. Most products are unbagged, un-labelled or loose and it’s a case of your eye being your merchant. Haggling is common, and when a westerner is the potential customer, the starting price is inflated further. Often, we buy something with no real clue to its value, but if it is needed, available and seems reasonably priced (after haggling) we will take it. After all, the shopkeeper never makes a loss, all we can do is to try and get the product down to a price we are happy to pay. But, caveat emptor, once bought it cannot be returned, and rarely is there a guarantee or even a receipt.
Elaine sometimes goes to a very interesting place in Riyadh, the ‘Princess Souk’. It is legendary amongst the ex-pat ladies. Here Saudi women sell off used gowns. I understand that these are dresses worn once only at a high social occasion and donated to charity thereafter. They find their way to the ‘Princess Souk’ and are sold at a fraction of their initial cost. Designer ballgowns, evening dresses, dresses worn at weddings or important family occasions are all available; and come in every colour and cut imaginable, and some are very risqué indeed! It seems to be an initiation rite of a new ex-pat lady in town to be taken here, and Elaine is now considered to be one of the old hands in doing so. I know of one lady who goes regularly, snaps up bargains, does any repairs or alterations and exports them to her own country and sells them there, making a handsome profit with each one.

But what of shops for the natives? Those who can afford to do so shop at the malls and are happy to pay the big prices. There are other strata of shops for those people who cannot afford mall shopping, and these are shops with street frontages. Most things are available from chalk to cheese and needles to anchors. Well, maybe not anchors in Riyadh, we are 400km from the nearest stretch of navigable water. The street shops have their niches between souks and malls, and the standards of stock cleanliness, display and product knowledge varies immensely between them. Whilst the malls use English and Arabic equally, it is rarer to find street shop staff who speak English. A favourite street shop of ours is one we call ‘Made in China’. This is a warehouse size emporium selling all sorts of household goods, craft stuff, garden items and general nick-nacks. If we can’t find it anywhere else, ‘MiC’ is likely to have it. Think of a cross between Robert Boa’s in Biggar for stock range and a Pound Shop for ruggedness. The quality might not be great, so if it is for short term use that’s OK, but if it is for daily use, it might be better to take out from the UK next time we’re home.

There is also roadside retail, usually fruit and vegetables sold out of the back of a pick-up truck. The majority seem to be watermelon, but other vegetables can be seen. Piles of wood are also sold, for use of those heading out of town for desert tents and barbeques. I presume this wood is cheaper than that seen above, but as I have never bought any I wouldn't know.

An interesting feature of the street shops is that specialist produce shops or service showrooms congregate together, creating small centres of expertise. If you want to buy a new bathroom, there is a district in Riyadh where you can go, and there are dozens and dozens of bathroomware and plumbing shops to choose from. This is also true for domestic lighting, car spares, telecom retailers and butchers, to give a few examples. I asked a Saudi colleague why they were not spread throughout the city, giving each neighbourhood somewhere to go to. He replied that it was easier to drive to one place and browse all the competition together. Fair enough.33jpg

Barber shops imitating London buses and coming in threes.

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