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Coping with the Extreme Heat in Saudi Arabia

Most of us are probably not under any illusions about weather conditions in Saudi Arabia, and know that living in a desert climate means dealing regularly with some of the most extreme temperatures that the sun can deliver. How extreme, you might ask? Well, the city of Riyadh once reported a record high of fifty-six degrees Celsius, which eclipsed even the daunting record of 51°C set in 1956 (specifically within Dhahran, along the Arabian peninsula).

Over the course of this millennium, in which every single year from 2001-2012 has featured in the top fourteen “hottest years on record” as determined by NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], much of the world has become accustomed to bracing levels of warmth. Yet even those of us who have experienced these temperature anomalies may be skittish about the normal weather conditions in Saudi Arabia.Some escape routes within the country

As in other countries that cover as much land as Saudi Arabia does, different regions may provide a respite from the worst of the onslaughts. Riyadh, despite being the nation’s commercial hub, is not the best choice for heat avoidance (it’s a wild guess, but this may be one of the reasons why the towers of the Riyadh-based King Abdullah Financial District are only at 10% occupancy as of this writing). The Taif region, for example, is located in the Sarawat Mountains, whose elevation of 1,500-1,700 meters (4,920-5,600 feet) allows for some relatively cooler temperatures.

It is unsurprising that, in the summertime, the Saudi government retreats from Riyadh and conducts much of its official business in the Taif region. NOAA data, though somewhat dated, still paints a fairly accurate portrayal of the Taif region as a desert oasis, and one that does not even have to rest directly on the coastline to enjoy cooler temperatures. The rainfall in Taif can also seem, by Saudi Arabian standards, to be an order of magnitude greater than what is encountered elsewhere in the country. The average rainfall for the entire country is a measly 8cm (3.2 inches), and would be much lower still if not for the yearly average of 119 cm that Taif enjoys. Because of this, it is one of the principal agricultural regions in Saudi Arabia, yielding harvests of grapes and proving suitable for rose growing.

A more urban alternative to Taif – and, again, to the heat of Riyadh – may be Jeddah, which, though it sees virtually no rainfall from May to September, still experiences rainfall well above the national average, and high temperatures in July and August that are perceptibly lower than those experienced in the capital. Jeddah is one of the most important way stations en route to Mecca, the hajj pilgrimage to which is required of all practicing Muslims once in their lifetime. This can result in significantly greater human traffic throughout the city during the hajj season, which can have an adverse effect on one’s perception of heat – luckily, the pilgrimage season is in December. Oh, and though temperatures may be lower here during periods of rainfall, post-rain humidity presents a challenge all of its own when combined with higher-than-average heat.

Local heat prevention measures

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One thing to remember is that, upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, you won’t be thrust into a country where the residents are so “used to” the heat that they have developed a total immunity to it, or an ignorance of the health hazards that prolonged exposure to it can present. There is certainly no shortage of fully functional air-conditioning facilities within the country: many professionals may find that they spend more time in its company than in a decidedly more ‘natural’ state, and can commute from home to work with only the smallest intervals of time spent at the mercy of full-on summer heat.

Your non-business or non-essential activities should, nonetheless, be scheduled at times other than mid-day. Like other countries that, while not prone to Saudi Arabia’s blazing summer temperatures, still experience their share of heat, much of the social activity and commerce are planned for the dusk hours. Children’s playtimes will take place in early evening rather than the afternoon, and you can expect major shopping centers to also keep later hours catering to the heliophobic (and also to have ample parking facilities near the entrances, so one is not making lengthy marches across an asphalt desert similar to those found outside of American sports arenas).

Clothing in Saudi Arabia

Of course, you will want to leave your favorite dark-colored wardrobe items behind in those moments where etiquette does not demand otherwise: dark Western business suits still do remain de rigueur for Saudi meetings, and fully covered arms and legs are expected of both sexes. For recreational dress, the stereotypical all-black getup of European café intellectuals is recommended for masochists only. However, the black abaya – a cloak-like covering worn over regular garments – is required of women, and should also be worn with a scarf (sold in stores together with the abaya) that keeps hair covered. With this very notable exception, dressing to beat the weather and dressing to avoid taboo breaking can be accomplished with the same outfit. Form-fitting clothes on any occasion are likely to be met with disdain by the locals, so there is certainly no social pressure to wear uncomfortably skin-hugging materials.

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