What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
American women don't need to wear an abaya or headscarf at the embassy or when performing their job on the outside, but an abaya at the very least is required in public, and unless you want to get stopped (or worse) by the muttawa (religious police), it's advisable to wear a headscarf as well and at a minimum, have one with you, always. If you get caught without a headscarf, you can be thrown out of shopping malls and such (and people have been). I didn't have to wear an abaya on the Diplomatic Quarter as there were no muttawa there, but the entire place was full of immigrant workers (and a lot of Saudis live there as well), so unless you like constantly being gawked at by very large groups of men, an abaya is recommended. Men seemed to be able to wear what they want, except for shorts.
One comment on the subject of abayas and headscarves: While we were living in Riyadh, there was a movement among younger embassy women to get the ambassador to issue a statement saying the choice is up to the individual as to what they wear in country. Of course it is, in theory, but the culture is what it is, and nobody is going to change it until it's ready to be changed. It would be unthinkable to wear Western-style or immodest clothing in some Riyadh neighborhoods and parts of the country, and could even be dangerous given how ultra-conservative it is. When we were getting ready to move to Riyadh, I was dead set against having to wear an abaya (and almost didn't go because of it), but in the end I grew used to them and even liked them. I found a designer who made stunning abayas, which made them less objectionable to wear, and in fact I couldn't bear to give them away when we left (although can't figure out where to wear them now ;-)).
I think women just have to be open minded and flexible about this situation, and if you simply can't tolerate the rules and are going to be constantly resentful, it's best to leave, or not come at all. - Oct 13, 2017
Work = formal. Within the DQ anything goes but off the DQ ladies must wear an abaya and no shorts for guys. - Jan 19, 2017
Business attire at the Embassy and at diplomatic functions, nice casual for private parties within the DQ. Outside the DQ, women must wear black abayas and cover their hair. They are not required to hide their faces. - May 20, 2016
Work is standard uniforms for your occupation. Outside, women have to wear abayas, and sometimes get told to cover their hair. Guys, no shorts above the knees. No loud shirts featuring alcohol, or rock bands. Very conservative here. - Nov 9, 2015
Women have to wear abayas. 90% of Saudi women are completely covered, leaving just the eyes. Men have to cover arms and knees. - Oct 27, 2015
Women have to wear a black robe called an abaya and a head scarf in order to keep a low profile. No shorts for men or women. You will get stared at either way. - Oct 15, 2015
Same as in the U.S. for men. Women need to dress modestly and wear an abaya in some places. - Jan 23, 2015
Standard. - Sep 28, 2014
American women don't need to wear an abaya or headscarf at the Embassy or when performing their job, but an abaya at the very least is required in public by law, and unless you want to get stopped (or worse) by the muttawa (religious police), it's advisable to wear a scarf as well and at a minimum, have one with you, always. If you get caught without a headscarf, you can be thrown out of shopping malls and such (and people have been). Some say that we don't have to wear an abaya on the Diplomatic Quarter, which is true as there are no muttawa here, but the entire place is full of immigrant workers (and a lot of Saudis live here as well), so unless you like constantly being gawked at by very large groups of men, an abaya is recommended. Men seem to be able to wear what they want, except for things like shorts. - Mar 26, 2014
At work it is business attire. In public keeping modest is the key. As American women associated with the Embassy, we are not required to wear abiyas but most of us do just to not draw attention to ourselves. Most of us do not put the head scarf on but we do bring it with us. And we don't cover our faces. Men tend to wear jeans but I have seen some out with shorts on (including locals). - Dec 4, 2013
Casual for men, females have to cover up everything except their faces. - Oct 9, 2013
Women must wear the abaya, but do not need to cover their head if they are white. Arab-looking and Asian-looking women do need to cover their head, and will attract more attention from the religious police (not fun!). Men should avoid shorts in public. - Mar 17, 2013
Women must wear an abaya in public and should dress conservatively. Women may also be asked to cover their hair. Men rarely are seen in shorts in public. - Apr 7, 2011
Business clothing for men is the same as in the US. For women, you wear an abaya in public, which covers your clothing. - Jul 27, 2010
Women have to wear the black robe called an abaya and cover their hair when out in public. Men can wear pretty much anything. - Mar 29, 2010
Business at work and casual otherwise. - Jan 18, 2010
At work I wore business suits. On the DQ but not walking to work, I wore anything I wanted, so long as it included pants and covered most of my arms. Ond outside the DQ you can wear whatever you want underneath your abaya (neck-down black cloak). I didn't cover my hair, as expat women (esp. the white ones) aren't expected to do so. Depending on where I was, I carried a veil to cover my hair just so I didn't attract as many stares. But I would never fit in -- even if I covered my face the way most Saudi women do. Western women even walk differently than Saudi women do: more stridently. You just can't blend in. - Dec 29, 2009
Dress, but because of the heat, no jacket. - Oct 21, 2008
Business casual is the norm though suits are expected for proefssional meetings and evening events. - Aug 6, 2008