If you had a chance to meet me in the last couple of years, you probably noticed my growing passion towards everything Arabian – language, people, music, food… and places.
Also working for years with Saudis planted a fast-growing seed of curiosity in me both about their culture and their country, so the day has come to go and see it all for myself. After buying a plane ticket, getting a visa online within 5 minutes and booking a place to stay, I packed a suitcase full of black clothes and went on my adventure to a foreign land, which actually is not that far from where I live anyway.
Dubai didn’t want me to leave so it was pouring showers of rain on our plane, gushing 40 km/h winds and throwing dust in our faces, but we managed to overcome all these factors and only leave 40 minutes later than planned. Somehow the skies were clear all over the rest of the Middle East and I had a wonderful view of Bahrain, Qatar (that we fiercely avoided) and the hundreds of ships in the sea surrounding our countries.
As our plane left late, of course it arrived late, and then the aircraft stairs took forever to arrive, then the bus was late, and then there was a million people at immigration.
As a tourist arriving first time you have a chance to go to tourist lane, which seems shorter than this one, but one stubborn Saudi guy wouldn’t let me through so I had to wait for 2 hours in this crowd. I’d recommend you to choose the shortest line you see, because in the end you are getting dispatched by a Saudi national to a completely random officer… My customs officer was a lovely saudi girl who said: “I hope you like my country”, but then failed to take a photo of me for 10 minutes, won’t let me help her fix the camera, and we both had to wait until certain Suleiman had mercy to show up and help us out.
I had a friend who cheerfully agreed to pick me up from the airport and go for dinner together, but by the time I actually made it out of the airport he gave up on waiting and left me in the hands of excited taxi drivers each of who was shouting a price at me to take me wherever… as I have no idea what is the price of taxis in Riyadh, and as I was about to give up on life in general I agreed to pay 94 riyals to go to my hotel in Olaya street, which then people told me was 20 riyals too much, but I made it in one piece – which was good enough for me at that time.
As a woman, a white woman with ginger hair especially, you will feel intimidated at first with all the staring that happens to happen in your direction, but you will get used to it after a few days. And it doesn’t matter that you wear an abaya and sheilah, people will still stare at you… cause they just do. Saudis, both men and women, are actually quite curious and friendly towards the tourists coming into their country, and want to make you feel welcome and help you out… so when I woke up and decided to walk to the office of my clients, I found that a lot of people wanted to help me find my way, or wanted to know why I am walking and where I am walking, and if I am lost… which I wasn’t. Not many people are walking in the street, not many streets have facilities for walking, but it is definitely possible to walk from place to place – as I did it on several occasions.
The Olaya Towers is one of the fancy addresses in Riyadh to have your office, but at the moment it is surrounded by loads of construction due to metro system development. The towers are beautiful and spacious, all this empty space makes you feel sort of small and lonely. There are expensive shops and cafes around there, but entrances to them are always somehow complicated – there is a “show counter” downstairs for the restaurant, but in fact to get a coffee or a juice you need to go upstairs by elevators and stairs which most often make no sense.
The streets around are full of broken tiles, random elements and various people sleeping on the available patches of grass being observed by polite but curious cats.
It was funny to visit the office of the Saudi company I work with in Dubai, because they absolutely didn’t expect to see me there and their faces expressed tons of surprise upon landing their eyes on me. My friend A. from the office said that the company would have an event tomorrow in the world-famous Ritz-Carlton, and I could join him to go have a look at how the set up was going on. I didn’t have much other plans so I cheerfully agreed to accompany him on this adventure.
Driving through the streets of Riyadh is a questionable entertainment as many streets are too narrow for all the traffic trying to get through, plus the construction, plus sometimes 6 lanes suddenly turn into 3 and the lane division is somewhat vague anyway.
Ritz-Carlton hotel is located a bit outside of the center of the city, and is famous to have been the jail place for many members of Al Saud family, ministers and other prominent Saudis. It is a magnificent building that is generously decorated with golden calligraphies, exotic flowers and gigantic chandeliers. Have a look yourself.
As we were going to the hotel entrance my friend said I must take my camera with me, which I did… but at the screening point at the entrance the Saudi gentleman informed me that it wasn’t possible to take any photos with the professional camera. I said fine, you can keep it then, then my friend said something to him in Arabic and suddenly my camera wasn’t a problem any more – go figure.
Needless to say – nothing was ready for tomorrow’s event, there wasn’t even a clear vision where our booth was supposed to be, but the organizer assured us with multiple inshallahs that by 7-30 pm it would all be there where it was supposed to be. As a matter of fact it was, but more like at 2-30 am. Saudi time, you know… it stretches in unknown directions.
My next challenge was trying to leave the Ritz because as a rule of thumb when ordering an Uber, it will take at least 20 minutes for the driver to reach you… provided he is willing to do so, as he might decide half way that it was too much trouble and go somewhere else. But Saudi Arabia teaches you patience, a lot of patience.
Later that night I had two arrangements with my Saudi friends – one for coffee, one for dinner. The coffee friend had to drive 1 hour through end-of-work traffic and then took us back to Olaya, which took a while so I felt that I need to invite him for dinner for his troubles. The dinner friend was just half an hour late, which by saudi standards is on time. I have lived in the Middle East for a while, but even today I still ask myself this question – why are they always late? After visiting Riyadh I grew much more tolerant towards this particular trait, because it is hard to calculate how much time it will take you to get anywhere… perhaps with practice it gets easier, but I myself was inevitably late for whatever I planned on.
We went for dinner to a famous restaurant called Najd village, where my companions tried to argue for a while to get us a sitting area outside, but for whichever reason the manager was relentless and we had to sit at the table. At least we had a spot, because people coming after us had to wait for a while to get served. The food was abundant, flavourful and nowhere to be called light, but we had a good fun, and as usual didn’t have a chance to pay for anything – as it is another struggle when going out with Arabs. At some point one of my friends stood up and just left, and then the other one started racing in the same direction the first one went… leaving me wondering where the hell did they go, but then I heard them arguing over the bill and it all became clear at once.
Of course we had to polish all the crazy amounts of food we had with some Arabic coffee and tamer (dates) which were wonderful, and then go back to Intercontinental hotel – thankfully the drive back was rather pleasant, probably all the Saudi youngsters went to drive through some other streets.
A few words on the Intercontinental hotel itself – a building with several check points before you get into it due to its location right next to the Ministry of Interior, inspired by soviet brutalism with endless corridors of balconies decorated with dark wood, making you think of old-school ferry ships… adorned with lively carpets coming straight from the bodacious 80s, and toping it off with the restaurants of questionable service. And yet somehow, I do miss that place. It is very special.
Next day I decided to go visit my client’s stand at the Railway Conference in the Ritz-Carlton, and after failing to communicate with my Uber I gave my luck into the hands of the ar-Riyadh taxi driver… this was an interesting trip to say the least, and upon arrival I also realized that I don’t even have a confirmation of my registration for the event, so there is no guarantee I could get in, but luckily A. was right there to pick me up while waiting in the line, and he just waved a bunch of badges in front of lady-security’s face as if mine was there as well 😉 so the rest of the event I walked around without any badges whatsoever. And 60% of the time it works every time.
I was within the minority of the population at this event – a non-saudi woman with a camera, and I had a lot of questioning eyes on me, but I have thick skin and it is not the first time I end up somewhere I don’t belong whatsoever. I took photos of the transport minister of KSA and other important people visiting the event, listened to prospects and projects for Railway future of KSA. One lady chatted me up to do a new Linkedin photo for her profile, which in the beginning I wasn’t sure if she was serious about, but she was… and she loved the photo I took of her, even though you can’t see anything but her eyes.
A lot of other ladies came up to talk to me about nothing in particular, I believe they were just curious about me, they found it fascinating that I was a tourist in their lady-unfriendly country. Later some of them invited me to join the tour of all the promotional booths which I gladly accepted. I saw how much they enjoyed forcing the promoters to speak English just because I was there. It was funny how many questions they asked about the functions of the train – they were pointing at different carriages and wagons, asking what does this one do? and then asked “and what does this one carry?” – pointing at the locomotive… I felt maybe they have never seen a real-life train in their lives. Easy to judge others when growing up in USSR and travelling by trains most of my life, but it’s not the same everywhere.
While I tried to slip out of this event and waiting for a while for my Uber, an old-looking Saudi man came up to talk to me about photography in his broken English. He was very sweet, and informed me that the CEO of the company I shoot for is the president of their photography club. Maybe one day I will have a chance to exchange photography opinions with him, who knows?
Half an hour of traffic later, I arrived back to the glorious Intercontinental wondering how should I entertain myself tonight. How about going to see the capital city of KSA from the tallest tower?
To get to the observation bridge for the Kingdom tower, you need to go through the shopping mall on the ground floor… to get to which you first need to scan your bag (starting to get used to this strange rule), and preferably plan your visit at least 20 minutes before or after prayer times, because otherwise it is closed. And also bring cash, because surely it is not an attraction for tourists with their credit cards… I am just kidding, it is an attraction for tourists with cash. 60 SAR baby!
After waiting for a while due to prayer call time (I always used to ask myself why do they say “Please, wait for a while” on the phone in this country? But now I know it can really be a while) in the mall, observing all those people who didn’t have any interest in going to pray but were deprived of the shopping rights, finally we could go up the mighty Kingdom Tower, lovingly called “the eye of Sauron” by some… The rules are simple – women go to the back of the lift, men go to the front and up you go. Some locals were praying all the way up, hoping that these words will protect their journey in this 20 years old elevator. Upon reaching 77th floor, you must change the elevator to elevate another 22 floors in order to ascend to the bridge of magnificence with the unforgettable view through the full wall windows, that unfortunately leave plenty of room for the cleaning opportunities.
Riyadh is a huge place, even when you fly over it at night, it starts with rows of villas at some point and stretches, and stretches, and stretches… so you can’t really see where it ends from the Kingdom tower – it embraces you all with its lights, with its traffic, with its grandeur.
After leaving the observation deck, I found that there wasn’t any gift shop to be found, but you could make a prayer stop on level 77 and perform a prayer being a bit closer to the sky. Quite neat!
The next adventure to embark on was to walk to the Mariott Courtyard hotel to have some shisha with the locals, and though being discouraged by many people from walking in Riyadh, that particular one proved to be quite an easy task – apart from the last piece of it where we had to run across the road, failing to find a crossing. Luck was on our side and we got a table, though many people trying to get in after us had to wait and were looking at us with questioning eyes, wondering what were these white faces doing in their hangout. That was the end of day 3 in Riyadh.
The story to be continued…