In some ways this should have been the very first blog entry, but how can you write about something you know nothing about. I know that usually doesn’t stop journalists, but I wanted to wait and form opinions rather rehash other people’s. I had no concept of what Riyadh would be like before I came here. I had some vague idea that I might be entering a world of harems and regressing to the Middle Ages. As I speak to friends and family, it becomes more apparent that many other people share the same misconceptions.
Notwithstanding the first impression of immigration control, which if I am honest can be terrible in both the USA and UK as well. Riyadh is a huge, modern, vibrant city. It is sited in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula rising out of a rocky desert landscape. It is not an oasis with palm trees, surrounded by huge orange sand dunes, shrieking Lawrence of Arabia.
The city is growing at an unprecedented rate, think Calgary or Denver and then double or triple it. Today it takes more than hour to drive from one side of the city to the other, when the traffic is good, but that is changing all the time. More than 7 million people live here and counting. The outskirts of city are surrounded by Bedu encampments, black tents dot the rocky escarpment landscape, camels and goats graze. Toyota trucks are parked up amongst bales of alfalfa. There are shanty towns too. People are attracted to the city.
Riyadh is in a rush to create; Universities, Foundations, Hospitals, a Financial Center, a Metro and Bus system. All the big hotel chains have a footprint here, and some are impressive. There are top quality restaurants serving every kind of food and huge shopping malls with the same stores that you would find in the US and UK are sprouting up all over the place. ( Although I have still found it necessary to bring my own Marmite, and some things are considerably more expensive despite a lack of sales tax.) Despite the fact there is no public entertainment, I have heard of a flourishing underground rock music scene.
Everywhere you drive there are building works and bill boards showing happy smiling people proclaim new projects. Gradually the perimeter of the city is expanding. We are living in the middle of a building site, so I get the benefit of experiencing the expansion of the city first hand, but that would be same for almost any area of Riyadh.
The original city, of which little remains apart from the Al-Masmak Fort, some of the original walls, gate and a few traditional mud houses, was built around an oasis and was an important strategic position. But Riyadh today, an enormous city rising out of the desert, relies upon the same deep water that fed the original Oasis. Water is at a premium. And people here worry about when it will run out rather than gasoline. I look at the lines of fully grown palm trees and bushes planted down the main roads, the new buildings, and wonder how much water the city needs. Will it be sustainable in the future? Where will the water come from when the underground water runs out?
I think there is a rush here to create an economy that is not just about oil. While this is still an oil nation, there is now a concerted effort to use the the petro-dollars to build infra-structure and a long term sustainable economy. I think the Government recognises that this is something that has to happen now to secure the future. Change seems to happen every day.
The one thing that is hard though, is to get a sense of the city from anything other than a car. There is no public transport to speak of, to get around you either need to take a taxi, or a taxi bus. Some companies provide transport for their workers. Guest construction workers, mainly from the Indian sub continent and Far East live in temporary built accommodation on development sites. But you can’t walk anywhere, distances between things are too far and when you consider the heat and Saudi driving tactics cycling is not an option either, so I think the Mutawa will not have to worry about the modesty of ‘Boris Bikes‘ anytime soon. There is a Metro system in the pipeline, and that will cause a quiet revolution in the city it will enable thousands of women to go to work who otherwise would have been unable to do so. Women being unable to drive have an even harder time of accessing the city than men.
Foreigners, particularly non-muslims, living here are mostly separate from locals. Expats live in compounds without being under the gaze of the Religious Police or censure for western dress or inappropriate socializing. Some are commercially operated and others are owned by companies or other organizations. The Diplomatic Quarter or D.Q. as it is know, is where most of the Embassies are situated. It covers a few square miles, and here it is like being in a different city, women drive and do not have to wear the abaya. Most compounds have some sports facilities and a swimming pool. There is fairly strict security to get into any compound, a passport/ ID and an invitation is required. It does create an us and them like atmosphere. However I think I would find it difficult to live outside a compound unless we had a substantial private estate which is not going to happen anytime soon.
The thing that strikes me about the city are the Mosques. There are Mosques on every corner, of all different shapes and sizes. They range from majestic buildings bigger than cathedrals, ornately decorated to modest ones with tin roofs and tiny single minarets constructed of steel bars with dented speakers at the top. Practically every gas/petrol station has one, as do companies, universities, and military bases. When I am driven across town I always manage to see a mosque that I haven’t spotted before. I certainly haven’t counted them all. It’s hard to find an accurate total for the city, but it’s definitely in the thousands. It makes you realise that first and foremost this is an Islamic city, an Islamic city moving towards the future.