I discovered a couple of weeks ago that May is Europe Month. A month of activities in and around Riyadh funded by the E.U. Unfortunately there is little advertising of the celebration in case the whole thing might be shut down by the religious police, so although there are many interesting events happening, no one knows about them. I think that “the powers that be” hope to transmit through psychic powers or osmosis, or that local knowledge will then seep into people’s dna to remember that “May is Europe Month”. Although what the long-term aim of spending hard-working Europeans’ euros in Saudi Arabia is, who can guess. To attract Saudi Tourists to Europe? It seems that the people benefiting most from these events are those associated with the foreign embassies, few of us outside the diplomatic circle have heard of them which brings me to crux of this blog post.
On a recent Friday a friend emailed to say that she had discovered that an Archaeological workshop was being held at the King Abdulaziz Conference center, that Sunday, as part of Europe Month, and that she was hoping to get tickets. As you know from previous posts, there is a wealth of history and pre history in the Arabian peninsula, but very little information about it. Unfortunately there is not much appetite here for any archaeological research work that is pre-islamic. This is now changing and a number of foreign universities have been invited to undertake research by the Saudi Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities in association with Saudi Universities. The workshop represents a window on what has been achieved and the future possibilities.
Anyhow my friend and I managed to get last minute tickets for the event, and set off brightly on Sunday morning full of expectation. We knew that the conference center was close to the Ritz Carlton hotel, one of the largest and opulent places you will find in Riyadh.
Anyway we decided to go to the Hotel first, as they must know where the conference was being held and would be able to direct us. How wrong could we be? We drove to the front door and asked the door staff, they had no knowledge of the conference and promptly directed us to go down the road to the main gate of the conference center. When we had done a drive past earlier we thought the gate looked shut. We decided that we should see if there was a back gate, as my driver seemed to think that was the way in, so we circled round to the back of the hotel and found the way out, and followed a road that looked as though it would lead us where we wanted to go. A kilometer or so on we come to a check point, hurrah we thought, at last we had found the way in. Disappointment, quickly followed, a military guard appeared from his hut only to direct us back round to the front gate of the conference centre.
The gate looked extremely imposing and still very shut. No guards, no one in sight. However a little ways down the road we spotted some national guards and stopped to see if they could help. This might have been a mistake. A young looking officer in a track suit with an FJ cruiser came across to help. Unfortunately his english was not so good and he was determined to help us. After making a few calls he directed us to follow him, we now had no choice. We followed for a couple of Kilometers around the back the complex on the other side to the earlier check-point, then stopped for about 15 minutes at the side of the road while he made phone calls to his boss (we think) and few other people. Afterwards he then directed us back to the hotel. So back to the hotel we went. This time, we decided to go and find someone who could speak better english, and thought our best bet would be inside the hotel.
The Ritz Carlton is very hospitable, and we were immediately greeted and offered coffee and dates, a helpful gentleman said he would go and find where the conference was. After many refills of coffee and several dates later, a different manager appears and asks how he can help. And we then discover that the conference is not at the hotel, but although the hotel and the conference center are co-owned he has no idea if an Archaeology conference is taking place there. So we had wasted another 20 minutes. The manager told us that the only entrance he knew about was at front.
It is very often difficult to find entrances to places in Saudi Arabia, so we decided that we would have one last try. We went to front entrance of the center again, I got out and tried to knock on various doors, no luck. Just for kicks and not wanting to give up we decide to drive around the back again and see if there was another gate. So round the back we drove, at a roundabout covered with flags we turned towards the conference center only to be stopped. A Royal Guard officer, explained that this was the entrance to the Shoura Council only, and that the Abdulaziz International Conference center was for GCC events only. However, he thought that the conference center that we wanted was just down the road, and gave us simple directions to get there. Hurrah again, or so we thought. A few minutes down the road, and we turned into the drive of a large white conference building, the King Fahad Conference center. There were even cars in the parking lot. We looked for a way in, the steps didn’t seem very well used, but we found a back door open and a Janitor lurking nearby. So in we went. The Janitor directed us upstairs, into a vast empty marble atrium, it did not look as though much was happening. We wandered around for a few minutes until we found someone, who promptly told us there was no archaeological event at the center. We were now two hours late. Depressed we slunk out of the building. What now, give up?
By now I had got the bit between my teeth, and there was no way we were going to give up without tracking down the Archaeologists even if we missed the event. We decided to call a friend at the British Embassy who might know someone who might know where this event was actually taking place. After a quick phone call, we discovered that the event had been co-organised by the British Council and E.U. , Ironies of Ironies we had found out about the conference from a friend at the German Embassy. We made another phone call and discovered that it was at the Abdulaziz Conference Hall, (not center) which is close to the national museum in the middle of Riyadh. None of the information we had been given made this clear, in fact it was written in black and white “Abdulaziz conference center”
We then rushed over there, to be met by a member of the British Council, and we arrived at the Conference in time for a very excellent buffet lunch. We were sad to have missed the whole morning, but we still had the afternoon and the whole of the next day.
On reflection, despite the frustration of not being able to find out where to go, all the people we met were trying to help us, and send us in the right direction even if the results were unsuccessful. But this is a recurring hazard in Saudi Arabia, everything that happens on cultural level is hardly advertised and mostly you have to rely on help on the ground to point you in the right direction. Almost everyone is extremely helpful, but sometimes the help can lead you even further astray with a combination of language difficulties and misinformation. In end the epitaph to this blog post, is “lost in translation.”
As a post script,
It took me almost as long to find the vacuum cleaner repair shop, because a misinterpretation of the address, and confusion between the computer mall and the gulf trading mall, but I’m not even going there, because you will be reading the blog for at least another hour!