From August to the end of November, 2016, I was part of a team working on a project in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The trip from Hong Kong totalled 21 hours: I would get up at 4:00 am to get to the airport and catch the 7:50 Emirates flight to Dubai. I then had a 6-hour layover in Dubai before catching the flight to Riyadh, followed by a 45-minute trip to the hotel.
I usually arrived at the hotel at around 9:00PM local time – which was 1:00AM Hong Kong time – totally shattered..!
Not much to do on weekends
The rest of the team were all based in Dubai, so they went back home for the weekends. Being based in Hong Kong, though, I usually had to limit my R & R breaks to every 3 weeks or so.
That meant I had two consecutive weekends in Riyadh on each trip.
Luckily, I had a long-time friend who had been working there for nearly 10 years. He and his wife lived in one of the compounds that are reserved for Westerners who are employed there on multi-year contracts.
I say ‘luckily’ because there is precious little for Westerners to do on a weekend in Riyadh. So being able to visit their place at weekends was a blessing!
The hotel was OK – all the usual facilities – but it was difficult to do what I always like to do in a new place: explore it on foot.
Here’s the view from my hotel room:
Riyadh is simply not designed or set up for Pedestrians to explore on foot. There are malls, of course, but they do not appeal to me!
In any case, there is strict sexual segregation and it’s very easy to wander into the women’s or families’ areas (where men can only go if accompanied by a woman).
If you do that, you will get stopped by the Mutawa (the religious police), which made me feel pretty uneasy!
Wahhabism is the form of Islam practiced in Riyadh – it is ultra-conservative, the strictest form of Islam.
One of the Emiratis on the team impressed upon me that I should avoid talking about any form of religion, unless I knew the person I was talking to very well.
And even then, I should make sure I was out of the earshot of people I did not know.
As a non-Muslim, I was considered an infidel. Foreigners are basically tolerated, rather than welcomed, because we fulfil functions that are required – in our case the project we were there to complete.
Some interesting buildings but empty streets
Riyadh does have some interesting looking buildings, though. The tall building in this image is the Kingdom Tower, which we christened the bottle opener:
This is the Ministry of the Interior building, which I had to take through a closed, sealed window from the hotel:
At night, when it’s lit up, it looks exactly like a spaceship!
One of the things that most sticks in my mind, though, is that you never see people walking on the streets in Riyadh.
The local office of the consultancy that I was sub-contracting to was at a good address, but in this picture, taken from the office balcony, you can see no one in the streets.
And, in fact, no one in the shops:
We used to get a cab back from the client’s office to the hotel each evening and we would go through areas with upmarket shops that were all lit up – but there was never anyone in them, and never anyone walking along the pavements.
I remember once walking from the office (of the consultancy to which I was sub-contracting) to a nearby hotel complex where we were due to have dinner.
It was more like a hike than a walk, and we did not meet another soul anywhere along our route – which took about 20 minutes!
And, as we entered the complex, we passed the military guard post, complete with an armoured car and some pretty heavy weaponry. Chilling.
A difficult project
It was the same when we got to the client’s office: the security was extreme and often the guards would not allow the taxi (or Uber) that we were in to enter the campus.
So we often had to get out and walk to the block in which we worked.
Given that we had to wear a suit with jacket and tie every day, we were often quite hot when we arrived – especially in August!
At the client’s premises we were given various different locations in which to work, which changed, often from day-to-day – there was no fixed project team room.
In any project of this kind there is a need for confidentiality, and having to work in an open plan environment among the client’s employees made this difficult.
We could book a conference room for meetings, of course, but the nature of these projects is that you need to be able to discuss things as they come up.
Here’s the view we had from the office:
The people we met through the project were generally helpful, but not always. As in any big company, there were all sorts of politics and cliques that we had to try to unravel.
We were faced with people who were supportive of our project and some who were definitely not!
Overall, the Riyadh project was not one of my favourites. Whereas I would love to go back to Tehran, I, sadly, cannot say the same for Riyadh.
Have you worked in Saudi? Do let me know what your experience was in the comments!
The Expat Traveller