Saudi Arabia

15 January 2014

Dinner with an old friend in Riyadh along with some other engaging Saudis who were grads of US.

Great week in Jeddah and Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia was seriously surprising.
Not what I expected.
My top three shattered stereotypes:

(1) I thought all women had to wear a niqab (eyes only) or a burka (mesh over eyes). Wrong. In Jeddah, a majority of women I saw had smiling open faces; a few had nothing on their heads. Those wearing a niqab were a minority; burkas were rare. (I’m told this shift is recent.) In Riyadh, uncovered faces were a minority but were not uncommon.

A couple silhouetted by the fountain's reflection.
(2) I thought controversy and criticism would be mostly taboo in the media. Wrong. Instead, I was astonished at the level of debate in the press. Every day (especially in the Arab News) I saw articles on contentious topics and op-ed essays challenging government policies.

(3) Overall, I expected Saudi Arabia to be a Muslim version of Bhutan, a quaint kingdom shielded from modernity where it seems like another planet. Wrong. It was more conventional and not as exotic as I imagined. And the tradition of gender separation was not as pervasive as I expected. Travel is enlightening and I’ll have to recalibrate my views.

One stereotype was confirmed: I’d supposed that Saudis would be friendly, warm, and welcoming. Indeed they were.

One night a strong wind hurled the water far from King Fahd's Fountain.

Imagine a column of water shooting up nearly twice as high as the Washington Monument. That is King Fahd's Fountain (1,024'; 312 m) on the Red Sea waterfront in Jeddah. Spectacular, and opposite the corniche a block from my hotel.

Egyptian dinner at the Red Sea Mall with old friends in Jeddah.

Left: In Jeddah's old town (Balad) some buildings with fine latticed windows are being restored.
Right: A beautiful nearby mosque

Jeddah and Riyadh are cities of super-malls, but remnants of the old souks remain.
with narrow pedestrian alleyways filled with various shops, including the gold souk.

At a birthday party; Amr blows out candles after kids sang “Happy Birthday” (in perfect English).

Attended a wake in Jeddah, held for three evenings after a funeral;
the Qur’an is read and friends offer condolences to the family.

With almost 6 million residents, huge Riyadh is mostly low density
but now has three of the tallest 100 buildings in the world.
Top: The new skyline forming in the north part of the city.
Center:: Another view from my hotel room in the Kingdom Tower.
Btm: Night view from the Skybridge of the Kingdom Tower.

Kingdom Tower (nearly 1,000 feet high) is the star of the Riyadh skyline and is topped by the Skybridge viewing arch.

Touring universities and meeting with faculty
Left: At the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.
Right: At the King Saud University in Riyadh

With driver Mohammed and guide Khaled on a cool, crisp afternoon at the
Masmak Fortress where a pivotal battle was fought during the creation of the Saudi state.
The National Museum in Riyadh is also a large, handsome, impressive facility.

Left: Now under close environmental management,
Wadi Hanifa is a long deep valley parallel to the city of Riyadh,
Right: Nearby I was able to get a sneak preview of the extensive historical
preservation and reconstruction project of the old Saudi capital of Diriyah.

Hanging out with Wahib at a Starbucks in Jeddah.
Also, after a month in Africa without Tex-Mex, the Taco Bell in Riyadh seemed better than usual too.

By the way, apparently Saudi Arabia does have oil. 
Aramco, the world's largest oil company, runs the show.