In April 2017 I had the unique opportunity to visit a place that very few people travel to, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This was not my first trip to the Middle East but I found Saudi Arabia unlike any other country that I have ever visited. It was a mixture of progressive thoughts and repression all in the same border.
After a very long, but comfortable, flight on Royal Saudia Airlines we were greeted with coffee, tea and finger foods upon our arrival in the concierge lounge. (PRO TIP: There is no booze on flights to the Middle East on Middle Eastern airlines.) Processing through the airport was very quick and we were off and running in this weird country.
We immediately went to our hotel which was an amazing highlight of the trip; the Ritz Carlton Riyadh. This was literally the nicest hotel I have ever stayed in. The RC was formerly a royal palace and the detail and opulence does not disappoint. Fortunately and unfortunately I spent a lot of time in the hotel because the night life of Riyadh isn’t exactly bustling.
If the hotel sounds remotely familiar it is because it was also used as a prison in November 2017 to hold very notable Royal Family elite during the great purge of corruption in the ruling elite.
Once checked in we freshened up and made our way to dinner. We went to the Al Diriyah District which is known for its high-end shopping, cultural centers and food choices. It does not get more authentic than Najd Village Restaurant so we decide to eat there. In the traditional fashion you take off your shoes, sit on the floor and food is brought to you in large quantities. Women are still expected to wear their long and modest abaya, but you are in a closed off area for your group so they are not as stringent as they are in public. Obviously we are Western foreigners trying to fit in so they were more than forgiving of any of our mistakes. I ordered the hashi kabsah (camel meat with white rice) because when in Rome…. It was delicious and not the first time that I have had camel. If you have never tried it then it is worth a shot, it tastes a bit like beef and chicken mixed together.
After dinner we went back to the hotel to finally get some sleep and passed old ruins along the way. There is so much tribal history within Saudi Arabia I hope to go back one day and discover more of it. If you really want to dive into trying to understand the Middle East as a non-Arab I would suggest A History of the Modern Middle East by Cleveland and Bunton. Bottom line, its a whole bunch of tribes that never got along, but power fused many together, and the French/British tried to draw some lines in the sand (pun intended) that did not make sense culturally. End of history lesson.
The city of Riyadh was more than I expected. Traffic is crazy (only men could drive when I was there) and it is seriously hot. Everywhere is really cold inside, like most Middle Eastern countries, because when you go outside you defrost quickly. The whole goal is to become an ice cube, melt a little without sweating and then get back to A/C as quickly as possible. It is the reason that keffiyehs are still popular to this day and a major necessity that westerners just don’t understand unless they travel there.
Riyadh is also very modern and they are building larger buildings that resemble skyscrapers. The Crown Prince, Muhammed Bin Salman, is huge on modernization and his Vision 2030 is extremely aggressive but an impressive positive change for the country and it’s future. I asked some Saudi men about it who were older and while they did not want to openly criticize the Royal Family they believed it was a bit of a pipe dream because so much had to happen so quickly in their society.
Since I was only in Riyadh for two entire days I did not get a lot of chances to be a true tourist. I did get to make it down to the major souq just south of the city. I was even a mere block away from the infamous Al-Saafa Square (known as Chop Chop Square, where quick justice is served to the necks of criminals for the public to watch). Unfortunately I did not get a lot of pictures because you never quite know what is culturally okay to do and what is forbidden. That sums up Saudi Arabia in a nutshell for me actually.
A few other things that stuck out from my trip. In the hotel there was a men’s section and a family section. A single man could not sit in the family section unless he was escorting his wife and/or children. Only men were allowed in the men’s section. I made the mistake of sitting in the family section and in about 3 seconds I was corrected by hotel staff.
I asked a Saudi man about women driving. His explanation at the time was “could you imagine if we all of a sudden let women drive in our country, all of those new inexperienced drivers on the road.” I have him a side eyed look and he immediately began laughing at the top of his lungs. Clearly the culture has a long way to go with women’s rights.
The morality police, or Al Mutawa, is a real thing and they are on the lookout. I did not see any carrying huge sticks but even our hosts there would point them out and when people would walk by you could tell that women would make sure everything was correct.
I found this amazing sign for those that do not know how to sit on the toilet properly:
Overall I really enjoyed my trip to Saudi Arabia. I never got the feeling that I was not welcomed there or there is some secret oppressive regime that was watching you at every turn. The food was authentic and amazing and there is a rich history there worth diving into. I would love to make it to Mecca one day to see the Kaaba but I don’t foresee myself converting to Islam any time soon. Nonetheless if you get the chance to see something unlike any other country, say yes to Saudi Arabia.
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