I came for a year and now, six years later, I’m leaving. So this morning, as I sit outside our Riyadh villa in the quiet green of the compound, I wonder how best to capture the essence of my life here in just a few words.
It’s a feudal society run by an absolute monarchy. It’s wealth from oil and thousands of royal family members who enjoy a life of luxury and privilege vastly different from those outside its lineage. Women begging at intersections, sometimes in 50 degree heat and often holding small babies.
It’s tall, state of the art skyscrapers, Faisaliah and Kingdom Tower, beside the adobe mud buildings of old Diera. It’s a souk which sells very little that is made in Arabia. There’s hardly any indigenous craft. The small enamel bowl I picked up last week had ‘Made in Slovakia’ stamped on the bottom.
It’s a traditional nomadic culture, where Bedouin women once rode camels in the desert, but nowadays in the city, cannot drive cars. It’s repressive and ugly. Buildings, sky and road, all the colour of sand. Sand, which swirls into storms come April and May. It creeps under doors and squeezes beneath window frames so that every surface is covered in a thin layer of gritty dust.
It’s the beginning of time. In the desert west of Riyadh, sea fossils litter the ground, because all this was once the bed of a prehistoric ocean. Ancient petroglyphs all over Arabia show in pictures the peninsula’s earliest desert dwellers. History made real, palpable and right in front of you. It’s Madain Saleh, the Nabataeans’ second city, deserted, silent and stunningly well preserved.
It’s muttawa, religious police: protectors of virtue and preventers of vice. They’re the ones who enforce gender segregation and patrol malls, shouting at women to cover up when a headscarf has slipped or an errant ankle is showing under an abaya.
It’s Chop Chop Square because sharia (Islamic) law is implemented for criminal acts, and public executions still take place here.
It’s prayer five times a day, the mandatory closing of shops and restaurants during prayer times and rushing to get out of the supermarket with your groceries, before the shutters go down.
It’s double and triple motorway parking outside our nearby Al Rajhi mosque during Friday prayers.
It’s deprivation. No movies, no theatre, no music, no art. Music, because it’s believed to arouse inappropriate emotions, and art because the Koran forbids the representation of the human figure.
It’s the dangerous pastime of desert drifting because there is nothing else for young Saudi men to do. It’s traffic carnage. Drivers who have no regard for rules or safety. Unbelted, young children fly through window screens like small projectile missiles upon impact.
It’s a city without natural beauty. Riyadh means garden, and once it was a lush oasis, but the green has long gone. The date palms along the central median strip of the street approaching our compound were chopped down to make way for new street lights. There’ll be no replanting. It’s pockets of green in areas outside Saudi jurisdiction. The beautifully landscaped Diplomatic Quarter walking track, for instance.
It’s a country focused on a vision for 2030, investing billions in nationwide metro transit systems, highways and high speed long distance railways, while planning sexist and racist passenger segregation that will guarantee failure. All against a backdrop of a multi-billion financial city comprising never-finished clusters of empty skyscrapers, a salutary mirror-glass reflection of an earlier vision, planning and greed.
And, of course it’s desert. On the one hand, stunning “Edge of the World” vistas and on the other, yellow sandy roadside expanses, dotted with discarded car tyres.
Saudis have turned the desert into their own personal rubbish dump. Conservation and environmental awareness are as unknown as the phrase, ‘pick up your rubbish’. All because in this country there is always someone else – low cost imported labour from third world countries- to do the cleaning, the tidying and the picking up.
It’s stopping at traffic lights beside a car driven by a Saudi driver and seeing the door open just wide enough to let a cascade of rubbish fall to the ground.
And it’s the absurdly comic. Saudi families sharing picnics in the most unlikely places. An empty city space beside piles of building debris or another favourite, the Ikea car park. Carpets on the asphalt, and frisbees in the air.
It’s driving home from Bahrain at sunset, seeing the endless roadside dotted with parked cars and men with prayer mats out, leading family members, all performing sunset Salah.
It’s contradictions and experiences like none other. It’s what you make of it. Friends on the compound. Travelling to remote parts of Saudi: Farasan Island, Taif, Qassim. And then one day it’s a trip to King Khaled International Airport, knowing that this visa is the Final Exit Visa.
And on the plane, before you leave, it’s deleting the prayer time app on your cell phone, because it’s not something you’ll ever need again.