Travel: Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination? Why not!
Talk about Saudi Arabia to most Indians and one often ends up with the usual stereotypes. You know, the type dating back to Tintin comics – endless sand dunes, camels, sheikhs and oil wells. In my case, most of what I knew about the kingdom was gleaned from conversations with members of my family who had done the Haj.
But the Saudi Arabia I discovered during a recent week-long working visit was markedly different. This is clearly a country that is changing, with a young population that wants to show a very different face to the outside world.
During the week I was in Riyadh with a group of Indian journalists, Jamaican rapper Sean Paul performed with Cheb Khaled (of Desert Rose fame), joining a long list of Western performers such as Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias and Black Eyed Peas who have made a beeline for the conservative kingdom since it began opening up in recent years.
There is a general entertainment authority and Riyadh Season, an initiative by the tourism commission to celebrate 11 seasons across different regions of Saudi Arabia, was underway with a series of cultural events, shows and concerts, some at rather incongruous sites (more on that later).
Baby, you can drive my car
More and more Saudi women are joining the workforce, and this was evident right at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, where most of the immigration counters were manned by women, several of them with their faces covered. During my stay, I also spotted several women drivers – the ban on women driving was lifted only a little more than two years ago – though locals told me Jeddah was the more cosmopolitan and happening city where such sights are more common.
The modern quarters of Riyadh were clearly not designed with pedestrians in mind, as our group found out on the first night that we ventured out for some shopping.
As we made our way through a brand new mall near King Fahd National Library that had outlets stocking only the latest products launched by high end brands such as Givenchy, Hermes and Dior, we realised malls and outlets with goods more within our budget were on the other side of the two-lane highway that cut through the shopping district.
But there seemed to be no pedestrian crossing anywhere in sight and our efforts to seek help to get to the other side from a Saudi lady standing on the pavement evoked a response that had the entire group in splits. The lady clearly didn’t speak any English and when she finally understood from our gestures that we wanted to cross the road, she simply replied: “Limousine.” Well, given that petrol currently costs about ₹35 a litre, I can understand why people would drive around in gas-guzzling limousines just to get to the other side of the road.
The lack of English-speaking staff at commercial establishments is a problem that foreign visitors will encounter in Riyadh, though most Indians will be able to get by as a large number of Indians or Bangladeshis are employed at such outlets. Chatting with a salesman at a shop, I was pleasantly surprised to find he was from Karimganj, located a short distance from my family’s ancestral home in Assam.
The public transport system and ride hailing apps work efficiently, with most cabs driven by Pakistani and Bangladeshi men who are more than willing to chip in with tips about the best food outlets and shopping areas.
Friends with benefits (not those benefits)
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to At-Turaif district in ad-Diriyah, on the outskirts of Riyadh, designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2009, and home to the magnificent Salwa Palace, the original home of the Al-Saud royal family. Ad-Diriyah, founded in the 15th century, was the first capital of the Saudi dynasty and the mud brick palace, consisting of seven units built in different eras, has been painstakingly restored.
We were given a sneak peek of a spectacular sound and light show at the palace that will be open to the public from next year, and as our group exited the complex, I asked our veiled woman guide if she had started driving. “Yes, I have and I’m saving money to buy a Bentley,” she said with a laugh. A Bentley is rather expensive, I remarked. “But it’ll be worth it,” was the prompt reply.
During our visit, the women journalists in our group moved around without abayas, the loose robe-like cloak that was earlier mandatory for all foreign women, and there was no sign of the notorious mutawa, the religious police tasked with monitoring dress codes and gender segregation in public places. However, the loosening of such strict codes could also lead to hilarious situations, as I found out.
When my wife learnt I was in Riyadh Gallery, a spacious mall with outlets for several cosmetic brands, there was a prompt request for a particular eye pencil. Now I’m one those people who can’t tell an eye pencil apart from a lip pencil, and I recruited one of the women journalists in our group to help me out.
The abaya-clad saleswoman patiently showed us several eye pencils of the brand my wife had specified and then turned to my friend and asked: “Which one do you want?”
My friend replied, “Wait, he’s asking his wife on the phone.”
Saleswoman: “Wife? Who are you?”
Friend: “I’m his friend.”
Saleswoman: “Does his wife know?”
Once the laughter subsided, the saleswoman proudly showed us several of her non-abaya photos from a recent holiday in Dubai.
Keep your head on
But the more complicated aspects of Saudi Arabia’s history can rear their heads unexpectedly. After a tour of the impressively restored 19th century Masmak Fort during the weekend, I walked into a nearby square that was the venue for one of the events of Riyadh Season. The walls of the buildings around the square were beautifully lit up by a light show, and scores of families seemed to be doing what people do on weekends – sitting near fountains and cooling off on a hot evening, hanging out at coffee shops or browsing through book stalls.
It was only during a conversation with a Bangladeshi man that I found out this was Deera Square, also known colloquially as “chop chop square” – the scene of numerous public executions.
It is this complicated past that Saudi Arabia will have to grapple with as its rulers open up the kingdom to attract more tourists as part of their efforts to move away from an oil-driven economy.
Rezaul H Laskar is the editor of foreign affairs at Hindustan Times
Follow @Rezhasan on Twitter
From HT Brunch, November 17, 2019
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