A work trip to attend a workshop at KACST, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, was my first visit to Saudi Arabia. It was a short trip of four days filled mostly with work but during late afternoons and early evenings, our attentive hosts gave us an opportunity to see a few of Riyadh's landmarks and experience some of Saudi Arabia's culture.
It is a long trip across 11 time zones to Riyadh from San Francisco. In summer, the time difference is only 10 hours because of our switch to daylight savings but that sure does not make the trip seem any shorter. My itinerary was through Frankfurt, Germany, which is a relatively standard trip for me. The part to Riyadh was new, flying over former Yugoslavia, the Greek islands, the Egyptian part of the Sinai Peninsula, and the Red Sea with a view of Aqaba. As the sun set, the Arabian desert glowed from below. I had a last glass of wine for a few days before we landed in Riyadh in the darkness of an early evening.
The arrival hall was quite busy. Even though Saudi Arabia announced its intention to introduce tourist visas already in 2013, by the time of our arrival, this program had not started yet. Traditionally, the only visitors allowed were for the religious pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. However, a lot of people arrive for work or on business.
The Hyatt hotel was not unlike many Hyatts around the world even though the temple-sized lobby seemed quieter than most. At check in, I was greeted by impeccable English, which proved to be more common than not as many Saudis speak very good English. I enjoyed the view of Riyadh from a high floor a few minutes later.
|Take-off from SF||Landing in Frankfurt||Greek islands||Greek islands||Aqaba on the Red Sea||Dusk over the desert|
|Dusk over the desert||Landing in Riyadh||Sunrise hotel window view||Fisheye view|
The National Museum is a part of King Abdulaziz Historical Centre. The museum documents the history of Saudi Arabia, starting from the prehistoric era, continuing with pre-Islamic kingdoms, Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic period all the way through the Third Saudi State, i.e. the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We had a guide who narrated a story but it would have been easy to follow the bilingual English/Arabic descriptions next to the exhibits. The museum was clearly built with generous funds, and its well-designed exhibits were a pleasure to visit.
|Ancient scripts||Muhhahmad's family tree||Prophet's Mission||Early Muslim conquests||Islamic geography and astronomy exhibit|
|Islamic geography and astronomy exhibit||Arab riders||Oil exploration truck||Hall of Hajj and Two Holy Mosques||The Great Mosque of Mecca|
|Museum entrance hall||Squatting toilet||National Museum entrance||Walkout||Street near the museum|
The second stop of our evening was Al Masmaq fortress. It was originally built around 1865 by the rulers of the Rasheed dynasty than controlled the region from Ha'il to the north. In 1902, the fortress was captured by the local clan of Al Saud headed by Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal Al Saud during the Battle of Riyadh. The victory marks the beginning of the Third Saudi State, which evolved into present day Saudi Arabia. In the present day the fort has been restored and converted into a museum, featuring displays of antique guns and history of the Saudi royal family.
|Masmak fortress||Storming the fortress||Poster documenting the Beginning||King Abdul Aziz||Conquest of today's Saudi Arabia||Cannon|
|House of Saud sign||Saud sign||Well||The dynasty||Girl and the kings||Entryway|
|Al Masmaq fort|
After visiting the fortress, we took a walk on Al Thumairi Street nearby and dropped by a store that featured traditional scented woods. After getting thoroughly perfumed with aromatic smoke, we visited a traditional clothes store. The traditional dress worn by Saudi's men and boys is called a thobe or thawb. It was widely worn by our hosts at the university, and only a few of the junior ones switched to western clothes for some unofficial functions.
|Store owner||Clothes store||Making adjustments||Scent store clerk||Getting scented|
|Locals||Hesham's scenting turn||Simone posing||Marco in a bisht||Jean||Local boy|
Diraiyah, west of Riyadh, is the original home of the Saudi royal family and served as the capital during the first Saudi dynasty back in the 1700s. Ib Saud emerged as the emir of Al-Diriyah in 1744, took in a religious scholar named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhabm and implemented his religious views inside the First Saudi State. The city was destroyed after a six month siege by Ottoman forces in 1818, when it was seen as a threat to the Ottoman Empire. Named to be a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historical significance, the ruins are being restored. The work is not quite finished and visits are with private guides only. We were given an overview of the site at the visitor center and treated to traditional Arabic coffee and dates. Date palms are plentiful on either side of Wadi Hanifa valley, and were at a time, along with the seasonal river running through the valley, the source of riches of the families residing there. These days, of course, much of Saudi wealth is derived from oil.
|Old Diraiyah model||Coffee and dates||Cat||Date palms||Creek with the valley below||Palms and restored ruins|
|Dates||Fortress||View||Sunset||Walkway and the fortress|
KACST has been busy developing drones and we were offered to tour the hangar where they are put together and housed. This was an afternoon digression from the workshop program. The university buildings, where the workshop took place, are quite modern and we were treated to a nice breakfast and a fancy lunch buffet every day. For a westerner, it was interesting to see that prayer breaks were scheduled into the program, and the building featured a special entrance for women. While women were recently allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and I actually spotted a few driving, this is still a very conservative society whose rules extend quite a bit beyond the hijabs and veils worn by the women at all times.
|Saker 1||Tour||Saker 2||Wing airfoil under construction||Control module|
We had a desert excursion scheduled for the last afternoon, and in spite of the summer heat, being a big fan of sand dune photography, I was looking forward to it as a highlight of the trip. Having left a bit later than scheduled, the group was quickly divided into several dune driving capable 4WD vehicles. We drove west of Riyadh and reached the sand dunes some time after sunset, dashing my hopes for the low light on the dunes. After releasing air from the tires for better traction, it was off to the races in the quickly diminishing light. Soon enough it got completely dark and we stopped at the top of a dune. Hesham commented that taking our shoes off and taking in the heat of the sand through our soles was a great stress reliever. He was right. It was almost dark but the sand was still quite warm. Having spent much of the day earlier in a conference room, being in touch with the elements and surrounded by the emptiness and silence of the desert felt amazing.
|Freeway out of Riyadh||Making plans||Getting ready to hit the sand||Couch in the desert|
|Toyota under the crescent moon||Recliner||Relaxing||Night desert driving||Headlight silhouettes|
Our hosts set up a carpet for us to sit down and we were treated to Arabic coffee and mint tea, brewed for us on a portable gas stove. Served with dates as a snack, it was a relaxing experience in the darkness of the desert. One could say just the camels were missing, but not quite so as the light was provided by the modern camel of the desert, a Toyota pickup truck.
|Setting up||Desert sitdown||Coffee and tea||Kettle|
|Making the tea||Mint||Coffee in the sand||Tire pressure stop|
It was my last day in the kingdom, and due to a busy program of the previous days, I got off to a later start. Before I came to Riyadh, I made plans to visit the Kingdom Center Tower. With 99 floors and over 300m, it is the tallest building in Riyadh, and features a unique top with a sky bridge. I thought I would go up for the most interesting part of the day around the sunset and the dusk when the city lights come on. We had a busy program every evening, and it never happened. On the last morning, I took an Uber to the Kingdom Tower without even thinking about it. There is a shopping mall underneath it, and the driver, who did not speak English, came up on a check point and argued with the guard there for a while. When he dropped me off in front of the quiet entrance, it finally dawned on me. It was Friday and everything was closed. Why would anyone come there except for a crazy foreigner... The door was open, and I entered a ghost town of a mall before exiting and taking a few pictures of the tower from the outside.
|Pyramid-shaped skyscraper||View from below||Hotel room view||Riyadh from above||Empty shopping mall|
|Fish-eye Kingdom Centre Tower||Fountain||Curves and lines||Self-portrait|
After the somewhat disappointing stop at the closed Kingdom Tower, my next stop was another place of interest, the King Khalid Great Mosque. Another short Uber drive later, I found myself in front of this white mosque. I walked inside and explored its courtyard and prayer hall.
As everything was closed near the hotel and the whole neighborhood around was under construction, I soon gave up on a futile search for something to eat outside and ended up having lunch in the hotel. As the temperature outside reaching 110F did not invite for more exploration, I soon headed for the airport, along the way admiring the often uniquely shaped skyscrapers that had sprung up in Riyadh. My next destination, Dubai, was just a short flight away and it was going to set a completely new benchmark for me in terms of a skyscraper building boom.
|Young boy||Courtyard||Courtyard and the minaret||Great Mosque||Prayer hall|
|Washing station||Great Mosque||Dome||Hyatt hotel||Last hotel window view|
|Twisted skyscraper||Curves on skyscrapers||Closed for prayer sign||Airport terminal|
Other than the seasonal heat, western visitors will find a lot of similarities and differences as well. There is a clear American influence - American chains, and fast food chains in particular, are quite popular and so are big American cars. One would expect large cars in a country that produces so much oil. Among other brands, Japanese and Korean cars seemed to be the most popular. Other than fast food, restaurants of many different cuisines are available, at least in Riyadh, with one notable difference - in accordance with Islamic laws, there is no alcohol offered anywhere. Many signs, both on the roads and elsewhere, are in both Arabic and English making it easier for an international visitor. There are a number of shopping malls around Riyadh if that is your thing. The weekends are Fridays and Saturdays with most everything closed on Friday mornings into the early afternoon. Prayer times are observed five times a day, and businesses close during prayer times. The adherence to Islam and bn Abd Al-Wahhab's teachings influence many other aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, including clothing, social customs, entertainment, and many other aspects of the society.