Been There, Done That… Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

*  *  *

Riyadh (& Jeddah), Saudi Arabia…1995-1997. Its culture diametrically opposed to my own and its appeal, well, there wasn’t much of that, despite my first-hand look at the opulence of life inside the walled residence of the scion of a family whose patriarch was a highly placed member of King Fahd’s Council of Ministers.

The chauffeur-driven limousine picked me up at my hotel at about seven that evening for the twenty-minute drive to the residence. Surrounded by desert and twelve-foot-high walls the color of sand, the house itself came into view only when guards opened the heavy wooden gates to a courtyard where several more men stood. Even then, with few exterior lights suggesting grandeur, I was not overly impressed. Then I stepped inside.

The foyer was massive; its polished marble floors seeming to rise up to meet the moonlight filtering through a sky-high stained glass cupola as impressive as many I’d seen in European cathedrals. Ahead to my left, a doublewide marble stairway curved itself to a higher floor, while straightaway beyond was the Library where I would meet my reason for being there. I tried to act like this was all normal fare for me. Yeah, right!

One does not simply decide to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It requires an invitation, more accurately, a sponsor. Thanks to my good relationship with a Middle Eastern agency group based in London and, subsequently, a Saudi entrepreneur operating furniture stores in Jeddah under the decidedly not-Middle Eastern-brand name, American Home, I scored several invitations over a period of three years.

It may seem strange that an ad guy would be of any use in a Middle Eastern monarchy, but commerce marches on. From fast food restaurants to branded commodities to furniture & appliance outlets, some form of capitalism is alive and well pretty much everywhere. You might even run into an old client along the way, as I did in the Saudi capital of Riyadh—a city that took “strange” and “foreign” to new heights.

Riyadh is not only the seat of Saudi government but it is also the place where Sharia Law is most strictly enforced. The presence of the mutaween, or religious police, is unmistakable and more sobering than the absence of alcohol. In none of my travels before or since have I felt my behavior so “under the microscope.” Then again, how much trouble can you get into when liquor and ladies are removed from the equation? The fact that I rarely saw a woman in my stay there was fine by me. I’d heard too many stories of the swift and brutal punishment meted out to transgressors of Islamic custom.

It was against this backdrop that I met an old friend and former Washington, DC-based client in the lounge area of my Riyadh hotel. Ironically, the last time I’d seen him was in the back yard of his Chevy Chase home for a well-lubricated garden party celebrating some aspect of his work as the head of an American trade organization. And the next time I’d see him would be over drinks on the terrace of a flat he was renting in London while he worked out the details of a franchise opportunity he was about to pursue in Australia. On this occasion in Riyadh, however, he had somehow managed his way into a staff position with a Saudi prince. My old friend got around!

I had often run across friends and former clients in odd places around the world, but sitting in a hotel lounge in Riyadh surrounded my men holding Islamic prayer beads or, in many cases, holding each other’s hands (it’s a culture thing), drinking a stiff Coca-Cola, listening to the melodic chants of the Islamic Call To Prayer, not a woman in sight, all while my DC friend anxiously (nervously, it seemed) waited to be summoned by “the prince”…well, that was pretty strange.

But I digress from the Library.

Escorted by one of the guards, I entered a room that belonged on a Hollywood set. A library, indeed! The ceiling rose to a dizzying height, the walls filled with books and art, the furniture large, leather and baby soft, and the lighting tastefully understated. Two men sat on one monster sofa, diagonally across from which I parked on an equally enormous leather lounger. Between us, a huge square “coffee table” would soon hold the adult beverage I was offered. (Once you’re inside the walls, anything goes.)

One of the men on the far couch was the scion of the ministerial Saudi family. He and I had first met in my office in London’s Soho district several months earlier. I liked him. The other gentlemen, clearly older, was, it turned out, an American. As the night went on, I would learn that the older American had somehow, many years earlier, established a special relationship with the scion’s father and had effectively become part of the Minister’s extended family. Not a bad gig, and one I suppose my old friend from DC hoped to parlay with “the prince.”

Eventually, the scion, his American toady and I made our way downstairs to a far less formal but still huge space where we were served dinner by several Indonesian women in proper maid uniforms who stood at attention throughout the meal, not unlike the staff at Downton Abbey. Then we moved to the game room with a really big screen TV and, as the name implied, billiard and other gaming tables, along with video entertainment options that I wouldn’t see again until I visited an ESPN Zone. Meanwhile, the American toady spent an hour bending my ear about the family’s history while the scion did his man-cave thing, channel surfing with the remote. (It’s a guy thing. Some stuff transcends culture!) All in all, the evening was an odd little experience.

Then again, everything about my visits to Saudi Arabia was a bit odd. In Jeddah, which seems almost western compared to the strident strictness of Riyadh, the local McDonald’s had separate entrances and dining areas for men only and families. No point in having a women only entrance, as they’d have been damn foolish to go out alone.

Situated on the Red Sea, Jeddah also offered opportunities for families to take a dip. I did not even consider donning swim trunks, much less a Speedo, for fear of breaking some clothing code, but I did stroll along the beach one evening where young girls remained fully clothed, on the beach and in the water.  Not very appealing from any number of perspectives!

Equally strange and even less appealing was the behavior of Saudi men I observed one night over dinner in a nearby restaurant. To say they were rude to the restaurant staff would be a considerable understatement. The staff—all Indonesian or Indian males (no Saudis perform menial tasks)—were undoubtedly accustomed to gruff, condescending treatment, but it made me want to slap the crap out of the pompous princely bastards. Not a good idea. In fact, it’s not a good idea to even raise one’s voice if you’re not a Saudi…a lesson I learned in no uncertain terms at the airport.

I was about to fly out of Riyadh on one of my first visits there, and I was very late, thanks to my cab driver mistakenly dropping me at the wrong terminal. By the time I made it to the right one, I was in real danger of missing my Emirates flight to Dubai. Now I’m standing in line at the ticket counter, behind a Saudi man dressed in the traditional thawb or dishdasha (or whatever that long flowing robe garment’s called). And I’m getting real antsy. That guy finally finishes and now I’m up…for about two seconds…until another flowing robed-Saudi virtually brushes me aside like I’m one of those meaningless Indonesian waiters. Now I’m pissed off. But to no avail! In this world, if you’re not an obvious Saudi, you might as well be an Indonesian waiter. Of course, that did not deter me from beginning to express my displeasure with my treatment. I say, beginning, because I had no more than begun to express myself when a Saudi soldier with a large automatic weapon stood menacingly at my shoulder.

Eventually, I did make my flight. I’d like to say that, once on board, I confronted the Saudi bastard who unceremoniously jumped the line, but those guys all looked the same in those damn robes. By the way, if you ever find yourself flying out of Saudi Arabia, make sure you don’t wait until you get on the flight to use the john because from the nanosecond the flight crew announces “wheels up,” the Saudi rush is on…especially for the women. They enter the plane’s bathroom looking like the evil nuns of my youth and come out looking more glam than a Harper’s Bazaar cover girl.

Well, not all of them. Some come out still looking like evil nuns, just with better clothes, jewels and make-up.  You know what I mean.


T H E  E N D

Comments (0)

› No comments yet.

Pingbacks (0)

› No pingbacks yet.