Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Early Impressions of Riyadh....

Kingdom Tower
I have been in the Kingdom now for three months, primarily in Riyadh and just a few journeys out to other parts such as Al Hofuf and Dharama, I have also taken a trip to the neighboring Kingdom of Bahrain which has been prominent in the news in the past year in the midst of the Arab Spring which has effected many countries in the Muslim World in recent times and very sadly, currently costing many lives in Syria.
Riyadh, the capital city has over 5 million inhabitants and is very much a city under construction at the moment. King Abdullah Financial Centre is being built at a pace and coming from the airport, you pass the very impressive Princess Noura University for Women in the suburbs of the city, which is the world’s largest, facilitating some 40,000 students.
The city itself is very well served by an impressive motorway network, running north-south and east-west, the motor car is the transport of choice here, and given that petrol costs the equivalent of 15 cents a litre is understandable. It is surprising however that the city this large does not possess a public transport system, so a visitor to Riyadh must use Taxi’s to get around as walking any distance is just too difficult in the Saudi heat, I understand that a Metro system is in the pipeline.

Traffic on Ollaya St.

Saudi drivers are well known around the world for their erratic driving habits, and for the first few weeks here, I had to cross Ollaya St. twice a day which is a bit like trying to cross a Formula One racetrack, but I live to tell the tale. Footpaths here are rather odd, they are afterthoughts at best, and regularly just stop or have high kerbs or even have cars parked on them. Riyadh is very noticeably a city not designed for pedestrians, but very much for the automobile.
Of course, Saudi Arabia is very much considered to be at the very heart of the Muslim faith and is the site of the two holy mosques at Mekkah and Medinah. Saudi’s take their faith very seriously and the prayer times are strictly observed five times a day, when shops close and workers pause from their work for prayers, in my own office, I have become used to my Muslim colleagues observing their Dhuhr and Asr prayers together in the office with the Islamic chants of prayer played over the PA.
We are just now coming to the end of the fasting month of Ramadan as I write this and working hours are shortened for those observing the fast and again shops and food outlets are essentially closed until after the evening Isha prayer time which is approx.. 9pm, so in a way, the country operates at half speed during this month. It is also forbidden for a non-muslim to eat or drink in public during this time in daylight hours and given that day time temperatures can regularly hit 50 here, I have spent much of the month indoors and are really looking forward to getting home in two days time outdoors time. Saudi’s essentially live a nocturnal existence during this month, with Iftar buffets at sunset, followed by shopping malls and restaurants opening to 2am and having breakfast before sunrise, they will typically sleep for teh early morning time and go to work for approx. 11am.

Saudi Women wearing the Abaya
The place of women of course is also unique here in the Kingdom and comes as a bit of a shock when you first arrive here. All women (including those from visiting countries) must wear the Abaya, and it is normal for Saudi women to also wear the Hijab covering their head and also their faces, typically all in black. Saudi men will wear their long white thobes and headwear known as Gutra or Shimaagh, but they unlike females, will also wear t-shirts , trousers and shorts, though there are guidelines regarding wearing shorts. It is also forbidden for women to drive here, therefore they must be driven everywhere.

Additionally, there is a strict segregation culture in place, so for example if you visit McDonald’s here (and they are everywhere !), you will see two entrances to the building, one for “Singles” which means Men essentially and the other for “Families”, which typically will be for women with their children and sometimes their father, husband or brothers. In shopping Malls you will see separate queues (see image) for Ladies and Gents, in some Malls, even particular floors are segregated for “Women only”. In these Malls, you will see the very best of Fashion outlets, from Gucci to Armani, however I am always puzzled as to when exactly they get to wear these impressive garments…..
Seperate Queues at McDonald's
Saudi’s are a friendly people with a laid-back nature, though at times may not possess the same sense of etiquette and social norms that we are accustomed to, however I’m sure they would say the same of our culture……
Saudi Arabia has an enormous  ex-pat population of over 5 million, which makes up almost a third of the total, these are primarily from Pakistan, India, Philipines and other Gulf countries. You will find that almost all jobs involving labour in this country will be done by a worker from one of these countries, there are also over 100,000 westerners like myself here who typically live in the many compounds in the suburbs of Riyadh, however some like us live in the city, typcially those who do not have their families with them. We live just off Jarir St. in the Al Malaz District in the South of the city, here on this street you will find everything from our local small corner shop run by an Indian , our local Laundry run by a Pakistani gentleman to the many restaurants and barber shops ran by Egyptians and Turks, It makes for a very interesting mix of people working and living here.
I head back to Ireland tomorrow night as the Eid-Ul-Fitr holiday begins here this weekend, I can’t wait to see Laura and the boys, Oisin is cycling since I was home last so looking forward to catching up with him and Daithi before they return to school in a few weeks and of course, the long awaited pint of plain…..