I’ve had lots of business trips to the Gulf region lately. I recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia. For various reasons, I was dreading this trip more than some others. Now that I’m back home, I have to admit the trip was more pleasant than I thought it might be.
Visiting Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is not an easy place to visit, but thanks to my employer I now have a 5 year visa. Yikes! For a short time there were plans to open the country up to tourists, by offering tourist visas. This only lasted a short time before being cancelled. Currently, tourist visas are only granted for visiting family/friends. In other words, a local sponsor is needed. There have been some reports that this could change again, but as of now, there are no easy options. With the exceptions of religious visitors for the Hajj, there is no way to get a visa without a sponsor. Transit visas are possible for some people, but currently not for US citizens.
Upon arrival, I was directed to a special line for first time visitors to the country. A photo and fingerprints are taken. There was also a number written into my passport opposite the full-page visa, and near the entry stamp. I’m not sure what that was for. This process took a few minutes, and presumably if I return, I can go to the standard ‘foreigner’ line at passport control.
Unique culture in Saudi Arabia
My trip to Saudi Arabia was for business, and thanks to some very hospitable local colleagues, I had a pleasant time during my stay in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is a unique place in many ways. It is strange to be out in public and to basically see no women. I saw women in my hotel, and most of the people I worked with were female. But for example in restaurants, there are separate entry points for “singles”, i.e. men, and another for families. Once inside, there is no mixing of the groups. All of my meals were with male colleagues, and all staff and guests were male. It was a unique experience.
I have several friends who spent time in the Kingdom as children. I got some feedback from them, so I had some idea what to expect. From what I can tell taking to them, and to locals i worked with, while things are still very traditional, many things are changing in Saudi Arabia. Still, all females must have a male chaperone, and wear a black abaya (covering everything but the head) in public places. I dressed in normal business/business casual attire. I think shorts above the knees would be a no go in public, although I went to/from the hotel gym in workout attire with no issues.
Didn’t I get thirsty?
The country is officially totally dry, with some exceptions in diplomatic areas. I am an occasional drinker, and I thought not having the option of a drink for my whole trip would be annoying, but honestly, it was not an issue. I drink tea frequently, and that was readily available, and Pepsi products (not Coke) are nearly ubiquitous. The hotel I stayed in had both Bud NA and some bottled mojito mocktail available, but I didn’t partake in either. As is common in the region, fresh juices are plentiful.
Food was tasty, we had some excellent shawarma, and various other Middle Eastern options. We also had some tasty Indian food one evening. Nearly every western chain restaurant is available in Saudi Arabia, and it appeared that there are as many Starbucks in Riyadh as in Seattle.
A few hours as a tourist in Riyadh
Riyadh is the national capital, largest city, and more or less in the middle of the country. I visited in April, and already daytime temperatures were in the upper 30s (~100 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day. I’m glad to not to visit there mid-summer. One evening we went to the top of the Kingdom Centre, the tallest building in Riyadh, and 3rd tallest in the country, at 992 feet. From there, there is a long skybridge with views all over the city.
After the tower, we went to a traditional Saudi restaurant. The plan was to eat camel meat, but apparently they sold out for the day, so we had lamb instead. While I’ll try most any food once, I wasn’t too upset with this…
Final thoughts on my trip to Saudi Arabia
While I still have mixed feelings about the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is somewhat different than the other gulf countries I visited. There are a lot of foreign workers, but there is also a large native population. I don’t agree with many of the restrictions that women are subject to, and the often poor treatment of foreign workers, but the people I interacted with were warm. Hospitality is part of the culture. As an example, one night at a restaurant, an adjacent table was finishing their meal, and they insisted I try their fries with was a spicy garlic sauce. It took some back and forth to figure out what it was due to translation difficulties for ‘garlic’.
As is common in the region, many foreign workers are from South and Southeast Asia, and English is widely spoken. With all of my travels to the area, I’m picking up some Arabic, but only minimal words, since most business is conducted in English. I’m in no rush to return to the Kingdom, but I expect to be back before too long. If I return, I’d like to visit a different area, especially the Red Sea coast for some diving, and there is of course the Park Hyatt in Jeddah. We shall see.