I was quite surprised how easy my business visit to Riyadh was. Apart from committing a couple faux-pas of sitting at the Male Singles’ section a couple of times at the hotel restaurant and having to be reminded to enter Starbucks through the left door to Family section, everything else was smooth.
No one bothered me wandering around alone. Many males courteously talked to me to discuss business. No one balked in taking me in their taxi or uber though I was alone without a “mehram” (male guardian; someone you are not allowed to marry is the direct translation, if I am not mistaken).
My understanding is females older than 45 years old can easily travel all over Saudi Arabia without a male guardian. Otherwise, this is only acceptable in places like Riyadh and Jeddah (where the people is even more relaxed and open-minded than Riyadh). I was told there is no longer religious police in Riyadh.
Riyadh is full of American and Canadian fast food joints. The shops around my hotel are totally high end. Harvey Nichols in Al Faishalia mall. Fauchon, Tiffany’s and Cartier in Kingdom Mall. Chaumet and Audemars Piguet on Thalia Street. Surprisingly though, I found things to be cheaper in Riyadh than in Dubai.
In Riyadh, I did not see any point of interests, outside of the shopping scene. So a return trip as proper tourist is on the bucket list. Hopefully by then, the government would have made the visa for tourism more available and cheaper (my business visa would have cost 850 singapore dollars).
There are things to look forward to. Things are slowly changing. Three years ago, I asked a business contact for an invitation to visit Saudi. His response was if I come with my father or brother than he would give me one. A few months ago, I requested the same, his response was he would try. This year, the government is working towards achieving their Vision 2030 and that was why I had the chance to be here. I was told that on New Year’s eve, people were allowed onto Thalia Street (main shopping street) to celebrate, accompanied by a DJ playing. They even danced on the street after the countdown. Slew of cinemas will be opened soon after so many years, and Black Panther will make history as the first movie screened in Saudi Arabia. After the Eid holiday in June, women will be allowed to drive!
In other parts of Saudi though, like the holy city of Medina, a black abaya with headscarf is a must for me. I was told it was unnecessary for our business program in Riyadh, but the moment they knew I was going to Medina, I was advised to get an abaya. As a matter of fact I was prepared and was planning to wear abaya for my whole trip. I believe it is more polite to respect their traditions, and it draws less attention to oneself.
Wearing an abaya is not without its challenges, though. Going to do the necessary suddenly faces more impediments. One needs to grasp the abaya and lift a little bit on escalators. One needs to worry about the headscarf flaying about. In my case, it would not even stay on my head. One needs to grasp the sleeve edges while taking food or washing hands. A couple of times I stepped on my own abaya while getting up and getting out of the car. The whole buttons got unsnapped. Luckily I wore proper clothes inside. I cannot imagine wearing this in the summer. I went in April when the temperature was still a comfortable 27-30 degrees, and I felt that I was going to faint in the car. The air conditioning was too low and I wore an abaya on top of a long sleeved, thin, cotton t-shirt. It has been a great experience though.
Medina is more traditional and conservative. I cannot get closed to the holy Mosque. We encountered big buses full of pilgrims completing their Umroh on the roads. All the tourist attractions are Holy Muslim sites, which cannot be entered by Non-Muslims. To be able to sit together for lunch with a male contact, we have to go to a Western restaurant. Since my host is an easily recognizable person there, we did not even enter the restaurant together because it would be awkward if someone he knew saw us.
Visiting both Riyadh and Medina gave me contrasting experiences. The former it is about looking at the future where the only sure thing is constant change. The latter is about guardianship of one of Islam’s holiest site and maintaining its traditions.