Playing Tourist: Impressions of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia during the Coronavirus
Could I enter Saudi Arabia as a political commentator?
In February 2020, I was nearing the end of my doctorate. It explored to what extent dictatorships could be defended in the face of the Arab Spring. After spending almost four years in Jordan, I’d returned with my wife to London for my thesis, having also lived in Turkey and Kuwait. I’d published articles critiquing Arab nationalism, been featured on Al Jazeera, and enjoyed countless other media appearances. In October 2018, I was even published by The Independent with an article on how Turkey’s Erdogan could exploit the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In September 2019, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had announced online tourist visas as part of Vision 2030. There was almost immediate criticism. Social media influencers tweeting their Saudi vacations received scathing comments. “Yeah,” tweeted one user, “let’s just forget about the discrimination against women, the lack of a few basic human rights, and the corruption. As long as they have beautiful tourist attractions, it doesn’t really matter, right?” Such backlash to Saudi Arabia’s PR efforts was echoed by Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. After the Jamal Khashoggi affair was linked to the Crown Prince himself, MbS was using tourism as part of a “strategy of rehabilitation in the face of public outrage around the world.” Soon after tourist visas were announced, The Washington Post reminded its readers that journalism and free expression were not welcome in Riyadh. “The kingdom is investing enormous amounts of time and money into efforts to whitewash its terrible record on press freedom. Human rights watchdogs aren’t convinced. If there were any genuine reforms, that would be a highly welcome development. In reality, the crackdown on civil society, and on independent voices, is fiercer than ever.”
It was my wife who suggested I apply for the tourist visa. “You should go,” she urged. “Just a week.”
I stared blankly at my thesis. My mind was racing, remembering other commentators and academics who were banned from the UAE.
“You’ve spent the past three years examining dictatorships,” she explained. “Distinguishing between politics and culture and governments and the people.”
I nodded, nervous.
“Saudi Arabia would be an experience. As an analyst, you’ll get to see it on the inside.”
I knew she was right. I also had one or two contacts in Saudi Arabia. Brief email exchanges eased my fears. “Don’t get political,” advised one colleague. “Other than that, you should be fine.” It was time to make a decision.
Applying for the tourist visa
The application took me thirty minutes. I entered my passport details and uploaded a suitable photo. Providing a hotel address meant that I had to buy my ticket and reserve accommodation before knowing if my visa would be approved. Finally, I paid the 463 SAR ($124) fee, which included visa processing and mandatory health insurance from a Saudi provider. Then, I waited. An auto-reply confirmed that my transaction had been processed. I took a breath. Would there be a background check? Would I go if I did get the visa? So many questions.
Three minutes. It took three minutes for my answer. A new message appeared from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The subject: Saudi tourism eVisa. I opened the contents, stared at the Saudi emblem: the date palm balanced atop two swords. “Dear Nicolai, we are glad to inform you that your application has been approved and your e-visa has been issued.”
Coronavirus in Saudi Arabia
I applied for my visa on February 26th. One day later, Saudi Arabia banned religious pilgrimage visas. On March 2nd, Riyadh reported its first case of infection. I was leaving for Riyadh in six days. By the time I was due to travel, four further cases were announced, bringing the total infections to 11. The UK, where I resided, had almost 300 by that time. The window to travel was closing. I decided to stick to my plan, unaware that just a week later Saudi Arabia would ban international flights.
It was night by the time we landed but from the air, Riyadh was alight. The green glow of mosques and the electric glimmer of skyscrapers. I snuck a photo and remembered the form all passengers were expected to complete for passport control. The forms issuing authority was the Saudi Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. I read the title: “HEALTH DECLARATION FORM”. At the bottom in all capitals: “HAND THIS APPLICATION TO THE PASSPORT OFFICER”. I requested a pen and began writing. The first question: “Were you in direct contact with a person who has been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?”
Watch my vlog on my Riyadh trip here.
After disembarking, it became clear that Saudi Arabia was reacting to the coronavirus spread. Large signs informed us of new procedures in English and Arabic. “Have you visited any of these countries, including transit flights?” asked one poster. “If so, please speak to a member of staff”. And in brackets: “This will not affect your entry into Saudi Arabia”. I joined a queue and observed how it snaked past an impressive water fountain. I resisted the temptation to retrieve my camera. As the queue moved, we passed what appeared to be an erected booth, curtained for medical examinations. Staff were seated ahead of us, one man operating a large infrared thermometer. I prepared my passport and my health form as two figures began directing our queue. They wore disposable gloves and spoke from behind tight surgical masks. This was not yet passport control but an additional checkpoint. I handed over my documents. The pages of my passport were thumbed through with care. “Have you travelled anywhere in the last 14 days?”
“No,” I replied.
“Where are you coming from?”
“London.” I was aware that a week before, Saudi Arabia had issued a list of countries suffering from coronavirus outbreaks. Nationals from such countries would not have their tourist visas honoured and were banned from the kingdom. I had checked the list nightly for updates. Italy remained the only European country on the list.
I was handed my passport and quickly cleared customs. A dry warmth greeted me as I was accosted by a driver. “Taxi?” he asked. I smiled. It was time to switch to Arabic.
It was past 11 pm when I arrived. The receptionist was friendly enough as she took my passport details. “One more form,” she explained. It featured a blue stamp with Saudi Arabia’s emblem. “Just sign at the bottom.”
I glanced at the statements I was agreeing to. I agree to abide by the moral behaviour code of the kingdom during my stay.
I scratched my initials in blue ink. As it turned out, this would not be the last such form I’d be signing. By the end of my first day, another form would take my fingerprints.
Saudi Arabia’s tourism angle: Cultural heritage
I had planned my itinerary as carefully as I could. As I would discover after arriving in Riyadh, not all of its treasures were ready for tourism. Infrastructure was lacking or not fully accessible, despite such cultural sites being advertised heavily in media and in the in-flight magazine I’d perused. Nonetheless, it became clear from my initial research that the government wanted to sell natural landscapes and history previously inaccessible to (Western) tourists. I had about five days to explore and wanted to focus on what political-historical narrative the government wanted to emphasize to the outside world.
This meant visiting landmarks and museums, with the latter often being vessels for governments to promote their version of historical events and construct a specific narrative of nationalism. This has certainly been my experience when visiting the Gulf, in which some museums present a narrative of national unity made possible only through a specific leader or his family, with such elements merged with religion to create a narrative of political legitimacy. Such a narrative argues that a ruler or ruling family has always been the best choice (even if not elected) due to their representation of national traditions/customs, ability to ward off external threats and their piety in predominantly Muslim culture. I was curious to discover if Riyadh would push such a narrative.
From this background of political legitimacy and understanding the Saudi narrative of cultural heritage, I created my itinerary: day one would be spent visiting al-Diriyah, the former capital of the first Saudi state. I would then spend the afternoon at the Kingdom Centre, Riyadh’s famous skyscraper also known as the ‘bottle opener’ for its unique shape, with a skybridge overlooking the Saudi capital 99 floors above the city. Day two would be focussed on the National Museum of Saudi Arabia and the proximate Murabba Palace, a former royal residence of the late King Abdul Aziz. Day three would be reserved for Masmak Fort, a 19th-century compound captured by Abdul Aziz in 1902 as he consolidated the Saudi state. In addition, I wanted to indulge in my love of Arab culture. Living in Jordan and traveling across the Gulf had given me a liking for Arab perfumes, with most major production in either Oman or Saudi Arabia. Now was the time to explore perfumeries that started in Mecca but have spread to London and Paris. Visits to such cultural spots and local souqs would complete my itinerary. It was going to be an intense week.
Day One: A tale of two capitals
Al-Diriyah has been promoted as a hub of the past and the present. Saudi outlets have described the historical landmark as a “gem of history” yet also the “gateway to [the] future of Saudi Arabia.” An article in February 2020 emphasized how the former capital was becoming a hub for the prominence of Saudi Arabia’s female youth. The Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) oversees al-Diriyah’s tourist development and employment, drawing on predominantly female staff to “empower Saudi women and to have them as confident leaders taking the reins.”
As I was to learn once inside Saudi Arabia, access to promoted landmarks did not always match the image of openness. Upon arrival, the staff was sparse but welcoming. I took out my camera and began to explore, heading for the ruins of the former capital. They were surrounded by a quiet oasis, gardens, and a gentle waterfall that seemed to be a public park. There appeared to be some locals. I approached the ruins of Saad bin Saud palace and followed the path to the entrance. Closed gates greeted me. A security guard was smiling from the other side.
“Can I see the ruins?” I asked.
“It’s closed,” he replied. I appreciated the genuine warmth in his voice as he broke the news.
I concentrated on my Arabic. “When will it be open?” I tried. “Anytime this or next week?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe this week, maybe next week. Don’t know when.”
We bade each other farewell as I swallowed my disappointment. I walked away and tried to follow the path to get a better view of the palace from outside the closed gates. It had been a while since I’d traveled alone to a new country. In my travels across the Middle East, Arabic had opened so many cultures. It had shown me hospitality, and it was this friendliness that I now focussed on. Even the bearer of bad news could feel like a friend in a culture that valued social relationships and a sense of community. I snapped photos absent-mindedly, considering the contrast between the closed ruins and the image of openness, the conservative feel of Riyadh, and the hospitality. A police car drove past as I focussed my camera. It stopped.
Excuse me, are you taking photos?
The police officer wore sunglasses and a well-groomed beard. “Excuse me,” he asked, “are you taking photos?”
“I’m taking photos of the palace,” I tried to explain.
He waved and drove off.
Perhaps I should turn back, I thought. I’d recorded some videos for my YouTube channel. I had enough for one day. But as it turned out, the police had not had enough of me. A black SUV pulled up. Another uniformed officer alighted, carrying a more formal look. He was clad in black with white stars on his shoulders. A thick pistol was holstered against his waist. “Are you taking photos?”
I tried to be polite and nodded.
He reached for his walkie-talkie. His Arabic was too fast for me to decipher. Static. A reply. He turned to me. “Do you have your passport?” he asked calmly.
I could feel some panic in my throat. “My passport’s at the hotel,” I admitted. I swung my backpack to the ground and began searching. “But I have a copy of my visa.”
The officer smiled and examined it. Back to the walkie-talkie.
I waited and steadied my breath.
“Come with me, please.” He opened the car door.
As it turned out, one of the buildings I’d photographed was not part of the ruins but a base for the Saudi Royal Police. Its wooden doors and stone façade allowed it to conveniently blend in with the historical district. For my part, I had not so conveniently missed a sign that clearly stated photography was prohibited in this specific area of al-Diriyah. We walked through a pair of tall gates and entered an office. My escort saluted his counterpart, sat behind a wide desk. We shook hands. I decided it was best to switch to English.
“It’s my first time in Saudi Arabia,” I began. “I really want to try kabse.” I knew this was a Saudi dish, my wife’s favourite served with chicken or lamb and fragrant rice.
He smiled. I hoped I wasn’t in too much trouble. “You should try Romansiah,” he replied. “They have good kabse.”
I nodded as he stood. “Please follow this man to the other office.” We shook hands again.
By now, my anxiety was more manageable. I want to stress how polite the officers were. I was genuinely convinced they were just doing their jobs to make sure my story of being a tourist checked out.
In the next room, I again shook hands with new friends. I provided a copy of my e-visa. My escort approached. “Would you like coffee? Nespresso?” I smiled and nodded.
Hospitality did not mean that I was off the hook, but it did remind me that I was not a prisoner.
The elder officer in front of me looked at his computer. “Passport?” I froze a little. “I don’t have it with me. But I have a photo on my phone.”
That seemed good enough. “Send it to me on WhatsApp.” We exchanged numbers. I saved my new friend under the name ABC. As I sipped the Nespresso, I tried to relax.
“You speak Arabic?” my escort enquired, as I’d started our conversation in Arabic.
“Yes,” I confirmed. At least we had something to talk about other than my forbidden photos! “I lived in Jordan for a few years.”
“Where?” he wondered.
“Amman.” I tried to keep the conversation flowing. “I also tried to visit other places in Jordan.”
“Did you visit Zarqa?” he prodded. I knew why he asked. Zarqa was a conservative city. It was one of the flashpoints that Jihadi groups would target for recruitment. A 2016 survey revealed that almost 5% of Jordanian youth in Zarqa claimed ISIS represented their personal convictions. The real question he wanted to address was, had I been radicalized during my time in Jordan?
“No,” I smiled. “I visited Aqaba by the Red Sea and also the Dead Sea.”
He seemed satisfied. Thankfully, so did his colleague across from me as he typed and prepared to print a document.
“Okay,” my escort said. He handed me the document. “We need to take your fingerprints.”
“And if you can just sign here.”
I picked up the pen and hesitated. “W-what exactly am I signing?”
My escort pointed gently to the paper. “It’s just a statement that you acknowledge you took prohibited photos and that you won’t do it again.”
One of the other officers was examining my camera. I’d bought it for its compact size and touch screen. It was specifically designed for travel vlogging. As the officer rotated it in his hand, I caught myself wishing it had a more conventional look, rather than the appearance of something that could be hidden.
I signed the paper and was walked out of the compound. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” I explained.
My escort smiled and pointed to the large sign next to the building. There was a camera cut in half by a thick red line. He laughed and patted me on the shoulder. “Go,” he waved.
I went back the way I came. A short while later, the same SUV rolled past, windows down. The officer waved at me. “Enjoy Saudi Arabia, okay?”
I let out a laugh of relief as he sped past. I had just survived my first instance of culture shock in Riyadh.
History versus modernity
Under MbS, some argue that change is coming to Saudi Arabia. That Saudi Arabia is a conservative culture being modernized by a young Crown Prince willing to challenge traditional politics. I pondered this notion as I left the ruins of al-Diriyah and we returned to the city centre with its glass skyscrapers, testaments of modern oil wealth. My driver began asking the usual questions. “Where are you from? Is it your first time in Saudi Arabia?”
When I switched to Arabic, I felt our conversation changed. I listened as he began discussing MbS without any prodding from me.
“I do believe he is changing this country,” the man said. “He is closer to the younger generation and is bringing the change that youth want.” I found myself listening intently. “A generation ago, my parents would be closed-minded, using religion as an excuse. My uncle would say women shouldn’t work as it’s against Islam. Or my parents would say their children shouldn’t study abroad as it’s against Islam. That’s changing.”
I was surprised to find such praise of MbS. But this is exactly why I’d come here. To meet the people and get a variety of perspectives. I was curious whether my driver was aware of MbS’ international reputation. It was best not to ask.
It was time to visit the skybridge. How ironic that Saudi Arabia’s tourism board wanted to emphasize cultural heritage sights, yet it was from a glass skyscraper that I would get the best views of Riyadh. At almost 100 stories above the city, what stood out the most was not historical landmarks but modern constructs, rising out of trafficked roads and towering above sand-coloured buildings. The effect of looming glass set against beige houses was almost that of a mirage. As if skyscrapers had risen out of a desert.
Day Two: MbS’ national narrative
As luck would have it, the National Museum of Saudi Arabia and Murabba Palace were in close proximity to each other. As with al-Diriyah, however, opening times were an issue. I’d visited a perfumery in the morning and expected that Murabba Palace would be open in the early afternoon. By 2 pm, I’d arrived at the King Abdul Aziz complex. The heat was getting to me. And Murabba Palace was closed. “Come back at 6 pm,” a guard advised. I left the air-conditioned reception and wandered through the park. Opposite a small pond stood an imposing glass institute. I entered and read the sign. I was in the National Museum and it was open.
The Museum encompassed two levels, with galleries split across different themes. These included the creation of the universe as a divine act, the history of writing across Arabia, and pre-Islamic kingdoms. What struck me was the focus on religion across most galleries. Two themes were paramount across most galleries: nationalism through resistance of an external other and how Islam replaced disparate religious systems with one political unity and also united separate tribes. Of note was the eventual absorption of separate pre-Islamic kingdoms into Saudi Arabia itself.
Connecting with the emphasis of al-Diriyah are galleries on the first and second Saudi states that predate modern Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the gallery interior even replicates walls from the ruins I attempted to access. In a sense, this allows the gallery to connect past and present to create the notion that Saudi rule has been continuous, from the first Saudi state all the way to modern Riyadh. Adding to this continuity are galleries that discuss expansion of the Saudi state, including into the region known as Hejaz. From 1916 to 1925, this region was ruled by the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan until its conquest by Ibn Saud. The Hashemite history of the Hejaz does not seem to be discussed in Saudi Arabia’s National Museum, returning to the notion of a monopolized narrative that presents continuous Saudi rule.
Religious galleries are certainly the most extensive, with the Museum’s final gallery entitled “Hajj: Journey of a Lifetime”. In it are items from Mecca and Medina. More impressively, the gallery features scaled and lit models of Mecca’s Sacred Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. A final section discusses the management of Hajj as a form of crowd control for one of the biggest annual gatherings in the world, especially as Islam has seen converts expanding the religion. The Hajj gallery emphasizes Saudi Arabia’s religious legitimacy. Articles from Mecca such as an original Kaaba cloth that has draped the building at the centre of Islam’s holiest mosque, along with visually stunning scale models of mosques from Mecca and Medina not only allow non-Muslims to vicariously visit holy sites, but act as interactive reminders that Saudi Arabia controls such religious territory, with the House of Saud Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques. By weaving a narrative of religion creating political unity under Saudi rule, the National Museum constructs an uninterrupted history of Saudi administration that expanded Islam across what is now the Gulf to ensure political and religious stability. It is the ability of Saudi Arabia’s rulers to maintain religious legitimacy and Saudi history as a unitary force through Islam that has ensured continuous rule. This is the constructed narrative of the Saudi State, with little regard to the reality of ruling through oil.
Murabba Palace echoes mud architecture found in Yemen, a country which boasts historical landmarks almost 1,000 years old. Murabba Palace was built in 1937, 5 years after the founding of modern Saudi Arabia. More recently, the palace hosted Donald Trump for his May 2017 visit, during which he was treated to a sword dance by his host King Salman. Again, there was a contrast between modern and historical, with the 80-year-old palace to be found close to the glass structures and shops of modern Riyadh. By the evening, the dry heat was getting to me. Entering walkways across Murabba Palace provided some relief, as the mudbrick possessed a cooling effect that I was only too happy to experience. Photography was prohibited inside. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the palace has a central gallery dedicated to King Abdul Aziz, founder of modern Saudi Arabia, with displays showcasing military uniforms of the Abdul Aziz era. A reminder, perhaps that the unification of Saudi Arabia and its transformation into a modern state was accomplished through the conquest of disparate tribal and regional powers.
As I walked to the main road for my Uber driver, I spotted a billboard advertising the new Riyadh Metro. It was scattered with sand. I winced at the tingling at my neck, which I knew was from the heat. I couldn’t imagine taking any transport right now other than a car. Feeling tired, I wasn’t sure if I could give directions in Arabic. Three drivers canceled on me when I told them I couldn’t speak it. Finally, my car arrived. We made a brief conversation. “You know, all the schools are closed because of coronavirus.”
I nodded, breathing in cooled air. I remembered I’d hoped to find a shisha bar now that I was back in the Middle East. I turned to my driver. “Do you know any good shisha cafes close to my hotel?”
He shook his head. “They’re all closed. They’re popular, always crowded. Another way for coronavirus to spread.”
Day Three: Heat exhaustion and avoiding hospital
From my second day, I always ended each evening with a warm forehead and felt warm in general, as if I was coming down with the flu and was on the verge of having a fever. I hadn’t even thought about how many hours I’d spent in the sun, as most landmarks I wanted to see were outside. Today was no exception, and I planned to visit Souq Al-Thumairi to purchase a traditional Saudi dagger or khanjar before heading to proximate Masmak Fortress. Souq al-Thumairi is described by fashion and lifestyle outlet CP Magazine as a traditional shopping experience with “little cosy streets, [an] authentic and old souq located in the historical part of the city.” Despite my driver assuring me the Souq was close to where he stopped, I got lost and wandered around, my lips dry and my throat clenched. I walked through and past various governmental buildings, uniformed officers, and eventually found my way to what I hoped was the traditional shopping experience I’d been looking for. It was indeed local. Though some vendors were Pakistani, the majority of them and their customers were Saudi. I spotted one gentleman clutching a newly-purchased sword, the kind used in the dance that welcomed Trump to Riyadh. With a heavy police presence, I did not feel comfortable filming.
“I’m looking for a khanjar,” I explained to one vendor. He pointed to a selection, some sheathed in aged leather, others with silver detailing. I chose a piece, focusing on the emblem. “Is this Saudi?”
I paid and smiled to myself, knowing that the emblem on the khanjar was Omani, not Saudi. I’d always wanted to return to Muscat.
Masmak Fort: Another symbol of conquest
Masmak Fort mimics Murabba Palace in architectural style and build. Constructed in 1865, it was captured from a rival clan by Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal al Saud in 1902. Under the al Saud flag, it became another operation base for the unification of Saudi Arabia. As with the National Museum, religion continues to dominate, albeit in a softened tone. Ibn Wahhab, founder of the conservative Wahhabist doctrine of Islam is discussed by a British narrator blaring through loudspeakers. Despite Wahhabism being described by critics as “a brutal method of religious and social control,” the voice of the grandfatherly Brit assures us that Ibn Wahhab was a ‘religious reformer’ who aided the House of Saud in ensuring religious stability. This narrative is a reminder that MbS is facing a tug of war between the conservative core of Saudi political history and creating an image of openness to maximize tourism. This contrast was addressed as early as 2015 by a New York Times article on Masmak Fortress, with the heading “Saudis Turn Birthplace of Wahhabism Ideology Into Tourist Hotspot”.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the Fort has a gallery displaying photos of world leaders who have toured its walls. They include Jacques Chirac of France, the Sultan of Brunei, Australia’s Governor-General Michael Jeffrey, and King Juan Carlos I of Spain. A final gallery features other photos, far larger and imposing. They are portraits of the Saudi royal family. At the centre stands Mohammed bin Salman. As I exit, I can’t help but recall a quote from an earlier display by King Abdul Aziz: “I have conquered this country with nothing but the power of faith and the power of tawheed (monotheism).”
Who are the ‘real’ Arabs?
My second driver of the day is wearing a surgical mask. He rubs his hands well with sanitizer. As he offers it to me, I can smell the alcohol. He is impressed with my Arabic, and we begin to chat about Arab dialects.
“Why did you learn Arabic in Jordan?” he wonders.
I placed my palm on the aircon. “My wife’s from Jordan,” I proudly declared. “Plus, I wanted to study Arabic in a country where I could understand Arab culture.”
He shook his head. “Jordan isn’t Arab.” He adjusted his mask and held up two fingers. “We had Arabia. Now, we have Saudi Arabia and Yemen.” He counted them off. “Those are the birthplaces of the true Arabs.” He looked at me. “You’re speaking to me in Fusha, the same dialect as from the Q’uran. This is the true Arab language, and it originates from Arabia.”
I smiled. Each cab ride was a lesson in linguistics and culture.
“What about dialects?”
He turned his wheel. “That all came after Fusha. It’s not original Arabic. But in the Gulf, we have dialects that have common traits.” He waved a hand. “Yemeni Arabic is spoken by some Saudis. We have a lot of Yemenis in Saudi Arabia working various jobs, they’re the most common. And even in Saudi Arabia, the dialect can vary from region to region.”
I nodded and thought of my time in Jordan. “In Jordan,” I proffered, “some towns still use the Ottoman term lire instead of dinar.”
“You see? Each country has regional variations.” His eyes drifted to my wrapped khanjar. I detected a smile underneath his mask. “No one in Riyadh wears khanjars,” he pointed out. “Only outside Riyadh.” He hesitated. “The exception is that shop owners know they can sell them to tourists.”
We shared a laugh.
I feel dizzy. I think I might throw up.
Riyadh Gallery was a comfortable mall, offering Saudi trinkets, Arabic coffee, and air conditioning. The latter was doing nothing to soothe my headache or the knot in my stomach. I drained my third bottle of water, ice-cold. I couldn’t breathe. I was nauseous. Not since living in Jordan had I suffered from heat exhaustion. When my wife and I had visited Aqaba, the heat had crept up on me. We’d arrived in the afternoon. By the evening, my skin was burning and my muscles were cramped. My wife had taken me to the hospital, where an intravenous drip rehydrated me in less than thirty minutes.
As my wife called, I gasped for breath. I needed to go to a hospital. “Arwa,” I answered. “I have heat exhaustion. I feel dizzy. I think I might throw up.” I coughed.
“Are you inside, somewhere with aircon?”
“Yeah, but I think I should go to a hospital.”
“No,” she replied gently. “You can’t.”
I panted. “What?”
“They’re tracking new cases of coronavirus. If you go to a hospital saying you feel warm, what if you’re quarantined?”
I hadn’t even thought of it.
“Just go back to the hotel. Have a cold shower and drink as much cold water as you can.”
“O-okay.” I hung up and started thinking. Ignoring the pulsing pain in my head, I went downstairs and straight to a pharmacy. “I need electrolyte powder,” I explained to a staff member. “For dehydration.”
He reacted quickly, grabbing an orange carton from behind. “Each box has five sachets.”
“I’ll take two boxes.”
I was panting as I paid. He packed my goods and helped me with my bags to the door. Of all the things I love in the Middle East, it’s the empathy and kindness of strangers.
“Be careful,” he said. “You look unwell.”
I rushed to the bathroom and mixed two sachets into a 1.5 litre bottle, drinking it as fast as I could. With each sip, I felt a rush through the veins in my head. The dizziness was fading. The experience was a sober reminder that Riyadh was not cloudy London. If you visit as a tourist, be aware that most landmarks are outdoors. Saudi heat can be hostile.
On the day of prayer, Mecca is silent
Friday was youm al-jumaa or the day of prayer. Most places would not be open until the afternoon. After a late breakfast, I returned to my room and browsed the TV channels. Mecca’s Sacred Mosque flashed across the screen. I was used to seeing such footage on Fridays in Jordan. Crowds would fill the Mosque. The Kaaba at its centre would be encircled by foreign and local worshipers. But not today. Watching the live broadcast felt so surreal. Crowds sat and listened to the sermon but were separated by barriers. Some wore surgical masks. As the camera cut to other sections, the crowds transformed into scarce blots. And apart from three figures, the area around the Kaaba was empty.
I remembered my conversation with a driver the other night. He’d been excited when I explained I’d entered on a tourist visa. “All tourists should be able to visit Mecca,” he insisted. “If I can visit the Vatican, anyone who is interested in the history of Saudi Arabia and Islam should be able to see the Sacred Mosque.”
Saudi Arabia had already banned the entry of foreign Muslims to Mecca. Within days of my visit, even local Muslims would be unable to pray in the Prophet’s Mosque of Medina or Mecca’s Sacred Mosque. MbS may have hoped to open his kingdom to the world, but with the spread of coronavirus, Saudi Arabia was quickly reversing reforms.
Leaving before lockdown
I re-read my father’s text from a few days ago.
“Norway is shutting its borders. Nicolai, I suggest you get on the earliest flight out of there. Don’t wait until Saturday.”
I had assured my father that I’d be able to leave as planned. Now I was at the airport checking in. At 3 am, there was little rush. The queue for baggage drop moved steadily. As I reached a staff member, my eyes drifted to the screen above.
“The new coronavirus. What are its signs and symptoms? Methods of prevention.”
After dropping off my luggage, I needed breakfast. But before touching any food, I needed to wash my hands.
I had filmed throughout my week in Saudi Arabia, trying to be discreet. I couldn’t help but feel stared at, even without the camera. When I spoke Arabic at malls, I felt that I belonged. Yet, at times when I switched to English; a call from my mother or a friend, I felt stares from those around. I hardly saw any Westerners during my time in Riyadh.
The exception was one or two Americans at the Kingdom Centre. It was obvious from their shirts and ties that they were here on business. With my summer pants and a T-shirt, it was obvious that I had no business in Saudi Arabia. And those stares enquired, without words. What was I doing here?
The majority of my interactions with locals were friendly yet limited to Uber drivers and receptionists. Of those, many were likely Yemeni rather than Saudi. In addition, there were many Asian expats who had come to the kingdom for work. At Starbucks, I engaged with a Pakistani employee in fluent Arabic before we switched to English.
“I studied Arabic in Jordan,” I explained.
He smiled. “I learned Arabic from my colleagues. They’re all Yemeni, so I ended up speaking the Yemeni dialect.”
Sometimes I felt welcome, sometimes I didn’t. Either way, it was time to go home.
Riyadh’s King Khaled Airport was modern, organized, and calm. Things were not so upon landing for transit in Jeddah at King Abdul Aziz Airport. Arrivals were quiet enough. Yet, upon entering International Departures, I was overcome by the buzz of crowds. More disconcerting was the crackle of departure announcements, which sounded like they were coming from a 1950’s speaker. A small shop offered religious souvenirs, a reminder of Jeddah’s proximity to Mecca. Indeed, I suspected that many passengers had arrived for Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca before coronavirus had frozen religious visas. I jostled my way through the crowd and found the bathroom, floors muddy and wet. There were three Brits in front of me, long-bearded and wearing the traditional dish-dasha or robe appreciated by many Muslim men on the day of prayer. No doubt they had come to visit the source of their faith. One attempted to wash his hands with care. His friends discussed their trip with frustration. “This is supposed to be an international airport,” one shouted. “All that oil wealth and the bathrooms aren’t clean?”
As it turned out, King Abdul Aziz Airport was rated by some outlets as one of the worst airports of 2019. “Most survey respondents discourage anyone from spending time in this airport,” one critic emphasized. “[Y]et its prominent role in the Hajj pilgrimage makes this unavoidable for many travelers.”
If anything, flying through Jeddah was a sobering reminder of Saudi Arabia’s image of religion versus what it actually spends oil money on. Perhaps the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques know that pilgrims will come to Mecca anyway. While religious legitimacy is emphasized in Riyadh’s National Museum, Saudi Arabia pours its money into military might, outspending all but Oman in terms of GDP expenditure on defence in 2019. It must be noted, however, that Saudi Arabia’s defence budget has been shrinking since 2016. In 2019, military spending was prioritized above healthcare. No doubt coronavirus may force such priorities to change.
The future of MBS’ Saudi Arabia
The day after my return to London, Saudi Arabia announced the suspension of all international flights. Who knows when any of us will be traveling anywhere again? Because of coronavirus, MbS is seeing a de facto reform reversal. Less than two years after Saudi Arabia welcomed cinemas they were shuttered along with cafes and other social spaces, not because of the return of conservative ideology but the spread of a virus that has even infected Saudi royals. Riyadh is closing up again, along with the rest of the world. MbS will now be judged not on his ability to connect with Saudi youth but on how he handles a pandemic that is both global yet very local. Both MbS and King Salman have responded to the outbreak by retreating into self-isolation. Saudis will remember this reaction more than they will remember the promises of Vision 2030.