0 to 1: Being One of the First Tourists to Saudi Arabia

My Brother and I soaking in Saudi Hospitality

I spent eight days in “Barricade City”, a.k.a. Riyadh, a.k.a. “Oasis”, a.k.a. the capital city (and birthplace) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). In March 2019 Saudi was on the cusp of progressive transition via the “2030 Challenge”. My visit was on a government Visa as a Design / UX Mentor through the 500 Startups accelerator for MENA (Middle East and North Africa). The Country was not perfect, there wasn’t an abundance of things to do, but I really surprised myself how much I enjoyed my time here.

Barricade City

Photo by Peter Dowley

Saudi is a place where playing music at restaurants was only legalized in January 2019, their tourist visa program also just started in 2019 (previously only muslim pilgrims could visit) and most people in public are wearing traditional clothing (Thawb and Niqab). There is incredible construction and cultural deregulation going on to meet the “2030 challenge” to make the KSA the next Dubai / UAE.

Judging by the amount of fancy restaurants, Saudi is on its way to be the next Dubai

Driving around may require five u-turns due to the ever present red and white striped barricades lining the highways. However, you do get to look at intricate modern architecture on the way. Not to mention the dozens of empty skyscrapers and large building complexes constructed in anticipation of a ravenous tourism and international business industry. It is a car-city that is difficult to walk around, therefore they are literally building a new downtown.

All these buildings are part of the new downtown construction
Up close you can see no lives in, works at or visits any of these buildings

Living here, everything feels very defensible with a minimum of 8 ft tall walls around most structures. I stayed in a western compound featuring military-defensible features like entrances involving small holding spaces between 1+ inch thick steel outer and interior doors, barbed wire topping 10 ft walls, massive gates that would fit a tank and a quarter mile long walled vehicle exit down what I would describe as a “kill-shoot”. However, the only time I actually saw guns was entering through a checkpoint for the Diplomatic Quarter of the city. Aside from regional conflict, crime is very low to due harsh punishments and I didn’t feel unsafe.

The ‘kill-shoot’ exiting the compound
A friendly reminder from your neighborhood compound security

Along with my 500 Startups crew, were three types of foreign nationals living in the compound with us:

  • Security contractors doing everything from training to maintenance
  • NGO professionals
  • People involved in the construction of the city’s first transit system they hope to complete within five years

Saudi Culture

Every time I visit the Middle East I become aware of the “sexualized west”. Abayas are required for women outside of compounds, most women over 30 are wearing full Niqab covering everything but the eyes. Most men/women wear identical, loose, long sleeved, nondescript clothes that hide any shapes or curves underneath. There is very little physical stimulus outside the manicans wearing typical skin-showing western-styles. Apparently, status-minded Saudi women still wear the best fashions to women-only parties, when abayas are not required.

Even with these restrictions and the watchful eyes of the casual, meandering, unarmed ‘cultural police’ discouraging communication between genders. Like in Jursassic Park, “Youth will find a way”. Look at any young Saudi’s snapchat and you will see plenty of mixed-gender discussions, shared pictures without an abaya and circumnavigation of religious restrictions at apartments rented like ski-leases by several friends and kept secret from the family.

Entrance to the compound

Unsurprisingly, there is an active black market in a country where alcohol is completely illegal and VPN applications and western clothing sites are blocked by the government. Many young Saudis drink alcohol, but when it costs 5x western prices on the black market at $35 a beer… its not quite the same party (or quantity) as U.S. college campuses. Illegal things are done exclusively in these secret apartments as crime penalties are very high, with up to 6 mo. in prison for having marijuana / hash.

Budweiser. Alcohol not included.

The shisha, hubbly bubbly or hookah so core to many Arab nation’s communal culture are present in music-less establishments with small barriers between the hundreds of TV-adorned rooms. However, purchasing your own tobacco for private use is discouraged, therefore hard to acquire. Gaining entrance to one of these shisha establishments as a woman is near impossible. Without clubs, music, alcohol or shisha everyone goes to the mall.

It takes more than religious police to stop the cross-gender shisha and western music!!!
(…when you hide it inside someone’s room at a Western compound)

Mall-culture is not the only U.S.A. cultural export Saudi’s love… Saudis. LOVE. burgers. Burger places are everywhere and many Saudis will claim it as their favorite food. Similarly Western food franchises are abundant with almost everything in both Arabic and English. From Fudruckers to Buffalo Wild Winds to Shake Shack. The burgers can be at western prices but other things like grocery stores and lodging can be 50% cheaper or less.

Bath & Body Works, Foot Locker, etc. all maintain their English name alongside their Arabic one

Saudi History and Heritage

Conceptually I consider MENA the birthplace of civilizations, however, Saudi is new money. The “Third Saudi State” was only reunified recently from 1902-1934 as a composition of bedhuadin tribes that spurred the current royal lineage. Even the First or Second Saudi States never included the Oman or Yemani regions. The newness of sprawling Riyadh starts to make sense considering the country was poor until oil was discovered in 1937. 

Outside the fort that kicked off the Third Saudi State.

Arabs can be extremely proud of lineage and despite the newness of the royal story, Saudis must accept whatever the royal family has to say as law. Critizing any of the thousands of members of the royal family could result in jail.  This is maybe why the country has been opening up so fast.

Walking in public with my booming American voice and laughter are among the loudest things in public where people are often very soft spoken. Public spaces are very quiet among the reserved locals.

A public square in the evening

On evening I went on a cultural tour learning these histories, held a falcon and experienced a traditional dinner consisting of chicken over an enormous plate of rice with very dry pita-like bread. Outside of burgers, shawarma and hummus can be found readily, but are not nearly as delicious or essential as I found in Jordan.

Hark the Falcon, never more.
Our traditional Saudi Meal on our cultural tour

As you may have noticed above, religion is unsurprisingly a big deal here. Most businesses contain well marked family entrances for women or groups including women and men’s only entrances. You constantly see people praying. Every couple hours during the day, gas stations, stores and restaurants close for 20 minutes minimum for prayer.I believe this break is required by law. These breaks combined with the newness of modern customer service and tourism make things like checking into a hotel a 45min – two hour affair. 

Working in a Startup Accelerator in Saudi

Here I am sneaking mountains into my design talk

Most people in a professional setting wore the least traditional thing that was passible. The accelerator was a mix of MENA countries with half the people from out of country. Places like Palestine, Egypt, Algeria and Kuwait where Niqab and the local version of Thawbs are not required. 

Given that many English websites can look like they were made in 1999 in regions still developing their tourism industries. The products were more tech-forward than most startups outside of Silicon Valley with modern looking mobile-focused designs. Most of the companies seem to be around providing a service / product that hasn’t existed or is an analogy of services that exist in the US. For example: A middle-eastern woman’s lingerie marketplace, a class pass for MENA and a canvas car subscription analog.

As you can tell, there was a lot to take in and learn from this culture newly entering the international tourism scene. I learned a lot but had a lot less street interactions than normal due to the lack of walkability. In my next article I’ll talk about getting outside of Riyadh into the desert at “The Edge of the World”. Maybe I’ll also release our new Saudi boy band LP, “You can’t barricade my heart”.