I came back from a two days business trip to one of the strangest countries I’ve been to – Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. There’s never ever been a parliament in the entire history. The country also seems to try to shut itself down to non-muslim foreigners. There is no individual tourism, there are no tourist visa. The only way to access the country is with a business, working or “worship” visa given to Muslim pilgrims. And obtaining a visa has its own challenges, which I realized at the embassy in Hong Kong.
I arrived Riyadh airport at around 10pm local time and made my way to the immigration. Around 10 people – all male – waited in front of me in line. “Can’t take too long” I thought, not knowing what to expect. Around one hour later it was my turn (yes, one hour to check 10 persons in the capital airport). After giving them all my fingerprints (all 10) I was finally allowed to enter. Surprisingly, my bag wasn’t checked for pork, alcohol or pornography as it happened to other travelers.
I left the immigration hall and entered the arrival hall. I first realized that everyone around was male. No women at all. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In Saudi Arabia, women seem to be excluded from normal social life. They are not even allowed to drive a car. They also seem not to be allowed to travel with a stranger in a car together (although that law isn’t adhered to 100%). That means women can’t even take a taxi. So the only way to get around is either taking public transport (of which there is none) or committing a crime (i.e. taking a taxi)
Without a doubt, Saudi Arabia is a car country. Without a car you can’t live in Riyadh (similar to living in Los Angeles). Riyadh reminded me of the U.S.where you mainly see Japanese/Korean cars or big, American SUVs for which you’d need a truck license in Europe. I haven’t seen a lot of European cars, surprising given the abundance of petro dollars in the country. The main reason for a lack of European cars is, so I believe, sand. Being in a desert you’re looking for practical, reliable, easy to maintained cars. And European cars, while faster and better engineered, will make your wallet suffer in that kind of climate.
If you’re not a tree hugger, the main reason that speaks against an American SUV is fuel efficiency (or the lack thereof) and hence your petrol bill. But that’s not an issue in Saudi Arabia. A litre of petrol sells for USD 0.10 (USD 0.38 per gallon). Petrol is cheaper than water. It will cost you less than 10 dollars to fill up your car. That, and the lack of taxes, seem to be the only reason why expatriates stay in the country.
Saudi Arabia is a great place if you’re male and want to save money. Salaries for expats tend to be high, there are no taxes, petrol is cheap and you can’t spend your money – because there’s nothing to spend it on. There are no bars, pubs, nightclubs or cinemas. Alcohol is strictly forbidden. Saudi men go to a “rest house” after work. Five to ten guys rent a house together, equip it with a sofa, TV and playstation and smoke pipe and drink tea. If they don’t go to their rest house they visit one of the many restaurants in Riyadh. And these are really fantastic. The food I enjoyed there was amazing! But, unfortunately, that’s the only thing you can truly enjoy there.
Everyone in Saudi Arabia told me to go to Dubai as it has everything what Saudi Arabia has and also everything it lacks (mainly alcohol and women). Let’s see when I can make it to Dubai.
On the flight back to Hong Kong I asked the Cathay Pacific stewardess whether she’d be so kind to bring me a glass of red wine. Her reply: “Can you please wait for another hour sir, until we left Saudi Arabian airspace?”. I was dumbfounded….