Riyadh, for real

They tried to make him go to Riyadh and he said, “Yes please”. Steven Bond spends a long week­end in Saudi Ara­bia at the be­hest of a royal camel fes­ti­val, and takes the chance to ex­plore the king­dom’s cap­i­tal on the road to 2030

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Open for busi­ness and aim­ing for “bleisure”, Saudi Ara­bia’s cap­i­tal is on the path to 2030

De­spite liv­ing in the Mid­dle East for more than five years, the prospect of trav­el­ling to Saudi Ara­bia felt a bit like pre­par­ing for my first mis­sion to Mars. To elab­o­rate, I live in Dubai, have very dear Saudi friends and am com­pletely ac­cus­tomed to see­ing throngs of our west­erly neigh­bours ar­rive en masse dur­ing na­tional hol­i­days. Yet the idea of spend­ing ac­tual time in “The King­dom” some­how felt oth­er­worldly. In­deed, my op­por­tu­nity to visit the king­dom didn’ t oc­cur through a tourism visa ap­pli­ca­tion–be­cause they sim­ply don’t ex­ist, yet–but via an in­vi­ta­tion to the first-ever King Ab­du­laziz Camel Fes­ti­val, held this year in March(www.alai bi l fes­ti­val. com ). It was an email from my edi­tor that re­ceived ar are triple-take, and one t hat sparked a rather zeal­ous and pos­i­tive RSVP. Why? Be­cause I was cu­ri­ous to ex­pe­ri­ence just how dif­fer­ent Saudi Ara­bia re­ally is – and also, be­cause I’m rather fond of camels.


First im­pres­sions are im­por­tant, but I re­alise that judg­ing an en­tire na­tion based on a slightly pro­vin­cial camel fes­ti­val is a bit like judg­ing the en­tire United King­dom based on Crufts – that’ll be the world’s most pres­ti­gious dog show, for those not in the know. Jok­ing aside, there are par­al­lels. Dogs are le­git­i­mately “man’s best friend” to many of my coun­try­men, though camels are even more part of Saudi Be­douin cul­ture, past and present – and they also make for a pretty de­cent burger. The camels I see, how­ever, are not des­tined for the chop­ping block. They are far too beau­ti­ful, I’m told. The mul­ti­ple-acre fes­ti­val com­prised on-stage tra­di­tional music, in­door and out­door mar­ket stalls sell­ing tra­di­tional wares, mil­i­tary memo­ri­als, Be­douin tents (com­plete with fal­cons) and a very thor­ough mu­seum, demon­strat­ing the his­tory and ex­tent of camels in Saudi civil­i­sa­tion. But the crux of the new an­nual “Camel-chella”, an hour’s drive north and east from the cap­i­tal, is the month-long beauty con­test. Farm­ers and own­ers from ev­ery cor­ner of the king­dom have brought their fittest and

finest for a chance to win big. The scale and the stakes are no joke, with this year’s prize money ex­tend­ing to SR115 mil­lion (US$30.66 mil­lion) for the win­ning en­trants; mus­cu­lar one-humped drom­e­daries with well-man­i­cured feet and heavy bot­tom lips that have long suc­cumbed to grav­ity. De­spite be­ing hastily knocked to­gether, with in­fra­struc­ture and fa­cil­i­ties knocked to­gether in mere weeks, the re­gal event drew crowds of up to 35,000 on its busiest days, build­ing to the cli­mac­tic fi­nale when King Sal­man him­self ap­peared to wit­ness the cream of the crop.


To out­siders like my­self, the event is an en­dear­ing cel­e­bra­tion in a theo­cratic bub­ble, and a jig­saw piece of an im­por­tant puz­zle. The Crown Prince, Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man, is spear­head­ing Vi­sion 2030, a five-pronged strat­egy to re­duce Saudi Ara­bia’s de­pen­dence on oil and di­ver­sify its econ­omy with a war chest of well over a bil­lion dol­lars to de­velop the king­dom’s ser­vice sec­tors such as health, ed­u­ca­tion, in­fra­struc­ture, re­cre­ation, and – most notably – tourism. Sight­see­ing for any­one with­out a GCC pass­port is cur­rently re­stricted to res­i­dent ex­pats, vis­it­ing busi­ness­men (em­pha­sis on the gen­der pro­noun) and devout Mus­lims ful­fill­ing their hajj and um­rah du­ties. In fact, for a coun­try that doesn’t yet al­low sec­u­lar tourism, a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the GDP (just un­der three per cent) ar­rives via the dual holy cities of Mecca and Me­d­ina, which could soar to $20 bil­lion within the next few years, ac­cord­ing to the Coun­cil for Eco­nomic and De­vel­op­ment Af­fairs.


Mean­while, the Crown Prince has un­veiled plans for a Red Sea re­sort “gov­erned by laws on par with in­ter­na­tional stan­dards”, which many open-minded lo­cals have hailed as a tri­umph; and a pro­gres­sive use of some of the coun­try’s small Mal­dives-es­que islets (see page 29). Yet de­spite its con­ges­tion is­sues, t he cap­i­tal ci t y i s ar­guably al r eady primed f or an i nflux of hol­i­day­mak­ers, with a swathe of five- star ho­tels and a re­gion­ally r e nowned fine - d i ni ng sc e ne ( mi­nus the adult bev­er­ages).


The city is a long way from a sea breeze, with the frizz-inducing hu­mid­ity of Dubai and Abu Dhabi re­placed by a lip-chaf­ing dry heat, and sum­mer winds closely re­sem­bling a high-end hairdryer. But de­spite be­ing 400 kilo­me­tres from the coast, Burj Rafal Ho­tel Kempin­ski dou­bles up as a desert oa­sis, with a world-class spa fa­cil­ity and rooms to match. Re­sense Spa is the first in the king­dom to of­fer equally sep­a­rated gym and spa fa­cil­i­ties within a five-star lux­ury ho­tel, per­fectly bal­anc­ing fa­cil­i­ties for ladies and gents. The word “oa­sis” ac­tu­ally comes from Saudi’s neigh­bours to the west – the An­cient Greeks bor­rowed waha from the Egyp­tian Cop­tic lan­guage and thousands of years later we’re still in­ter­pret­ing what that word rep­re­sents – and Kempin­ski has done a fine job. The spa is also di­rectly ad­ja­cent to the out­door pool lounge and restau­rant, Sky­light, where guests can have an al fresco, à la carte ex­pe­ri­ence un­der a starry canopy, while sur­vey­ing the city be­low. And per­haps if you com­bine your mock­tail with the dizzy­ing heights of the lounge venue, it might even seem as if you’re im­bib­ing some­thing a lit­tle stronger. No new­comer to the city’s five-star scene, the Riyadh’s first Kempin­ski houses 349 rooms and suites over 23 floors, with five din­ing des­ti­na­tions, in­clud­ing its sig­na­ture Ot­toman fine-din­ing restau­rant, Tu­gra, and all boast an ul­tra-luxe am­biance within Riyadh’s tallest res­i­den­tial tower. That’s in part due to the ref­er­ences to Na­jdi ar­chi­tec­ture; sim­i­lar to the Nu­bian her­itage of Egypt, the ho­tel’s in­te­ri­ors evoke styles as­so­ci­ated with Najd, Saudi Ara­bia’s cen­tral heart­land – home to 28 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion and re­tain­ing its own lan­guage and aes­thet­ics. If you’ve seen the mod­ern tat­too trend of clus­ters of small tri­an­gles and long straight lines, then chances are it will look some­what fa­mil­iar.


Driv­ing through the city’s cen­tre and sub­urbs presents an in­ter­est­ing di­chotomy; not quite the clas­sic rich-poor divide ev­i­dent in any big city, but a past-fu­ture aes­thetic. In cen­tral ar­eas, pris­tine SUVs sail over el­e­vated high­ways past lofty sky­scrapers dressed in neon hues, with sub­ur­ban villa life dot­ted all around, yet some dustier cor­ners cer­tainly lack a feel­ing of moder­nity, rang­ing from quaint throw­backs to fa­tigued, crum­bling sec­tions in need of at­ten­tion. It’s not at all sur­pris­ing for a city of six mil­lion plus. Not far from the ho­tel is an in­ter­est­ing slice of the “New Riyadh” vibe – The Boule­vard (+966 11 4880840; www.the­boule­vard.com.sa). On the wall of a pris­tine cross-fit gym, a neon sign beams “Hello Riyadh, you’re look­ing beau­ti­ful to­day”, and the rooftop pool deck gives a com­mand­ing view over the new com­plex on Prince Turki Ibn Ab­du­laziz Al Awwal Rd. I choose an­other van­tage point from the “bach­e­lor’s only” sec­tion of the ad­ja­cent Caffe Bene ( www.caf­febene.com. sa), a home grown cof­fee joint where I awk­wardly or­dered a shisha, not re­al­is­ing hookah pipes are banned in Riyadh. De­spite the seg­re­ga­tion, men and women prover­bially rub shoul­ders in and out of the bou­tique out­lets, mini art gal­leries and the site’s up­com­ing bou­tique ho­tel will no doubt be a hit, when it’s fi­nally un­veiled. The Boule­vard’s hip­stery edge is a nice con­trast to the city’s broad high streets, such as Prince Muham­mad Bin Ab­du­laziz, which holds a glow­ing strip of eater­ies in the Su­laimaniyah dis­trict. The area has evolved to be­come an ex­ten­sion of the neigh­bour­ing down­town area, and packs a bit of a dif­fer­ent flavour since the ma­jor­ity of its res­i­dents are “Al Sham”; mean­ing ei­ther Syrian, Jor­da­nian or Pales­tinian.

Aside from the fast food chains you’d find in any city, it’s the go-to area for the best, au­then­tic Le­vant cuisines. There’s even an Egyp­tian pres­ence that adds to the dy­namism and a sense of light-hearted com­mu­nity. My heart­felt thanks go to the charm­ing and oh-so-hos­pitable Riyadh-based in­flu­encer Yousef (@ jo0sef on In­sta­gram), who do­nated an evening of his time to show­case the city – not at the be­hest of any­one, just a kind of­fer fol­low­ing a chance meet­ing in Salalah, Oman. My rec­om­mended eatery was Le Re­lais de l’En­trecôte (+ 966 11 461 5058; www.en­tre­cote­saudi.com), a French fran­chise with a set menu of steak, green salad and fries. While the dessert op­tions are a lit­tle more var­ied, the spe­cialty is un­sur­pris­ingly special, and the gar­licky taste of the con­ti­nent turns out to be a per­fect com­ple­ment to the bustling city life.


Yes, there are ho­tels, spas and good food aplenty, but for a city that car­ries so much rep­u­ta­tional bag­gage it’s hard to see how many cu­ri­ous folk will ven­ture to Riyadh, un­less they have pre-ex­ist­ing con­nec­tions or other rea­sons to pass through – es­pe­cially with the coun­try’s Red Sea coast­line and lush hilly ar­eas be­ing clearly more compelling draws. Most Euro­pean cities have their macabre el­e­ments, from the Tower of Lon­don’s dun­geons to the mass mau­soleums of Auschwitz, but the in­famy of Riyadh’s “Chop Chop Square” and its pub­lic be­head­ings is still very much part of the present, and it’s hard to ig­nore. De­spite the re­li­gious po­lice (the Com­mis­sion for the Pro­mo­tion of Virtue and Preven­tion of Vice, known as Mutawas) be­ing stripped of their pow­ers to ar­rest, many will no doubt be cau­tious to ap­proach, par­tic­u­larly women of course, who still fa­mously can­not drive or leave the coun­try with­out the con­sent of a male guardian. Those rules are likely to change as the Vi­sion 2030 plan takes shape, though the roadmap to be­com­ing a fruit­ful tourism des­ti­na­tion could fea­si­bly take much longer. I pause at the thought of in­clud­ing a dis­claimer in my re­flec­tions on Riyadh, but I do fully re­alise this ex­pe­ri­ence was all through the lens of a straight, white male. Even when you leave iden­tity pol­i­tics (and ac­tual pol­i­tics) at the door, Saudi Ara­bia is sim­ply not quite like other coun­tries; in terms of both its sheer size and pop­u­lace it dwarfs all of its Gulf and Le­van­tine neigh­bours. Only open for tourism if a re­li­gious pil­grim­age is in­volved, it car­ries a cul­tural swag­ger un­ri­valled in the re­gion. Whether or not it’s even­tu­ally hum­bled by an even­tual shift away from crude oil – or thrives from open­ing its doors to the world – all re­mains to be seen. A wise man once said, “Don’t judge a per­son by where they have been but by where they are go­ing”, and if I may make a sweep­ing judge­ment, Saudi Ara­bia is lung­ing in all the right di­rec­tions with its goal of even­tu­ally be­com­ing a leisure des­ti­na­tion. My own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence also turned out to be rather pro­found. It was one of cul­tural pride, for­ward-think­ing lead­er­ship and gen­er­ous hos­pi­tal­ity, and I left with no doubt I would re­turn to wit­ness a great na­tion in tran­si­tion.


King­dom Cen­ter or Burj Al Mam­laka glows pink at night to sup­port breast can­cer ad­vo­cacy (above). Pre­vi­ous spread: the Royal Suite Lounge at Burj Rafal Ho­tel Kempin­ski

Clock­wise from top left: A proud owner poses with his prized pos­ses­sion at the King Ab­du­laziz Camel Fes­ti­val, held this year in March; the jux­ta­po­si­tion of old and new can be seen in Riyadh’s older neigh­bour­hoods, and at the clay and mud-brick 19th-cen­tury Mas­mak Fort, which de­tails the found­ing of the mod­ern king­dom and is a stark con­trast to the city’s mod­ern sky­line; The Ka’bah at the cen­tre of Is­lam’s most sa­cred mosque, Al-Masjid Al Haram in Mecca

The striking cuboid ar­chi­tec­ture of The King Fa­had Na­tional Li­brary, one of the most im­por­tant cul­tural build­ings in the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia, in Riyadh’s rapidly chang­ing Olaya Dis­trict, with Al Faisaliyah Cen­ter Tower in the back­ground (top); with its mix of din­ing es­tab­lish­ments and bou­tiques, The Boule­vard is an­other trendy ad­di­tion to the city’s ur­ban de­vel­op­ment (bot­tom left and right)

The tran­quil ter­race at Le Bi­jou (top), the stylish lobby café at Burj Rafal Ho­tel Kempin­ski; one of the ho­tel’s swim­ming pools, which boasts sep­a­rate spa and pool fa­cil­i­ties for men, women and chil­dren (bot­tom)

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