Saudi Arabia is a controversial country to work with and travel to. However, my current job involves nuclear security and non-proliferation, and whereas there are a lot of things I have not made up my mind on I do think these are important topics to keep engaging on globally in any context. So, we went to Riyadh.
In preparation, I cycled down to Edgware Road in London to shop for my first abaya. It is no longer compulsory for foreign women to wear these when visiting Saudi Arabia, but when I work somewhere I like to respect the local culture (to a personally acceptable extent!) and it also makes my job a lot easier when I blend in (especially with my long blonde hair, in this case). I already own an extensive headscarf collection from visiting mosques across the world, so I was fine in that respect. In fact, I never really do get the chance to wear these on a daily basis – seeing how I am not Muslim – so for me, it was fun to experiment with different styles. I spent hours watching Youtube tutorials. This paid off, because I received a lot of compliments from my Saudi colleagues – which is strange to me, because I do not believe I have ever been complimented so much on covering up!
My organisation booked the – economy class – air-plane tickets for us, but upon arrival in Riyadh we were met by, basically, a welcome committee, who whisked us off to go through a different (pleasant) VIP security procedure from the other people on our flight. They then had us wait in a space that could only be compared to a very fancy business class lounge, and we were offered tea and dates as someone went to find our luggage for us across the airport. I have no idea if this is usual for foreigners in Saudi Arabia, or whether we had very generous hosts; the latter was certainly true however.
Since we were working, I did not see a lot of Saudi Arabia or Riyadh on this occasion. [Update 2019: They just started providing tourist visas, which presents an interesting opportunity for exploration.] We were escorted by someone at all times, apart from a brief 1-hour visit to a mall. If the escort was compulsory, we were not told so; it may have equally been part of our hosts’ excellent hospitality, to have someone look after us at all times. (I did not test it by venturing out anywhere by myself, as a woman. All my colleagues on this trip were men.) The trip to the shopping centre was actually an exciting outing for us, because to some degree we were able to experience regular every-day life in Saudi Arabia there. People were wandering around, having fun. It was not surprising, but also not something necessarily reflected by international news outlets. My colleagues and I had dinner there, and then stood in the ‘family’ queue to get a Cinnabon for desert. (In strict Muslim countries, restaurants etc. are often divided into sections for ‘men’ and sections for ‘families’.)
The other very cool thing we got to do on this trip, was visit the National Museum of Saudi Arabia. They actually closed it down to give us a private tour. What?! It is a beautiful, huge, building, with almost too many sections to see in one visit; and it must have been very expensive to build. We were taken from pre-history through to ancient history and then modern history – including oil. Some of the ancient sites in Saudi Arabia look fascinating – the Nabataeans edged in there at some point – and I would love to go explore them some day.
We also visited the Royal Saudi Air-force Museum. We actually did get our own tickets there. I cannot remember how much they cost but I do not believe it was expensive. I would tell you about all the cool air-planes there, but I have no idea about any of it. My favourite section was the one about Saudi astronauts, specifically, the first Saudi to go into space, on the Discovery Space Shuttle. There were a couple of other bits and bops we got up to: a traditional Saudi dinner (where none of the twenty men present had any – noticeable – issue with me sitting on the floor with them), and coffee on top of the tallest building in Riyadh. But that’s it, that’s all we managed to get in before flying back to London (and finally being able to have a drink again!).
Of course, I do have some thoughts on this rather interesting travel experience. A few excerpts from my travel journal:
We landed very late last night (or early today really). This is totally insane. It feels strange just to have the visa stuck in my passport, because there are so many things about this country I am uncomfortable with. ( … ) There are two women in the workshop! Also, there is a professional photographer and camera team. Wow, what an experience.
Second day in this strange country. Somehow it feels less scary than I thought? (I do not feel like I could be arrested any moment.) People are also friendlier and more welcoming than I expected. Where did I get these expectations?? ( … ) I am not sure I am being taken seriously though, either as a woman, or because I look young, or due to my terrible command of Arabic, or all of the above; everyone keeps addressing my male colleagues over me, and they got invited to a meeting with the director even though I organised the activity. Everyone does politely call me ‘doctora’ however, and I am allowed at all meals (but not other women!).
… and then you are 30+ floors up an enormous tower having tea with a prince. What? It cannot get more nuts than this. ( … ) we got a tour of the research centre, and when I tried to open the locked door to the manuscript restoration centre, someone turned up and spontaneously gave us a tour! (My colleagues were less impressed as this had absolutely nothing to do with our work there.) ( … ) in the mall there were mostly American restaurants? We sat on a bench and did some people-watching. More women than men there. Everyone was very impressed with D, who’s a 2-meter tall Englishman. I satisfyingly blended right in with the rest of the crowd. I do wish we could have visited a proper local souq though. Do they have one in Riyadh?
Then it was time to return to the airport ( … ) I took off my headscarf at the gate. D asked me if it felt liberating.