Below, my colleague, Dan, shares his experiences of Saudi Arabia. We’d love to hear about your own impressions of the country too – just leave a comment at the end of blog. In the meantime, I’m off to Sicily to take a break from, er, travelling! Best wishes, Mark.
Arriving into Riyadh airport on a recent data collecting trip I was given a double thumbs up by the immigration officer as he handed back my passport. Having thoroughly researched the practice and customs of daily life in Saudi as part of my trip preparation this was quite an unexpected yet fun and pleasant welcome into the country. However, when I collected my passport and moved through I was pounced on by three security guards, blocking my way, hands hovering over the butts of their guns. It turns out that the immigration officer had been asking for a thumb scan.
One of the first things that stood out to me in Saudi was the frequency at which petrol stations appeared at the road side. The kingdom has the second highest global oil reserve and possesses around a fifth of the world’s known oil, so this is perhaps not too surprising. There is an abundance of cheap petrol: during my visit prices were fixed at the rate of 0.45 Saudi Arabian Riyals per litre, which equates to roughly 10 cents/7 pence. Little wonder then that the city centre highways (usually at least four lanes in each direction) were jammed packed with four by fours churning out heavy fumes. Both cities I visited (Riyadh and Jeddah) were dominated by cars, with purpose built roads, and few to no pavements, meaning that walking opportunities were very restricted. Despite being very much a driving country, it is the only place in the world where women are not allowed a driving licence and have to rely, instead, on private drivers or taxis. The complete lack of alcohol also means that traffic continues into the late evening.
The rhythm of daily life in Saudi is dictated by prayer times, regardless of religious preference (I say regardless, the country is officially one hundred percent Muslim, although this is certainly less in expat communities). With five daily prayer times (more during festivals), it was very interesting to see how life would grind to a halt or, in some cases, carry on. For example, supermarkets would close at the call to prayer but shoppers would be allowed to remain inside the shop, they just weren’t able to buy anything. You would, quite literally, be locked in. For research purposes this was, at times, very useful and it became something of an art timing visits to certain shops so as to coincide with the closing times. I was often asked, particularly in bigger places, whether I would like to stay in the shop or not. Conversely, if the shop was closed then there would be little option but to wait outside and be patient.
Petrol stations would close completely, with both drivers and pump operators heading towards the local mosque. On more than one occasion, this made for quite an eerie sight where I would come across a completely deserted petrol outlet, with none of the pumps manned and lines of cars all empty, some with windows down and even doors open. Prayer on the street was also common, with groups of men regularly congregating and lining up to face Mecca.
Prayer times were, in fact, becoming a point of contention during my visit. Many people were pointing out that logistically they were becoming too time consuming, particularly once you factored in staff walking times to and from the nearest mosque. Realistically closures would last around half an hour, with prayer times only around 5-15 minutes. Large scale malls in particular were being cited as a major cause of this, as they were becoming so big that the walk from one side to another was as long as the actual prayer time itself.
This debate was a good example of a wider trend in Saudi Arabia: the struggle between modernity and traditionalism. It is a society run on the principles set out by the Quran which in recent years has come up against new and specifically modern obstacles. The country has the third highest smart phone usage in the world, which is a phenomenal stat when you think about the accessibility and connection that a smart phone can now provide. Saudis are some of the highest users of twitter in the Arab world, and have around five million registered users of Facebook, in a population of just under 30 million. Through this, examples of police brutality and abuses of power have been filmed covertly and posted online for millions to see. A particular incident of undue provocation against a Saudi woman last year gave rise to the twitter campaign #dontprovoke, inciting reaction and outcry from across the country. From reading about the country’s history, mass support (albeit online) for a woman in the face of state law was fairly unthinkable a few decades back. The new generation of young Saudis now have very different exposure and access to the outside world than their predecessors, and through the rise of online media now have more of an outlet for expression. For a country so traditional in its outlook, modernisation is certainly throwing up some interesting challenges.
A consistent feature of my visit was how difficult it was to penetrate below the surface and get a real feel for the place. Saudi is infamous for being an insular country but I felt that being there would at least give me a little more access to life in the kingdom. On the contrary, this closure seemed ever present. Conversation was very hard to come by, even during small interactions such as buying a coffee, or enquiring about certain prices or availability of items. English was widely spoken, but answers were often kept short and simple. As a researcher, I’ve found that there is often a certain amount of inquisitiveness around our work and what we are doing, but again this was not really present. All in all the opportunity to chat to Saudi men was limited, and with women it was non-existent, which felt very strange. To be clear, there was no hostility and people were always polite and helpful – and I am fully aware that these judgements were formed solely on the basis of a week’s visit – but it was quite striking how there just was not the same openness or mutual curiosity that is present in many countries that myself and my colleagues visit for research purposes.
On my final day, collecting my last bits of data in the women’s clothes store Mango, I caught sight of a Saudi woman, dressed in full hijab, browsing through some western style dresses. She picked one out and held it up against herself whilst looking into the mirror. I was struck by this sight because of how familiar, in my eyes, it looked in a country where I had found it so hard to get beneath the surface. Later on my hotel receptionist asked how my trip had been, and after voicing a few of my frustrations about the closed nature of the society, he made a pertinent point. ‘You see, much of the living here,’ he said, ‘is done behind closed doors.’
Dan is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.