Everyone has an opinion about Saudi Arabia, but the reality is few people will ever have the opportunity to see it for themselves. This week I was posted to the capital Riyadh for seven days.
Entry into SA is strict. Women cannot go unless chaperoned by their husbands or fathers. As a correspondent for TRT World I was granted a work visa to travel to cover several stories. My team and I were deployed to cover the Syrian Opposition talks as well as the third municipal elections in which women were taking part for the first time!
An historic and symbolic election in a nation that has strict and conservative rules for women. This election was seen as a modest step towards gender equality even though SA still has a long way to go. On Sunday night, my last day reporting, at least 20 women had won seats including in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, when many people believed women would struggle to pick up even one seat. It’s encouraging to see they are keen to excerise their political voice and are using this opportunity to be recognised as more than just mothers, sisters and wives.
Women are banned from driving and are subject to male guardianship laws. For the ultra conservative they believe women should stay at home, raise the kids, be a good and loyal wife. While Saudi men are effectively Princes, they have more privileges and can have four wives, if they choose.
I found the Saudis to be a hospitable and polite society. They are proud of their young country – and locals are eager to help wherever they can. Few people speak English, so a translator is a must.
The desert heat was a wonderful. I hate the cold and even in the middle of December is was around 21 degrees. Every day was sunny. In the summer the temperature can hit 50 plus.
Before leaving Istanbul I bought an Abaya and wore a head scarf for seven days. I found it ironically liberating. There was no fuss getting dressed in the morning and everyday was a good hair day because it was covered and out of way even when the wind was blowing a gale.
The landscape in Riyadh is as flat as a pancake punctuated with the eleborate skyscraper. There appears to be more cars than people. I saw a lot of shopping malls, mosques and dual carriageways.
Even with a work visa you cannot go out and film on the street without a permit or a minder. Access to women for interviews is tough if you’re hoping to get public reaction purely because no one walks around and it is not polite to approach strangers.
Men and women sit separately in cafes and restaurants unless they are related and only then can they sit in a “family” room together. It is also a tee-total country. Is it really worth having a minibar in the room? Having said that, lots of people I spoke to said that the country is changing albeit slowly. Saudis use social media as a backdoor to meet and get to know the opposite sex publicly in cyberspace. It is a tool that has changed many people’s lives and it’s a lifeline to many young people. It was also how may female candidates campaigned during the elections to reach voters.
The Gulf is inundated with Asians. I was astounded to see so many Indians, Bangladeshis and sourth east Asians all working in the service industry. If you had shown me a photo of the departures lounge of Riyadh airport I would not have said that it was the Middle East.
Working in SA is not as easy as Europe. You can’t do as you want. In my job alot of stuff is done on the hoof as the nature of news dictates that you keep pace with what is developing or breaking. But in Saudi Arabia everything really does have to be planned and confirmed well in advance otherwise it’s like working in treacle. And even things that are set up never run to time or as you plan it – but that’s the world over though…sod’s law.
The phrase time is money does not apply in Saudi Arabia – perhaps they can afford not to worry – whatever the reason just be prepared to sit and wait and enjoy the Arabica coffee.