Saudi Arabia Travel Bits

Some interesting tidbits about my recent trip to Saudi Arabia

One of the first conversations I had with my hosts on the way from the airport was about water. Riyadh is a city in a desert, all the water that runs the city is desalinated and piped from the coast, some 200 miles away! Actually, that isn’t too different from Los Angeles, pumping water from central California. So we talked about the California water wars for a bit.

Our host talked about how he thought he heard that one family now controlled most of the water in California. I described how it’s actually a story of how Eaton and Mullholland, employees of the city of LA stole water rights from Owens valley ranchers.

Several more times on my trip I saw how families are culturally and legally important but municipalities and corporations per say are not. This is a pervasive difference in how business and life is conducted in Riyadh. Every large institution in the city is sponsored by a family. Virtually every road in the city is named after a person. I heard phrases like “controlled by the xxxx family” many times. And I never heard about any Saudi company. Municipal laws are also very low on their priority list. The reason, as far as I can see, that they act civilly to one another isn’t because of a desire to obey laws like in the US, it’s that they want to keep the honor of their family. Taken to extreme, the King of Saudi Arabia could “legally” order me killed for no apparent reason and the people would go with it but he doesn’t because it wouldn’t reflect well on his family and people. The resulting society works similarly, but for different reasons!

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Our hosts took us to an Indian restaurant in Riyadh. On the wall next to our table there was this rather nice piece of art in the shape of India. But something looked odd about the map. The outline of India looked different from any map of the country I’ve ever seen. I know that there are disputed territories to the north and east of India. In this map, those territories are not disputed but a part of the country, and then some. We discussed it for a few minutes and our hosts’ opinion of those territories matched the map, not my Nightly News / Google Maps view. I thought it wise not to ask too many questions to show my ignorant American imperial thoughts on the matter.

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Our host asked about a new law that he heard was going to be enacted in the US this week where internet censorship was going to be possible by the government. There was, in fact some rumination in the US news about such bills in the US, it was certainly no where near becoming law. Saudi Arabia has some internet restrictions; I took a minute of suring and noticed that sex sites were blocked, but politics was wide open. I figured it best not to try too many sites since my surfing was obviously being monitored by someone. I can understand how Saudis’ would discuss their news in terms of how the rest of the world is coming in line with their norms. Our news does the same.

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We had a fantastic Saudi Ararabian dinner, which is characterized in part by an amazing abundance of food. Our meal for 4 could have easily fed 8-10. I ordered a glass of goat buttermilk and I got a 20 ounce bowl. There were like 4 chickens and 8 large pieces of goat sitting on a round family-style tray of rice. The bed of rice was 4 inch high and 2 feet across! Everything was absolutely terrific (though it was crazy weird and messy to eat all of this in the native style – with our hands!)

Over another meal, our host’s friend told us with a wry smile how the Saudi Arabian style meal, with it’s immodest portions, was against Islam. Of course I didn’t know how to respond since I was caught between complimenting our host for an excellent meal and offending Islam. But its hugely interesting to see their conscious acknowledgement of such common contradictions.

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If you ask a Saudi a question, he’ll probably first respond nodding saying, “Yes, of course.” And then tell you how they disagree with you, but they’ll do it very very gracefully such that you can’t tell if they are disagreeing or not. The “Yes” part was that they understood the question. And the passive-agressive part is him not wanting to openly disagree with you. It is very odd hearing this the first time!

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Street signs and such in Riyadh have a dramatically different feel than other places. I saw virtually no graffiti (maybe none at all, I don’t read Arabic). Every single building is tastefully modest. Business signage is all tastefully modest. Business storefronts are all tastefully modest. Residential and commercial architecture is all tastefully modest. The most interesting buildings were the oldest ones since they used different building techniques and styles. For example, the Saudi Arabian restaurant was totally cool with it’s straw, clay and stick construction. Why is their entire city so modest? Simple: modesty is a powerful Islamic virtue.
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I noticed that there is tremendous construction going on all over Riyadh. It honestly appears that the capacity of the city will almost double in another 5 years. I mentioned the construction to two people and they both said that Saudis don’t want to invest in the west because it “isn’t safe”. Then each immediately, and in a clear but beat-around-the-bush manner clarified that “safe” means that they don’t want their money to mingle with any support for Israel. They really hate the Israelis.

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I saw that gas at the pump was 0.50 Riyals / liter…. about $0.50/gallon! Wow, how much does it cost to transport gas across the ocean and how much is pure profit? Gas in San Francisco is $3.80 / gallon. Update: I hear that Saudi gasoline at the pump is subsidized as a service to their people.

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2 Comments

  1. Alexis says:

    Very cool tidbits indeed. Precious are those moments when we know we’re learning something only because we are at a certain place and time…

  2. lee says:

    Someone just asked me what my favorite thing from my Saudi Arabia trip was. Here was my answer:

    My favorite thing? Actually it was having it click how their world operates on completely different rules and it all works perfectly well. I think about all the “tensions” in the middle east and see how easy it would be for two well meaning diplomats from different cultures could walk into a room fully intending to come to an agreement and they would walk out more frustrated than ever before because of the non-understanding of one another’s culture. I think that realizing this disconnect is the first, most exciting step to transcending it.

    That was my favorite thing about my trip to Saudi Arabia!

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