Looking out over the barbed wire
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Looking out over the barbed wire

From my sitting room window, I can see the evening drawing in. It isn’t dark yet, but the failing light lends the air that fuzzy timbre that can be mistaken for the haze of pollution: the smears of brown and grey that smudge out the distance on a morning drive to work.

Lights have come on, and their warm orange gives the buildings a gentle blush. Later, these same lamps will glare out as beacons of brightness, but for now, they seem rather to act as highlights, guiding the eye to details that might otherwise be missed. In this moment, all seems calm. Even the road, that streak of angry tarmac demanding a death-defying sprint across six lanes of traffic to get to the few shops on the other side, seems calm. The roar of engines has paused. Even the air is still, for this is a moment before the evening Isha prayer, and the call of the muezzin has yet to break the quiet.

Between me and the lights is nothing. Though where I stand was empty desert just five years ago, it would be wrong to think of this ‘nothing’ as a place of pristine desert or of Lawrence-of-Arabia sand dunes. Really, it is just derelict scrubland. From where I stand it is not so easy to see, but walking along the road’s edge makes the ugliness obvious: discarded plastic bottles, ripped bags and the remnants of polystyrene food boxes. Even further out, the desert that surrounds the city – and in places still curls a tongue inside its limits – is littered with plastic. Whites and blues stiffly flap in the breeze: plastics half buried in the sand.

Plots of empty land are found dotted throughout Riyadh. The city has grown rapidly over the last few years but it has also grown haphazardly. Ever since a tax on undeveloped land in Riyadh was introduced around the end of 2015 in an attempt to ease a housing shortage, these plots of land have been turned into tax-avoiding pretend building sites. No actual development work is carried out, but the ground is dug over and mounds of rubble left strewn about. Ugliness proliferates. Unbroken ground like that before me is weirdly rare now. The city has taken on a damaged feel.

Rubble-strewn land; half-constructed buildings; a $20 billion metro project. Riyadh has become a city of massive plans, but of unfinished business as well. After the work-stopping government-budget austerity of the last couple of years, work is starting up again. The once-stalled King Abdullah Financial City again has workers; whole new districts have appeared where when I left in 2016 there was nothing but rock and sand. Across the city, there is a palpable uptick in the speed of progress. Still, there is work yet to be done: even the road from my compound ends in an all-terrain track, surrounded by builders’ rubble.

But as I look out from my sitting room window, across the now darkened land, these thoughts of construction, of mess, and of projects incomplete, fall away. For now, there is nothing. Just the barbed-wire fence, the desolate scrubland, the mosque, and the bright glow of lights reminding me that Riyadh is all around me. And that Riyadh is alive.

Trying out the local restaurant
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Trying out the local restaurant

Having ordered the usual plate of chicken and rice, I noticed a pair at my local restaurant eating a chickpea curry. It looked thick and rich and tasty, scooped up with hot fresh bread. I told the chef that next time I would have that, so good did it look. He said I should come the next night. I said I would. He said he would look for me.

As I entered the restaurant he looked up and smiled, bade me sit down and went to serve up the chickpeas. As I waited, sitting on the carpeted raised floor, I watched the other staff at their evening chores. Yesterday it had been placing plastic bags inside paper bags to make waterproof takeaway bags. Tonight, it was tying knots in flimsy plastic bags and, on my other side, throwing a handful of cut raw vegetables into little bags.

My chickpeas arrived, with bread and a plate of raw vegetables. I smiled and said thanks. I tore off a piece of hot hot bread and scooped up a mouthful.

It wasn’t thick and it wasn’t rich and it wasn’t tasty. It was a watery plate of tasteless, mushy pellets. It was beyond words. I superglued my smile to my face and shoved the mouthfuls down.

The sand between one’s toes
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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The sand between one’s toes

The sunshine was still bright, but the weather cool. The surface of the sand warm underfoot, but just an inch below already cold to the toes.

Enjoying a day out Saudi-style, we bounced up and down the sand dunes in Toyota FJ Cruiser. With air let out of the tyres to lessen the risk of sinking into the sad, the engine was gunned for ascents and throttled back to allow a silent sliding downwards on the other side.

We drove past what looked like crumbling mud fortresses but that were really old date farms, and past mighty desert palaces the gatekeepers of which dismissed as just one of their master’s little garages.

Scrambling up into an old derelict watchtower, I looked up into the clear blue sky, the shadows thrown by the walls protecting my eyes from the sun’s wintry glare. Only the mud brick walls remained; the floors and steps had long fallen away. A lone sentinel; a silent and empty mud column: the rock and sand of the desert stretching away to the cliffs on the far horizon.

We stopped by the roadside to have jugs filled with on-the-brew tea and Arabic coffee, and we ended the afternoon with a late lunch of spiced rice with camel meat.

Desert walks
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Desert walks

Against everything else in life, the desert seems never to change. As I stepped from the car the memories sprung back to life. My feet crunched over the same crackled rock. My lungs filled with the same hot, arid air. My ears bathed in the same silence. My eyes took in the same sweeping, majestic landscape.

There is something about the desert, even this close to Riyadh, that cannot but impress, swell the imagination and fill the soul. In its sameness, its stillness and its expanse, it is like nowhere else. If vistas of brown rock and beige sand will never be homely, nor as restful as lush green or as welcoming as the yellows and greens of the English countryside, there is something endlessly special in the deserts of Arabia. Something that holds us captive and makes us yearn to return.

Comforting food
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Comforting food

It is said of Hong Kong, not entirely unfairly, that it is a food lover’s paradise. Cuisine from across the globe can be sampled in restaurants big and small, fancy and simple, good and bad. From the appalling flavours dished up by hate-filled waitresses in the local restaurants near my flat in Mongkok, to the lavishly expensive, intimately indulgent and quietly excellent restaurants hidden in the nooks and crannies of Central, Wanchai, and Causeway Bay, Hong Kong has it all. One need never be bored: there is the best of East and West and everything in between.

In contrast, the cuisine in Riyadh is a little simpler. Rice and chicken dominate in most Saudi-style restaurants while American chains serve up underwhelment-on-a-plate. Regional highlights can be found with Lebanese, Morrocan and Yemeni restaurants that hide surprisingly delicious food behind astonishingly bland presentation and a complete lack of atmosphere.

But in truth, Riyadh has great food, if only you stoop to join the queues at the local, neighbourhood restaurants. Here, with plastic tables and chairs, with disposable wafer-thin plastic tablecloths, with flies buzzing from one table to the next, is where the truly tasty can be found. Here, without a menu in English or even a menu at all, is where wondrously warm service can be found: not just service with a smile, but impassioned service with grin, a babble of welcoming words and a delight that sets the scene for food that is simple, comforting, enormously filling and just what is wanted.  From the freshest falafel to tangy shawarma to authentic locale-specific curries to barbecued meats and chicken.

Far from fancy, it is the sort of food you always wished your local had.

The 106th Double-Tenth Day
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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The 106th Double-Tenth Day

In the quiet of gardens, water splashes from fountains, an eerie tinkling in otherwise silent air. In the cool of dusk, lamps cast their electric glow on the underside of the leaves in trees, their ever-stretching branches thrown into fluorescent dances of shapes and of greens and greys.

106 years ago, disgruntled soldiers near Wuhan in China faced arrest after details of an anti-Qing plot were leaked to the authorities. The men turned mutineer and by the next day, by the morning of 11 October, had established a military government.

Away at the back of Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter an empty street slowly fills with cars. Their graceless hulk crunches over dusty tarmac. Figures start separating from the gloom and drift to the end of the road.

The Qing struck back as winter began to take hold of China. Imperial forces slowly gained ground against the mutineer-revolutionaries. Yet progress was too slow. Soon Sichuan, Ningxia and Shanxi were slipping from the Emperor’s grasp. The winter of 1911 was to be the winter of the Qing.

Golden light spills out of a single gate where smiles gather and hands are shaken. A red carpet runs up to the porch and into the house. From the back, voices drift over food. It is 10 October: Taiwan’s National Day, also known as the Double-Ten Day. We are standing in the garden of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. The links between Taiwan and Saudi Arabia are celebrated, as are the links between Taiwan and the region. The hospitality cannot be matched: all are made to feel special, all are made to feel uniquely welcome. We have gathered to celebrate with Taiwan, the Riyadh autumnal cool the perfect blanket to a feast. And as we leave, happy and delighted, it is we who are thanked even when it is we who must do the thanking.

On 1 January 1912, Sun Yat-Sen proclaimed the foundation of the Republic of China.

Under the spell of the watchtower
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Under the spell of the watchtower

Summer is sputtering its last in Riyadh; the burning heat of memory and of August is slipping away and a relative cool pervades the mornings and the evenings.  By nine in the evening, the temperature is barely above thirty-five celsius, the sun having dipped below the horizon a little before six.

In the darkness and the cool, a calm descends.  Around the secure compound I am staying on, lights flicker on.  Smoothed curves alternative with ramifying diamonds in Arabic designs crawling up the front of the porches facing the empty streets. In front of each house stands a watered lawn; a lone, proud and tall-standing palm; and a single lamp.  Away in ordered ranks they stretch: house after house, lawn after lawn, palm tree after palm tree, lamp after lamp. And over it all spills the gentle pinky-orange light of the compound’s lights, as gentle as the air is still.

My evening run takes me past each one. A cat stirs. A lonely fellow jogger smiles as we pass. But life is hidden behind the drawn curtains.  I am alone, caught in the spell of a compound watchtower, its bright flood lamp washing over me.  And as I run in this new compound with this new job, do I feel the old being washed away?

 

Returning to Riyadh
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Returning to Riyadh

All through the flight, I wasn’t really sure what I felt.  Looking out of the aeroplane’s window, down at the bright gridded lights, I couldn’t pinpoint my response.  Waiting in the airport at immigration, at the luggage carousel and at customs, I wasn’t sure.

Sitting in the car, looking out at the darkness and the dodgy driving, I couldn’t put a name to my emotion.  Driving past my old office, shrouded now in darkness, perhaps to conceal that all these years late, it still remains unfinished, did nothing but mix up the feelings yet further.

The heat, the dust, the kaleidoscope of beige, the endless rubble and building.  How do I respond to this, the most peculiar of returns?

I am back in Riyadh.

Kuwait City
Arabia/Kuwait

Kuwait City

 

Long ago, in a visa agent’s waiting room in London, before I had ever stepped foot in the Gulf, I chatted with a long-time GCC resident. He was not over-flattering of any of the countries he had lived in over the preceding twenty years, but for Kuwait he had a single sentence. It was not to the city-state’s advantage. I had to visit.

No one-liner is ever fair to a whole country, but in this instance, I can think of no comment that more completely misses the mark. Kuwait charmed me from the first. In comparison with Riyadh, its advantages were legion and started right inside the airport.

Enter the arrivals hall of Kuwait airport and there are shops and cafes. Want to buy a book to read? No problem. Need to rent a car? Straight this way, sir. If it is possible to do either in Riyadh airport I have never discovered how. Here everything a visitor might want is easily found. So it didn’t take too long before we were in our rental car, out on Kuwait’s open roads.

Here was to be found my second delight. The roads were open, well maintained and clean. The driving didn’t make me fear for my life. It was all quite manageable and it wasn’t long before Kuwait City’s skyline (delight number three) hove into view.

The modern architecture is great. The city’s old covered souq bustles with energy and distraction. The food stalls are tasty. The palace is huge and impressive. The Kuwait Towers are fantastic, especially when lit at night. The beaches are clean.

But more than any of this, Kuwait is a clearly conservative country that lacks any of Saudi Arabia’s oppressiveness. People smile and chatter. Men and women mix freely. Some women are covered but others are not; indeed abayas are not compulsory and there is a riot of colour in the women’s clothes (some of which is pretty revealing). When the call to prayer is sounded people do go to pray, but the shops stay open and restaurants still serve food. The country is dry, but people still appear to relax, to smile, to gather and to enjoy themselves.

As a Gulf city, Kuwait could not be more different from Riyadh. There are cinemas. Shops play music. A troupe of singers performed inside an (utterly giant) shopping centre.

27 hours is a fleeting visit indeed. I have barely scratched the surface. I have not had to deal with too much frustrating bureaucracy. I admit Kuwait is very expensive for the region. It doesn’t have the glamour of the UAE. It isn’t quite as relaxed and friendly as Oman. It feels more lived in and less pristine than Doha. But I enjoyed my visit enormously. The man in the waiting room was wrong. For me, Kuwait City wins hands down. But I will leave the last word to a longer term visitor.

I asked my waiter at lunch how long he had been in Kuwait (two years) and if he enjoyed it (yes sir). I told him I lived in Riyadh. He shook his head.

Muscat
Arabia/Oman

Muscat

Sandwiched between the sea and the Al Hajar mountains, Muscat runs as a ribbon along the coast. The sun here is just as bright as anywhere across the border, and the humidity makes the heat feel that much more intense. Yet somehow the place (if not the air) felt cooler and calmer than anywhere else on the peninsular.

Oman is different. Everyone says it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Arriving at the airport I simply walked to the main street and caught a microbus; the country’s system of private-public transport seems cheap and efficient. Mutrah, Muscat’s port area, was, when I got there, as different from anything in the Gulf as I have seen. Despite the huge cranes in the hazy distance, it had the feeling of a sleepy fishing village, albeit one with a gigantic royal yacht at anchor. A blue-domed mosque sat in the centre of the corniche; either side of it stretched a line of whitewashed houses, their slatted fronts giving the place a look trapped in time. Running maze-like away from the sea, a network of residential streets took me past assorted shops and restaurants and further mosques. Despite the sleepy heat, people were out, walking to and from the coffee shops or gazing out at the water.

IMAG1020IMAG1017Behind the houses ranged the mountains, and on the peaks of their barren rock were strung a chain of watch towers. The single cylinders of stone, now hollowed out, stood as a reminder of a more dangerous past, when life here had to battle not only the climate and the land, but conquerors and bandits as well. Mutrah’s fort, built by the Portuguese in the 1580s, was under renovation, its high walls themselves surrounded by a builder’s metal fence. Still flying high above, the Sultan’s flag caught what little breeze there was.

A little further along the coast is Old Muscat, now little more than the seat of royal power. Here the Sultan’s palace, a gloriously blue and gold coloured building, is set at the end of the white marble Colonnade and among white-fronted government buildings. The entire area is immaculate: there is no rubbish to be seen, not even a grain of sand in the wrong place. Despite the heat, a few tourists are still wondering about, taking photographs of themselves and their friends in front of the gates.

IMAG1033Modern Muscat lies fifteen to twenty miles east of the palace. Here are found the giant shopping centres no self-respecting GCC city can be without. But here too is the Grand Mosque, completed in 2001. Though smaller than the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi, and perhaps less opulent, Muscat’s Grand Mosque is at once stunning and accessible, huge and welcoming. Like everywhere else in Muscat, the atmosphere at the mosque is relaxed. There is no security, no compulsory guides; we are free to enter and wonder, stop and look.

This relaxed atmosphere is mirrored in the friendliness of the people. Everyone stops to say hello; everyone is friendly and helpful. Walking along the beach before sunset you can see families picnicking and friends  playing cricket or splashing about in the water. In this, and in so much else, Oman is different. Everybody says it, and it is true.