Each night I run the inside of the perimeter wall. Bright lights cast their electric white over the black of the soft tarmac. To my left is the wall; to my right the compound and the sand of the desert, claimed but untamed. Not everything within our walls is manicured and manufactured. Surrounding the rows of houses and well-tended wadi is desolate dust. I run in the evening after the last call to prayer has faded from the air. Even now, in March, the days are warming up, but come the evening it is still pleasantly cool. Cool and dry; my skin soon feels grimy from the dust, but never clammy with sweat. There is just a faint line of dampness in the crease of my elbows, where the skin folds over itself preventing the sweat from evaporating.
The mornings are not as cool as they were even a couple of weeks ago. Walking from my rooms each morning I pass through the wadi. There is water still in the bottom, though there is no clue as to how it got there. The plants are all in bloom and the chatty birds fill my walk to work with music. The cloudless sky is a bright blue and the sun overhead even brighter.
What is it like here? I have been here over a year and a half now, but still I cannot really answer that question. Riyadh is like any big city. It is full of different peoples, different sounds and different tastes. The local restaurants near my rooms are cheap and tasty. The area is growing quickly and new houses and shops are opening up all the time. The area is filled with workers building it up before our eyes.
Towards the centre of town the restaurants get more expensive, but the food doesn’t always get better. The ambience is hit and miss most of the time, but weirdly worse the more middle class it gets. The centre of Riyadh is also filled with the glass and steel towers which have become the sine qua non of a modern city. A brand new financial district is being built where tower blocks jostle with each other in their quirky designs. A light railway system is under construction; road works disturb the traffic everywhere as the routes and stations are laid down.
But of course, Riyadh isn’t like anywhere else. It is different in all the headline grabbing ways, but also in ways that I would come to miss were they to be shed. The old immigration system was crazily awful; the new one boringly efficient. Of course I do not miss the old way: the interminable queues, the silent shuffling, the guessing games of just how long it would take. Yet now that is all gone, replaced with bright lights, glass desks, and smiling staff, Riyadh has lost something. It has gained something, absolutely, but has lost a little of its character too.
That character, that difference, is seen in so many little ways. The crazy driving and the huge cars. The endless burger bars and the delicious shawarma. The flashing fluorescent lights outside one-story shops. The coffee shops with their sprawl of dust-laden chairs and tables. The nights of young Saudi men climbing from one car to another as they skid across town. The nights of fires in the desert. The barbeques, the heavy lamb and rice, the can of diet cola (held by Saudis to be more than essential). The shops selling hundreds of different types of shemagh (the Arabian head-scarf), all identical and yet all different. The thobes that vary in design; each minute step away from pristine plainness a micro-step away from respectability. The unmarked side roads that ramify around massive walled houses. The supermarkets that unfailingly rob me of any trace of appetite, with their shelves full of cheap local vegetables and surprisingly expensive American imports.
The things that make Riyadh different are probably no more numerous than the things that make Riyadh the same, but however familiar Riyadh comes to feel, it never quite feels normal.
So what is life like out here? I really cannot tell. I yearn to leave, yet when away I begin to long to return. The overwhelming routine isn’t just a prison, it is also a comfort blanket, though one that at times threatens suffocation. Early nights and early rises are the hallmark of my weeks. Come weekends (Fridays and Saturdays) and I might stay up a little later, but the habit of early mornings has bitten deep and the fierce morning sun hardly makes sleeping past seven at the latest any easier.
Riyadh is place where it is important that you like your work. There is always ample work to be done, but of course it helps to pass the time. With no cinema or such like, social lives are definitely social. You cannot just float with life, for there is nothing to float in. You have to dive in deep and grab it with both hands. It is one Riyadh’s oddities that the current of life may not be deep enough to float on, but still gets deeper the better one gets at diving.
Riyadh can feel frustratingly lonely, but it is also home to adventures and experiences that I haven’t had anywhere else. Digging holes in the desert to cook quail; jumping in cars with strangers for four-hour cross country drives; sipping tea with fast-talking locals. These are not the things I would do in London, but because Riyadh demands that you make the effort, you find yourself doing everything that your mother taught you not to. Never mind not talking to strangers, this requires a virtual embracing of them.
Surrounding everything, and informing life in a way I will never be fully able to understand, is the desert. There is the desert that is nothing more than a dirty wasteland. There is the desert of astonishing beauty. The desert sky isn’t as dark and bright as legend would have it, but only because Riyadh itself is so bright. Electric lights burn all through the night and, in a weird twist of irony, as deserts advance in other continents around the globe, here the desert is retreating as Riyadh advances unstoppably.
When I stepped from a British Airways ‘plane eighteen months ago and first trod on Saudi soil, I was driven to a half built compound on the edge of the world’s largest women only university. Now I live on the edge of a thriving, growing neighbourhood, but without ever having moved house. Economic growth is tangible here; urbanisation isn’t just a word. Perhaps over a quarter of the country lives in Riyadh, though firm numbers aren’t easy to pin down, and yet the city continues to suck people in.
And it sucks the land dry as well. Riyadh might mean garden, but the oasis of old isn’t enough to sustain the modern metropolis. Desalinised water is a partial solution, but a quick glimpse at a map shows how costly a solution it is. Riyadh is nowhere near the sea. The bounty of cheap energy (read oil) is everywhere to be seen. Never mind the price of petrol (a family car can be filled up for only around £3), the style of life here depends upon not ever using the word sustainable.
Yet for all these words, I cannot describe what life is like out here. The shops shut five times a day as the call to prayer brings the faithful from their work. There is a mosque in every neighbourhood, almost on every corner. They can be simple or intricate, but all appear welcoming. I haven’t been chased from a single one, and the no entry signs one might see in Morocco are conspicuously absent here.
In this most conservative of countries there is a friendliness and welcome that is warming. In this most reserved and walled-off of societies there is a hospitality that often surprises.
As ever and always, this is a land of contrasts. All the hackneyed comments are true, and yet not a single one is right.
I am never sure what my feelings towards this place are and I am never sure that I can describe what life is like out here.