Friday, September 05, 2008

Life in Riyadh

There has to be some degree of cognitive dissonance when living in Riyadh.  The Diplomatic Quarter, where I live, is somewhat apart from the rest of the city, with walls and checkpoints all around it.  There's a good deal of freedom inside the compound, because all of the embassies located in Saudi Arabia are here, along with all of their employees and a good deal of third-country nationals not specifically tied to an embassy - I think there are about twenty-five thousand people in this compound.  It's big, and it's easy to get lost - everything is the same shade of desert tan, and the roads are curvy and unnamed.  For the most part, however, it's little America in my neighborhood.  All of my neighbors are Americans, we have barbecues outside once the sun is on its way down, and we crack open a beer like there's no big deal.  And once I figure out the way, I can walk to work or to my friends' houses without any problems - unveiled, wearing pretty much anything I would in America.


Our internet is still filtered by the local government, so there are certain websites I can't visit.  Some of them make sense (it's not surprising that Something Awful is blocked), but others seem ridiculous (Snopes?  Seriously?).  AIM is blocked, but not if you run it through Gmail.  Blogspot isn't blocked, but none of my posts since I arrived in Saudi Arabia are visible to me.  (Luckily, comments are emailed to me, so I can see what you write.  I can still address your questions, so keep them coming!)  

I can't drive outside the compound due to local law and to security restrictions placed on us by the embassy, so I have to take motor pool anywhere I want to go.  This means that I just had the following conversation with the dispatcher.

"Hi, can I get a car to take me to [the grocery store] at about 3?"
"Prayers start at 3.21, so you won't be able to go then.  What about another time?"  [All businesses must close for prayer times.  I couldn't get in and out in time to avoid the shutdown.]
"Okay, how about 4?"
"I tell you what, call back after 3.  The shift changes then, and the new dispatcher can tell you what time is best."

For someone who's had vehicular independence for almost ten years, this is a bit stressful.

Additionally, if I don't know where I'm going inside the DQ, I have to take motor pool to friends' houses, because you really can't give directions for how to get around here.  This means that there are always at least two or three people who know whose house I've been visiting.  The other day, I had to pick up some paperwork at my friend Ramon's house, and I had motorpool take me there because I didn't know where he lives.  A few hours later I was planning a trip into Riyadh proper with some friends, and when one of them called motor pool to confirm the trip, the dispatcher asked if I should be picked up at my house or at Ramon's, since that was where dispatch last knew me to be.  You can see the potential for this to get creepy and invasive fast.  

So much for life in Riyadh.  I'm sure I'll have more comments later on.  I'm working on some posts about the class system here, even at the embassy, and my trips so far into the city.  Don't want to overload you all.  I hope you're all well and gearing up for your weekend - mine's coming to an end, sadly, since our work week is Saturday through Wednesday.  Just another oddity about the Magic Kingdom...


  1. It is kind of creepy for people to be keeping track of your location.

    Have you had to be veiled at all during your stay yet, or have you been so lucky as to keep your freedom? If you do go outside the compound, are you expected to veil yourself?

  2. Within the compound, I'm fine in whatever I'd wear in the States. Outside, the abaya's pretty much obligatory unless I'm on official business (travel into the country and picking up my lost luggage counts as official). For those times when I'm not on official business, I can veil or not as I choose. Most women don't seem to do it, but I usually do just because I feel like it makes me a little less obvious. I'm hyper-vigilant when it comes to security stuff!

  3. Really interesting stuff! I'm curious, did your ASMS experience prepare you for any of this? ;-)

  4. Hmm... well the ability to work long hours helps. The ability to deal with ridiculous bureaucracy and senseless rules that nonetheless must be followed is useful, as well. Also, a healthy sense of black humor and the ability to spin a yarn of BS a mile long effortlessly is priceless. So yes, ASMS was great! =D

  5. ...and as far as being under constant surveillance? ;-)

  6. Well, Mr. Bill the security guard told me that he'd asked every year for funding to put up guard towers and to buy high-powered rifles for the security guards, so I guess so!

  7. What's your problem? I've been stalking you for years.

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