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The International Writers Magazine: Saudi Life

Riyadh Sketches
Marwan Asmar
There is a feeling of dilettantism expressed in its urbanism sprawl, society and structure.  From the air, the city looks flat, buildings and buildings that stretch horizontally over the as far as the eyes can gaze.


It’s a first instance glare, the Arabian Peninsula. Suddenly, the many books you long read on the geography, history and politics of the area became real and tangible in front of your very eyes, through its shapes, forms and people.

At the King Khaled International Airport, 35 kilometers north of the city, the first thing that strikes you is its auspicious architectural design made to reflect the area, the surroundings, its history and even its culture and traditional architecture.

The apartment hotel was on Dabbab Street which in English means fog, equally revealing because Riyadh like the rest of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf is a hot, almost scorching place, especially in the summer months. Dabbab is associated with cool weather, but perhaps the name was chosen earlier to reflect the coolness of the light winter months. In fact Riyadh is taken from the Arabic rawda meaning garden.

Kingdom My sojourn in the city was simple enough, reflecting the natural instincts of a newcomer to a new city, being picked up on most days from the hotel by the company chauffeur. During my stay, I never had the clearest idea of how he got me to the company, nor how I had got back to the hotel. It seemed different routes all the time to the point of exaggeration. Obviously my concentration was going haywire. I remember somewhere along the way was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a propitious architectural site pleasing to the eye, and of other buildings designated for other ministries. We cornered further, and low and behold, there stood our offices, which were part of a larger group of companies.

I didn’t quite feel the hotness of the weather at first, because I was being banded from one taxi to another, in-and-out-of the office, in malls and coming and going from the hotel, to the small corner shop, the centre proper and to the mosque which was just around the corner. Although, big, the mosque was a large prayer hall, with no special recital decorations on its walls as is the case with many in Arab countries. But the simplicity of the mosques is actually in keeping with Islamic traditions.

Our work was in what seemed like a hightech building, it was air conditioned with offices stretching from one end to the other, although at times it was hot in one place and cool in the other. Every time I went to the bathroom, I felt as if the ground was moving like if I was on a plane thousands of feet in mid-air. I thought it was my blood pressure and told someone about it, but he just giggled and attributed it to my imaginations.

Nevertheless, I like the office I was working in, it was nice and cozy, a place you can definitely work in, and I felt I was able to produce. Magazine, corporate magazines, periodicals, yes these were the publications I produced some of the edited content for and was sending back to the office through email. Back copies were in the office for all to feast your eyes on.   

Coffee, tea and cappuccino were served continuously. At 4 o’çlock, it was clocking off time. On most days I left like all the other employees, because someone told me, I had no electronic card that opens and closes the door. “Get him one,” bellowed the director, he can sit in the office for as long as he likes.” I like a person with a sense of mission, I thought to myself.

That day I left the office, at around 7, did most of my work, and then headed to Al Faisaliah, a sort of column mall made of stained glass and right in the middle of Riyadh’s business district between King Fahd Road and Olaya Street, two other streets whose name I remember.

The Kingdom high tower is another mall I visited, a huge complex just down the road from Al Faisaliah which starkly dominates the Riyadh skyline from a far, adding an aesthetic, over-powering feel, the ones that makes you want to continue to gaze at.  It was a structure for different uses and a restaurant right on the top which allowed you to see the whole of Riyadh or so I was told with a glee.

Because of their vertical nature, these two malls stood out in the city that appeared to be complete, and built up as far as the building structures were concerned. Every capital seems to have its own distinctiveness. The high towers of Dubai for instance, the character of Kuwait, as well, or the development in Qatar.

Riyadh represents a design and structural style of its own that harks back between tradition and modernism with its buildings and towers standing in parallel, not too small and not too big, but there is definitely the “horizontal” rather than the vertical approach. The area of Riyadh stretches to 600 kilometers, and metropolitan Riyadh is about 1600 kilometers in land space enveloping other towns and cities in the surrounding vicinity.
Mental images and stereotypes continue to reverberate in my mind. When I visited Dubai in 2004, I felt it was a big workshop of construction. This was not case with Riyadh. The construction had already been done, the city was moving on, gaining its own features and distinctiveness, and which may have been a deliberate move on the part of urban planners and decision-makers.

In the Al Faisiliah, I went straight up to the food court, while bypassing the chic and top brand boutique shops. I was concerned more in nourishing my body and could choose from the numerous restaurants,  these varied from fish and chips to India, Chinese, hot-dogs and burgers and donuts.

It was a pleasant atmosphere that was washed down through a cold bottle of milk brought from the local cornershop. I took a red London Cab to get to the hotel, being surprised to find such hackneyed vehicles operating on the streets of Riyadh as a taxi, but in a way it brought back fond memories of the British capital, even though the driver was not a cockney but from the Philippines.

The city was definitely cosmopolitan, thanks to the expansion of the economy through the past 40 years. Here was a mish mash and kaleidoscopes of cultures besides the Saudis who were found in droves in the private sector unlike the rest of the Gulf where they nearly always dominate public sector employment.

Alongside, the Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Indians, French and Americans, I saw Saudi locals as journalists, working in public relations, airline, ticketing officers, stewards and no doubt much more.

In between meandering its streets and highways, and though its large street signs, I got to know as well of the King Abdelazziz Historical Center, which includes the National Museum of Saudi Arabia and the King Abdelazziz Public Library. Besides that as well, and further down the main road, there was the King Fahad National Library, which I am sorry to say didn’t visit because of lack of time and the fact it was being renovated. But I passed by the scaffolding numerous times.

This is obviously part of a cultural rejuvenation the city is undergoing as exemplified though its public and private universities with the oldest being the King Saud University established in 1957. Today, the city has at least seven other universities, including the Princess Noura Bint Abdel Rahman University for women which is still under construction on the Airport Road. This is in addition to the numerous colleges being established.

For a city of 6 or 7 million—one of the major conurbations of the Arab world, there could be a need for a lot more, but there are many more universities across the Kingdom.

I didn’t visit the rest of the malls spreading across which I was told there are many, and during Salat or prayer time, they shut off their doors, and no one is allowed to enter. After a while, one mall appears like the rest.  Though, I’ve been told the Sahra mall is one of the biggest, the taxi driver suggested I go to the Riyadh Gallery, one of the newest in the city.

It was past 10 in the evening, but teeming with everyone, locals, expatriates, men, wives, children, they were all there, assembling mostly at the food courts.  “Because of the hot weather, Riyadh becomes alive in the evening,” one Saudi friend told me.

Incessant bright lights dominate, shining bill boards flicker. The roads were all lit as my taxi tried to out-beat the traffic lights but with no avail. Like other world cities, Riyadh suffers from traffic congestion, but everyone appeared to be taking the snail-pace movement in their stride. 

One afternoon, after work, I told the taxi diver—who happened to be Pakistani, many, I realized afterwards, and a good deal from the Pashtoons—to take me to the Jarir bookstore which I heard about from colleagues.

Jarir Immediately, I was struck by its size in Riyadh, though this was just one among the branches sprawled in Saudi Arabia and quite a few across the Gulf  like Kuwait. This was a big mega store. On the ground level, it was the high tech, lap-tops, pocket-books, mini-computers and the rows of stationery. Although I feasted my eyes on them, I was more interested in the books upstairs. 

These were to say the least, minted books, not the ones you see in roadside kiosks, but are of high quality readings in English and Arabic, on culture and traditions, novels, literature, history and the list keeps growing.

You lose yourself amongst the shelves, the paperbacks, hardbacks and coffee table books. It is as if the literary world is at you finger tips,  glancing at the titles, looking at the covers, briefly flickering though the pages to see what is a great buy and what is a potential buy. Then there were the books going at discount prices. I saw books by the old master orientalist like Wilfred Thesiger, Ghada Karmi and Frank Macourt’s poignant biography among the thousands of titles.   

I left the bookshop, a couple of hours latter, unsatisfied with having bought much less than I wanted to devour and made my way to Al Fasaliah for a quick bite to eat and then head home to my temporary abode where I was frequently accompanied by satellite news and an occasional book.

To me, Riyadh represented a series of sketches, images, brief encounters and a variety and sub-variety of different cultures—a global microcosm, yet a city stuck to its local traditions and Arabism with an extended hand to the world.

© M Asmar Feb 2011
The writer can be reached at:

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