The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Two)

We had trekked nearly 7,000 miles from the comforts of home in the Washington, DC area to the exotic land of Saudi Arabia.  Our hosts guided us through restricted passageways at the Riyadh airport, eliminating the prerequisite searches and questioning, to a luxurious holding area with colorful, lavish overstuffed sofas atop golden legs where we were served fragrant mint tea and dates of many varieties.  The Riyadh airport had been an intriguing collage of constant sound and motion, a feast for the eyes and ears; men in white thobes greeting each other enthusiastically with a kiss to each cheek, clusters of women shrouded in ebony with intractable children milling about, and persistent chatter.  All against the backdrop of opulent multi-tiered chandeliers and languid fountains spewing plumes onto lush greenery.  I could only imagine what the city of Riyadh had in store.  I was primed for my new adventure.

My husband, Bishara, and I transited from the airport into the city of Riyadh on an immaculate, modern six-lane highway with palm trees lining the medians. We lunged to the center of the back car seat, our breathing halted, as the occasional Mercedes or BMW with tinted windows and gathered curtains on the passenger and rear windows hurtled past us on the shoulder at death defying speeds. Our driver remained undaunted. As we entered Riyadh, on that mild, sunny afternoon in mid-February 2000, I clutched the edge of my seat and let out an inaudible gasp. This was an ultramodern city with high-end couture shops, quaint outdoor coffee shops, skyscrapers that punctuated the skyline, five star western hotels, and the seemingly ever present McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. The stereotypical images in my mind of Saudi Arabia began to shatter.

English: Kingdom Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia....

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Kingdom Center in background) ~ [From: Wikimedia Commons]

Because Bishara’s boss was never really keen on my presence on this trip of scheduled meetings between U.S.-Saudi Business Council members, including entrepreneurs from northern Virginia and prominent Saudi businessmen and government officials, I was not involved in the early sessions between our group and the Saudis. Doggedly determined to secure a job, I spent our first day in the capital city in our Radisson hotel room on the phone with Saudi executives and government representatives.  The gentlemen I spoke with were all kind, gracious, straightforward, and apologetic. Due to the employment restrictions imposed upon women, occupations were limited to three sectors: academia, the medical field, and ladies’ banks; it would be a major challenge and nearly impossible to secure employment in Riyadh. Each gentleman assured me he would do his utmost to support me in my efforts. I was wary of the unfounded generosity, but I consistently encountered a listening ear and was given contact names and numbers, encouraged to call back if I needed further assistance. To my pleasant surprise, I found that these were not just empty words. Despite what seemed like insurmountable obstacles, I secured several promising interviews.

On our second day in Riyadh, I went to a breakfast meeting with the American delegation and later a meeting with the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce; on each occasion I was the lone woman in the room. On our journey through the heart of Riyadh, a sprawling city more than half the size of Rhode Island, I was dazzled by the sight of the soon to be completed Faisaliyah, an imposing three dimensional triangular tower that rose to almost 900 feet. Horizontal sheets of steel running the length of the prodigious building would eventually house a five-star luxury hotel and principal shopping mall. The tower sported a precariously perched glass sphere near the tip, housing a three-level restaurant. The Faisaliyah would be the tallest building in Riyadh, only to be overshadowed by the Kingdom Center, a building that dominated the metropolis at almost 1,000 feet, aimed for completion in January 2001.

Faisaliah 2

Al-Faisaliyah Center (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

We were cordially welcomed at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce by several commanding and majestic figures in crisp white thobes who bowed slightly, reverently sweeping their right hand to their chest as they delicately shook the edges of my fingers. The Chamber was accented with vaulted ceilings, crown molding anointed with complex circular designs, captivating colossal glass chandeliers, and mammoth windows with drawn dark blue curtains and gold sashes tied to the side. As papers shuffled and murmurs dulled, I fully expected to be seated in a corner or in the back of the room where I would remain fairly innocuous, content and honored to simply have the opportunity to observe the proceedingsI was, after all, only an auxiliary member of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council, there in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia solely due to the relentless efforts of my husband, Bishara, who was insistent that I accompany him on this trip to witness some of the intricacies of this enigmatic place; this country where I was bound and determined to live and work.  Bishara, ever one of my staunchest supporters and allies, was going to make sure my unconventional yearning came to fruition.

I felt my pulse rise and an irrepressible rush as I was guided by one of the Saudi government envoys to a seat at the table with the American contingency next to Bishara, a microphone at my disposal. I sank into the luxuriant black leather seat; delighted and appreciative. Before the meeting began, each member of the American bloc, including myself, had the opportunity to address the Chamber and expound on their specific business interest. Following these introductions, the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce disclosed that he knew there were many misperceptions in the western world regarding Saudi Arabia.  The American group had been in the Kingdom for a couple of days, and he was curious to learn of their impressions.  I felt Bishara’s foot connect with my leg under the table, urging me to speak up.  A flash of irritation crossed through me; I was not an official member of the delegation. It would be highly inappropriate for me to speak.  Bishara’s encouragement proved unnecessary. The Secretary turned his magisterial gaze in my direction, declaring he wished to hear from the lady first. My face flushed, pools forming in my armpits, and in those moments of exaltation I decided to forget all my logic and composure and speak plainly from my heart, sensing that this was a place where everyone could understand my sentiments regardless of culture or background.

I stayed glued to my chair, surprisingly steady, intent on being candid and genuine in conveying my gratitude for this trip and this opportunity. The greater part of my hesitation and anxiety dissipated, only a hint of apprehension remaining. I began to articulate what it meant to me to be on the first leg of this sojourn.  I spoke for approximately seven minutes, though time seemed suspended and my physical body displaced, only my mind whirring. I shared that my desire to come to the Kingdom was born out of a longing to experience the Arabian Peninsula through new eyes and form my own impressions, cleanly. Emboldened by the invitation to speak, I talked about seeking employment in the Kingdom, telling the group that I had had many conversations with incredibly gracious Saudi gentlemen who were helpful and forthcoming regarding my objective.  Before I realized I had finished speaking, spontaneous applause broke out on the Saudi side of the table. My heart skipped a beat, and I reveled in the acclamation, feeling a renewed sense of energy, possibility, and power. I was beginning to think my innate desire to spend time in Saudi Arabia was justified.

Me and Bishara in Saudi Arabia (February 2000).

Me in Saudi Arabia (February 2000).

Each destination we visited, we were welcomed with hospitality and warmth.  Docile and subservient attendants, typically of south Asian origin, endlessly scurried in and out of our meeting rooms serving Arabic coffee, mint tea, and Arabic sweet pastries with crispy filo dough filled with honey and pistachio nuts on gold and silver platters. The pungent and delectable aroma of cardamom seed extract radiated from the Arabic coffee and filled every molecule in the room. The ritual serving of coffee, tea and sweet pastries is a salient element of all gatherings, whether of a personal or business nature, in the Kingdom. To my consternation I was cautioned repeatedly to move my cup from side to side with my right hand, signaling to the attendant that I was finished. Failing to do so meant receiving continuous refills, a “free refill” policy that, while appealing to many Americans, was not ideal in the Kingdom. One of the many lessons in Arab culture I would learn. In countless settings while sipping Arabic coffee or tea, or discussing various business strategies,I was disarmed to witness our Saudi counterparts periodically snap their neck to one side while grasping the end of their ghutra and tossing it over their shoulder only to perform the same ritual with the other end of their ghutra. It reminded me of the many women I knew back home who simulated this behavior, flinging their long hair from their face in an attempt to tantalize and garner male attention. At other times I witnessed our esteemed and benevolent hosts, unreservedly primping and preening in front of wall mirrors.

Our nighttime excursions, rushing from meeting to the next or traversing the city to settle into repose at our cushy and enchanting quarters, revealed a whole other world. Several hours after dusk, the city came alive with frenzied activity. The terraces of “male only” coffee shops opened their arms to young men with ghutras rakishly skewed to one side or in baseball caps turned backwards. They sipped Turkish coffee and smoked sheesha (water-based tobacco smoked from a large pipe), while speaking in hushed tones or whispering in each other’s ears. Gaggles of women of all shapes and sizes, concealed in black, indistinguishable from one to another, bearing uncanny resemblance to the “grim reaper,” exited from the backs of cars driven by Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi chauffeurs, mumbling, with their children spilling out behind them.  Gliding from the car, their abayes dancing and flapping to the melodies of the night air, skimming along the entranceways of upscale shopping malls and haute couture shops; they immersed themselves in the bowels of endless shopping, exiting in the wee hours of the morning.

After a couple of “eye-opening” days in Riyadh, and with my curiosity piqued, I looked forward to our next destination, the province of Dhahran on the east coast of the country.

. . . To be continued!

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