Riyadh and its squandered potential

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[Riyadh Airport, April 18th, 2004]

The magnificent Al-Mamlaka Building in Riyadh, picture taken with a Nokia 6600 phone by Mahmood Al-YousifThe Four Seasons Hotel occupies the 30th through the 48th floors of the immense and architecturally beautiful Al-Mamlaka Building (Kingdom Building) in Riyadh. The vista of Riyadh from the 48th floor is stunning regardless of the time of day or night, it’s even more stunning from the very top of the tower on the 100th floor (which is only open for maintenance) or the 99th floor observation deck, the tickets for which could be purchased from the lobby. The shopping mall on the ground floor has just about all the world-renowned brands from Saks 5th Avenue to Debenhams and everything (upmarket) in between.

Sadly, it also demonstrates the immense tourism opportunities lost for Saudi.

Had the culture been different, the red-tape absent, and the borders open to tourists, Riyadh by itself would far eclipse anything that Dubai has to offer. Not even considering the varied climates and areas in other parts of Saudi.

Consider this: the north of the country habitually gets snow, there are forests in the south-west, green and temperate climate in Ta’if, immense palm groves in the eastern province as well as in Qasim, beautiful and bountiful beaches on the the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf, huge sand-dunes and desert just about everywhere else, and you marvel at such a vast country which I think is as big as the eastern sea-board of the United States up to the Mississippi river. It is huge.

The land is as old as time itself, it was the cradle of civilisations, it is the mother of Islam and from it emanated cultures, sciences, trade, industry and some say man himself. I suspect that should a serious archaeological exploration be mounted in Saudi, it would add a vast treasure to the history of man.

In these days too it is a vast powerhouse of wealth. Without Saudi money, none of the Gulf countries would be where they are now. Imagine if the Saudis decided to pull all of their investments in the Gulf alone so that it be invested internally, a lot of the Gulf countries would collapse or come close to it.

But no one seems to want to invest in Saudi. Almost all the investments are government based rather than from the private sector. The Saudi government institutions always gives preference to Saudi or Saudi-based companies (yes in this case they regard even Bahrain foreign), they call this the policy of divestiture, recirculate money within. Only brave (and very rich) souls actually invest there. Like the Al-Mamlaka building and Al-Faisaliah, both owned of course by members of the Royal Family. They did a good job though, the two buildings are the pearls in what really can be regarded as a drab and soul-less city.

There has been talk very recently of opening up the country to tourism, but there are so many conditions attached to the project that it can never see the light of day and will be swept under the carpet as has been done with so many projects of this ilk.

During this trip however, I feel that something has changed in Riyadh. I haven’t been here for some months – close to a year actually. Open up the local papers and you see huge condolence pages to members of the police force who were killed in action by terrorists. These full-page ads it seems are paid for by the village or city that incident happened in. You will also see some news items detailing escapee terrorists and the discovery of car-bombs as has been done yesterday a little bit away from the Al-Mamlaka building.

Life seems to go on nevertheless. Saudis I’ve spoken to today are optimistic that even as these are dark times, there is light at the end of the tunnel which might have been quite a way off had 9/11 not happened.

I know, it it sick to tie your country’s development with another’s misfortune and pain, but in this case 9/11 did imbue our local regimes to at least tolerate change even if they do not embrace it fully. At least the rhetoric has been toned down a bit in Saudi (and other parts of the Gulf.)

Ironically Israel benefited from this as well… although they (the Arab countries) still announce suicide bombers as martyrs, and targeted killings as state-sponsored terrorism, somehow the words now seem to say that this is not our mess and not really our business. We have our own axes to grind. Leave the Palestinians and Israelis to sort it out themselves and we will continue just to condemn and write fiery articles in government owned newspapers.

Anyway, I’m just sitting here at the immense Riyadh Airport waiting for Gulf Air to make up its mind how long the delay is to get their plane to take us to Bahrain! The scheduled departure time was 1600, they told us it would be 1630, then 1745 and the latest figure is 1945! The plane apparently went “technical” in Bahrain and they changed the plane. This gives credence to their name: Gulf Air = Get Used to Late Flights And Incorrect Reservations! In fairness to them however, I know that their punctuality record has improved a lot over the last few years. At least it’s not PIA (Please Inform Allah!).

The battery is about to give up, so I’ll shut up for now and catch you on the other side..


  • anonymous
    20 April 2004

    Riyadh and its squandered potential

    Good article, very perceptive, glad you made it thru Passport Control!


  • mahmood
    20 April 2004

    Re: Riyadh and its squandered potential

    heh! you mean for the way out right?! I’m not concerned if they don’t let me in, but it would be a tad inconvenient if they didn’t let me OUT!

    I hope that we can meet the next time I’m in Riyadh, or whenever you come to this side of the pier! 😉 you’re always welcome to give me a call…

  • anonymous
    20 April 2004

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  • anonymous
    22 April 2004

    Riyadh and its squandered potential

    Mahmood –

    Mayor Guiliani noted, just a couple of months after 9/11 — if there could be some good of it — is it was that the destruction of the WTC brought down a cultural wall which had always separated between New York City and the rest of the country.

    It certainly wasn’t worth it, but it was nevertheless something to take the sting away.

    9/11 cannot be undone, but if it can now bring some positive change to Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East, Americans will be glad of it.


  • mahmood
    23 April 2004

    Re: Riyadh and its squandered potential

    Hi Andrew, thanks for stopping by and for your link to mahmood.tv. Much appreciated.

    9/11 was/is the watershed that this region (unfortunately) has been waiting for. After the initial shock, people are owning up to the fact that yes, some Arabs ARE evel and need to be dealt with. Further, not only that fact became quite patently obvious, but the causes of such an ideology is more dangerous than the perpetrators of that heineous act themselves or their leaders.

    What is important is for us (Arabs) to recognise these things and put them in front of us and be brave at suggesting solutions that would really bring us into the fold of the modern world.

    Saying that “Islam is supreme” and “Arabs are supreme” or any of the other cliches just do not hold water any more. We need to do something drastic: education, acceptance of other views and cultures as as good as our own, democracy and tolerance.

    So yes, the 9/11 phoenix has most definitely risen in the form of more transparency and openness, regardless of the ruling families wishes! If they do not change as has happened in Bahrain, then they will be soon forgotten.

Cultural Friday