Saturday, December 3, 2016

Glimpse of Saudi Arabia

I went to Saudi Arabia, right after Thanksgiving, the past week for a short business trip, visiting the mysterious country and region for the first time.

Gender segregation in public places

Gender segregation is mentioned in media here at US so frequently so I paid some attention to it. There is no such segregation on airplane. In fact on the flight from Dubai to Dammam, a women and her child sat next to me, she wore an Abaya (a loose cloak which covers one from head to toe) though. She is a Pakistanis living in Saudi Arabia.  There is no such segregation in stores either, women, wearing Abaya,  can go to any place in the store a male customer can go.

Desert Design - a store at Dharan
I had first hand observations of gender segregation in restaurants and at airport security check.

The first lunch I had with colleagues was at VAPIANO, an Italian restaurant in the Mall of Dharan. It was apparent that male customers eat at the front of the restaurant and female customers eat at the back. But the front part is small, the back part is large, and there is no wall to separate the two parts. We had a large group - 8 persons - so we moved to the back part at a large table, away from female customers and no one protested, but quickly a waiter asked the group to move to a smaller table in the front! In the end it was compromised that we sat at a large table in the center of the back.

I had another lunch in a restaurant at downtown, Five Guys, a burger chain. This restaurant has male and female/family dinning areas separated by a wall, and has different entrance for each area. My expat colleague said if he would have lunch with his wife, he would have to go to the family dinning area wait until his wife arrives.
Dammam King Fahd International Airport
Dammam King Fahd International Airport

Homes and Communities are heavily fortified

I stayed at my company's facility camp and hotel, which was heavily guarded. When we first arrived at the gate, a guard used a mirror to check the under body of the shuttle to see if there was car bomb, then he checked everyone's ID, and finally checked the trunk before letting the shuttle pass.

The road to the gate and the portion shortly passing the gate have speed bumps, some are 5 ~ 6 inch tall. I saw the same at the entrance to Dharan Techno Valley, and the entrance to Saudi Aramco.

Not only business is heavily fortified, homes are too - standalone homes or gated communities. Newly built homes along high way, each has its own brick wall. Gated communities where westerners live are guarded as heavily as business. The two I visited both had guards with machine guns on duty.

barb wired high wall outside my hotel room 

Curious about these security measures, I asked if the crime rate was high. Crime rate at Saudi Arabia is in fact very low due to the punishment according to Islamic laws. They still publicly punish convicted - lashes, cut off hands, decapitate .... none of my western colleagues have been to the events. The security measures are due to 2004 Khobar massacre when 22 people were killed, 25 were injured. The security measures guard  against organized crimes, not random or opportunistic crimes.

Raining Season

November is raining season there. It rained 3 of 5 days when I was there. It usually rained at night and was cloudy during the days. However it rained during the day on my second day there, when we went to Mall of Dharan for lunch. There is no drain anywhere  - highway or local road. There are puddles everywhere when it rains.
rainy day at the mall of Dharan
Terrace of VAPIANO - an Italian restaurant  

 Other Observations

The city is pretty new, the downtown is really impressive but mostly westernized. I was told that there is no public entertainment - no concerts, no movie theaters and only thing in culture center is Islamic religion books. Programs on TV are news and sports.

1/3 of the country's population are foreigners - mostly from southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippine, Sri Lanka  .... On my flights in and out of Dubai, ~ 80% passengers were from this region, they either work in UAE/Dubai, Saudi Arabia ... or change plane at Dubai to go back to their home countries.

Inside of the Mall of Dharan

Outside of the store Desert Design
Despite the relatively new infrastructures, trashes piled along highway, many unfinished buildings especially stand alone homes - it was said that some may stand unfinished for years!

Known for their slow pace of life, it was surprising to see that the drivers are as crazy as one sees in India or China! People drive on both shoulders of high way - so on a two lanes highway, I saw 4 cars driving side by side. A driver would make a right turn from left most lane. Because of the craziness, traffic light will be in green in only one direction at a time! So the waiting time at traffic light is much longer than it is here in States.

In downtown, streets are separated by high fence in the center of road, there is typically no left turn. One has to take U turn to reach establishments on the other side of the street.

Saudi Arabia Culture Center
The King of Saudi Arabia was visiting the city for the opening of Saudi Arabia Culture Center during my stay there.Because of the the visit,  the King's portraits were hanged along all the streets and high ways! The planed grand opening of the center was cancelled due to leak in the just finished Center from the rains. The King was rescheduled to attend the grand opening on Thursday December 1st, fortunately I left the city around midnight on Wednesday - avoiding the traffic nightmare to be caused by the King's motorcade.

The province I visited, Dharan, is an industry center, and much more liberal than the rest of the country. So what I saw is not a full reflection of Saudi Arabia, but that of Dharan, Saudi Arabia.

People I met at stores, in the workplace, at gates and at immigration check points are generally nice, I never felt unsafe at any time during my stay there. Ordinary people live their life just like people anywhere else in the world, with exception of the religion mandated daily prayers.

*Note  - the five stone structure of the Culture Center represent the five pillars of Islam

Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith.
Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.
Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy.
Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan.
Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca.

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