Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Riyadh

ALLEGIANCE: Independent
TYPE: Isolationist Religious Enclave
GOVERNMENT: Religious Dictatorship
ILLEGAL GOODS: Animal Meat, Liquor, Narcotics, Animal Skins, Live Animals, Slaves, Luxury Goods, Hand Weapons, Battle Weapons, Nerve Gas, Robots, Radioactives

The van Maanens Star system is the home of a radical religious sect that believes in suffering as the key to salvation. Mining is done without machines, and any surplus money that is not needed to satisfy basic requirements like oxygen, food and water is burned in a sacred ceremony. The system is only accessible with a special permit.

Back when I was a kid, I used to play a lot of Elite, the now classic space trading game where you get to fly around the galaxy, buy and sell goods to strange aliens and occasionally blow them up. Elite’s universe is vast and intricate, with star systems divided by level of technological development, type of government, amount of crime and so on, but whether you wanted to trade in wheat, electronics or drugs and whether to try your luck in an industrial democracy or an agricultural anarchy was up to you — just fly in and dock.

But there was one exception: van Maanens star. Located just a hyperdrive stone’s throw from Sol, this “isolationist religious enclave” only allows visitors with a special permit, which is famously difficult to obtain: you’re only allowed in if you’ve proved your reputation and have a package to deliver. And even if they do let you in, they cut visitors no slack, with a lengthy list of restrictions banning goods like robots and animal meat that are allowed everywhere else in the universe.

Saudi Arabia has been my van Maanens star. I’ve been to Aqaba, Jordan, and gazed across the desert towards the barbed wire separating me from the forbidden kingdom. I’ve flown along the Persian Gulf, looking down at a string of lights along the forbidden coast. Once, in 2003, I even had a Saudi visa in my passport and was all set to go… when the mullahs decided that picture messages on mobile phones were sinful and torpedoed that project.

This time, it was for real. I disembarked into the surprisingly quiet terminal, got a stamp in my passport and a seemingly sincere welcome from a young, grinning immigration officer and clambered aboard a taxi for the trip to downtown Riyadh down an eight-lane highway, with palm trees and Gucci ads lining both sides and the occasional dun or white-colored building flying past in the night. And, like in Elite the first time I got that long-awaited permit and visited van Maanens, I somehow felt oddly disappointed: this is it? Just another Arab country and just another Arab city, just like Abu Dhabi or even Dubai?

However, Saudi Arabia turned out to be a little more than a few flipped bits in a video game’s configuration. Most of what you’ve heard is true: tne women really do have to wear the head-to-toe black abaya robes (not all veil their faces, but most do), alcohol really is banned (although 0% “malt beverages” do a brisk trade) and red paint really is applied on CD covers to give, say, the Pussycat Dolls more respectable necklines and hemlines. But while I knew men and women were segregated, I hadn’t realized how segregated: every restaurant, bank, shopping mall, food court counter and historical site was either divided into separate zones or separate times. Want to go check out the National Museum? You need to figure out not just when it’s open (daily), but when it’s open for men: Sun, Mon, Wed and Thu mornings or Tue afternoons only. I knew the Saudis took their Islam seriously, but I hadn’t realized how seriously: five times a day, everything, repeat, absolutely everything — shops, restaurants, banks, post offices, tourist sites — closes for prayer. Want to eat dinner? You need to plan to have it before 5:30, between 6 and 7, or after 7:30, as between those times, every place you could get food is closed. I’m still a little conflicted about how I feel about all this, so I’ll leave that for the next trip’s musings…

Another bit of a surprise, which I know will sound both offensive and obvious, is that Saudis look like terrorists. Offensive, because that should be a ludicrous stereotype to apply to 20 million people; yet obvious, because most of the 9/11 terrorists were devout Saudis, and hence in the West we associate the Osama bin Laden look — white robe, red checkered headdress, scraggly beard, leather sandals — with fanatical suicide bombers. I like to consider myself a pretty tolerant kind of guy, and have travelled in a fair few Arab countries before, but I was shocked and not a little ashamed at how often I at first got a visceral “eek!” reaction on spotting bin Laden or Ayman Zahawiri’s long-lost identical twin shopping at the Hyperpanda or behind the wheel of a taxi. Is that a bomb vest under his robe? Is he planning to drive me into a deserted alley and slit my throat?

Yet not once — not once! — was I made to feel anything less than welcome. Precisely because (white) foreigners are so uncommon, especially outside the confines of their housing compounds and five-star hotels, most people I met were friendly to a fault and brimming with curiosity. The three Saudi brothers running the little corner store where I did my daily shopping endeavoured to teach me Arabic, the Indians at the curry shop around the corner made sure I got an extra-large portion when I paid the paltry four riyals (US$1) for my meal, the post office clerk smilingly humored my request to add a few phrases in Arabic to a card, and on my last night I ended up sharing a plate of injera and wat with an Ethiopian cabbie, him refusing to accept any payment for a meal that cost him the equivalent of several hours’ takings. (He did leave the meter running while we ate, so it pretty much worked out the same.)

Riyadh is famously short on things to do, but work kept me busy enough that I only managed to sneak out once in the evening to climb up to the top of the Kingdom Centre, variously likened to a giant bottle opener or Pikachu, but in any case the tallest building in Saudi Arabia and quite a spectacular sight when lit up at night. Up top, connecting the two towers together at a height of 300m, is the Skybridge, where you can gaze on the bright lights of Riyadh and get some idea of how big the city is. Definitely worth the 25 riyals, and it’s probably the only skyscraper tourist trap in the world without a gift shop!

My last day was a Thursday, the Saudi equivalent of Saturday, and I had a three-hour window of opportunity for sightseeing in the morning, so I opted to check out the National Museum. And it is, it must be said, quite a spectacle: done up with the latest technology, there are so many video presentations and mini-theatres that you could probably spend a day in there doing virtual tours of Madein Saleh (the Saudi version of Petra) or watching re-enactments of the Prophet Mohammed’s battle of Medina. It wasn’t quite so much a museum as a propaganda exercise though: the display on plate tectonics started with a quote from the Quran, the history of the Sauds was rather airbrushed, and the display on the birth of Mohammed, reached from the clash and noise of the Jahiliyah (age of ignorance) by riding an escalator up into a room of soothing, pastel light while a choir of angels sings, has probably inspired a few conversions to Islam.

And then to the airport, which is a bit of an architectural masterpiece, but otherwise a remarkably boring place to wait any longer than necessary. Once through immigration, the international departure holding area has prayer rooms, two snack bars, two long-empty dusty rooms where the bookshop and souvenir stores used to be, and nothing else. At least there were power plugs if you pry up the little brass things on the floor…


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