Hotel review: Al Muthana (Almuthana), Riyadh

For some odd reason, all the “branded” hotels in Riyadh were full last week, so I decided to try out a place I’d had my eye on for a while, namely Al Muthana (or Almuthana, as they like to spell it). It’s a new-looking building right on King Fahd Rd, just behind al-Faisaliah, that I passed by on my daily commute.

The hotel’s own website doesn’t offer online booking, but a site called ResMe.com does, so I booked a “Studio” room for three nights at US$120/night, considerably cheaper than the US$200+ you’d be looking at for my usual Holiday Inn. On showing up, though, check-in didn’t seem to have a clue about my booking or what to do with it, and they bumped me up to a “Junior Suite” and keyed in the rack rate of SR 863, nearly twice what it was supposed to be. I attempted to sort this out the next day, but I had to go through the rigmarole once more on check-out, ending up with a really bizarre looking bill that charged me SR 853 x 3 and then lopped off a few thousand riyal as “SINGLE ROOM DISCOUNT”. Boggle.

So, positive things first: the hotel is very new and very stylishly and modernly done, with glass and muted shades of tan, none of the over-the-top gold glitz that Arabs usually like. The entire place has free, reasonably speedy wireless internet and the basics of my room worked fine. The “Junior Suite” was, indeed, large, although most of the space was rather useless: for example, the TV was perched atop the minibar in a corner, so far away from the sofa that binoculars would have come in handy. The bathroom was also way below Western standards: the shower blatters out only a thin stream of lukewarm water, and on my last day the bathtub plug got stuck, which would’ve led to a nice little flood if I hadn’t managed to pry it open with a nail clipper.

However, it’s the service that really lets down the hotel. The promised fitness center is open only 4 to 10 PM (!?), with a small, dark indoor pool with no access to the outside, and a laughable excuse at a gym that doesn’t even have a functioning treadmill. My room wasn’t cleaned at all on the first day, there was no sign of the promised fruit basket, and water bottles weren’t replenished. I tried to order room service breakfast one morning, but nobody even bothered to pick up the little hang-on-the-door order form. Breakfast at the mezzanine floor cafe was quite OK though, brought plate by plate according to your order (no buffets) in Western or Arabic style, if a little expensive at SR 69.

All in all, for a quick overnighter Al Muthana would be fine, and the price certainly is very attractive. But for a longer stay, it’s worth it to find a place that actually knows what they’re doing.

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Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: ZS754 DMM-RUH Y 737 seat 17F

Dammam‘s King Fahd Int’l is no less than the largest in the world by land area and the terminal itself is scaled to fit, with arrivals, departures and check-in sprawled across four levels and gates numbered from 10 to 125 — perhaps somewhat excessive for an airport that serves under 3 million pax in a typical year. Opened only in 1999, it already looks rather old-fashioned and virtually identical to RUH, which dates back to 1983. We’d arrived a good two hours before flight time, and at the Sama desk we received sequence numbers 001 and 002, our window seats ticked off by pen on a sheet of paper with an airplane diagram.

Our safari chicken consumed (rather tasty!) and planes spotted (EgyptAir plus Saudia, Saudia, Saudia, Saudia and more Saudia), we crossed through security (shoes bad, water bottle no problem) in search of the al-Fursan lounge’s wifi. Alas, unlike RUH and JED they didn’t have one here, so I had to content myself with editing offline. Only after sitting for half an hour did I realize what was so eerie: the airport was incredibly quiet. No crowds of rushing people, no crying babies, no trolleys, no announcements, just silence halfway between a tomb and a library.

Eventually, though, the area near the gate started to fill up and not one but two Sama planes rolled up, and boarding started precisely on time.

We weren’t supposed to be on this plane in the first place: Trsqr had booked us on Saudia, but that reservation fell through for unclear reasons, and he managed to snag some cheap last-minute tickets on Saudi LCC Sama instead. The downside was that the flight time was a good three hours earlier, but on the upside, this now completed both my trinities of all major Saudi airlines (Saudia, Nas and now Sama) and all major Saudi airports (RUH, JED and now DMM); now I just need to figure out a way to fly on Al-Khayala.

My first impression on boarding the aircraft was quite positive: the seats looked new and spiffy, in blue/gray leather with embossed “Sama” logos in Arabic, and surprisingly decent seat pitch, a little better than Nas (trip report). On closer inspection, though, it’s clear that the aircraft wasn’t new (yellowed panels here and there, old-fashioned warning lights, etc), it’s just that the seats have been thoroughly refurbished. The plane was almost full, and the only empty seats in sight were those next to Trsqr and myself. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Sama’s crew had both Filipino and Arabic members, but the uniform was even more conservative than Saudia’s: the women wore a dark blue scarf wrapped around the entire head, revealing only the face, a featureless dark blue coat with a pink shirt underneath, and — the only un-Islamic touch — tight dark blue pants. Reasonably stylish, yes, but attractive, hardly.

The safety demo was run through at warp speed in both Arabic and memorized-by-rote English of the variety that would be indecipherable if you hadn’t already heard it a million times. Flight time was announced with admirable precision as 42 minutes, then stretched out to 45 minutes after ATC kept us waiting for a bit. Once we pushed back, we headed straight to the runway, and the captain got a running start by revving up the engines while still in the turn, straightening out the plane as we picked up speed and took off.

As we took off I spotted one of the more eerie sights I’d seen in Saudi: a series of abandoned farms in the middle of the desert, with dried-out circles where the irrigation sprinklers once rotated and both roads and buildings already half-swallowed by dunes. Just a tiny reminder of how artificial virtually everything in Saudi actually is…

As promised, it was a short flight and the crew didn’t even bother running the drinks cart, instead just walking down the aisle themselves and filling the few orders. Before long, we started our descent, complete with the sequence of tight turns that seems to characterize any arrival at RUH, and touched down smoothly. Back in the Dead Center of the Kingdom…

Bonus: Trsqr’s review of the same flight on FlyerTalk!

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Train 9, First Class, Riyadh-Dammam

As a bit of a train buff, I tried my best to google up some info — any info — about the services of the Saudi Railways Organization before our trip, but virtually none was forthcoming, and eventually it was Trsqr who did the (considerable) legwork of reserving tickets. He rustled up the number of Dammam‘s train station from somewhere and got an Arabic speaker to proxy, and it turned out that even the SRO website’s schedules are inaccurate. There was, however, still an evening train from Riyadh to Dammam, it just left an hour earlier, and there was availability in all three classes: Second, First and the delightfully named “Rehab”, which I’m told is always patronized by Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears on their visits to the Kingdom. Second cost SR60, First was SR75 and Rehab was SR130, so we opted for First and showed up at the train station half an hour before departure.

Like most governmental buildings in Saudi, Riyadh‘s train station is improbably huge, especially given that it caters to all of four trains a day. All passengers were subjected to a quick security check, and the guards in proper TSA style even demanded the removal of beep-inducing footwear, but at least liquids were not on the no-ride list.

SRO doesn’t assign seats, but finding two seats wasn’t a problem — although we were shooed out of the front-facing ones, these being reserved for families, and kicked back into the rear-facing bachelor section. “First Class” hardly qualifies as luxurious, but neither was there much to complain about: it was clean and the seats were reasonably comfy, with tray tables and a token amount of recline. Second Class seemed to be much the same, with slightly narrower pitch, while Rehab had big leather seats and roof-mounted TVs featuring the latest in Islamic programming, and their pax also get to use the VIP lounges at the stations. Snack carts equipped with an ever-dwindling array of plastic-packed pastries, chips and drinks rumbled through every now and then, and the cafeteria car offered more of the same.

The problem with riding trains by night is that there’s nothing to see, especially when the line passes through the vast emptiness of central Saudi. It was supposed to be a 3:45 trip, but that much time had already passed by the time we finally pulled into Hofuf, much of it alternatively sitting or crawling through the desert at a siding while we waited for the train in the opposite direction. (The entire Saudi network is single-tracked.) It was thus past 1 AM when we finally pulled in Dammam, five hours after we left.

Dammam’s terminal is an exact carbon copy of Riyadh’s, to the point that I couldn’t help wondering if this was all some colossal prank and we’d somehow missed the train turning around and returning to Riyadh… but no, there was a tang of salt in the air, and a lunatic cabbie (is there any other kind in Saudi?) careened us into the Holiday Inn Al-Khobar in no time.

EY 316 RUH-AUH Y B777-300 seat 26D

A brutal flight time, as departing from RUH at 5 AM means getting up at 3 AM. Check-in and immigration were uneventful, although I was disappointed (but not very surprised) that the immigration guy couldn’t tell me when my visa expires. Why, you ask? Because Saudi visas don’t state this date: instead, they just have the date of issue and the number of months it’s valid. The catches are that 1) these are Islamic (lunar) months of 28 days, not Western months; 2) business (non-working) visas appear to have a restriction on how many days within that period they’ve valid; and 3) it depends on the visa type if the days start counting from date of first issue or date of first arrival. Gah.

Same plane as last time, but much lower load, maybe 20% in economy. I watched through that creepy safety video again (I think the dead white eyes of the characters are to blame), devoured the sandwich and juice tossed to us after takeoff, and attempted to sleep.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Riyadh and Janadriyah

First Wife Bribed for Understanding

YANBU, 26 February 2008 — Ah, the complexities of having multiple wives. Some may think this makes life easier, considering that multiple wives means multiple housecleaners and multiple food-preparers and if one gets on your nerves you can go hang out with the other one until the first one behaves properly. But in fact it’s not as easy as it sounds to have a number of women in your life: life ain’t easy for a player, as some might say. So it may come to no surprise that – according to the daily Al-Madinah yesterday – a man lavished his first wife with a grand fete filled with expensive gifts and jewelry when she did not dispute his desire to marry a second woman. Perhaps there is no better way to reward a woman for allowing you to marry another woman than to give her lots of shiny things. —Arab News

Somewhat to my surprise, Riyadh was rather more fun this time around: by now I felt that I pretty much knew how things worked, and thanks to my diving buddies I was introduced to another side of life in Saudi through an invitation to dinner at one of the expat compounds on the outskirts of town — which shall remain nameless for soon to be obvious reasons. Just getting in entailed running an impressive security gauntlet: the outer gate checked who I was, who I was meeting and whether there was an invitation for me, the second automated gate some hundred meters away was opened on command, and the taxi I’d arrived in was turned around at the third and final gate, which was guarded not just by the compound’s own guards but two Saudi army soldiers sitting on top of a tank! This would be pretty excessive anywhere else, but four compounds in Riyadh alone were bombed in 2003-2004, using tactics like first blowing up a car and then sending in an a larger bomb disguised as an ambulance.

Compounds are popular among expats not just because of the security, but because they are in effect little bubbles where Saudi laws don’t apply: women can go wherever they want (within the compound) and wear whatever they want, people can mingle at the pool, and even alcohol is available. It was Wednesday night, the Saudi version of Friday, so after dinner at the compound’s restaurant we adjourned for a drink. I was expecting a juice bar where staff dribbles a little siddiqi (moonshine) into your Coke in exchange for a hefty tip, the way we used to do it at unlicensed university parties, but no: these guys had created an entire English pub, complete with wood paneling, jukebox, Premier League on the telly and beer being ladled out from an honest-to-Allah tap. Ladies in low-cut tops and skirts were clinking together glasses, the guys waved around cigars and the very worst of Britney Spears, Vengaboys and Bon Jovi blared out from the speakers. I had to pinch myself to remember that I was in Saudi.

But rest assured that even if you lack the wastah to get underground, Saudi Arabia has a plenthora of alcohol-free “malt beverages” that provide all the calories of beer with none of the kick, most of them attempting to make up for the fact by adding in copious quantities of sugar and artificial flavor. The bizarrest by a mile has to be “Budweiser NA Green Apple”, the solitary American entrant in the market, and I can state for the record that it is neither overly sweet nor artificial-tasting; it’s merely absolutely disgusting. This is not beer, nor even close to beer — it’s like Sprite with fermented oatmeal poured in. Yecch.

On my last full day, I headed out to the fortuitously timed Janadriyah festival, Saudi Arabia’s largest (only?) cultural event held yearly for two weeks in February-March. It had opened the day before with a camel race and the traditional arhda dance, which I’m told involves the royal family waving around swords as they waddle around, but being a Wednesday I had to work then. Information in English regarding the event is incredibly sparse (the newspapers couldn’t even agree on opening times or schedules), but I chartered a taxi and zoomed 45 km north of Riyadh into the surrounding wastelands to check it out. (For posterity, it appears that the event is open all day, but the best time to come is after 4 PM when things are in full swing.)

Rather stupidly, I’d arrived just before high noon, and it turned out that the site is gigantic and taxis aren’t allowed inside — I thus had to plod about on foot, spending the first half hour just trying to figure out which of the several dozen buildings scattered over the sands actually contained anything of interest. Signage in English was nonexistent (well, there was one that said “Exit” and pointed to the gate), but there were a couple of Arabic-only maps left over from previous years, so I figured that the area with the most points of interest marked had to be the place to go and headed there, pausing along the way for a few camel snapshots courtesy of a bunch of friendly herders.

Basically, Janadriyah is a mutant cross between a temporary exhibition, a job fair and a souk. The centerpiece “village” contains two large buildings full of stalls with artisans making and selling local products ranging from daggers and coffeepots to honey and kebabs. One of the buildings is very nicely done up like a traditional two-story souk, complete with narrow streets, balconies and pavilions; the other is just a square block with stalls along the sides. But in addition to the artisans, there’s a Saudi Who’s Who of ministries and companies showing off: the Interior Ministry had a rather gory exhibit showing the aftermath of the compound bombings and what they do to drug dealers, while Saudi Arabian Airlines had built a replica of an airplane cabin and even had a stall selling SV goods, including the playing card sets I’d lusted for — but, alas, the guy running the stall was AWOL and nobody else could sell me one. There are also quite a few shops selling food of all kinds, but having just had my breakfast I picked up a few ridiculously huge pastries for a riyal a pop, trekked back across the sands and returned to the hotel to nurse my burgeoning headache. In the unlikely event that there is a next time, I’ll go late in the afternoon and bring a hat.

SV1069 RUH-JED Y B777-200 seat 45D

…skipping a dull week in Riyadh and heading straight to the next destination…

I’d wanted to try out Nas or Sama for this flight, but neither had conveniently timed flights, while Saudia’s departures are near-hourly and reasonably priced at SR 280 (~US$75). I’d already booked my ticket before the Delhi detour, but changing the departure with a call to SV’s Singapore office was quick, effortless and free, and I could confirm that the date was changed online. Props to SV.

Riyadh’s domestic terminal is creepily similar to the international terminals — no surprise, really, as they’re all cast from precisely the same mold, down to way you have to X-ray all bags (carryon and checked) before check-in and then walk back out through the metal detector before going through security again into airside.  Being the beginning of the Saudi weekend, Wednesday evenings at the airport are unsurprisingly busy with fairly long lines at the Saudia desks, but I’d budgeted for this and check-in itself was unproblematic. The airport’s flight info monitors are rather annoying though, as not only do they switch back and forth between Arabic and English (which is understandable), but they spend half their time showing pretty pictures of the airport…

The airside of the domestic terminal looks identical to the int’l one as well, but one lady was sufficiently impressed by the cascading fountain in the center to lift her veil to take a better look! The domestic terminal is noticeably more lively than the international one, with three restaurants/cafes doing a brisk business and a gift shop/bookstore that, much to my surprise, even stocked the latest Economist. I opted for the Saudi Gazette at a sixteenth of the price, picked up a green salad and bottle of water from the Sport Cafe and leeched off the Saudia Al-Fursan Lounge’s unsecured wifi. Quite a few Umrah pilgrims also heading to Jeddah were already in ihram: consisting basically of two towels wrapped around your body, it looks rather like a cross between a terrycloth bathrobe and a shoulder-baring Roman toga, and the terminal’s bathrooms were full of pilgrims taking care of their ablutions before donning it.

As on my previous DXB-RUH-DXB sectors, the plane today was again a B777, again looking a little worse for the wear and in the odd 2-5-2 configuration. Getting everyone settled down took a while though: for example, in my row, seats F/G/H were taken up by the three Saudi wives, with seat F objecting to having a young Saudi guy sit next to her in E, so the guy was swapped with an Indian lady who didn’t object to my male presence and satisfied Ms. F’s sense of decorum. Now repeat this all over a plane that appeared full to the last seat, and I was surprised that we in the end managed to take off more or less on time.

The plane had the same IFE as on my previous DXB-RUH flights of equal length, but this time it wasn’t even switched on. As flight time was about 1.5 hours, there was enough time to serve a quick meal, which turned out to be precisely the same chicken-and-rice mandi as last time, with a small salad and piece of cake, but minus the bun or drink service other than tea/coffee. About half an hour before arrival, the same prerecorded voice that informed us of seatbelt signs and pre-flight supplications announced in remarkably crisp British English: “We have now entered miqah. At this point, pilgrims should don ihram and recite talbiyah.” Turns out the plane from RUH actually flies over the sacred territory around Mecca — and that’s the closest I’ll ever get to it. (I should have taken a window seat.)

Neatest sight while deplaning: a lady tapping out a text message on her phone under her veil, lighting it up from underneath.

XY 406 JED-RUH Y A320 seat 15E

King Abdulaziz Int’l Airport is a mess. Turns out check-in desks are layered two deep when you enter the domestic side, and I’d plunged in towards the Saudia desks and wandered around for a while, looking for Nas… but then I spotted competitor Sama and guessed (correctly) that Nas would be near them, behind the sign saying “International departures”.

You know you’re flying off the beaten path when your very appearance at the check-in desk appears to make the day of the young Pakistani guy running… not the counter, but the old-fashion analog scale next to it, used to weigh bags. (Mine clocked-in at 17 kg, and Weighing Machine Guy was simply delighted to report that it would be free.) This ticket, too, had been booked prior to my Delhi detour, and while the departure date was easily changed by e-mail (!) to Nas customer service, I had to pay SR 50 extra at check-in, and sorting this out took a few minutes. This also meant that my original fare of SR 269, 11 riyals cheaper than the Saudia fare, turned out SR 39 more expensive than the legacy carrier with better schedules, flexible tickets, meals and all. Oh well…

Once through security, I was presented with what looked like a badly maintained bus terminal, which is in fact pretty much what it is: rows of hard plastic seats and half a dozen tightly packed gates for the buses waiting on the other side, without a single jetway. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and flies hopped happily on tables, so I was glad I’d already eaten and thus didn’t have to resort to the solitary eatery on offer. But I scrounged a chunk of table, snarfed wifi from the Al-Fursan lounge again (thanks Saudia!) and passed an hour without too much pain.

Boarding was a little confusing, as there’s no centralized departures board of any kind, you just need to listen to the announcements or try to scan the LED scrollers above each gate, all carefully positioned like the rocks in a Zen garden so that no matter where you sit, you can see only see half of them at a time. But shortly after scheduled boarding time somebody carried over a Nas poster, a mob formed next to it, and boarding started. Yay! As JED has no jetways, at least on the domestic side, we were bussed out to the plane and clambered up the stairs.

The all-female flight crew (Moroccan, I hear) was rather fetchingly decked out in a wispy half-veil a-la Emirates/Etihad, white blouse and green skirt that seemed drop-dead sexy after a week of abayas: you could actually make out the vague outline of a bust when they stretched their arms upward to put in the bags! <insert sound of bug-eyed Wahhabis having heart attacks>

The plane was considerably newer and shinier than Saudia’s workhorses, but based on the “vueling” stickers on the catering boxes it had had at least one previous owner. Seat pitch was a little tight but tolerable, helped by having a pocketless plastic seatback with a one-inch indentation for your legs.

The flight was packed full, and despite checking in pretty early I was put into a middle seat — haven’t been in one of these for a while. The flight experience was just like flying one of Europe’s better LCCs: chirpy announcements (no pre-flight prayers!), trolley service for drinks and snacks (SR2-5 for drinks, SR8 for a sandwich, so not entirely unreasonable), zero entertainment. The Saudi guy next to me bought me tea without saying a word or even smiling, but I had to reject his somewhat excessive hospitality as caffeine in the evenings keeps me awake at night.

In due course we descended and rolled straight up to a jetway. RUH seemed like an old friend now, so wonderfully quite, large and clean after JED. My suitcase came out after a tolerable wait, and my first Saudi LCC experience was over. All in all, no complaints, I’d definitely fly them again if the price and time are right.

EY 315 AUH-RUH Y B777-300W seat 19C

Again a short hop and an almost unnecessarily luxurious plane, but while similar to the A346 in appearance, the seat pitch was an inch or two more generous. This was a relief: I’ll be flying back to SIN in one of these (or at least am scheduled to), and that inch will make all the difference. Today the usual complement of Filipinas was joined by the lovely Kyeong-Soo from Korea, who pacified us with a tasty chicken or veg sandwich and a small bottle of juice before leaving us to giggle at the inane antics of Juste pour rire, Montreal’s ripoff of Candid Camera that seems to have a remarkable hold on transport operators the world around, ranging from business class on Garuda Indonesia to the buses of SBS Transit in Singapore.  The plane was equipped with the same IFE system as the A346; it was just turned off, and no headphones were passed out.

My stomach was still bubbling discontentedly, and it was approaching 6 AM Singapore time, so I did my best to zonk out — not entirely successfully, but soon enough the 80-minute flight was over and we landed at King Khalid International, quiet as ever in the middle of the night. Having purposely booked a seat towards the front of the plane, I reached Immigration well before the queues formed. My suitcase was out almost surprisingly fast, and the irritatingly persistent taxi tout waiting for me outside Customs turned out to be the first guy in line at the official taxi rank. I negotiated his ridiculous initial offer of SR160 to a somewhat more reasonable SR80 (still a good 25% premium on the official fare), and we zoomed off down the desert highway to Riyadh.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Delhi, Riyadh, Jeddah and Janadriyah

This trip report is a followup to the original Wahhabalinese Adventures, detailing my second sojourn to the Magic Kingdom. I’ll be traveling a bit longer this time, and hence my agenda includes a little sightseeing and scuba diving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city and commercial capital.


This was supposed to be a straight Singapore-Saudi round-trip with a local round-trp thrown in.  However, two days before my planned departure I got an early-morning phone call, and by the end of it I’d changed my plans to head to Delhi for a week first instead. Our corporate travel agent, who are good at everything except finding cheap fares, first suggested a ridiculous SIN-DEL-BAH-RUH-JED-AUH-SIN routing on 9W/GF/SV/SQ that would’ve cost nearly US$3000, but Etihad’s remarkably helpful Singapore office managed to rebook me on DEL-RUH-SIN for barely a third of that — it actually ended up costing substantially less than my previous SIN-RUH return!  Here’s the final route:

Index

SV 554 RUH-DXB Y B777-200 seat 54L

Precisely the same flight as last time, only in the opposite direction, and the difference was night and day. Then, it was night and I sat in the aisle — now, it was day and I had a window seat, with amazing views out into the endless sand dunes below, a vast, endless expanse of reddish sand with occasional dunes and solitary roads. Dotted here and there, seemingly entirely at random, were perfect circles of lush green: farms in the middle of the desert, one of Saudi Arabia’s more harebrained attempts at diversification. (At one point, Saudi authorities had to issue a fatwa to declare the practice of feeding livestock with Saudi grain un-Islamic: at the time, all local production was bought by the government at around 8x the world price and sold for half it.)

The plane, too, seemed in slightly better shape, with a functional Airview program and two operational cameras. Lunch rolled around with much the same formula as last time, only this time with a rather tasty beef stew. Regrettably, I was foiled in my attempt to purchase two decks of Saudi Arabian Airlines playing cards, which would have been just the thing for a rousing game of strip poker on the weekend. Sigh.

The route from Riyadh to Dubai doesn’t follow the shortest route: instead, it heads a bit northeast, flying directly over Damman, before turning southeast and flying around Bahrain and Qatar, both visible in the distance, from the north. There was a fearsome tail wind of nearly 200 km/h pushing us along, but the time thus gained was lost at Dubai — we flew across the city and into the desert for a while before U-turning back and touching down on schedule.