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…


SV 559 DXB-RUH Y B777-200 seat 40C

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I stepped inside the door of my first Saudi Arabian Airlines plane, and I’m not quite sure if it matched those fuzzy expectations. A B777 is still a B777, even though this one was a little faded and scruffy on the edges. One of the stewards was equipped with a closely-cropped head combined with the long, scraggly beard of a devout Muslim, but there were also stewardesses flitted about, with dark blue veils hiding the hair but not the faces.

We pushed back on schedule and, after a monotone male baritone read out an invocation starting with a dual Allahu Akbar (which passed the taxiing time nicely, I might add), we bounced off into the sky. Meal service followed, with a bit of confusion as there was a special meal for seat 40C despite me not requesting one; on declining, I was offered the usual “chicken or beef”, and picked chicken. This got me a rather dry pilaf-type rice dish with chicken chunks, a lettuce and tomato salad, an industry-standard warm bread bun (there must be a giant factory somewhere that makes these for every single airline on the planet) and a cube of strawberry cake (probably from the aforementioned factory as well).

Seat pitch was pretty decent (36″?), although the layout was a weird 2-5-2 and, this being a two-hour flight, I had a little time to look around. Despite the claims of the inflight entertainment mag, there was no airshow flight route map, only a rather less exciting arrow pointing the direction towards Mecca (qiblah). The plane was supposed to be equipped with two cameras, but only the forward-pointing one worked, and it too was switched off. The first five channels were, predictably, “The Holy Quran”, “Islamic Programming” (Arabic and English versions) and “Your Guide to the Hajj” (Arabic/English), but the rest was devoted to Hollywood fare, including “Rush Hour 3”, which I’d watched on SQ. No on-demand options though, just looping videos, so I didn’t have the chance to check out how Saudi censors had treated the scene where the cop duo checks out the backstage of a Parisian burlesque show… so I stuck to the qiblah-o-rama, which allowed interesting mental gyrations as I tried to estimate the plane’s heading and direction in reference to not our destination, but a city some 500 km to the southeast. Fun for the whole Islamic family!

Try as I might, an aisle seat over the wing didn’t allow me to see much scenery as we descended. After a smooth touchdown into scraggly desert scenery, we rolled up to one of the gates of the still remarkably futuristic-looking King Khalid International Airport. What awaited me inside?

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore, Riyadh and Bali

At a squeak over 10,000 miles, this trip is no great shakes when it comes to distance, but there can’t be too many places on Earth with a greater level of contrast than its endpoints.

In the left corner, we have the virtually untouristed capital of a filthy rich, rigidly conservative, strictly Islamic absolute monarchy in one of the world’s most arid countries:

RUH DAFIF Riyadh [King Khalid Airport], SA

And in the right corner, we have the rather less wealthy yet famously liberal, only notionally Hindu and immensely tourism-friendly tropical paradise of Bali:

DPS DAFIF Denpasar [Ngurah Rai – Bali Intl], Bali, ID

I’m going to one of these for work, and the other for play, so my esteemed readers are invited to guess which one is which. Here’s the exact routing courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper:


That’s SIN-DXB on Singapore Airlines (SQ) Y, DXB-RUH on Saudi Arabian (SV) Y, and SIN-DPS on SQ C.