Although I have lived and worked in 34 countries over the last 45 years, I have never been to Saudi Arabia. Recently I was offered an opportunity to be part of a four-person team to examine business opportunities in the field of training in that country.
Your first reaction would probably be the same as mine. The stereotypes of the Virtue Police harassing people for sinful behavior such as a male and female working together; the feeling of hostility towards foreigners; the distinct differences between the laws governing the behavior of men and women; and the sheer heat all come to the forefront. I wanted an opportunity to see for myself, so with some trepidation mixed with eagerness I set off May 9 on my 24 hour trip to the capital of Riyadh.
I arrived in the evening and it was raining! The temperature was pleasant as were the people I encountered at the airport and hotel. Throughout the nine days in Riyadh I learned a great deal about the people. I noticed the Filipino accent everywhere. In fact much of the country employs a considerable number of foreign workers from laborers to senior engineers and doctors. The Saudi men are called “lazy” and few women are employed in part because businesses must provide a separate work space. Women are still not allowed to drive and do not work as laborers. Often, families frown on wives and daughters working.
This is changing. In a recent decree and with new regulations, the government will require business and industry to increase significantly the number of Saudis in all areas of employment, with an even larger number of women to be trained and added to the labor force. Many foreigners are to be sent home and, as an example, the Indian community is up in arms.
Traditionally Indians have had a monopoly on cell phone sales and service. The government has targeted this sector with 100 percent employment by Saudis almost immediately. Training centers are gearing up and the government has distributed 20,000 cell phone repair kits to Saudi trainees. All of this has been spurred by the significant decline in oil prices and the desire of the government to diversify employment opportunities in such areas as healthcare, hospitality, retail, heavy equipment operation and others.
Due to the high birth rate (20.1 per 100,000 as compared to the USA of 12.5 in 2014) there are an increasing number of Saudis with reduced income or in poverty. This is another reason for the government’s interest in creating more jobs for Saudi men and women. It envisions an increased number of two-income families.
Speaking of low oil prices, parts of the economy are in disarray. While driving through the flat and spread-out city, the team noticed many construction sites such as office buildings, the entire financial district and the light rail system completely inactive. Much of the new construction has stopped due to the lack of government funding.
It hadn't occurred to me that before its urbanization Saudi Arabia was a region of nomadic people. As such there is no history of culinary or artistic development. While visiting the local market I discovered that the only handicrafts available were from other countries such as Pakistan. As for restaurants, many country cuisines were represented but none from Saudi Arabia. The USA was represented by its world leadership in fast foods. Everything from Dairy Queen to Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, Shake Shack and others were available.
I found everything expensive, especially food. At the hotel, which is usually more expensive, the breakfast buffet was over $30 and the supper buffet was over $70. What did surprise me, however, were the prices at McDonald's. McDonald's is often used as a benchmark to compare costs across countries. In Riyadh I was surprised to see that the cost for a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder was the same as in Cape May Court House. But if you wanted something different you could order the Mini McArabi Halloumi, probably what passes for local cuisine these days.
I thought I would find the overall environment of Riyadh objectionable. Instead, I found a friendly and accommodating people. From small child to male adult, people showed a mix of curiosity and interest. The children would look at me and smile shyly, while the men would ask where I was from and how did I like the country. I did not talk to Saudi women or even glance at them for fear of showing disrespect as well as receiving a visit from the Virtue Police.
The temperature was increasing and would be over 100 degrees in June. Although a dry heat, it is still hot during the day. The evenings, however, were delightful. It never rained again after my first evening. The blue sky was replaced by a reddish gray sky, which was a result of rising dust from the dessert. This would get worse through the summer and respiratory problems would increase.
The two women on our team wore black abayahs (outer dresses over regular clothing) touching the floor and with head scarves. While in the local shop area I saw many stores that sold black abayahs with little variation in their design. I simply couldn’t understand how so many shops could exit. Perhaps there will be a new government regulation allowing women to wear abayahs of many colors. Men’s clothing, of course, is of optional design, either western dress or the headdress (taiga) with the gutra (square cloth) and igal (black cord). The thobe or ankle length garment is ironed and looks much more comfortable than the women’s abayah, which my team members told me was stifling even indoors. I was tempted to buy one, but decided not to for obvious reasons.