So my family and I have been in Saudi Arabia for nearly 3 months now and we've started to get a lay of the land. So how was our life here initially and how do we feel now?
Well, the first thing to know is that we live in the capital, Riyadh, and it's a city undergoing a massive transformation. It is being developed at an incredibly fast rate with a new rail system, road network and enlarged business district planned to be completed in 2030. They are investing over 30 billion dollars into this project and it shows. However, as a result of this development travelling around by car can be difficult as diversions are commonplace and in a country where drivers are fast and often aggressive, it can be a challenge... Like driving down Ilford Lane on a weekend in rush hour. If you miss a turn you often have to take a grand tour of the city before being able to come back to give the turn-off another go.
We live on a compound (some of my British friends prefer to call it a ‘campus’ as it sounds less harsh), this means that it's a securely gated community. Within, we live in an approximation of 1950s American suburbia; kids riding bikes in the very clean streets, a few cars driving very slowly (there's a 20 km limit whilst driving around the compound) and amazing facilities like a fully kitted rec centre with a football (*sigh* soccer) pitch, virtual golf centre and several courts for various ball games. The gym is fully kitted and has built in screens on many of the treadmills so that is where I often go to watch Netflix and catch up on the numerous animated series I'm watching. It's great because I've been to the gym a couple of times each week since we arrived, which equates to more than I've ever been in my entire life.
On site we also have a mini mart (think Tesco Express but filled with more American products), a Burger King, Sports Direct (and yes, I still feel the same shame when I go to buy some sport related good here as I did at home) and a mini cinema that has seating for about 20 people and shows unedited films from Hollywood.
There are also 4 swimming pools and one is heated for all seasons, and yes, there ARE seasons over here, or so I've been told. So the compound itself is amazing with great facilities but it is definitely an Expat bubble, a lovely bubble though!
Outside the compound, Riyadh is much more an interesting mix of Middle-East meets West. The call to prayer is heard wherever you are as it is a requirement that for every new housing or building development there be a local mosque. This is intermingled with vast amounts of American fast food chains and international shops and shopping centres (*sigh* malls). The shops are a strange mix of extremely expensive high end good mixed with their Chinese knock-offs, its very strange. You'll be walking around a large department store and see Gucci watches costing over 1000 dollars and then you'll see a fake Peppa née Baby Pig playset for 40 dollars... Pricing is inconsistent and often seems a bit arbitrary.
The range of shops is amazing, you have all the big chain brands from America interspersed with some shops that are struggling or have gone the way of the Dodo in England; Virgin Mega Store, Marks and Spencer, Mothercare, Forever 21 and Debenham's. As well as that there are many shops I wouldn't expect to be here, Victoria's Secret and tonnes, and I means tonnes, of makeup shops. Obviously I knew there'd be some makeup shops but not in the vast quantity that exist here.
Grocery wise, when you buy fresh fruit and vegetables you have to pick it, bag it and get it weighed at a counter manned by a clerk who must get polythene bags thrust at him for hours on end.
When you do buy something you will see the longest reciept you've ever seen in your life, even if you've just bought a pack of gum. They are working towards developing the recycling but ‘Bags for Life’ are not a thing here yet. We have started to re-use some of the plastic bags to ensure we don’t get new ones but the shop assistants look at us like we’re a bit weird and keep trying to give us new ones. The local supermarket knows us now and we get a rueful smile when we bust out the old used bags. Every little ‘elps though!
The shopping continues during prayer times but the counters are shut, which I think is quite good as it places the emphasis on host country's religious leanings, much like Sundays used to be in England once when only a couple of shops would be open so your parents would drag you to see some country pile or go to a museum to fill the day before that 'Songs of Praise' Sunday evening dread set in as you knew you’d have school the next day. Being a teacher that feeling never left me!
Saudi's are very family oriented and so all malls have a theme park at the top. Seriously, carousels, roller coasters, arcades etc... all in the malls. Due to prayer times and different business hour timetables compared to many other countries, this is a night culture and many families will eat out until 11pm at least. As a result, the behaviour expectations of many children is slightly different from what I've been used to in England. Saudi Arabia will have a very excitable next generation coming through!
I feel incredibly safe walking around as petty crime is nearly non-existent, it just wouldn't be worthwhile here. I feel happy that I can wander around and know I won't have people asking me to lend them 20p i. e. nick your wallet, or to use my phone, i. e. nick my phone, or some of the more serious felonies I faced on an almost weekly basis when living in east London.
Disney is massive here, and I mean massive. The Netflix has loads more Disney films than in England and the children's fashion is similarity Disney-tastic. I wouldn't be surprised if the rumours about Disney creating a theme park in Saudi were true.
I have travelled to the 'Old Town' in Riyadh and this is where the multicultural diversity and socio-economic differences are most stark. This is where much of the manual labourers and service sector workforce live, it's also where you get the most authentic south Asian spices, cuisine and best tailors at a good price.... Kinda like Ilford Lane... great food but at night a bit edgy and dangerous.
Overall, we are really enjoying our life in Riyadh and it is a country where our presumptions have been proved wrong again and again. It is a dynamic country and things are changing at a fast pace. Since we've arrived, the first load of tourists have been granted visas and the abaya, a dress which is worn as an outer garment for modesty, will not be required for visitors. I'm excited to see how the country changes further during our time here.