Three Observations from Saudi Arabia
It’s harder to enter Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Museums than to get into Saudi Arabia.
I’ve read about surveillance and security in Saudi Arabia for years and expected a severe grilling from the Customs and Border agents at the Jeddah airport. I could not have been more wrong.
Though not warm or smiling, they asked for my passport and e-VISA. After typing my info into their computers, voila! I was allowed entry. I could not believe how simple and straightforward the process was. No one asked to see my bag contents. There was no invasive scrutiny. I was waived through the line without a second glance.
After entering the country, I downloaded an app called Tawalkhana, which had my arrival picture and basic information, including a vaccination record. I’m sure the government was tracking my every move. I presented the app as an entry requirement to all shops, restaurants, and public places.
Saudis Love Their Coffee
Never have I seen as many coffee shops as in Riyadh. Since alcohol is forbidden (even the airplane sanitary wipes are 100% alcohol-free), the city has an abundance of places where one can get coffee/tea and sometimes snacks. Most feel like a bar, with beautiful wood paneling and modern motifs. Nearly all of them stay open until 2 a.m. or later.
I saw one entrance line that stretched out the door and down the street and it was well past midnight.
One night my friends and I went on a ‘coffee crawl’ wherein we visited four different coffee shops in succession in their neighborhood. It’s the same concept as a bar crawl. We began around 11 pm and finished at about 3 am, watching Champions League soccer and smoking shisha with Saudi locals.
The Affluence Astounds
Saudi Arabia is one of the richest places on earth, we all know this. The government is wealthy because of its oil revenues. Examples of Saudi extravagance are legendary. From the frequent entire buyouts of luxury hotels for Royal visits to the American President Roosevelt’s gifts of jeweled daggers. Saudis and money are always linked.