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Air-kisses and trees: all part of Saudi Arabia’s welcome

Inside Riyadh’s astonishing, ongoing transformation

In many areas it is easy to mistake Riyadh for any of the comfortable Arab cities such as Dubai or Manama Pixabay/SLPix
In many areas it is easy to mistake Riyadh for any of the comfortable Arab cities such as Dubai or Manama

You bump into a female colleague you haven’t seen for a while, give a little friendly embrace and a couple of cheek-to-cheek air-kisses.

“Lovely to see you, long time, how are you, mwah, mwah.”

An everyday occurrence in many cities, but this happened to me last week in the crowded lobby of a government building in the centre of Riyadh, capital of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Just a few years ago, I and my lovely friend would have risked the reprimand of other Saudis for this public male-female contact. If we were really unlucky, we would have caught the attentions of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the “mutawa” or religious police.

It’s a mark of how far Saudi Arabia has come under the social and cultural liberalisation reforms of the Vision 2030 strategy that last week, nobody batted an eyelid.

The kingdom’s road to 21st-century normalisation has been well reported (though many in the West still do not fully comprehend the astounding nature of the changes) but – having not made the short hop from Dubai for a few months – I see on each visit some new aspect of the great transformation.

It’s not just that the mutawa has been effectively disbanded, though for many ordinary citizens that was the single most welcome aspect of the reforms of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

It’s the fact that Riyadh is now a much more comfortable, livable city, where you struggle to understand that you are not in Dubai, or Manama, or any of the other Arabian cities that have embraced the more relaxed aspects of global culture.

Even on a 48-hour visit, you notice something new.

For example, a couple of years ago Riyadh announced a plan to make it a greener city, part of an ambitious project to plant 10 billion trees in the kingdom.

This was greeted with derision in the more Arabophobe sections of the Western media (“Trees in the desert? Pfaff!”).

But, even on the 30-minute drive from King Khalid International Airport to Riyadh Digital City (RDC), one of the downtown business districts, you are struck by ranks of newly planted trees lining what were once bone dry sandy verges.

Around 9.5 billion to go, I’d estimate.

The RDC is a great place to be based in the capital. Many of the big ministries and government agencies, like the Public Investment Fund, are headquartered there, and it is also the location of one of the best hotels in town – the Crowne Plaza, a version of the Western brand in grand Saudi monumental style.

It’s a sprawling conference centre as well as a hotel, and when it stages a big global forum it’s a busy swirl of delegates chatting over coffees in the lounges and cafes.

Even last week, in low-season July when the masters of the universe were elsewhere, it had a pleasant buzzy “international” feel to it.

The RDC is walkable, even at the height of the Riyadh summer. The thermometer hit 47C daytime last week, but – because the city is a couple of thousand feet above sea level with cooling breezes – night times are much more comfortable than, say, humidity-soaked maritime Dubai. Dining al fresco is a nice option.

I went for the cool interior of Koi, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant in the hotel complex. I do like this style of cuisine, and grazed hungrily on a selection of ceviche, tacos, tempura and sushi.

But what to drink? I settled for an American malt mocktail, made with a zero-alcohol whiskey called Lyre’s with a picture on the label of a grizzly bear boasting a Stetson and two six-shooters. A bizarre but pleasant illusion.

Looking forward, 2030 is a landmark year for Riyadh in so many ways, not least because the Saudi city is bidding to stage the Expo World Fair to showcase its liberalisation and the great changes that hopefully by then will be irreversible.

Saudi Arabia is up against South Korea’s Busan, and Rome, after Odesa in Ukraine withdrew for obvious reasons.

I learned from my Riyadh-based dinner companion that the city is increasingly confident it will get the nod to stage the event, which Dubai put on in such style last year.

The kingdom already has more than 50 percent of the votes in the bag, it was said.

We will know in November when the organisers, the International Bureau of Expositions, makes the announcement that could set off Riyadh on its next wave of lifestyle-enhancing transformation.

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