The souks and malls are packed with goods, but everything is imported. I have given up on finding authentic souvenirs; the only indigenous products I’ve identified are dates. However, if you want Dunkin Doughnuts, KFC, Burger King, Hardy’s, Pizza Hut, Haagan Daas, CinnaBun and, of course, Starbucks and MacDonalds (30 in Riyadh) you’re in luck. Malls feature all the designer labels, cars, jewelry and electronics those with unlimited budgets could desire.
The Kingdom’s enormous oil income is controlled by the government – largely made up of the Saud family. Wealth is funneled to the elite through systems of commissions for all sorts of ‘services’ to help push the money around, for example, agent’s fees to ‘facilitate’ foreign investment. An estimated 60% of private business is funded directly by the state, which often provides cheap land, interest-free loans and tax holidays.
Then there is the other Saudi Arabia, the one that doesn’t make the news.
Writers have been jailed for reporting on it, but the estimate is that 22% of Saudi’s live in poverty. Half live in drab, unsanitary pre-fab apartment houses with their animals and in-laws. Three quarters are illiterate, infant mortality is high and life expectancy low. Devout Wahabis, they are the mullah’s power base and benefit most from government subsidies of food and energy costs, coverage of medical and education expenses and payment of $7,000 toward a woman’s bride-price based on a means test (and good mosque attendance).
The last night of Ramadan – it’s official – a sliver of crescent moon has been sited and the whole country is partying. It is also the last night of our stay here. Our team celebrates with dinner on the 77th floor of our hotel, The Four Seasons, at it’s restaurant, Il Spazio.
This place gives new meaning to ‘over the top’ – blood red walls, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city, a Bedouin tent spread with carpets for those awaiting tables, menus that light up with purple neon, waiters dressed in black with gold sparkles on their sleeves. We are the first customers at 9:00 p.m. When we leave at 11 things are starting to pick up.
After dinner we take the elevator to the sky-walk that connects the two points of the bishop’s mitre – at the 99th floor. Inching my way out onto this platform – enclosed as it is – gives me goose bumps and a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It is a fitting experience for my last night in The Kingdom, a place more foreign than I could have imagined five weeks ago.
Today we briefed the Ambassador. We did good work here.
Tonight I’ll put on my abaya for the last time. At 11:30 the armored van picks us up for our 2 a.m. flight. By Friday morning I will be in NYC.
Time to exhale!
Next – Something Completely Different