Nothing I was told or that I've research could've prepare me for a real taste of Saudi Arabia. But, hey I am an adventurous urbanist, a curious observer, I've left my dear New York craziness for a great job in the outskirts of Washington, DC which was already very daring for a New Yorker, then moved to Lisbon, Portugal, a place with a great quality of life, so....taking this "fantastical-sounding job" in Saudi Arabia was a sort-of no-brainer (for me anyhow).
The first shock was when I arrived in Riyadh and people's answer to anything was "no problem", that should have tip me off....if people say no problem so very often, there were problems galore coming up. The second was the incredible chaotic way in which the driver sent to pick me up at the airport navigated the parking logistics (refusing to paythe fee and trying to get out of the parking lot without paying) whilst holding-up an extremely impatient, increasingly long line of unhappy Saudi drivers. The third was that although the Head of Talent Acquisition -the very person who hired me and with whom I had negotiated my salary package called me at the hotel upon my arrival at almost one o'clock in the morning, to welcome me and assure me "someone will come to collect you from the hotel late tomorrow morning" a good sign I though, yet not a single person showed up; when I asked the concierge if anyone from my new company had call or come to pick me up, he said: "they will not come Sir, you'd be better off going on your own"...How come he so surely said they won't come I wondered....? La, he said: la, la la Sir, they won't come.
La? A musical man perhaps? I soon found out that "la" means NO in Arabic...Welcome to La-La-Land, I told myself.
Following the advice of my hotel concierge I decided to go to my new firm's HR department by myself, where i was greeted warmly and respectfully (nobody came to collect you? No problem, you are here!). As I was sitting at HR in the middle of document signing and form filing, a tall, dashing South african fellow came to pick up some letters of his own, we introduced each other; it was my first day, it was his last...he was happily leaving the Kingdom and going back home. He gave me a piece of advice -two things he said: first, arm yourself with patience, in this country you are going to need it; a lot of it. And then he said "you are in good shape, do you practice any sport?" I said I like running, lifting weights, jumping rope, swimming and wanted to try my hands at kick-boxing..."Good!" he said, "you will need a strenuous physical activity to channel your frustration with the work, the culture and the environment". We said goodbye and I was left to wonder....how serious this all was.
Turned out he was very, very serious and "on-the-dot"; thank God for being a gym bunny and liking to exercise regularly, it help me keep my sanity, as I was about to find out there were not many outlets for recreational activities in KSA -the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -most forms of Western entertainment are not allowed, especially cinema, music and dancing.
Movies have the power to shape our perceptions of love, of adventure, and of growing up. More subtly, movies also have the ability to shape our perceptions of small things, like how we interpret different cities, clothing brands, and even transport – who uses transport, how they use it, and why. The fact that cinema -amongst other Western forms of entertainment we take for granted- is forbidden was quite a shock. However, like many things; you get used to it, we have many cable TV channels so the influence is still latent, you can see it with the younger Saudi men who, although respectful of their religion and traditions, do want other experiences that TV and especially the internet offers. And we foreigners can watch news in English and keep up-to-date with what's going on in the rest of the world. Football -that universal male language, is alive and well here too; this year's World Cup offer us an opportunity for male bonding and enjoyment, and a chance to get to know our Saudi acquaintances and colleagues better over a non-alcoholic beverage.