First Encounters: A writer's first visit to the Kingdom

First Encounters: A writer's first visit to the Kingdom

Writer, presenter, and long-time Gulf resident Jeremy Lawrence reflects on the lasting impression left by his first visit to Riyadh
26 October 23
First Encounters Riyadh

Riding an e-scooter through Riyadh’s tree-lined Olaya Street to my favourite coffee shop each morning, where I’d exchange friendly nods with groups of Saudi men and women before ordering a cup of Indonesian cold brew, two recurring questions played on my mind: why had I never been to Saudi before? And now that I was here, why did I like it so much?

Why and how had I never visited Saudi before?

The answer to the first part is simple: even though I’d lived and travelled extensively throughout the Gulf region for 25 years, there were no Saudi tourist visas on arrival before 2019, and I’d never had a reason to travel for work. As a result, I knew very little about the region’s economic powerhouse and cultural capital, other than what I read in the media. Which, even as a journalist, I will admit does not always provide a full picture of what is happening on the ground. Hence when I finally did visit, I did so out of curiosity and with a relatively open mind. Yet I still didn’t expect to enjoy myself to this extent. Why was this happening?

Well firstly, Riyadh is a nice place to just hang out.

In Olaya, where I was based for the week, the area has greatly benefited from a new emphasis on shared public spaces in recent years. This began in the early 2000s with a major urban project named Humanising the City that saw the installation of wide tree-lined boulevards and public spaces along Tahliah Street.

These upgrades were just a taster of things to come, of course, as I learned when visiting some of the city’s staggering new developments, including King Abdullah Financial District, VIA Riyadh, and the mesh of old and new at At-Turaif and Bujairi Terrace. Exploring the city and spending time with locals and expats alike was a crash course in urban transformation – and I speak as someone who witnessed Dubai’s dramatic growth in the early 2000s.

But what really matters is day-to-day liveability, which has not been forgotten in the capital. Along with the new bus routes and e-scooter trails, there is the Riyadh Metro, featuring its futuristic Zaha Hadid- designed stations, scheduled to open later this year. Meanwhile, the ongoing Green Riyadh project aims to plant 623,000 trees and bushes in the Saudi capital, of which many have already been planted on the city's new sidewalks. Which all makes for an altogether pleasant experience on the morning coffee run.

Cultural Flowering

Riyadh’s physical transformation can easily overshadow the far more important changes happening within society itself. The government’s ambitious Vision 2030 goals have been enthusiastically welcomed by the city’s younger residents (63% of Saudis are under 30 years old). This engaged, educated demographic is driving Riyadh’s transformation into a cosmopolitan global city with a unique and vibrant identity.

You see this in every area of Riyadh’s cultural life.

To take one example, who would have thought that the film Sattar, released last year, would rank number four of all movies released in the Kingdom since cinemas were reintroduced in 2018? Saudis might love Hollywood blockbusters as much as the next cinema fan, but they also want to express their own ideas.

The homegrown arts scene is also flourishing. Riyadh Art, which aims to turn the whole capital into a creative canvas of 1,000 public art installations, is just one of many new annual citywide programmes. Misk Art Institute is a non-profit cultural organisation that supports local artists through workshops and exhibitions. Noor Riyadh is a citywide annual festival of light and art, while the Diriyah Biennale Foundation aims to be a catalyst for global dialogue between the many diverse art communities within the Kingdom and beyond. It is held at JAX District, a haven of artsy warehouses bursting with ideas and energy.

The success of these initiatives might partly be attributed to the concerted efforts to send talented students abroad after 2005. By 2013-14, almost 200,000 Saudis were studying abroad. Most of them (87%) were fully funded by the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme. Those young women and men returned to a nation propelling itself into a new era, where international influences mesh with local traditions.

This point was made to me on a visit to the studio of famed Riyadh-based artist Abdulnasser Gharem, where he likened the changes as “living in a grand narrative, the moment of our enlightenment.” Gharem describes the Kingdom’s vision as “looking ahead with real imagination, like an artist thinking about the future.” He says Saudis are seizing the moment to create a unique future for themselves that draws from its ancient heritage, yet finds itself at home in the modern world.

“Today’s global lifestyle is like a form of modern Bedouin culture as we jump from place to place. We Saudis reflect this reality in our art as we travel and share ideas. This is the oral tradition that we carry with us,” he explains.

People First

I think this is exactly what excited me about Riyadh.

For all the mega-developments and money being spent, something genuinely new is happening that feels, as a long-time Gulf resident, unique to the region. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that Saudi’s 32-million population is two-thirds local, so they don’t need or want to imitate other cities. Take a trip to any contemporary art studio and you’ll see that young Saudis, though international in their outlook, already have a lot to draw from within their own culture.

Two small moments stand out for me on my trip that captured this mood.

The first was at Bujairi Terrace, where a very friendly tour guide asked what I thought of my trip. He was studying for a master’s and genuinely wanted to know my thoughts on Riyadh. It was the kind of interaction that is rare in many other Gulf cities, and I learned a lot from our conversation.

The next morning, I dropped by a coffee shop in the Diplomatic Quarter, which adds a modern twist to classical architecture, set among lush, tree-lined streets. Here, young Saudis pour out of offices and studios at lunchtime to take a break at fashionable cafés and art exhibitions. It felt as contemporary and of-the-moment as in any other world leading capital city, but with its own unique character.

I sensed the air of optimism in this modern setting, the sense that anything is suddenly possible. Who wouldn’t be excited by those kinds of changes and curious to see where this story goes next?

I hope I get to visit again soon to see for myself.