Living in Riyadh’s ghost town
It was September 2008; after a few days in Riyadh, my wife and I left our spartan hotel room, with its bouquet of sweat and sewage, to rendezvous with two American bankers we’d met at the Sharjah airport. “Poor you,” they’d said, learning we were just moving to Saudi. “Let’s meet for dinner.”
Outside, the dust was thick. The bankers — one a buff guy with a buzz cut who looked like a parody of a CIA agent, the other a wry Korean-American — picked us up, and off we barreled through snarls of sun-baked cars. Battle-scarred Crown Victorias gunned their engines past late-model Toyotas. A Hummer ploughed over rumble strips, cutting off a brand-new 700-series BMW. The low-slung immensity of central Riyadh — economy booming on oil, population growing exponentially, housing at a premium — shimmered in the late summer heat. This was home, if we could find a place to live.
Since King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud’s reconquest of Riyadh in 1902, and his subsequent rallying of the country’s tribes under one flag, the city has been the seat of Saudi government — at least in theory. But harsh deserts and a harsher culture meant it long remained one of the most closed-off cities on earth. For years it was instead Jeddah, the much older and more open Red Sea port town, that brokered Saudi’s relationships with the world, hosting the country’s government ministries and foreign embassies. In 1975, however, it was announced that the foreign ministry and embassies would be moving to Riyadh, and that many of the westerners and Saudis accompanying them would be housed together in an experimental new neighborhood called the Diplomatic Quarter. Now, more than three decades later, I was hoping to live there too.
The DQ, a sprawling, 1,600 acre compound, sits on Riyadh’s western edge. This is the newest corner of the city — our drive took us past several half-erected mansions of the nouveau riche: one a nightmarish sheet cake of marble, another a monstrous, gabled cabin. We also passed the DQ security checkpoint, a more fearsome version of similar barriers all around the city, with machine-gun nests, swirling blue police lights, iron traffic spikes, and rolls of concertina wire. Eventually we pulled into the car park of Scalini’s, an Italian restaurant. Inside, the bankers introduced us to the British manager of an English-language school, and we sat at a table in the empty, echoing dining room.
“You need a place to live?” the Briton asked, eyebrows raised and a sly smile stretched under his thin moustache.
Someone mentioned that 300 families — diplomats, businessmen, foreigners and Saudis alike — were already on a waiting list for DQ housing. To jump the queue, people allegedly paid “key money” fees of as much as $35,000. But the school manager said he might be able to help: his school might have an empty DQ unit we could sublet. We ate dinner and hoped.
Having glimpsed the fortified quiet of the DQ, we tried our best to make do in our tiny, dank hotel room. We’d paid a month in advance, and I dreaded another 30 days. Finally the mustachioed school manager called — we were in. I hailed a taxi; two hours later I was standing in a sprawling, three-bedroom apartment, keys in hand. I padded around happily on the sea-green carpeting. Children had scrawled half-finished words on the walls in lurid crayon. Each room had a few broken-down pieces of Ikea furniture. The TV wouldn’t turn on. In the kitchen, a giant 1980s refrigerator rumbled as if powered by a diesel generator. But it was a place, and it was ours.
Later that week, I used a neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal — our own internet connection would take months to install — to learn more about my new neighborhood. I read that the DQ master plan had called for a mix of official buildings and housing for up to 20,000 people, half diplomats and their support staff, the rest other expats and Saudis — at a cost of nearly a billion dollars. More than 50 kilometers of roads were paved, then lined with apartments and villas, parks and trails, mosques and shops. For embassy buildings, individual countries were encouraged to embrace Najdi architectural styles: nothing higher than three or four stories, a sandy color palette, crenellated rooftops, and few windows. The Japanese government contracted the celebrated modernist Kenzo Tange, and the American buildings — biggest of all — were opened at a gala by then-Vice President George HW Bush. An article covering the opening weekend estimated that nearly 10,000 people, a mix of citizens and foreigners, visited to stroll and picnic.
The day we moved in, I set out on foot for a nearby grocery. I trod down tree-lined boulevards, through elegant marble squares, and past a massive, glass-walled conference centre; in 15 minutes of walking, I didn’t see a single car. After negotiating a series of empty, terracotta squares with burbling fountains, I reached the store, which was closed for prayer. Nearly an hour later, the heavy wooden door creaked open, and it occurred to me with a start that the cashier was the first person I’d seen outside my apartment all day.
As weeks passed, I felt more and more that I was living in a ghost town. The DQ was designed to accommodate a daily stream of visitors. But this vision had been clouded by bomb attacks that Saudi extremists carried off within the city between 2003 and 2006, killing nearly 200 civilians and soldiers. Westerners fled Riyadh; concrete barriers, tanks and soldiers were posted around the city; and the tires of military 4×4s had worn deep grooves into the DQ’s soft sand. Entering the DQ became an embarrassing hassle for non-residents. Few picnicked anymore.
When we arrived, the most recent bombing was several years in the past and, thanks to the world economy’s contraction, Riyadh was a more attractive posting than ever: the DQ was near full occupancy. But the spirit of the place never recovered. The ramped-up security checks were still there — and the city’s new security obsession flourished inside its walls. Already, it was customary for Saudi residents to cover their few windows and only invite close family inside. But I gathered that expatriates who stayed more than a few months generally accepted this as the way of things. Some unknown percentage were contravening certain rules about contraband, and there were efforts to keep it all secret. In the DQ, as everywhere else in Riyadh, most of life seemed to go on behind closed doors.
As if to challenge my neighbors, I started running at night around the sandy trail on the perimeter of the massive grounds. Once, under a full moon, I encountered a half dozen big-eared, long-tailed foxes. It was the largest number of mammals I’d ever seen in one place in the DQ. Another night, my wife told me she’d seen a light burning at the bombed-out farmer’s house just over the security fence, which stretched for dozens of mostly unguarded kilometers. How easily, I wondered, could someone sneak under the concertina wire? I realized with a twinge that, for all my talk of DQ’s bygone picnics, I was grateful for our apartment’s two-inch-thick, blast-proof iron front door.
After 18 months, thinking about getting ready to pack up and leave, the thing that saddened me most was how all the secrecy, privacy and threats of danger had, in the end, stopped me from knowing the place where I lived. Sure, we’d made a stable of genuine friends, but the greater community around me remained a mystery. All I could do was speculate.
By the time we return — in a year, in 10, never? — who knows if there will still be foxes, if families will once again stroll, or if men hostile to the DQ experiment will have finally breached the fence, swiftly and cruelly justifying all the closed doors.
A version of this article was previously published by The Review.
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