On Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter

When I used to live in Riyadh, the Diplomatic Quarter was one of my favorite areas in the city. Clean, organized and quiet, it felt like a secret oasis within the city. In a way, it was. Since the early 2000’s, access to the neighborhood has been highly restricted due to fear of terrorist attacks targeting the diplomatic missions located there.

I have previously complained about how hard it is to enter the Diplomatic Quarter, or DQ for short, for regular people. I have not been to Riyadh in a few years, but I guess the problems in getting to the DQ remain the same despite the fact that the security situation in the country has improved a lot.

Now in addition to being the semi-official newspaper for the country and the capital’s city namesake, al-Riyadh daily also serves as a newsletter for the Saudi royal family. When a prince gets married, al-Riyadh would typically run pages upon pages full of pictures from the all-male wedding. Such weddings usually take place in a banquet hall called Palace of Culture in the Diplomatic Quarter.

The newspaper recently ran photos from yet another prince’s wedding at the Palace of Culture. That made wonder if there are ever any cultural events held at this place. The answer is yes, but very rarely. Most of the time, it is simply used as a wedding hall for the elites.

As I was doing my research on that location, I came across this interesting piece about the planning and building of the Diplomatic Quarter published in Saudi Aramco World in their September/October 1988 issue. The magazine, published by the national oil company, is one of the oldest publications in the country.

Unlike the current the situation where the DQ feels blocked from the rest of the city by multiple security checkpoints guarded by squads of heavily armed and grumpy security forces, the original vision for the area was that it would be a “normal neighborhood.” Mohamed Alshaikh, president of ArRiyadh Development Authority (ADA), who has spearheaded the project when in the late 1970’s, told the magazine:

“Physically, functionally and socially, the quarter is by no means separate from the rest of Riyadh,” he says. In fact, “diplomatic mission personnel will number less than 10,000” of the DQ’s projected 22,000 inhabitants, and the quarter will be “a normal neighborhood of Riyadh, with priority to the diplomats.”

For current residents of Riyadh, the DQ is anything but a normal neighborhood. Alshaikh went on to say that they did not want a “ghetto feeling develop” in the quarter. Planners wanted it to serve as a model for future urban development in Riyadh. That obviously did not happen. More than twenty years later, some would say that the rest of the city feels like a ghetto compared to the much nicer Diplomatic Quarter.

What went wrong? Nothing in the Diplomatic Quarter itself, but almost everything around it.

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Saudi Municipal elections, weekend change, walk in the DQ

  • After several postponements, the Saudi government finally decided to move ahead with the long-delayed municipal elections. Surprisingly, they now seem in a rush to get it over with: voter registration opens on April 23rd, and the elections will be held on September 22nd. Women, however, will not be allowed to participate. “We are not ready for the participation of women in these municipal elections,” Election Commissioner Abdul Rahman Al-Dahmash told Arab News. I think we deserve a better explanation. I have some harsh words to the elections commission, but for now let me just quote John Burgess: “Dude. It’s been nearly six years since the last election … What have you been doing in the meantime?”
  • It’s been almost four years since the Shoura Council shot down a proposal to move the weekend in Saudi Arabia from Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday. Not much has happened since then, but al-Riyadh daily somehow thinks it is time to talk about this again (English here), especially after government employees and students were given Saturday off upon the King’s return. They asked seven citizens, and they all agreed that changing the weekend would be a good thing. The paper did not think it was necessary to ask anyone in in the government or Shoura Council.
  • Speaking of Shoura, the toothless council has called for more media freedom. I wish I can take this council or anything it says seriously, but I really can’t. All members of the council are appointed. Do we actually expect them to be anything but yes-men?
  • Jehan took a walk at the wadi of Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, aka the DQ, and returned with some nice photos. Although I complained before about how hard it is to enter the DQ, I have to say that I actually miss the place. My memories of the place are bittersweet, but I miss it nevertheless. If you live in the city and have access to the DQ you probably want to take advantage of the nice weather these days and enjoy a walk there.