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.
  • Hani Naqshabandi: “We Saudis are not greatly different from anyone else, in money or knowledge or health. Poverty has no homeland, for it thrives in every country, ignorance exists here as it does everywhere else, and health problems that others have elsewhere are also found here. We might be better than others at some things, but they are also better than us at others, but no one is “better”, in an absolute sense, than anyone else.”
  • Popular Mechanics correctly notes that King Fahd International Airport in Dammam is the the largest airport in the world in terms of landmass. It is so enormous that it is actually about 28.5 square kilometers larger than Bahrain. What they fail to mention though is that it’s so empty most of the time it feels more like a ghost town than an international airport. The General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) is rarely in the news, but it’s actually one of the worst performing government departments. (via jb)
  • Speaking of ghost towns, Nathan Deuel writes about life inside the DQ. Few weeks ago I wanted to visit Nathan’s wife Kelly at their house in Riyadh and he had to come pick me up at the checkpoint at the DQ entrance. He wrote about it here.
  • How do KAUST students entertain themselvesUPDATE: After speaking with the video owner, I decided to remove it because it might compromise her safety. She did not ask me to remove it, but I thought it would be better for everyone. Sorry.
  • Jeddah United basketball team has joined efforts with automobile distributor Haji Husein Alireza & Co. Ltd. to launch Khobar United, the first of its kind women’s sports organization in the EP. When I visited Jeddah two years ago I had a chance to attend a kids tournament organized by Jeddah United where I also met the team’s captain Lina al-Maeena. Sports in girls’ schools is still being debated, but what these guys have been doing is really impressive.

Wanted: A Fake Iqama

I’m done with shopping malls in Riyadh. I used to complain all the time about the ban on single men there, but after four years in this town I guess I have come to accept the sad reality of human relationships here. These days there is something else that bugs me. It bugs the hell out of me, actually.

In the northwestern part of the city, you can find the Diplomatic Quarter, aka the DQ, which is basically a nice clean area where most of embassies and consulates are located as well as a group of government offices and other businesses. Most diplomats and embassies’ staff, and also some Saudis, live in the residential part inside the DQ.

Following the terrorist attacks in the country, security on the DQ gates has been much tightened. Entering the DQ has come to mean long waiting lines and slow check points. In other words, it’s become a hassle and such a crappy experience. That is, if you are a Saudi. For the most part, foreigners don’t have much trouble getting inside the DQ.

If you have some friends (Saudis or expats) who work or live in the DQ, then you can expect that every time you need to visit them that the security guards at the gates would give you shit for merely trying to enter what has become a walled garden.

Without a trace of a smile on his face, the guard would ask you: “What?!” You, trying to speak as politely as you can, would tell him the reason of your visit, which is either to see friends or for a meeting at some embassy or something in between, like a dinner with foreign visitors at Scallini, the only restaurant in the DQ.

First, he would ask you to show an invitation. But in this era of email and mobile phones, it is rather the exception to carry printed invitation letters, unless it was a very formal occasion. If you fail to produce the invitation letter that he most probably won’t read because he can’t understand English, he will tell you you can’t enter.

You tell him that you have an appointment and people are waiting for you inside but he is not buying any of it. If he is in a good mood, he would tell you that your host must come to pick you up from the gate. If he is in a bad mood, which is the case more often than not, he would say, “You are not allowed to enter.” If you dared to ask why, the answer could be “Just like that,” “These are the instructions,” or the dreaded “Mamnou3 dukhool al-3izab” (no single men allowed).

I understand the security concerns, but this crap we as Saudis face every time we need to enter the DQ is ridiculous. I don’t mind waiting in a long line at a check point. I don’t mind being a subject for any security procedure with any device as they damn well please. But being treated in this demeaning manner is unacceptable and conveys a bizarre discrimination. Imagine being discriminated against in your own country simply because you happen to be a native citizen?

Is it time to get a fake Iqama?