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.

48+ hours in Riyadh, crazy fathers, Khalid Alnowaiser, Saudi Starbucks

  • Reuters does Riyadh. If you want to read more about what to do and where to go in the Saudi capital, please refer to the Riyadh favorites category on this blog.
  • gulfnews: “A Saudi groom cancelled his wedding ceremony at the last minute after the bride’s father insisted on getting half of his daughter’s salary as long as he lived and on writing a clause to the effect in the marriage contract.”
  • I’m not sure how I missed this when it was published in December, Saudi lawyer Khalid Alnowaiser has a really, really good piece in Arab News. He know what he is doing. He begins, “I realize I am taking up a very sensitive subject. I also understand that I would be stereotyped as liberal or secular, but I don’t care as long as this article provokes readers to consider thoughtfully the future of our country.” Do read the whole thing.
  • One of my fav expat blogs is this photo journal by Laylah, a Scandinavian nurse working in Riyadh.
  • Starbucks has a new logo. Fellow blogger Roba Assi has a funny infographic comparing the evolution of the Starbucks logo in Saudi Arabia vs the rest of the world.

Open letter to Obama, things to do in Riyadh

  • King Abdullah will meet the American President tomorrow. Abdullah Alami has an open letter to Mr. Obama. I find it naïve of Alami to ask Obama to stop the American media from criticizing Saudi Arabia. The American President does not control the American media. Hell, if he had any control over the media he would probably try to stop them from criticizing him. Don’t get me wrong. I hate to see my country being criticized unfairly. But I believe that the best way to stop the others from criticizing us is not by asking them but rather by fixing our issues and solving our problem.
  • Laylah fromt the Blue Abaya blog has some advice to Western women about what they can do in Riyadh to fight boredom and make good use of their time in the capital. She makes some nice suggestions that could be also useful to male expats, and even to some Saudi citizens.

Riyadh Metro

Driving my car in King Fahad Road the other day, I was listening to MBC-FM’s Rana al-Qassim. The blabbering radio host has come to be associated in my mind with her overuse of the brotherly salutation “akhoi,” an attempt to deter the sexual advances of drooling Saudi callers, I suppose. Although I think her “akhoi” sounds more patronizing than brotherly, but whatever…

The ever-confident Rana has decided to tackle the dilemma of zahma, aka the chronic congestion of Riyadh streets. As calls came in from people telling her their stories of daily horror and misery on the roads, Rana insisted that she wants to hear no whining or complaining. “I want solutions!” she exclaimed in her oh-I’m-so-good-at-this-radio-thing voice. The few calls I had the misfortune to hear offered some pretty innovative suggestions. “Ban all foreigners from driving,” one caller said. “Take old people off the streets,” another one demanded. None of the callers I heard said anything about public transportation.

How can a modern city of 6.5m people survive without a public transportation system would probably be a mystery to urban planners for years to come. But fear not, fellow Riyadhians! Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA) got your back. They will make a metro for us, after all. And No, that’s not because they are jealous of Dubai. I mean, seriously, Dubai who? How can anyone compare our historic city to this tiny emirate? The first reaction from officials in Riyadh upon hearing that the Dubai Metro would launch in 9/9/9 9:9:9 was something like: meh.

So yeah, Dubai launched their metro with much fanfare. Pretty cool, huh? Well, this is not how we do business in the magic kingdom. The plans for Riyadh Light Transit Railway (LTR) were revealed to Arab News by an unnamed source in the ADA. He gave away some supersecret information about the project, but one little, important detail was missing from the story: when can we expect this new metro to start operating?

I suppose ADA don’t have to worry about concealing this tidbit of info, or even falling behind schedule if there is one, because there is no one in charge to make sure that they deliver on their promises on time. What about the municipal council, you may ask. Sorry, they are too busy ensuring that men and women do not mingle during the upcoming Eid celebrations.

Qaym Redesigns

It has been a year since I wrote about Qaym, the user-generated restaurant reviews website founded by my friend Jihad al-Ammar. I was invited to a press conference last night where Qaym announced launching a new design and new interesting features.

Jihad said the website has enjoyed a steady growth over the past year and attracted an active community around it. He then introduced the new design which included a new logo and color theme. No major changes on the interface, but the little tweaks here and there should improve the usability and make it easier for users to find their way around the site.

Qaym logo

The most important new feature for me is the addition of Google maps to the restaurant pages. Jihad says that it took them a long time and much effort to make it happen, but they are pleased with the how they finally implemented this. Since they only rolled out this feature yesterday not all restaurant pages have them yet, but you can check out this one to see how it is working.

Jihad announced during the press conference that Qaym is expanding by adding two new developers to the team: Mashhour al-Debayyan and Omar al-Amoudi, and that they plan to expand Qaym to include reviews for other services and products. A mobile version (and maybe an iPhone app) of the website is scheduled for later this year, he added.

I have to say that I’m not just impressed by how far Qaym has evolved, but I’m also extremely proud of Jihad and rest of the Saudi team behind the website. Their hard work and commitment to provide a great service coupled with high quality is to be admired and respected. It is a real shame that they don’t get the recognition they deserve, but I hope that this will change soon.

Two Places

I wish we have places like these in Riyadh:

  • ta2_marbouta_2T-Marbouta is a cafe in Beirut that I visited when I was in Lebanon last year. Located in Pavilion St. of Hamra, this place offers something different than what you can usually find in other cafes in the city. With its little library and weekly events and art performances, it has become a favorite a spot for students and young activists. There is this place in Khobar called Otacuschez, which offers a relatively similar experience, but unfortunately there is nothing like that in Riyadh.

  • citizen_spaceCitizen Space, a coworking space in San Francisco. What is a coworking space? It is basically a cafe-like community/collaboration space for developers, writers and independents. There are many places like these in cities around the world now, and I think it would be great if creative people in Riyadh can have such thing. I mean, let’s face it: this is not exactly a friendly city for writers and artists; a coworking space should be perfect for many of us who seek a healthy, inspiring environment to work and create here.