Welcome to Riyadh.
I do not know where to start. Anyone who has spoken with me about Saudi knows my feelings about this place, or at least certain aspects of it. So I will preface this all a by saying I entered with a sort of bias. I'm giving a half-hearted attempt to keep an open mind about these things about which I have a strong opinion, but it's not easy.
We checked into the Ritz Carlton Riyadh. It is a brand new hotel and super swanky. I'd say it borders on ostentatious but after a day here I'd say it leapt over that red line. It reminds me a bit of the hotels in Vegas, just without alcohol, gambling, sin, and the opportunity to for women to do anything. It is in the middle of nowhere, iles away from anything. Best part-we are stuck here and women aren't allowed to use the pool, the gym, or the spa. The Saudis are comping all of our expenses in the hotel except long-distance phone calls. So all food included. Guys get massages for free too.
Yes, there is a spa With massages. And only men can use it. Total shiznat. I don't even like getting massages but I want one just because the said I can't have one.
When I asked the guy who worked here about the gym and he told me that women werent allowed to use it, I just stood there looking at him. Tammy, Merideth, Ashtar-he got my Teresa face. My friends on the trip said he looked terrified of me. I he is scared now, just wait for the end of a week without working out. Later on I was talking to a guy at the front desk and asked him whys not just have separate hours as they did in Oman. He was extremel apologetic(although would he have been so apologetic if it were his own wife looking to sweat it out?) and said that shhh-we could use the gym in the middle of the night when all the hotel guests are asleep. I appreciated the degre of flexibility and the seeming admission the whole thing is bollocks, but...
On the bright side, the Saudis bought us each our own hotel rooms-we don't have to share. I feel like an adult. And we got a fruit plate with rambutans. So there's that.
Th highlight so far was tonight, after we had a bit of a snack had the hotel drive us to the "happening" street of riyadh(can't remember what it's called right now). Today is apparently part of a seven day celebration honoring the king's seven years on the throne. Saudis were driving their huge American-made SUVs around honking their horns, hanging out of the window and dancing in their cars. And while there are a lot of things I don't like about Saudi, it's people are incredibly warm and friendly. They are undoubtedly not used to seeing foreigners just standing around on the street as most are locked up in their compounds. Everyone was trying to talk to us, telling use welcome to Saudi giving us their numbers(they gaves it to the guys in the group, cynics, so it wasn't like that) and offering to help if we needed anything. We also got a a bunch of "I love america"s. Which is good. So do I. It was nice to get to just talk and meet people.
I'm hoping there are plenty of opportunities for meeting our peers outsides the highly controlled hotel and official delegation environment during the upcoming days.