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Out and about in Bahrain and beyond..

Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun! Temperatures have cooled since mid September so it is much more pleasant :0).

I have been out and about a bit over the past while, so i thought I would just share some photos from those trips and make this blog more about the photos than text!

First up we went to Bahrain for a long weekend. We really enjoyed it – we flew, but many choose to drive as it’s just five hours from Riyadh and you cross the King Fahd causeway which is 15 miles long. We had to do Covid tests on arrival (because we flew in, not required for entry by the causeway) and for departure (at their stunning new airport), but that all proved easy enough.

First we stayed at the Sofitel Bahrain along the coast for a beachy time (the seafood platter at their tapas restaurant was amazing!) and then we transferred to the central Merchant House Hotel in Manama. We visited the Bab Al Bahrain souq and the Bahrain National Museum, which was v interesting giving the social and economic history of Bahrain from the Dilmun period (2000 BC) to the present day. We also had a browse around ultra-modern, The Avenues Mall.

There are lots of great hotels and restaurants to choose from in Manama, one we didn’t get to but was highly recommended is Clay (Japanese/Peruvian fusion) #nexttime!!

We really liked the vibe in Bahrain, it was easy going, very clean and the roads had marked lanes which traffic seemed to respect – which is a novelty coming from Riyadh lolz!

I also went with a friend to a Mexican/Saudi Arabian traditional dress exhibition at the Ahlam Studio Gallery in Riyadh which was sponsored by the Mexican Embassy as part of its National Day Celebrations in September (Saudi National Day is also in September). There are similarities between the traditional dress of the two countries, which are basically wide tunics decorated with intricate embroidery.

Art galleries are still very new in Saudi but they are popping up as the Kingdom opens itself up to the arts, and there is definitely a growing interest in a new wave of contemporary young artists. Gallery owner Ahlam Alshedoukhy trained as a doctor and is also a self-taught artist, she supports emerging artists and hosts regular exhibitions (Insta: ahlam_studio_gallery)

Al Qara Caves tour guides

And finally, we took a day trip by train to Al Hasa (also known as Al Hofuf) which is in the Al- Ahsa Oasis in the Eastern Province (largest oasis in the world + LOTS of date palms). The train took about 2.5 hours from Riyadh and it was super fast and efficient. We visited the Al Qara caves which are a UNESCO world heritage site. They are a warren of passages and openings worn through huge limestone mountains. The visitor center is called The Land of Civilization and it has an unexpected (and slightly confusing!) exhibition on civilizations from around the world. We also had some lovely and enthusiastic local guides who welcomed us and gave us some background to the geography and history of the area (pictured above).

During the trip we also visited Al Amiriya School in the center of Al Hofuf which is one of the oldest public schools in Saudi Arabia dating back to the 1920s, and was visited by Saudi Arabia’s founder King Abdulaziz in 1931. Built in the traditional Islamic style it is no longer a school but has been preserved as a historical building.

Also in the center of the town, but not open to the public is Ibrahim Palace, an ancient mud built fort. It was built as a defence because Al Hofuf was strategically important in the spice trade.

And finally, we rounded the day off with a visit to Qaisarriah Souq i Hofuf- a warren of tiny streets filled with shops selling all kinds of things including spices, abayas, perfumes and loofahs (it is afterall only an hour from the Arabian Gulf).

As we toured the tiny streets one shopkeeper spied my friend and I and bustled us into her perfume shop where she enthusiastically suggested we take part in a promotional video. We obliged of course and she directed and filmed us sampling her products and giving a five star review. As payment Lamya presented us with mini jars of scented oud and took a selfie with us!

Perfume shop owner Lamya

We also met a Souq local character who was dressed up ahead of Saudi National Day and who was only too happy to have his photo taken with us!

And that rounds off our Big Arabian Adventures over the past month – hopefully more to follow soon!

Stay cool and take care,

Anne :0)

(Insta: anne.mcgrath248)

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What’s new in KSA (Part 3)

Tourism and movies

This is Part 3 of the What’s New in KSA blog series charting the top ten changes introduced in the Kingdom since we arrived in the country (way) back in 2018!

Hot on the heels of abaya wearing, this post is focusing on the growth of tourism in the traditionally conservative Kingdom and the re-emergence of cinemas after being banned for 35 years.

Tourist Visas

Until 2019 it was impossible to come as a tourist to Saudi Arabia. Anyone from another country was either working here, or was related to someone working here. There was some internal tourism but it was limited too, Saudis mostly travelled out of the country for their breaks and holidays.

Then in September 2019 it was announced that tourist visas were being made available and people started to come! You can do a search on You Tube to see how many travel You Tubers all desperate to tick Saudi off their list immediately headed to Riyadh!

Official figures reveal over 350,000 tourist visas were issued in the last quarter of 2019. It has the attraction of being a largely unexplored country and intrepid travelers were keen to be one of the first to make their way here.

At the same time Saudi started to invest in areas such as AlUla, a UNESCO world heritage site with pre-Islamic carved tombs and a huge newly opened mirrored concert hall, Taif in the north also known as The City of Roses and Asir in the south with its unique culture and cooler climate. A beautifully shot film showing the diversity of the Kingdom was also released as part of a pro-active campaign to promote Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination and show off its splendors.

In tangent a series of ‘Seasons’ were also introduced in cities and regions across KSA to promote internal tourism and attract visitors from across the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) region.

The Seasons focused on celebrating local culture, introducing new experiences and bringing international events to the Kingdom. They included a huge three night dance music festival MDLBEAST held in the desert just outside Riyadh featuring the world’s biggest house and techno DJs, sporting events including Formula-E, the World Boxing Heavyweight Championship, an equestrian festival and international tennis exhibition. Purpose-built villages of pop-up restaurants and theme parks appeared as if by magic overnight. (Hyde Park Winter Wonderland was recreated in central Riyadh in a matter of weeks).

There were art exhibitions, a season of Cirque du Soleil, light shows and firework displays – everywhere you looked something was happening!

The ‘Seasons’ were enthusiastically received. There had never been anything like it before, festivals and events on this scale had not happened. At the concerts young men and women were able to mix freely and dance in the open air – a massive societal change.

(Due to the pandemic The Seasons were cancelled in 2020, but they are due back with a bang in a few months’ time!)

The tourist industry is still in its infancy in Saudi Arabia, and the tourism infrastructure is very limited, but there are huge plans to attract millions of visitors every year with mega luxury projects currently under construction along the Red Sea, a huge sporting/entertainment/theme park project on the door-step of Riyadh, and there’s further investment going into jewel-in-the-crown AlUla to establish it as the go-to destination for those wanting a unique cultural and historical experience.

The age of tourism in KSA has only just begun…#VisitSaudi

A warm welcome back to cinemas

There were cinemas across Saudi Arabia until the early 1980s when they were closed after being regarded as un-Islamic. The first cinema re-opened in Riyadh after restrictions were lifted in April 2018 and movie theaters quickly became a booming business with international chains keen to get established. The aim is to have 350 cinemas across the country by 2030.

The new cinemas are of course state-of-the-art, offering the latest in the luxury movie theater experience, from surround sound, to super-sized recliners – and why not snack on a lobster roll served to your seat?(All at a luxury price of course!)

Saudis love the cinema as much as anywhere else, and before they reopened Saudi film buffs used to regularly drive to Bahrain or travel to the UAE to catch the latest releases, so it’s still a thrill for them to be able to watch the latest blockbuster in their own country.

The range of films on release here are censored and are largely limited to action movies, kids cartoons or Disney films.

We’ve only managed to get to the cinema once so far. We saw the Oscar winning film Parasite back in February 2020 – which we saw literally five days before all the cinemas were closed because of the pandemic (they’ve since reopened).

When we arrived to watch the movie (which was at 10am on a Saturday morning) there were only limited seats left so we chose two seats at the end of a row – I sat in the seat next to the aisle and my husband sat beside me with two empty seats next to him. A Saudi woman on her own came in just as the film was beginning and she very politely asked me to swap seats with my husband so she didn’t have to sit next to him… just a little reminder that although a lot of things are changing in Saudi some cultures and practices remain deeply ingrained.

And that brings us to the end of What’s New in KSA (Part 3) – the fourth and final in the series will follow next time!

Until then, stay cool!

Anne :0)

Insta: anne.mcgrath248

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What’s new in KSA? (Part 1)

The times they are a-changing

Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun!

I’ve been back in Riyadh for just over a month and have been reflecting on how much has changed in the Kingdom since I left 10 months ago, and in the bigger picture, what has changed since we first arrived in the country way back in 2018!

The changing Riyadh skyline

I thought the changes might make an interesting couple of blogs, as the Kingdom has been, and continues to undergo, huge transformation both socially and economically.

The country has followed a conservative brand of Islam since 1979 and its constitution is based on Islamic law, but the Kingdom aims to transform itself into a dynamic, diversified nation over the next decade under a plan known as Saudi Vision 2030.

The tentacles of transformation reach into every aspect of life and the speed of change is almost dizzying…

(As a side note, this is not an official or definitive list – it’s just a compilation of my own observations and lived experience. It is also not a critique of what has changed or still needs to be changed – that is for others, this blog is just a light touch reflection of my personal experience of living in Saudi Arabia.)

So, with all that in mind I have compiled a list of the top 10 changes (in no particular order) which have I have noticed the most since I arrived in the Kingdom in 2018. The first five are listed below with another five to follow in the next blog!:

1. End of shop closures during prayer time

Just a few weeks ago, at the beginning of July it was announced that shops, restaurants banks etc no longer have to close during prayers. Until this announcement all commercial enterprises had to shut five times a day for 20 minutes during each prayer (although many closed for up to half an hour).

When you turn up to buy a freshly baked baguette but it’s closed for prayers… :0(

On a practical level it meant I always had to check my Al-Moazin app to see what time prayer was that day if I was planning on going to the supermarket or the mall – because arriving just as prayer was beginning would mean hanging around outside, or in the mall concourse until the shops reopened. And prayer times also change (marginally) on a daily basis, so that’s why you need to check and not rely on memory – but of course there were times when you forget which is very annoying, especially if you’re in a rush!!

The change is still new, and while some shops are now opening the majority are still closing – but luckily the bigger supermarkets have been quick to adopt it (to be fair they mostly allowed shoppers in during prayer time they just closed the tills – so you could always go in and fill up your trolley to be ready to pay as soon as they reopened).

It will probably take time for the majority of outlets to stay open – but it certainly makes life easier!

I once got chatting to a young Saudi woman I was sitting beside in a mall while we waited for the shops to reopen, and she pointed to all the Saudi families ambling around trying to entertain the kids until they could carry on with their shopping and said, ‘look at all these people, no one is going to pray, everyone just wants the shops to stay open,’ – so I imagine she is pleased the change has been introduced!

2. Music in restaurants/cafes/shops

For a long time in Saudi Arabia music was ‘haram’ ie forbidden as being anti-Islamic. Many things were, and still are ‘haram’ including, alcohol, pork, gambling, public displays of religious beliefs other than Islam etc.

Coffee Cherries – local independent coffee shop in Riyadh

When you’re used to a constant soundtrack of music in shops, cafes, restaurants etc the silence when there is none feels oppressive and the atmosphere sterile. The silence is very alien and takes some getting used to.

However, over recent years music has been creeping in. The more upmarket restaurants started playing it first (although it still gets turned off during prayer time) and now many fashion shops have introduced background music and even some of the malls.

Some people don’t miss it of course, I have one friend here (non Saudi) who celebrates the fact that one of the big local supermarkets doesn’t play a continuous loop of pop music, she says, ‘I think it’s great, I can think what I need to buy instead of being annoyed by loud, pumping music that is distracting and unnecessary!’

3. End of Singles and Family Sections

Ok so the photo to this one looks a bit weird – but it illustrates the last place where you will see the sign ‘Families Only’. This sign is above the entrance to a Victoria’s Secrets lingerie shop in a mall and what it actually means is, ‘no single men’.

The message appears a bit confusing – certainly not what we would consider a families only destination to be!

Until December 2019 every restaurant/cafe had two sections – one for single men, or groups of single men and another for family groups, groups of single women. For decades it was the norm that men and women had to use separate entrances or sit behind partitions so that women were not visible to single men. As for smaller restaurants or cafes with no space for segregation, women were not allowed in.

I experienced this once when my husband and I went to a small restaurant one evening – there was only one room for dining and when we went to order we were told they would not serve me, but we could have the order as takeaway – we sat down to wait for the food to be prepared when a Saudi man came in, he started to talking to us and asked why we were not dining – we explained we had been told it was not a families section and I could not eat there, he was surprised and remonstrated with the guy behind the till, who obviously explained it was against the law, and then in a completely unexpected turn of events the Saudi guy insisted on paying for our food!

A friend once commented to me that the single men’s section was one of the bleakest places of all to sit…

Thankfully Family Sections is now practically obsolete and seating areas in most restaurants and cafes are mixed.

However, across Saudi Arabia Government-run schools and most public universities remain segregated, as are most Saudi weddings and workplaces have women-only offices.

4. Dialling down the call to prayer

On June 1 this year the Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister announced new restrictions on the volume of loudspeakers used at mosques – while this might not seem like that big of a deal there are eight mosques within a 10/15 minute walk from our compound (maybe more, but those are the ones I’ve counted) and six times a day, starting at around 4.00am the call to prayer is relayed by loudspeaker from each mosque – and it can be VERY LOUD!!

Al Ghat open air mosque with traditional eco-friendly loudspeaker posts!

When we lived in our previous apartment we could hear it in triplicate as each imam has his own style and delivery and at times it felt like they were really competing with each other. Sometimes it would also be much louder than others, but since we have moved to our new place which is more central within the compound, we rarely hear it anyway – but when we do it is notably with less volume.

The reason given to restrict the volume and only allow loudspeakers to be used up to a third of their maximum volume, as well as limiting the broadcast to the call to prayer rather than the full sermon, was that it could be so loud it was disturbing babies, children and the elderly, and as the authorities pointed out, the call to prayer should not cause harm…

5. Ending of the guardianship system

Much has been written and continues to be debated about the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia which gave husbands, fathers and other male relatives the authority to make critical decisions about women, and severely limited what people in other countries generally accept as their civil liberties and human rights.

The first move towards dismantling the guardianship system began in 2018 when a ban on women driving was lifted.

Women in Taiba Souq, Riyadh

This was followed in August 2019 when a royal decree was issued stating that women over 21 in the Kingdom no longer needed permission from their male guardian to apply for a passport or to travel – this was a huge step forward. Since then many more of the guardianship restrictions have been removed, most recently last month women were legally allowed to live alone and choose where they wanted to live.

However, elements of the guardianship system still exist, women still need permission to marry or divorce, and there are also many cultural ad social restrictions on women which can limit their options in making their own life choices. But the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia is on a march. There is a huge push from the government to bring Saudi women into the work place and to promote them, enhanced by laws outlawing workplace discrimination based on gender.

And with new opportunities open to them, Saudi women are excelling in every field, from finance to science and sport, and entrepreneurship, to the arts and academia.

Two excellent films I would highly recommend which portray women in Saudi Arabia are Wadjda (2012) and The Perfect Candidate (2019) both by Saudi’s first female film-maker Haiffa al Mansour – events may have outdated them but they are beautifully filmed and show women in Saudi Arabia through a different lense.

And that’s all for this blog – part two of changes in KSA will follow soon!

I hope you found it interesting, for me it’s fascinating to live in a country going through such huge transition.

Until next time, stay cool!

Anne :0)

Insta: anne.mcgrath248

Desert dunes at sunset…

Traversing the dunes, off-road somewhere between Riyadh and Dammam…

Hello and welcome to another day of sun in Riyadh!

Following on with the theme of getting out and about again post the lockdown restrictions, I recently joined some friends to watch the sunset over the desert.

So far, during our time in the Kingdom I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the desert’s iconic red sand dunes – those mystical, other-worldly landscapes which have inspired many tales of Arabian derring-do and romantic heroes.

Prior to our outing the only desert I had seen was rough and stony, dotted with scraggy bushes and stumpy trees, not the sweeping red mounds of majestic sand Lawrence of Arabia would have travelled over by camel!!

Jackson Bentley: What is it Major Lawrence that attracts you personally to the desert?

T.E. Lawrence: It’s clean.

Lawrence of Arabia

My friends and I set off late afternoon and drove around two hours due east of Riyadh towards the city of Dammam. It’s a very busy road with bumper to bumper trucks traveling both ways transporting goods between Riyadh and the Gulf city port. Two hours is about half way to Dammam and it’s also around here that the red sand dunes begin. The road was built through them and they had to be flatten the dunes on either side to prevent them creeping back and reclaiming the highway. I would imagine after a sandstorm parts of the road would probably still completely disappear under sand.

Anyway, after about two hours of driving we doubled back and pulled in off the highway. Driving over sand dunes is a skill. The car tyres have to be deflated, as reduced pressure provides more traction and disperses the weight of the vehicle preventing sinking.

The golden rules for driving over sand dunes are: drive straight up or down, keep momentum going and don’t stop on an incline.

Thankfully we had an experienced driver and I wasn’t in the hot seat!!

We drove just a couple of kilometres in from the highway and arrived just ahead of the sunset. The golden light illuminated the dunes, making the red sand glow with warmth, while in contrast the side away from the sun cast long dark shadows.

The view was stunning. The sand is powder soft and the dunes are molded by the shifting winds. There is nothing but sand, no other form of life to be seen, serene in their stillness and beauty.

We had a picnic as we enjoyed the view then grabbed some photos and packed up as the last lingering light was fading – we didn’t want to have to make our way back to the highway across the dunes in the dark!

We pulled out of the dunes to the side of the road just as the sun, in a blazing firey ball dipped below the horizon. We increased the tyre pressure and pulled back out into the crazy traffic racing back to Riyadh on Saturday night. First, but hopefully not last, visit to the desert done!

Until next time,

Stay safe,

Anne :0)

Sunset over
the road to Riyadh

The top 5 podcasts I’m currently listening to …

Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun! So this is the last of my ‘What I’ve been reading/watching/listening to’ series and follows hot off the heels of TV and film viewing and top book recommendations.

I’ve always been a big fan of radio – ever since I discovered the Gerry Ryan Show on RTE 2fm one long school summer holiday. His programs were an absolute riot – back than he had two roving reporters (both called Barbara) and he sent them off on all sorts of madcaps adventures across Ireland. It was like nothing I had heard before – they were all having one big party on the airwaves – and growing up back then in Northern Ireland BBC Radio Ulster certainly had nothing like it!! Gerry was an incomparable broadcaster. When you heard his daily introduction ‘It’s Gerry Ryan with you on the radio ’till midday’ you buckled up for three hours of pure entertainment.

The other radio program I really loved was many years later when Richard Bacon presented a late night chat show on BBC Radio 5 Live. The half hour between 12.30 and 1am was called the Secret Half Hour (SHH) and you only knew about it, if you knew! Again it was like being the member of an exclusive club.

I was also lucky enough to work in radio for a number of years, working in newsrooms and also briefly presented my own show . It was supposed to be a ‘behind the scenes’ look at news stories, talking to journalists about their experience of reporting a story, or people with interesting stories or life experiences to tell but which didn’t really fit the news agenda, all interspersed with poppy indy music – think Travis, The La’s, Texas and The Divine Comedy etc… Sadly it didn’t last that long, I think if there had been more than just me working on it I might have enjoyed it more, but I found it quite stressful producing and presenting with no one to bounce ideas off. It had the potential to be good but it never quite got there… Maybe someday it will return!

Anyway, my love of radio has grown to encompass my love of podcasts.There is a podcast about every subject under the sun. What makes them so appealing is they can do a deep dive into a subject or an interview and there is no pressure of time because they don’t have to fit into a pre-determined time slot and of course you listen at a time that suits you.

The first podcast I listened to back in 2014 was Series One of Serial which investigated the murder of a high school pupil in Baltimore, US, 1999. It’s a typical ‘Who done it’? with episodes being edited weekly as new information came to light. It was a trailblazer and introduced a new form of innovative storytelling. To date has been downloaded over 100 million times worldwide.

I’m still a big fan of true crime podcasts and if you’re interested I would also recommend West Cork on Audible – the story of an unsolved murder in West Cork, (Ireland), and Teacher’s Pet – the unsolved disappearance of a young mum in the Sydney suburbs in the 1980s. Both are examples of strong investigative journalism which really immerse the listener in the local community, with the reporters (in some cases) having spent years researching and interviewing key witnesses. Serial and Teacher’s Pet are available from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Acast etc – wherever you get your podcasts from…

But the podcasts I have been most enjoying more recently and especially during lockdown are:

So, briefly, Grounded with Louis Theroux is a series of 10 interviews recorded during lockdown with people Louis has always wanted to meet. They range from comedian Lenny Henry to actress Helena Bonham-Carter and footballer Troy Deeney. I’ve always enjoyed Louis’s TV programs and these intimate interviews have the sense of eavesdropping on a conversation between friends.

The High Low is a weekly podcast presented by friends and writers Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes which covers high and low brow culture. They discuss pop culture and news stories which have been trending over the past week and recommend articles books, TV and podcasts. They also do one-off “meet the author’ interviews. Lots of breezy fun and keeps you in the loop so you know what’s been going on! (Only problem is it can be difficult to tell them apart – I still struggle and I have been listening since 2017!)

Today in Focus is a weekday 30 min podcast presented by Anushka Asthana from The Guardian newspaper. It provides analysis of the big news stories and hosts discussions with Guardian journalists on their exclusive features – giving a behind the scenes feel.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is an adaptation of Radio 4’s Book of the Week and the British Book Awards, Book of the Year. A funny and heartbreaking debut novel dealing with the relationships and racial justice issues faced by a young woman living in contemporary London. Available on BBC Sounds.

The Happiness Lab is a spin off from The Science of Well-Being , a course hosted by Yale Professor Dr Laurie Santos which investigates what really make us happy – and it’s not what you might think! The 10 week course has become the most popular class in the 317 year history of Yale University and is now available free online offering video lectures, quizzes, recommended readings and rewirement activities – so far 2.7million people worldwide have enrolled (including me!) It was really fascinating and the podcast, which is also hosted by Laurie Santos, shares stories and discusses the latest scientific research into the psychology of happiness. It’s a really good accompaniment to the course, or can easily be listened to without doing the class.

And that brings to a close this little mini series of ‘What I’ve been enjoying during lockdown’. I hope I’ve provided some inspiration, whether it’s something to read/watch or listen to.

I’ll be back with another blog in a week or two,

Until then stay safe (and if you’re in Riyadh stay cool!)

Anne :0)