Riyadh… Here We Go Again

Saudi Arabia never truly lets me go. In March 2022 I got offered to cover an event for a Maritime company at the World Defense Show and what an adventure it has turned out to be.

First of all, I’ve got to tell you that it was the first edition of the World Defense Show, WDS, the military exhibition highlighting the achievements and developments by every country that wished to participate. I truly wanted to be a part of this event, but getting a pass proved to be a challenge right from the start. I had my application rejected twice, and only with the help of some wasta (Arabic word for connections) and perseverance did I get to be on the list of the people who were allowed to enter the doors of the Exhibition Center. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and tell the story the way it unfolded.

Until the few days before the event, I had no tickets, had no idea where I was going to stay and no pass either. Typical Saudi style. But as I am well-aware, last minute is the way to go, I wasn’t too worried that it would work out. And it did, like it always does.

So on a Friday afternoon, I arrived to Dubai Airport to catch my Saudia flight to Riyadh. The weather started to get quite windy and dusty in Dubai, but nothing compared to what was awaiting for me in KSA. Full on blasting sandstorm that won’t let you see anything further than 3 meters in front of you. And that’s provided that you’re brave enough to open your eyes and let the dust and sand enter your eyelids from every direction.

The check-in required quite a lot of papers, but the visa is easily done in 5 minutes these days, then you got to register your vaccinations on the ministry of health website, you gotta download the most annoying application called tawakalna, which you only will be able to use once you are in KSA, and only inshallah it will allow you to register on it. Anyhow, all of that worked out, and as I was strolling towards the hang luggage check, in my abaya, and generally not much looking like a citizen of my country, I got approached by a guy wearing a white linen suit, telling me that he was unfortunately stuck in here for the last three days (in Russian), and that he is running out of ideas what to do as his credit card has been affected by the sanctions (alhamdullilah, I don’t possess any Russian credit cards or money at the moment), but basically begging me to give him some money for lunch. Now, I don’t support such actions, but I always think if someone is scamming me for money, it is actually going to be bad for their karma, and not for mine, and hope I won’t ever have to find myself in this situation… so I gave him a little bit of cash to go get himself something to eat.

Then I am in the plane watching some Saudi comedy, then I am watching the never-ending dust engulfing everything and then I am outside waiting for my uber being consumed by the dust.

I thought that by taking an uber it would minimize the chances of me ending up in a random place, but I still ended up in a random place with some saudis drinking tea outside of their living quarters, and it of course wasn’t where I wanted to be. So after trying to convince my driver in my broken Arabic that he had to help me find the right location, he said ok it will probably be 20 more riyals. Ya man, I don’t want to get left somewhere in the middle of North Riyadh in the middle of the sandstorm with no idea what to do.

Finally, we were at the right place.

The guy at the reception asked me if I would like to pay in cash or by card, so I told him I can pay cash and he said haha, nobody paid cash in this place in like months, but sure why not. Apparently, it was not even allowed to pay cash in corona times.

So that evening due to the weather conditions, nobody was brave enough to come out and hang out with me, so I entertained myself with reading the menu of the restaurant that had one million typing mistakes, drinking tea and listening to the racket that the neighbours were putting in.

Next morning, my kind friend B. suggested to take me for breakfast in Diriyah to enjoy some local food and a beautiful view. He came to pick me up just after 9 am, and we went out to discover new (for me) places. Apparently, there was a marathon happening that day as well, so some people got to enjoy 42kms of running in the dust, and us got to enjoy no parking and most of the roads being closed around the area.

But we had a fabulous time chatting and enjoying food, roaming around the neighborhood, dreaming about how great it will be once it is finished.

Then we went to get some coffee which was absolutely the best coffee I had in March, hands down, and I got left to check in to the Movenpick hotel, which was right next to the Winter Wonderland and had a kick-ass view on KAFD, but I didn’t get to visit either of them, neither I got to take any decent pictures of those landmarks because the weather was just something else.

I don’t know if it was the coffee buzz, or Riyadh general effect on me, but the next three hours I just spent sitting by this window looking out at the cars in trance until my phone buzzed with a message that I should get out and we gotta go see some art at the Diriyah Biennale, don’t need to ask me twice.

The place was amazing, and the company was just perfect; there were some parts of the show that hit me deep, and I won’t ever forget how they made me feel, and even though some people insist that there’s no culture in the Middle East, I guess it’s all personal.

For dinner we went to a quaint Lebanese restaurant in the Diplomatic quarters, and got yelled later on by the security guy that we didn’t have our masks on, even though next morning everyone got allowed not to wear masks any more outside, and let me tell you that nobody was wearing them inside either.

With all this excitement, I absolutely could not sleep that night, and after maybe cashing in 1 hour of sleep, I embarked on a long journey to the mighty World Defense Show at around 6-30 am. When we have reached the gates on the venue, there was already traffic and there was a horde of people outside trying to get in. Somehow I ended up going to the second tent of the metal detector security checks, where I found absolutely no security ready to check my bag. So be it, then we waited another 40 minutes to actually get in the building, for whichever reason the main entrance was not allowing anyone to enter, so we all had to walk on the rough sands of Arabia, getting our shoes and abayas and suits ruined for the day, but success. Knowing how difficult it was to get the pass for the show, it was funny that nobody even checked it, as well for PCR, vaccination or any other of those numerous papers they were relentlessly telling us about.

At the stand everything was covered with a proper layer of sand and dust as well. With the last moments of preparations and excitement, the long day was about to begin. We did what we could and we did our best to cover all the documents signings and official visits, Sami, Gami, Ministry of Interior, and bam, my 24-70 lens stops communicating to my camera. What else do I have with me? I did not take 35, I didn’t take 50 thinking that 24-70 plus 70-200 will have me covered, and 16 for some extreme situations… but shit happens, and it usually happens when you don’t expect it to happen.

I got “home” and asked my friend to help me out and solve this situation, thankfully by some miraculous turn of events, he managed to find a rental place which had precisely what I needed, and I had my problems disappear in a glimpse. God bless having friends in the right places at the right time. And thank you so much, you’ve got no idea how much you saved my ass. Or maybe you do, thanks for showing up anyway.

The next day we had more ministers, and thankfully a second photographer to help me out in my challenge of being in a million of places at the same time. Having had documented and sent over everything I needed for the day, I decided to go for a walk in the neighborhood.

When I was in Riyadh in 2020, about which you can read here, it felt quite disturbing so to say to roam the streets alone. Everyone was staring at me and commenting, and trying to help, but this time nobody really cared about me walking alone. I saw plenty other ladies walking on their own, and nobody really paid attention to them. I love just getting lost without an aim or an intention to get anywhere, so I walked for a while, looking at mosques, street cats, signs, shooting drones (unexpected), broncos, gigantic villas, boughenvillas for sale and what not… shadows, lights and random mess that delights my heart.

The next day I came back and fell asleep in my abaya on the bed once I got into the room. Then there was the last day, when everything at the show already was working perfectly, we had the bathroom, and the water, and more ministers, and a little bit more time to breathe. They kicked us out by 4 pm, but we got stuck in an immense traffic due to the fact that everyone was leaving at the same time. I had to check out of my hotel and go stay at my airbnb in al Aarid, got a gift of a pineapple from the generous clients, so I had to go buy a knife to cut it.

My airbnb place, it was something. The place was huge, and had a fabulous terrace, but the location was what we call in Russian in the ass of the world. But I was staying close by from my friends, so we had no problems going to see each other. However, most of the Thursday I had to work, so again I didn’t get to see anyone. The weather was very hot, but I enjoyed it on my terrace with my mint tea and orange juice, playing music and marveling the bluest sky in a while. The weather has finally improved.

In the evening, my friends decided to take me to Riyadh Boulevard, to show off what the new Riyadh has to offer. It is full of lights, shops, music and entertainment, but I instantly had a feeling that I am back in Dubai. We had a good time, took a ride on the “snow” slopes, listened to the dj playing tunes, did our visit, ate some shawarmas on the way home and called it a day.

Friday morning I harassed my friend to go out for breakfast, and dragged his sleepy face to a lovely place not far from my favorite Intercontinental. The weather was too hot to walk around, so we drove a little bit and said our farewells later on in a dusty majlis. We were planning to go to the Edge of the World with A. later that day, but the weather turned windy and sandy again, so instead we just went to eat at PF Changs at the mall, danced with cats in their apartment and called it a day.

Saturday we went to a cinema in Riyadh front, which was great, but very Dubai. Went to have a coffee at some ex-Bahri employee coffee shop, and even took part in the photoshoot that was happening in there. Funnily enough, I met this guy’s father in Abu Dhabi last year, and he came around, and even remembered me, such a sweet person.

Sadly, this was time to wrap up my Saudi adventures for now, so A. dropped me at the airport to be carried back to my Dubai reality.

I never know what to expect coming to Saudi Arabia, and every time I face some kind of unpredictable challenges and adventures, but every time I leave it, I just want to go back immediately and have some more.

I am sad I didn’t get to see so many of my friends, but I am happy to have spent time with those of you who shared pieces of your lives with me during this week.

Thank you for your hospitality, thank you for your big hearts, and for your time. Thank you IMI who trusted me enough to be a part of the first edition of WDS, God knows there were not many female photographers in there, thank you for all the support and I hope to see you soon again.

Much love,

Anna

5 thoughts on “Riyadh… Here We Go Again

  1. Wow Anna, what a beautiful read. I did not imagine you’d go through so much as a photographer specifically hired to shoot an event. Your perseverance is amazing! And your generosity is unending. I really see you in a new light after this. I am glad things worked out somehow and you had some fun! But those frustrations would’ve had me quit long ago! Keep it up High Priestess!

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