Failed Empire

Chronicling the collapse of a failed society

Street Scenes from Riyadh

riyadh street life
As some readers may know, I had the extreme misfortune of being stranded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for a solid seven months of my life.  I was drawn by the relatively high salary, but quickly realized that some things just aren’t worth the money.

What you see above is a shot taken in one of Riyadh’s most bustling neighborhoods, just outside of Bathaa.  Bathaa is known as the immigrant area, or as some of my Pakistani colleagues liked to call it, Little Karachi.  Unlike most of Riyadh, which was intolerably sterile and devoid of pedestrian activities of any kind, Bathaa actually felt like a city.  But the sense of oppression was tangible; the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian immigrant laborers were, for all intents, slaves.  Although they were paid a negligible amount for their services, they were literally held hostage at the whim of their Saudi employer.  I can speak from experience when I say that Saudi employers can be savagely ruthless.

It is the American addiction to Saudi oil that allows this system of modern slavery to exist.  And the hideous, rubble-strewn streets of Riyadh are testament to the fact that absolutely nothing constructive is being done with the unfathomable sums of money we’ve been funneling into Saudi Arabia for the last sixty years.  Riyadh is among the ugliest, most under-developed cities I have ever visited – slightly above the capital cities of, say, Laos and Cambodia, but remarkably impoverished for what is purportedly the wealthiest city on earth.  It is estimated that upwards of $1 billion dollars of profit funnel through Riyadh on any given day, but by and large the city and its residents – particularly its foreign residents – have seen very little of those riches.

The Saudi monarchy is corrupt.  The Imams who wield the real power in Saudi culture are so obsessed with enforcing a millennia-old moral and legal code that they have little concern left for such arbitrary matters as social development or progress.  And yet Saudi Arabia remains one of our strongest allies in the region, a supposed friend of democracy in spite of its atrocious record of flagrant human rights violations and its openly professed antipathy for the very concept of self-governance.

The moral of the story here is that our oil addiction has some ugly consequences, beyond the obvious implications of climate change.  It’s time to lay off the oil, folks.


4 responses to “Street Scenes from Riyadh

  1. dennis May 1, 2011 at 10:17 am

    I too worked in Riyadh KSA for the very same reason. Although I worked in an office with a managerial position at Jarir Bookstore somehow I felt like I was a prisoner devoid of any rights while living there. I never spent more than 6 months straight working in Saudi whenever I went back simply because I felt suffocated… I just had to come home even for just a couple of months to – for lack of a better term – detox. Your description truly captures the general feeling of an expatriate in Saudi Arabia.

    Dennis Datu

    • Andrew May 2, 2011 at 2:01 am

      Thanks for the comment, Dennis. Detox is certainly a fitting word, in spite of the forced abstinence that exists throughout KSA.

      It sounds as if you were fortunate enough to have a pretty good position, which would undoubtedly have made all the difference. Saudis tend to be incredibly racist – Saudis and other Arabs are at the top, followed by white Westerners, followed by those from the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Pakistan. I found my treatment at the hands of my Saudi employer to be intolerable, but as a white American it was undoubtedly infinitely better than the treatment accorded to non-white expatriates.

      Thankfully we’ve both managed to escape with our lives and sanity in tact.

  2. Leo Holmberg August 19, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I stumbled upon your site while I was looking around for photos taken in Saudi Arabia.
    I worked in Riyadh from 1983-1985, and I also went back for a short stint in 2009 to teach at King Saud University.

    If you have any links to photos taken during your stay I’d love to see them. I’ve scanned a bunch of pictures taken during 1983-1985, and have added them to my flickr account, and I would love to see any others you might have taken.

    Leo Holmberg

  3. orchardpark2014 August 31, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Seven months? Who forced you to stay so long in a place you hated so much? Did you attempt to learn the Arabic language? Make Saudi friends? No, Riyadh is certainly not Paris or Tokyo, However, one can’t help but wonder if all this negativity is solely caused by external factors…

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