The best-known is the Kingdom Tower, also known as the Potato Peeler – or the Vest – for, well, obvious visual reasons. It holds offices, malls, apartments, a hotel and a fancy restaurant at the top. People like to use it as a symbol of the glitziness and contemporary zip of Riyadh.
But Riyadh is not glitzy. It has precious little contemporary zip. In truth, the Kingdom Tower looks like a giant alien spaceship, plopped down in an ordinary city as if from some other planet.
The other skyscraper is the Faisaliah Centre, just down the street. It, too, holds offices, malls, apartments, a hotel and a fancy restaurant at the top, housed within a giant golden sphere which is ringed by a high-level viewing gallery.
For some visitors that’s pretty much all they see of Riyadh’s public spaces. Not their fault. I found this an incredibly difficult city to penetrate – blank, dour, unused to outsiders, reserved, wary. The street running alongside those skyscrapers is Olaya Street, famed as the ritziest address in Riyadh. I didn’t think it was ritzy at all. This is what it looks like – and that’s pretty much the extent of Riyadh’s public transport, too.
I took several walks through the poorer downtown commercial areas. These are short one-minute clips of what the streets looked and sounded like, shot on my phone.
This next video is the same sort of thing, starting from the Bab Al-Thumairi gateway, which used to look like this. The new arch across the street, where the video begins, caught my eye for its calligraphy – my pic below shows “There is no God but God” in Arabic.
Still life with office chair.
As across Saudi Arabia, everything stops at prayer time (roughly dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and dusk). During business hours, that means shops close for 15 or 20 minutes after each call to prayer: staff bring the shutters down. In the souk, shopkeepers simply hook a length of cloth around the front of their shop – see video below.
Then, after the sunset prayer, people – well, some people – head to the malls. This is a walk into the Faisaliah mall, within that big skyscraper I talked about at the top of this post.
Riyadh’s a hot, dry, bleak, desert city, right? Well, in parts. This girl was enjoying the greenery at one of the public parks in the south of Riyadh, alongside the Wadi Hanifa, one weekend afternoon.
Back to the world of tourism. Riyadh’s National Museum is outstanding, perhaps the finest museum in the entire Middle East. I spent hours there. This rather ghostly scene is the museum’s haj gallery, housing a model of Mecca, explanations about what the haj means and a history of the pilgrimage. I loved it.
I could wobble on about Riyadh’s history, about the politics of the place, the deprivation, the economic divisions, the beauty, the architecture, the velvety dry heat, the sustainable development, the unsustainable development… but I’m not going to. This is just a bit of travel blogging. Eye-candy.
Tell me what you think of it.