April 2011: My Latest Visit to the Middle East

In February 2011, I spent two weeks visiting Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Jeddah is undergoing an obvious growth spurt, but with none of the repetitious glass and steel highrises that we see in Toronto, New York, or London. The Jeddah towers suggest an Arab motif and are frequently decorated with a regional stone. The numerous shopping malls have the standard Western stores, with the exception of the abaya shops. Speaking of abayas (the black robes that are mandatory public attire for both Muslim and non-Muslim women), I was surprised to see how these cloaks are turning into a fashion item. I even saw one black abaya on which the entire back panel was a cotton insert of wide grey and white stripes.

In Riyadh, we (my son, David, came with me on this trip) found a large, modern, exceedingly affluent and busy city. David had brought a portable bicycle and, much to my chagrin, spent his days cycling in the homicidal traffic. Fortunately, his cycling hours were shortened somewhat by the camel thorns which punctured his bicycle tires three times.

In both Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudis keep late hours and don't eat dinner until after 10pm, even on weekdays. There are a huge number of restaurants in both Jeddah and in Riyadh. My favourite food was the so-called "mango juice," which was really a very tall glass of cold, pureed mango. Strawberry juice was, you guessed it, pureed strawberries, with nothing to dilute them, i.e., no ice, no juice, no additives of any kind.

On my last day in Riyadh, David and I hired a driver to take us to the "Edge of the World," which is an escarpment approximately 100 km (62 miles) from Riyadh. We spent the day exploring the many cliff peaks and studying the rocks of prehistoric Saudi Arabia. In the desert, I am always moved by the evidence of our ancient, ancient world. Regrettably, my day ended when I slid on shale down a steep downward slope, and suffered a puncture wound, which exposed the kneecap of my right knee.

Our next stop was Qatar, a country of approximately 1.7 million (approximately 75% expatriates and only 25% Qatari nationals). Qatar is unique in many ways. First, the ruling family has made a decision to use some of its extraordinary wealth to contribute to social issues in the surrounding countries. The universities in Qatar are intended to attract and educate students in the Gulf region and beyond. And the new (not yet opened) Sidra Medical Centre is intended to provide high-level tertiary-care to women and children in the countries of the Gulf and elsewhere. It finances Al Jazeera, the TV network which presents an Arab view on politics and international affairs. The Emir has acted as an intermediary in political disputes between Lebanon and Syria. As Nicholas Blanford wrote in a May 2008 article in T_he Christian Science Monitor,_ "In a highly factionalized Middle East, where the US and Iran and their respective regional allies are struggling for dominance, Qatar is in the unusual position of having a foot in both camps. It remains a key ally of Washington … It enjoys economic ties to Israel, and Israeli officials often participate in meetings and conferences in Doha. Yet Qatar also is Syria's closest Arab friend, investing millions of dollars in major property development projects and providing diplomatic support. ... While many Arab Gulf countries fret about Iran's regional ambitions, Qatar enjoys genial relations with the Islamic Republic."

Doha, the capital of Qatar, is a jewel in the desert. The seven-kilometre (4.4-mile) walk along the Corniche is crowded with walkers, picnickers, soccer players, and cyclists (yes, there is a cycle path). The grass alongside the Corniche is a luxurious green dotted with colourful flower beds. The old souq offers something for everyone: bulk material; the most wonderfully aromatic spices; expensive Bedouin saddles; donkey rides; delectable stuffed dates.

The architecture of the office towers, hotels, and buildings on the campus of Education City are imaginative and even extravagant, but graceful. Overall, despite the busy traffic, the city has a calm atmosphere, and I wondered what impact the rowdy footballers would have when they celebrate during the FIFA World Cup in 2022!

Yes, the Arabian Peninsula has changed dramatically since I first visited 30 years ago. No longer do we Western people stick out on the streets. The variety of food products is no longer limited. There is a wider variety of entertainment options. But one thing remains the same: the people who take the chance and work in the Middle East will be among the most adventurous, curious, and interesting people you'll ever meet.

Helen Ziegler

April 2011

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