|Riyadh Mosque entrance
Why did I speak at a health conference? I gave a speech that I've given a few times before on risk management in the context of social media.
In a society which has a high proportion of young people (60% under 20 years old) with good internet connectivity there is an opportunity to both speak and listen on health matters.
There were over 1000 registrations for the conference, and what surprised me most was that at least one third of the attendees were women. While many were local, there was a sizeable proportion of immigrant health workers from the Philippines. The Philippines supplies many of the medical technical personnel required in the health system, and they are well regarded.
An open society?
While the kingdom does not appear to encourage tourism, it is nevertheless far more "open" than I imagined. A recent BBC documentary (well worth watching) on Prince Saud bin Abdul Mohsen painted a picture that I found fairly accurate. The Royal family is keen to evaluate and embrace new ideas that are of value, without needlessly discarding centuries of history and culture. The former is amply demonstrated by the fact that 90% of the conference speakers were foreign, and it was refreshing to visit a culture that had not discarded cultural icons such as its clothing. When I visited Japan I was disappointed to observe that there was no evidence of traditional dress styles, whereas in Riyadh the traditional dress was the rule rather than the exception.
Another example of this interest in external ideas was an article in the Arabic news on 31 Jan 2013 noting that SABIC was offering scholarships to gifted children to study abroad. This is a culture that is not afraid of new ideas, and has the good sense not to accept all of them. "New" does not equal "good".
In Saudi Arabia the Internet is filtered. I came up against the blocking page several times while I was there, but I was able to access everything I needed. There was no difficulty in using the commercial VPN service that I subscribe to, so I could have had access to all material available to me in Australia.
The take away from this is that the Kingdom is open to absorbing that which is of value, without taking on board the noise and baggage that also comes with the Western world. I can't recall exactly which web sites I was not able to access, but I'm fairly confident they were of no actual value to their society (pornography, useless gossip columns, and the rubbish that passes for lifestyle news). This is a society that has decided it doesn't have time for the detritus of the Internet, while maintaining open access to that which is of value. In the BBC documentary the Prince made it clear that there was no imperative to accept cultural aspects that they frankly found unacceptable. The Saudis are proud of their history and make no apologies for things such as the law permitting them to cut off the hand of the thief. However, for the law to impose such a penalty there are so many legal requirements that the thief would have to be very determined to subject himself to the punishment. The death penalty is enforced (in January 2013 nine nationals were beheaded) just as it is in the United States of America and many other countries.
Women & culture
Shortly before I travelled to Saudi Arabia the King fulfilled his promise to appoint women to his advisory Council, and they are on track to allow women to vote in 2015. While I was there the Minister of Interior Prince Mohammed bin Naif said that the General Directorate of Investigation (the Director of Public Prosecutions to you and me, I suspect) "should open its doors to employ women with the required qualifications". Another event that occurred was that Bena'a Productive Families Centre and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company signed a partnership deal to develop skills amongst women to own and run small-scale projects in different parts of the Kingdom.
Except for one of my drivers I found the Saudis are extremely polite. The attention to detail in the preparation of the conference was extraordinary, as was their generosity and hospitality. The culture has a strong sense of hierarchy, and I found it interesting during one of the risk talks that a comment was made by a senior attendee that there is a culture of blame whern errors occur - they aren't too different from you and me. The sense of hierarchy and formality is very clear in the way people are addressed, titles used and seating arrangements in public activities. There is a sense of "theatre" about some public ceremonies, which it is clear that they enjoy. As in the world over, younger people tended to be less formal, but know when they need to be.
I did see women acting more freely than I expected, such as one who approached me to discuss my conference speech, and when out shopping. I was in the Dirah souq in a small shop with a male shopkeeper. A fully robed woman entered the store and appeared to have no difficulty in being with two men, and later alone with the shopkeeper after I left.
Traffic & transport
There is virtually no public transport in Riyadh, and certainly nothing like regular buses or a metro train system. Fuel costs about one Saudi Arabian Riyal (at the time of writing AUD$0.25 or about one seventh of the Australian price) but it's not clear whether cheap fuel is the cause or result of the lack of public buses. A lot of the cars look like they have been stolen from the wreckers yard but occasionally you will see a new Bentley or Rolls-Royce. Taxis are cheap (about AUD$5 for a half-hour ride) but perhaps only 50% of the drivers can speak any level of English. I found out to my personal cost that a lot of them don't necessarily know their city that well either. If you have a good idea of the price then you should agree the price before getting in the cab, but I found that most drivers bargained for what would be eventually about the metered price anyway. The one time I was taken for a ride was when I was very tired and hot and caught a cab from the number one office building in the city – Kingdom Tower. Having said that, I probably paid only AUD$2 more than I should have.
You can probably forget about using maps. They are largely an expression of intention rather than a useful tool. I found three entirely different addresses for a restaurant I wanted to visit (there was only one restaurant), and Google Maps was likely to be as inaccurate as anything else. The satellite layer or Google Earth was of some value provided you can correlate the map names with the geography.
This experience was one of those in my life where I have been completely turned around from a fairly strongly held position. Prior to the conference I had extremely negative opinions around Saudi Arabian culture and lifestyle, but I actually found a system of government that not only says it desires change, but is actually changing. Absolute monarchies are fairly foreign to Western culture, and they are by their very nature specific to the individual. My very limited exposure suggest that this is a culture with good (and well-intentioned) government which is on the road to rectify some anomalies such as the treatment of women, while carefully evaluating other Western lifestyle choices.
I have no doubt that there are many other facets of their society which would not be acceptable to Western notions of equal human rights.I don't have enough information to comment on this further
There is no desire for a homogenous culture indistinguishable from the West or even other Arabic countries. There is a strong desire to retain their lifestyle and identity while having the good sense to explore and accept those things that are of value or can be learned. It is a society that is on a controlled but well-directed journey.