From Old To New
My Arab Gazette tells me it’s the start of Fifth National Cleaning Week. For me it’s the end of Second Travelling Week and nothing is getting easier. The word is that Achmed has been up all night at the Ministry, and at 3.30 a.m. finally secured permission for myself, Clem and Nick from the embassy to drive across Saudi Arabia. It’s now eight o’clock in the morning and there is no sign of Achmed or the permission. Nick is anxious to be leaving, for we have an 1100-kilometre drive ahead of us. This will take us to Riyadh, and after that there are still more than 1000 kilometres to the Gulf. It’s like driving from London to the Black Sea in one weekend.
At last Achmed, with neat beard and fresh white thobe (as the Saudis call the jellaba), enters the lobby of the Red Sea Palace waving our travel permission like a latter-day Neville Chamberlain. Profuse thanks, then into Nick’s Toyota Cressida and we head for the hills.
Not far from Jeddah the road divides on creedal grounds. A huge gantry straddles the motorway, indicating two lanes for ‘Moslems Only’ and a slip road for ‘Non-Moslems’. Only Moslems may look upon the Holy City, so we must take the Christian exit.
Here also we must leave Ron, Nigel, Julian and Angela Passepartout. They will fly on to Dubai and try and fix up a dhow to take us to India. It’s a sad moment, as we were enjoying seeing the world together, and regard going on aeroplanes as a cheat.
The main road to Taif is closed for repair and for 50 miles or more we toil slowly up onto the Central plateau behind a line of water-carrying tankers, past scrubby pasture where goat and sheep graze and higher up where a few crops are growing in neatly terraced fields. The trucks are nearly all grey-green Mercedes with ornate fifties-style curved radiators. The Saudi market is intensely conservative and apparently Mercedes continue to make them in the old style specially for the Bedouins.
Just outside Taif we come to a police roadblock, and the first test of Achmed’s rather flimsy note of authorisation. The policeman reads it with intense concentration, his lips moving over every word. Time seems to stand still. The unpromising frown on his face proves to be a natural expression rather than an ill omen, and after one last searching look we are waved through. Nick says there may be two or three more such roadblocks. Now the road is straight and almost empty. What’s more, it’s a beautifully surfaced brand-new six-lane highway. The only possible hazard might be hitting a camel. There are ‘Beware Camel’ signs at regular intervals and fences along the sides of the road, yet clearly the ships of the desert haven’t grasped the full implications of the Saudi road improvement programme, and insist on strolling across as if nothing had changed. Occasionally in the stony wilderness I see a camel herd being rounded up by Bedouin shepherds in Nissan pick-up trucks.
At lunchtime we stop for fuel, still about 500 kilometres short of Riyadh. I lay my portable thermometer on a wall as we fill up. When I pick it up it reads 50 Centigrade, 122 Fahrenheit, but the air is very dry and the temperature as bearable as 90 Fahrenheit was on the humid coast. The road continues straight and empty.
Most of the cars we see are wrecks, dragged off to the side of the road, bleached and rusting in the desert heat. I suppose it’s cheaper for the owners (presuming they survive) to go and buy another car than haul the wreck off to a panel beater.
In the hour before sunset, the desert springs briefly to life. The slanting refracted sunlight, reddened by the dust, turns the blank face of rock and sand into a land of many colours – orange, deep reds, rich ochres and golds. This is the pitted, craggy, sandstone escarpment which leads to the plateau on which stands Riyadh. All around us are weirdly shaped pinnacles of rock, jutting up – like rotting teeth one moment, like the Sphinx the next. On top of all this is the city of Riyadh, built almost entirely in the last fifteen years and one of the hottest capitals on earth. It is here because this central part of Arabia, the Nejd, is the home of the ruling house of Saud. It is as big, brash and booming as it is because the Saudis regard themselves as the natural leaders of the Arab world. That they have greater oil reserves and therefore more money than any other Arab country is not to them a coincidence, but a gift from Allah to help the country guard and preserve the two holiest places in the Moslem world – the shrines of Mecca and Medina.
So in this desert miles away from anywhere is this Las Vegas-like symbol of the fusion of the spiritual and commercial. In the neon-glowing streets, all spotless testimonials to the start of Fifth National Cleaning Week and the success of the previous four, glittering modern buildings rise above the old mud dwellings. There seems no attempt here to preserve the old city, as in Jeddah. Perhaps there was no old city. All is new and confident. It’s Riyadh, Texas.
To the Al-Khozama hotel. Rather an anti-climax to have made our way to the heart of the Arabian Peninsula only to find that businessmen of every western country have got here first. In reception deals are being done and an English couple are arguing: ‘The trouble with Arthur is, that Arthur’s been out here too long’.
My spirits are revived by a lovely meal at a simple Lebanese restaurant. A meze with fresh radishes, mint, onions, lettuce and tomatoes as sweet and succulent as those we ate in Egypt, tahini, houmus with aubergine, then a mixed grill of tender and flavoursome shashlik and shish kebab.