Feeling Like 007 in Saudi Arabia

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During my second year as a trainer on the Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program, one of my small group participants, affectionately known as “Unicorns” shared that one of her dreams was to open a beach resort in Saudi Arabia. I was shocked – and even more surprised when she said that there were already beach resorts outside her hometown of Jeddah, the most liberal and open city in the Kingdom. Ghofran said that she has been to these resorts – where even bikinis are permitted – and she said she would take me if I came to visit Saudi. I was in.

Fast forward a few months to late 2018 and I had secured a five-year Saudi business visa  to attend the alumni exchange conference in Jeddah where alumni from every year of the program since 2014 would meet. I was thrilled. This was before Saudi began to offer tourist visas so not only was I privileged to be able to visit, but also I would get to spend time with the Saudis who had had a profound impact on me while in the US. Naturally, I rearranged my normal work schedule and planned an eight day trip to have extra time to visit with people and explore Jeddah’s surroundings.

Located on the east coast of the Red Sea, Jeddah is the multicultural gateway to Mecca, the holiest place in Islam and where millions come on pilgrimage every year. Hence, there are direct flights from London, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, you name it. Upon my arrival from Kyrgyzstan via Dubai, there was Ghofran waiting for me at arrivals with a sign and holding up her phone to record it all on Snapchat. I started crying from happiness, as we were both is disbelief that I’d finally and actually made it to Saudi Arabia. Her infectious laugh was just as I remembered, too. After lunch at Lebanese restaurant, she dropped me back at the hotel for me to rest.

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As promised the next day, I met up with Ghofran and a friend, hopping in their car with a driver to go to the outskirts of Jeddah – where some of the beach resorts are clustered together away from the already sprawling main city. You see, while who you know does go far in many countries, in Saudi, it REALLY is allll about who you know and your connections – your wasta. Since these resorts are members-only and we weren’t members, another friend of Ghofran’s who worked at a resort had arranged for us to come on a special day pass. We just had to bring our passports/Saudi IDs and pay around $50 in Saudi Riyals.

When we arrived outside the resort, honestly thought we were just outside a normal compound. Huge concrete walls concealed whatever was on the other day. No one would have guessed there was a beautiful beach resort on the other side. The gate guard saw us, had us park to the side, and asked for our passports for verification. Next, while we were still in the car outside the closed gate, he brought over neon-colored pieces of tape and taped them over the camera lenses on our phones. I knew privacy was a big deal in Saudi, particularly with regards to women, but this somehow was still unexpected. Finally, the gate opened and we were allowed to walk through the entrance area and into the main building serving as a type of clubhouse for members.

Inside, we met a receptionist, who we paid and again showed our passports/IDs to. She recorded the information from them and handed them back to us. All of this personal information had been input in their system and was now accessible on their resort iPads. We were then instructed to read the list of rules, mostly about privacy, posted on the wall and staff then reviewed them. At the end, the staff member made sure to emphasize, “You will seriously regret it if you try to remove the tape from your phone yourself.” Homies weren’t playing around.

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The rules were there to ensure maximum security and privacy for all guests. Staff were stationed throughout the resort and some wore Polos with ‘Photo Security’ written on the back. First, each of us was only allowed to take four photos  so of course, we knew we’d have to strategize and plan out how our total of 12 photos was going to be used. The fewer photos that appeared on social media, the fewer people would know that this resort even exists…because it is considered far too liberal for some Saudis. Second, if we wanted to take a photo, we had to call over a photo security staff member, have them remove the tape for us, take the picture, and then have them review our picture to make sure it followed the rules. Basically, no other people outside of the three of us could appear in the photos, even in the background. If one did and we still wanted the photo, the staff member said they could put an emoji over the face.

It was the type of place where I really wish I could have taken videos around, Swaying palm trees, clear turquoise waters you’d mistake for being in the Caribbean, soft golden sand, and multiple pool areas which made us feel as if we were tucked away in Ubud, Bali. But wait. If we wanted to take a video, that would actually count as two photos instead of one. On the staff iPads, our names were even listed and each photo we took was recorded there so other staff could see how many photos we had left. The constraints were so surreal that as I laid on a beach chair, I still found myself wanting to more fully capture the moment. I took my phone out, hid it on the chair, opened up Snapchat, and recorded a voice message to share describing what I was experiencing. I really did feel like James Bond, like I was doing some forbidden in an exotic place. Technically not against the rules, but they may have given me some kind of warning.

Outside of the photo policy and the fact that it was Sunday, a work day and therefore fairly empty, it very much felt like a normal beach resort. It was wonderful to swim in the sparkling waters under the sun in a place where I thought this would never be possible. We ordered Western food and fruity non-alcoholic fruity cocktails. I felt like it was your average sun-drenched girls day at the beach, though in December. We wore swimsuits, not burqinis as people might stereotype, chilled on the beach, posed for our precious photos, and wandered the leafy property with hidden pools and waterways.

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We swam out to the large trampoline out in the water. As we relaxed, Ghofran said on the weekend the resort hosted big parties with DJs, all carefully contained behind the high walls – truly another world. It was easy for me to see why Ghofran wanted to recreate this atmosphere and put her own spin on it. While the Kingdom had just announced that they would be allowing women to drive, it was still considered an escape from conservative society. My mind drifted back to the juxtaposition of packing both a bikini and an abaya, which I had to wear in public most of the time then.

A few minutes before the sun set, we picked up our things and went to meet our driver. We had a long drive back to the center of Jeddah but the girls pumped me up with the idea of dinner at Al Baik, aka Saudi McDonald’s with over 300 branches around Jeddah alone. Venturing into Al Baik, it was the first time for me to experience restaurants with separate entrances for single men and then women and families. There was a translucent divider between the two lines to order and then single men’s section was most definitely large than ours. However, I felt some solidarity with the other women and their children as we were all crammed into the smaller area together with the majority of them just doing takeout. Fortunately, restaurants in Saudi are moving away from this practice as the country continues to open up and become more relaxed.

From the car journey to the girl talk to the swimming in the warm, salty bath of the Red Sea to the nervousness around taking even the permitted photos to that chicken at Al Baik, I loved it all and it remains a day I’ll never forget, thanks to Ghofran’s kindness and yes, her wasta. In any other situation, I would have wanted to capture all the moments but this time, I couldn’t. Perhaps that’s what made it sweeter in the end.

 

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