Dubai. Abu Dhabi. Doha. Muscat. These are four of the wealthiest cities on not only the Arabian Peninsula but in the entire world. Over the past few decades, each one has expanded out (huge population growths) and up (higher and higher skyscrapers). The number of people visiting them has soared in the process. Riyadh is on this list, too. At least in terms of size and prosperity. But very few people are visiting the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most mysterious countries in the world. Men and women are separated. Dress codes are strictly enforced. Alcohol, pork, and movie theaters are all banned. While drug possession is punishable by death. Sure, some progress was made last year. First, the ban on women driving ended in June. Then travel visas, notoriously difficult to obtain, became available through an eVisa system in the fall. But for every two steps forward, there’s always one step back. Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, was assassinated by agents of the Saudi government at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October. It was a big step back.
But the country—and its conservative capital—is still fascinating. When Riyadh was named the capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the city was little more than a stop along a desert trade route. Its mud-brick houses, central mosque, and souq were surrounded by fortified walls; less than 40,000 people lived within them. Things changed quickly over the next few decades. Most of the walls came down. A grid pattern was established in the streets. Boundaries expanded first north, and then east and west. Plus buildings got taller and taller. More than six million people now call Riyadh home.
Riyadh (Gardens in Arabic) is a fascinating mix of old and new. Al-Deerah (Old Riyadh) is home to the Masmak (a clay and mud-brick fort), the Antique Souq, and traditional houses. The Murabba Palace, built outside of the city walls, was converted into a museum. Plus the National Museum, in the King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre, displays even more of the country’s history. They’re juxtaposed against the ever-rising skyline. The Capital Market Authority Tower. The Burj Rafal (one of the tallest hotels in the world). The KAFD World Trade Center. The Kingdom Centre (topped by the impressive SkyBridge). Add endless shopping and a surprising foodie scene, and Riyadh is a city you’d be interested in adding to your next trip to the Middle East. But for now, possibly forever, it’ll have to remain a mystery.