July 23, 2009

Video Update: Why Visit Saudi Arabia?

This video update was recorded at sunrise in Kowloon Park, Hong Kong – but it’s actually about Saudi Arabia, the last stop of my recent global tour. It clocks in at 3 minutes and 55 seconds.

If you can’t view the video, here is a quick summary —

What can I say about Saudi Arabia that’s flattering? Not a whole lot, to be honest. The most interesting thing was nearly being deported immediately after landing at Riyadh International Airport. In retrospect, it’s fun to remember six airport officials having an extended discussion in Arabic about which country they would like to send me too. At the time, I wouldn’t have minded being somewhere else.

Why then, some people wonder, do I bother? Couldn’t I still do the traveling thing and only go to fun places?

The answer (well, my answer) is that going to places like Saudi Arabia is a lot like running a marathon. When you run 26.2 miles, not all of it is fun. For me, I’m a great 18-mile runner. At some point between miles 19 and 26, hell on earth sets in.

All three times I’ve ran the marathon, I’ve become completely exhausted during the final third. A big part of me wants to quit at that point. Couldn’t I just be a happy, healthy 18-miler? I’d still be a runner, I’d feel better in the short-term – but of course, later on, I’d wonder about those final 8.2 miles. Was I really so weak I had to give up? A marathon is 26.2 miles, not 18 miles. Every country in the world doesn’t mean “every country except the hard ones.”

In other words, nothing worth doing is ever easy. You have to take the bitter with the sweet, the hardships with the successes. For me, I don’t really have a desire to ever return to Saudi Arabia – but since I know I would regret it if I didn’t at least go once, I’m glad I did. It’s OK.

Your thoughts?

***

Also, a quick update on women, Saudi Arabia, and Islam: just because I said last week that Saudi isn’t the best place on earth does not mean I am maligning the entire Muslim world. Most of my readers are smart enough to understand that, so I don’t feel the need to continually explain everything to the nth degree.

I’ve had great experiences in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Malaysia, just to mention a few places that are predominantly Islamic. There’s no need to interpret a specific criticism as a big generalization about an entire religion or group of people. The reality is that women in Saudi Arabia have very few rights to make their own choices, so I don’t think I should gloss over that fact either.

In short, Saudi isn’t really my favorite place – but it’s a big world out there, so that’s just fine. Now I’m back home in Portland, Oregon for a few weeks, which is kind of like mile three of the marathon. At mile three you’re floating along and just starting to settle into a long run. It’s a good feeling.

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34 Responses to “Video Update: Why Visit Saudi Arabia?”

  1. I went to Saudi last January on business. I was very apprehensive about going. It really is a strange place. I spent some of the time with expats in a “Westerner-only” compound, which is quite surreal, especially with the tanks and soldiers around the entrance. Going around with my Western colleagues and staying in the Four Seasons in Riyadh made it interesting rather than difficult, but I can imagine that being there on your own would be a challenging experience.

    But I must say that my Saudi colleagues, and many of the Saudi businesspeople I met, were warm and friendly people, with a good sense of humour about the oddities of life in the kingdom.

  2. When I run a marathon only the first 10 km are great. The next 10km are okay, the following 10km are “I’m done. Let’s go home.” And the last 12 km are, “what the hell am I doing here?”

    However, it always feels great to finish. That feeling of greatness lasts for many months. Life shouldn’t be about easy. We should be constantly striving to do the most difficult things we can. That is the only way to grow.

    You “climbed” Saudia Arabia because “it was there.” That is reason enough for me.

  3. Chris,

    I have spent time in most of middle-east as a soldier and then as a business leader.

    I appreciate the way you describe your experiences in various countries.

    Like so many things, I found that the time period context helps to frame the experience.

    I was in a staging area in Saudi Arabia before and after Operation Desert Storm. In fact, the building we resided in for two weeks is in rubble from a terrorist bomb.

    After the cease-fire, my soldiers and I returned to Saudi Arabia for a week before returning to the States. My soldiers were tired and hungry after waiting 11 months to get into only a 28 hour butt-kickin contest.

    So I decided to hop into our vehicle and head-out into downtown to find some food. No shower or shave for over a week and I’m traveling with a Christian Army Chaplain in a Fundamental Muslim Country… We were not a pretty site.

    To our surprise, we found a Kentucky Fried Chicken. We walked into the restaurant and were obviously greeted with stairs.

    And then an amazing thing happened…

    A small boy, probably around 4 or 5 yrs of age, walked up to me and held my dirty hand without any fear. It took me back to a scene played-out in any U.S. restaurant.

    We walked out of that KFC with over $400 dollars worth of chicken all paid for by the good wishes of that little boy’s father who wanted to thank us for our service.

    Chris, what you are doing with your travels and your character is putting America in a great light once again when people from other countries meet you.

    Keep on traveling…

  4. I think going to places like Saudi Arabia and running marathons are things that fit in with your life of nonconformity. The average person doesn’t travel to places like Saudi, or run 26.2 miles. People don’t do these things because these tasks are hard – just like most people don’t start their own business or live without a car in the U.S. – because it’s easier not to. It’s often in doing these things that seem hard, that we transform our lives from being ordinary, to being extraordinary. They seem like a hassle, and may fill us with a bit of fear, but after we complete them, there is a sense of accomplishment, a great sense of accomplishment that doesn’t come from completing your average everyday tasks. I also find when I’m talking about things I do in life that aren’t typical or go above what the average person would do, is when the person I’m talking to will move to the edge of their seat, to lean in, all wide-eyed, eager for every word I have to say…..I love that! :)

  5. The way I see it: I love visiting places that are different and even places that aren’t necessarily “fun”. I went to the USSR in ’86. Despite early glasnost/perestroyka, it certainly was still a country very much controlled by the old Soviet communists. But that was the interesting part about it — I got to see something and experience something that, while not really nice, helped me understand the world as it is/was.

    On the other hand, I have not very much desire to see Saudi Arabia at this time. It just doesn’t strike me as “interesting”, even if I wasn’t confined to my hotel for three days. This might very well change and I am certainly not ruling out ever going there (I certainly loved my Jordan trip earlier this year). But there are 200+ other countries left on my to-do list that have a higher priority. Why spend money today on a Saudi Arabia visit?

  6. Granted, Saudi and especially Riyadh is hardly the party capital of the Middle East, but I do feel that maybe you were a bit too quick to dismiss it… Coming from a city which even my fellow countrymen find hard to praise (although I actually really liked your write up on it!) I think its important wherever you are to search for the uniqueness of the place, instead of just looking at the absurdity of a nonalcoholic happy hour. Its important to go to Saudi not just because you need that notch on your post, but because they have something to offer the world too, as much as the ‘fun’ places.

    Now that I’m done with that, I love what you’re doing! And that you’re sharing it in such a great way :)

  7. Hey guys, fabulous comments. Thanks.

    @Matthew,

    What a great story! Amazing.

    @Ghazal,

    You’re right, that’s a good perspective to have. Thanks for being open to my view of things.

  8. Nice insights, Chris. I’m definitely not going to Saudi Arabia now. I’m not against Muslims or anything, but when I travel I look for a fun, revitalizing experience. It’s also unfortunate that over half the population has no effective civil rights.

    I’m glad you’re overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of your success. Stay motivated and stay positive.

  9. Hi Chris,

    Glad to hear you survived your adventures in Saudi Arabia. I read your earlier post on the challenges of just trying to get your entry visa for Saudi Arabia, and that alone would have sent up a warning flag for me. Good on you for having the courage to still go there even though your visa hadn’t arrived before you left. I’m not sure I would have been able to stay so calm if I were in a room with six officials deciding where and whether they should deport me. I think I’d have been wondering whether I might find myself spirited off to some prison, never to be heard from again. =:- { (Then again, I’m imagining how that scenario might have played out for a lone female traveller. Yikes!)

  10. Hi Chris, I had a similarly disappointing experience in the Gulf, but surprisingly enough, in Dubai, which before visiting seemed to be one of those very “interesting and fun places.”

    Dubai was my base for conducting business in the region for a couple of years, but after I left I decided to write on what I learned about the rough reality of the emirate lying below the gloss of the myriad marketing campaigns that portray it as an oasis of progressiveness, peace and prosperity in an otherwise troubled region.

    Needless to say, I have received all kinds of angry rants for this post from people who live there and approve of the regime’s ways, but I feel quite well to have contributed my two cents to spread the word about what I think are tremendously unfair developments taking place there.

    I also don’t hold absolutely anything about the Muslim world in general — it’s just about expressing my opinion on what I think are important issues, regardless of the country where they take place.

    So kudos to you for not only visiting Saudi, but for expressing your rather negative opinion about the place in a straight-forward way. The world will become a better place when we all learn to not take negative comments about our countries personally. We are all much more than our narrow national identities.

  11. I agree with Ghazal that there is a little more to Saudi Arabia than the non-alcoholic happy hour in Riyadh and some shopping malls. Imagine going to Brazil and being stuck in a hotel in the capital Brasilia for three days. It’s not an exciting city, and it’s definitely not a good representation of Brazil. That seems similar to Chris’ experience. Partly because of the his visa situation, he didn’t get to see much of the country, but there is a lot more.

    I’ve traveled extensively in the Middle East and Asia, so I have a few reference points. Saudi Arabia is not going to win any awards for tourism, but I really want to stress that there are some high points. Jiddah on the west coast is an absolutely great city. I visited a couple of amazing contemporary art galleries. I ate at delicious Lebanese restaurants that can compete with the best ones in Beirut. I walked along the Corniche at sunset watching the sun go down over the Red Sea. I stayed up till late hours in the night talking with friends (both other travelers and Saudis), while we smoked nargile and drank tea. The old city of Jiddah is a beautiful, old Islamic city on par with the medina of Fes, Islamic Cairo, or the medina in Damascus. It has striking architecture and narrow winding streets. I sat for an hour in a juice stand talking with locals. I wandered the streets and met African immigrants who shared their stories with me. In short, I got to experience life in Jiddah.
    Or you can go out into the desert and see some of the most striking sand dunes and scenery imaginable. The colors of the sunset over the dunes in the Empty Quarter were fantastic.

    Now to be honest, I’m not rushing back to Saudi Arabia. And I do have serious issues with the authoritarian policies of the Saudi monarchy, but I also just hope that people can have a slightly different view of Saudi Arabia.

    Also, one last thing. The apple juice happy hour is kind of funny, but it’s not crazy. Fresh juice is immensely popular across the Middle East. If you visit any Middle Eastern country, you find lots of juice stands. It’s what people drink. The sadder part of the story is that you weren’t offered a better juice like mango or strawberry juice, or fresh sugar cane juice. Those are delicious!

    In case anyone is wondering, I’m not Saudi. I’m not Arab. I’m not even Middle Eastern in any way. I’m an American Jew who lives in NYC, who enjoys traveling. I never even hid my religious identity from anyone in Saudi Arabia.

  12. Our concept of running is so different, yet very much the same. You have a full 26.2 mile run and the final 1/3 is hell. I have a 3 mile run and the final 1/3 is hell. I am working on improving that, although the recent temperature increase in Portland hasn’t helped that at all!

    With that being said, I am glad you aren’t stopping after the easy work is done. It is so extremely rare that someone can say they have been to every country. It is such a difficult thing to do, but I can imagine it is a wonderful feeling to be growing closer to that goal. Keep it up and keep writing about it!

  13. Don’t worry about the women, Saudi Arabia and Islam part… it’s the first impression almost everyone gets the first few weeks they stay here.

    Time and experience will eventually change your opinion and appreciate the good and the bad.

    For example, I feel safer walking in the dead of the night to and from a public atm machine here than walking around during the day in the Philippines (after being robbed 5 times my 20 years there including once in front of a policeman who suddenly became blind to the incident in broad daylight).

    But the bad here like there are no moviehouses, no beer, no *ahem* entertainment, most places will kick you out of the store during prayer times and getting things done from the locals will take almost forever to finish.

    Overall, I can say that Saudi Arabia is a good place to earn money but not a good place to live if you’re not a Muslim or enjoy an active lifestyle due to the restrictions and limitations.

  14. Never been there and that’s why I read your blog. However I strongly believe that some things have to be experienced to make up your own mind no matter what other say or write. Islam is a religion and like politics any discussion about it will have at least two opinions. Run your marathons and stick to yours! :)

    Martin
    The Running Man
    Quebec City Marathon 2001
    Montreal Marathon 2008

  15. Chris,

    I love your openness toward what travel can offer, not just fun-fun-fun 24/7, but a path to learn about yourself, other people and the world you live in. Most life-changing experiences happen outside the comfort zone. If you didn’t try anything new, you’d never be uncomfortable, but you’d also never make any exciting discoveries.

    I was a little disappointed not to hear more examples of what you personally saw or experienced in Saudi that you didn’t like. I found your near-deportation story interesting, but didn’t get a strong impression of anything else. I’m glad you pointed out that women have few rights, but what else did you observe?

  16. Anytime, I start getting stressed out about trying to relocate here in New Zealand, I swing by and read and watch your content!

    It’s stories like this that make me realize what I’m doing is a piece of cake. Heck I’m only on like mile 2 or 3, here, and even I can run 2 or 3 miles!

    Would running the “marathon” be harder with a baby on your back? :-) Thanks, Chris, you are inspiring us to keep going.

  17. @Cara,

    I really don’t have a lot else to share about Saudi Arabia other than what I wrote last week. As others have pointed out, obviously there is more to the country than happy hour or shopping malls, but I try to write honestly about my own experiences. Other experiences from other people will naturally be different, and I’m glad to hear that some have been more positive than mine.

  18. Hey Chris – I really appreciated your honesty about your experiences, actually. Oftentimes, for me, I often overlook those experiences and only write about the positive things (somewhat like a travel agent). You’ve really help true to what you experienced and I’m glad you did. Just provokes honest conversation, which I think you’re really achieved here and have educated adn inspired others – me personally – to do the same. Thank you for your candor!

  19. In a lot of ways, the miserable 1/3 of any experience is what keeps you moving forward to the next (more challenging) trial. Call it Stoicism or just not knowing when to quit, but I feel like without that little bit of agony to measure by, the highs wouldn’t feel quite so good.

  20. Thanks for your reply. I really enjoyed what you had to say, just always eager to hear more. BTW, putting up the video commentary was a great idea… It’s fun to get a fuller sense of the person whose adventures I’m reading about. Your site is kickin’.

  21. Chris you are so right about the ‘comfort’ of those 1st few kilometres and travel. Travel should always be an experience and every person will have a different experience.

    I have only travelled in the UAE and Qatar and as a businesswoman as well as a traveller found the general attitude toward women interesting to say the least. My daughter who worked on the Asian games in Doha a few years back just happened to be the liaison for the Saudi International Olympic Committee at the games. Her experience in dealing with the all male committee was nothing short of horrifying – one she was female and had to tell them what to do, and two she stood up for the poor Saudi female who was the oft verbally abused assistant. Certainly convinced her that visiting Saudi Arabia was not on her to do list.

    Thanks for your honest insights to countries you visit and hey just when are you coming to visit in Australia?

    Happy travelling
    Anne

  22. A marathon is truly a physical AND mental test (I experienced it quite painfully last month!) and it’s definitely not all roses. Unless you’re an ultrarunner: then the fun doesn’t even start at the 26th mile :)

    I guess it’s really about what goals you set for yourself and staying true to them, regardless of the criteria of others.

  23. Honesty with grace. I love it Chris!

  24. “In other words, nothing worth doing is ever easy.”

    Do you REALLY believe that, Chris?

    I love your stuff. (And not just the free stuff either; I’m a delighted customer!) AND I have to respectfully disagree with you here because I find that pretty much everything I truly love doing can be effortless.

    I just took a breath. It was really easy and very much worth doing. I just told a member of my family “I love you.” That, too, was really easy. I just felt the most overwhelming sense of gratitude for a series of amazingly wonderful experiences I had today. Easy as pie.

    Sometimes I think that EVERYTHING that is REALLY worth doing is effortless, easy, flowing, free of struggle. And at the risk of sounding totally “woowoo,” whether or not anything feels easy or difficult does seem to come down to my attitude toward it in the moment.

    blessings,
    Rebecca

  25. @Rebecca,

    No problem with disagreeing. In the context of the video I was referring more to big goals (marathons and travel, for example) – I’ve yet to find a big goal that’s truly fulfilling without requiring some sacrifice.

    Breathing and telling people I appreciate them are also important, but don’t really fall in the same context.

  26. @Bram: One of my Saudi colleagues, who lives in Jeddah, told me similar things about it, and I promised him that next time I would go there, unfortunately I no longer work for that company any more and didn’t make it back. Like you I am Jewish and had no problems (although I did leave my religion blank on the visa application!). Fortunately I didn’t have any Israeli stamps in my newish passport.

    @Chris: certainly am in awe of your courage in going without a visa! I was nervous as hell with a visa, although I had no problems. It seems that if you don’t have a business purpose in going it will always be difficult to get into Saudi, and of course, you must be male as well. In fact the main reason I ended up going was because my colleague in London, who had more to do with our Saudi operation than I, is female, and was thus unable to go herself.

  27. I personally find that traveling to those difficult places (or doing those difficult things), while they may not be fun at the moment, are often times the moments you remember most once the experience is over. The easy places to go and the easy things to do are often times not worth remembering… or talking about. It is the hard things to do and the difficult places to travel that are, in the end, going to be the most memorable… and therefore the most rewarding.

  28. I love that analogy! For me, just the first 10 are ‘fun.’ Beyond that it has to be for something – training for a goal, running a marathon, etc. And although a lot of runners told me to ‘have fun’ with my first marathon, the only actual enjoyable parts were the start and the finish.
    Congrats on your Saudi FINISH.

  29. Hi Chris, for me, it’s not the final third of the marathon that is exhausting…. I felt exhausted at the final third of all runs, regardless of the distance.

    Anyway, it is great to find your blog and be part of your army.

    It is amazing how internet have brought people from different parts of the world together. By the way, I’m from Singapore.

    Enjoy your weekend!

  30. I love the metaphor – Saudi Arabia – mile 22.

  31. i don’t have anything smart to add to this conversation except to say that in the paragraph before the ‘your thoughts?’ header, i thought you were going to launch into the ‘facts of life’ theme song. my 20 days, 7 cities tour is over as well, and i’m back at home in new york for the next two months… for the first time in 2 years. somehow, it doesn’t feel like mile 3.

  32. August 2, 2009

    Abdul Alzaid

    Hello Chris,

    Thank you for your honest post. I am a Saudi and have been living in Riyadh practically all my life. A shame you suffered to get the visa and then had such a bad experience. Judging from what you said about your limited time and experience in the country, I understand why you did not like it there. I am disappointed, but not offended because it would be naive to assume everyone who visits must enjoy it. You did not however shed light on why you were going to be deported, which left me wondering! There are over 8 million expats here including roughly 50,000 Americans who enter and leave the country without a hitch?

    I am not saying the country is an ideal tourist attraction for westerners because it is not. In fact, I have a lot of issues with how things are run here and such, but I agree with the other comments that there is more to Saudi if you try to see what is beneath the surface. Ultimately, everywhere you go you will find the good and the bad, and I know this because my extensive traveling experience can corroborate such assertion.

    At this time of globalization where every country is trying to transform its big cities into replicas of the ‘ideal’ westernized metropolitan city, it is refreshing to experience a place that is unique in many ways.

    I know you are not coming back, but if you know anyone who is planning to visit in the future, let me know so I could ensure they rank it better than you did in their marathon run, or in layman’s terms, get their money’s worth.

    Cheers :)

  33. @Abdul,

    Thanks so much for your kind feedback. As mentioned, I wish you well, and I understand that other people may enjoy Saudi more than me.

    I wrote about the near-deportation experience in an article a few days before this one, called “Getting to Saudi Arabia.”

  34. Hello
    I am from Saudi Arabia
    And the people very nice
    The next time you visit Saudi Arabia, I advise you to visit the City (Hail) is famous in the population of good and generous and there is a lot of high mountains, but beware of going to the mountains on your own

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